Mastering the Art of Dealing with the Difficult Client
Let us get this out of the way — I do not like all the people I’ve written about over the years. There, I said it.
As writers, we have to remain professional and get the job done even when the feature subject drives us crazy.
I write features because I’m fascinated by interesting, funny, often quirky people, and I have an innate ability to connect with them. At the beginning of my writing career, I wrote about people when I felt inspired to write about them.
Last year, I began writing for a publication that offers me feature pieces and asks if I will take on the assignment. At first, I felt somewhat constrained by working in this way, but it actually forced me to be better at what I do by getting out of my comfort zone. Let’s face it; it is easier to write about something that inspires you. When you are not inspired, you must find a way to get inspired to craft something that people want to read.
Writing on assignment put me face to face with people who were looking at the story as a way to promote their business, product, or event — often not realizing that they were the story. My focus is almost always on the individual because if there were an unforgettable story about the person, the story would get read and remembered, and their business would organically thrive. And, if you find the most exciting thing about the human in the story, that human will generally be happy with the finished product.
Most of the subjects I’ve worked with have been lovely, entertaining, and gracious, and that makes the whole business worthwhile. But a few have been difficult, ego-centric, and bull-headed. As writers, we need to be professional and get the job done, even when the feature subject is impossible.”
Here are some surefire ways to know that someone will be difficult. Spot these at the outset and prepare for a bumpy ride.
1. They are unresponsive or difficult to reach.
Almost universally portending a painful process, these actions make you waste time while you repeatedly try to reach the client. This type of personality often cancels meetings at the last minute, takes weeks to respond to emails, and in general, believes your time is less valuable than theirs. Buckle in because you are about to ride the narcissist train to the end of your assignment, and there is little you can do.
2. They aren’t forthcoming with information.
Freelance writing is not paying the bulk of my bills. That is why I try to keep myself on a time budget with each assignment to end up with at least a minimum wage, and hopefully, somewhere closer to 50 dollars per hour.
For example, if a story pays 100 dollars, I will spend 5 to 10 minutes on pre-research, 15 to 20 minutes on an interview, and an hour max on the writing. Time spent communicating with the subject and the editor, doing rewrites, taking calls, and doing other administrative work always eats up another 15 minutes or so. Still, if I can stay under two hours total, I feel good about the pay.
I always do some research in advance of interviews so I have a few essential topics to discuss. But I also want the conversation to free flow and to go places I would not have foreseen. Once, after asking a subject at the outset if there were anything she would like to focus on, I received the deadpan response, “I don’t know, you’re the writer.” Crickets.
As you might guess, that piece lacked personality and flair because, well, the subject was a jerk. I regurgitated random facts about the product based on the website the client brusquely suggested I pull information from. I could have written about how doomed the owner was to fail because of her unfriendly attitude, but this magazine wants flattering pieces, so I wrote about the product and made it as enjoyable as possible.
Admittedly, not my best work, nor did I want it to be, frankly. Still, the job got done, and because I was able to cut out the bulk of the interview portion, I made about 100 dollars per hour, which was my solace.
3. They say things like, “I’m an excellent writer,” or “I know more about writing than almost anyone.”
YIKES. This character insisted on reviewing everything I wrote, editing it thoroughly, redirecting topics, changing the focus entirely after the first draft was complete, and calling several times post-submission to change something else — and in addition to being very insulting, this took loads of time, people.
This piece of advice is for subjects rather than to other writers, but — if someone is writing about you, you might want to let them go ahead and do that. You can write your own story precisely as you want it and put it on your website, so why insist that a professional write the same thing for you? Stop trying to control the outcome, and you will likely receive something that gives a fresh new take on you and your business — which is probably what you sincerely want and need.
For writers, my advice is to grit your teeth and do what they want to the extent possible, but never turn in anything that you are not proud to put your name on. I speak from experience — I have done it, and I regret it.
If you find yourself working with an impossible subject who has exhausted your patience, there are a few things you can do:
1. You can tell the client that you will submit what they want, but the editor may make changes, and it is out of your control. Then submit what they want and what you want and let the editor decide. If you don’t have that kind of relationship with the editor, change the piece to reflect as much of the subjects requests as possible, while still maintaining artistic integrity.
2. You can explain that you can only make changes that fit your voice and standards, period.
3. You can give up your ego and let it go as the client wants it, so long as it is somewhat acceptable to you.
Once, after spending almost six hours on a 500-word piece, I turned it in and told the editor, “I’ve done several revisions, and I’m not changing anything past this point.” I had given up out of frustration; I didn’t want to deal with the subject any longer, and I didn’t care if I wrote for that publication again. (I did not share these last points with the editor.)
Luckily, the editor apologized to me and thanked me for dealing with such a difficult client, and she took it from there. This approach may not work with every editor, of course, so play your cards right. After a year of working together on 30-plus pieces, this editor knew that if I felt this strongly, I had good reason to be frustrated.
I will end on my most magnanimous point. Try to remind yourself that the client/subject is another human being dealing with their own fears and circumstances. A year from now, you will barely remember their name, and if you happen to see each other at a cocktail party, it would be nice to be able to smile and say hello, knowing they have no idea that at one point you wanted to kill them.