The Diablog™

“Self-fulfilling prophecies.” or “I should have known that client would be trouble.”

Selling creative services is a tricky business. You often find yourself sitting across the table from someone who doesn't appear to have a hint of understanding about what you're trying to sell, yet clearly they will be the decision-maker. Add the pressure of a down economy to the dynamic, and you may resort to desperate measures. You promise anything to land the business: you'll do work on spec or you'll do the first job for a reduced price or you'll allow the inexperienced client to manage the project.

If I hit a sore spot, relax. I'm not trying to beat up anyone with this article. Believe me, I know how personal this topic can be. That's why I want to talk about it.

For reasons I don’t understand (and I have never found anyone in the industry who does), creative/communication services are not regarded in the same way as accounting, architectural, medical, or legal services.

  • We all provide professional services.
  • We learned how to perform these services through many years of higher education.
  • We all have the same product for sale - our time.
  • We all adjust the value of our time based on experience and past successes.

With all these similarities, no one would tell their lawyer, “I don’t like the outcome of my divorce, so I’m not going to pay you.” No one would ask their architect to design their first house for free.

So why do creative agencies get asked to do these things? I have a vision of the first time a client asked their attorney to do something for free. I see uncontrollable laughter and heads shaking, “No.” I also have a vision of the first time a client asked the same of their agency; only the outcome is quite different.

OK, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t know how we got here. I’m not really a “blame” guy anyway. We’re here. How do we get out? Let’s break it down into some basic analysis of human nature.

People are creatures of habit.

Habit may explain why you have never been able to make a client profitable after doing the first job for them at a reduced rate. I have heard this story from nearly every agency I have consulted with. The client promised more work down the road if they could just get some help on the first job. The agency is never able to adjust their billing up to their full rate. The client gets used to the rate charged for the first job and expects it to be the norm.

Habit can also prevent you from doing your job. You are the expert in creative communications. That is what you have been hired to do. You know how to get the job done. If your new client tells you how to do your job, you will be frustrated and they will be disappointed with the results. It's likely this a habit - your client has probably always called the shots, even if they aren’t qualified to do so.

If you discount your first job with a new client, assume that is your rate for them forever. If the client micromanages you and your staff, assume they will work that way forever. They will likely leave you for a new agency if you push the point - or, at least, that is your fear. Your client may have formed a sense of habit around their first job with you. But more detrimental to your business, you may have formed a habit of compliance out of fear of being fired.

Use habit to your advantage. Set up how you want to be treated from the start, and that will become the habit - for you and your client. Another way of looking at this issue is: people don’t like change. It’s easier to start a relationship on the right path than it is to change the relationship after it is established.

People look after themselves first.

This is as straightforward as it sounds. When you negotiate the terms of a job, your client will look after their own interests, not yours. It is your job to look after your interests. Your client may be fair-minded, but that will only mean that they understand and appreciate your motives. You still need to be the one to state what you need to make the deal good for you.

I’ll take this one step further. If you are talking to a reasonable, professional client, they will expect you to defend your side of the deal. They will have more respect for you if you do. This is the sort of client you want to associate with. It is also in your client's best interest for you to succeed.

Most people are good. Some are bad.

Don’t confuse my first two points with this one. A good person (and a potentially good client) could habitually expect low fees, given the opportunity to develop the habit. It’s also likely that they will put their interests above yours. That’s both natural and avoidable.

Occasionally you will encounter a bad person. They may lie to you. They may lie about you. They may bully you. They may intend to take advantage of you whenever possible.

I know this sounds obvious, but a genuinely bad person is not who you want as a client. Cut your losses and get out of the relationship as quickly as possible. I have seen several instances where agencies tried to mend a bad relationship, some of them over periods of years. They never succeeded, and the entire time, they were losing money and causing undo stress on their staff.

You have the power to fix the problem.

Once a relationship with a client goes in the wrong direction, you are stuck with nothing but undesirable options:

  • fire the client
  • get fired by the client
  • live with a difficult and/or unprofitable client
  • spend valuable time trying to redirect or retrain the client.

I love Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you keep having client-management issues, change what you are doing.

If you state reasonable needs in a contract negotiation, and the client disagrees with your terms, it’s likely that they are not going to be a good client for you. They may not think the way you think. They may not be able to afford you. You may not have the expertise or resources that they need. It isn’t a matter of fault - a deal that doesn’t go through may be best for both parties.

Honesty and transparency lead to positive, long-term business relationships. Speak your mind, be true to who you are, and good clients will appreciate you. Even in tight economic times, success will come to agencies that focus on converting a single job into a repeat client and converting clients into long-term accounts.