How can you avoid micro-managing clients?

I’d heard of micro-management before, someone I worked with suggested my supervisor was guilty of it. And guilty is the right word, because this reference to his management style wasn’t meant as a compliment, it was used as a derogatory term. Thing is, I remember thinking that I was quite happy with his style of management. At the time, I was in a stressful junior management job learning the ropes, interpreting complex legislation which often required quick thinking and solving difficult problems. He offered me a safety net, a place to fall should something go wrong, and boy did I need it, because when things went wrong in the NHS, they went spectacular wrong. You could rarely afford to make mistakes, and we were still largely working in a blame culture.

Micro management - can you work with it?

However, 5 years on and working as a freelance copywriter, I feel myself on the receiving end of a certain type of micro-management which I don’t particularly enjoy. I wouldn’t say they’re all like that, they are in the minority, and they’re not always in charge of a start-up. But for the most part it is these types of people who are most guilty of it and I can understand it - but can’t work with it.

Nurturing and supportive is good, micro-managing isn't

What’s the difference between the kind of micro-management I felt I’d experienced in the NHS, and the one I occasionally get now? Well, I think for the most part when I look back, it was a micro-management style I could live with, it was a unique environment, the NHS always is, and for the most part, it felt nurturing and supportive. I never felt I wasn’t trusted to get on with it. So perhaps it wasn’t micro-management after all, or least not to me, and I do remember that once the project was explained and I felt more confident, I was then left alone until targeted times of the month when we were expected to report back.

Make sure it's less often

Unfortunately, the type of micro-management I deal with now is in no way nurturing or supportive. I said I only deal with it occasionally, and this is because I know that when I get a whiff of it, I’m usually out before it goes any further. I know from experience it has nowhere to go but down, and once I start describing the key ingredients for a micro-management setup, you’ll soon know what I’m talking about.

For instance: I apply for a job, a web cop project with a short to medium lifespan. It’s been explained to the nth degree, and there is a lot of painstaking detail on what exactly the client wants, a lot of which isn’t necessary. When I first started out, I didn’t always hear alarm bells ringing, but now I do.

The project goes into detail about where they want each sentence to sit on a page, (if it’s web copy), and then they go into detail about exactly what they want in each sentence AND heading and subheading, and what they want each paragraph to say, how long or short the sentences should be. And they’ll say something like “Hey, it should be like this (shows a link) but don’t copy, you’ll be severely punished for copying!”

There may be a spreadsheet, it’ll have links and headings perhaps. They’ll ask you to put something in there in a certain way, even though it doesn’t make a jot of difference to the project itself. They’ll go on about this minor detail until you agree to change it, even though you’re wasting precious time getting on with the rest of what you’ve been asked to do.

There’ll be intermittent comments on where a word should be, how you’ve phrased a sentence, instead of perhaps leaving it till the end. This means you’re constantly editing instead of once the projects finished and the client has had time to review all the work. Perhaps they will leave it till the end, until they look over it and suggest edits, and you breathe a sigh of relief, but then it comes back covered in some many corrections, it’s practically a complete re-write. This isn’t fun anymore and you almost feel like asking why they didn’t just write it themselves in the first place, I mean wouldn’t it be easier for them if they had?

But you’re too polite.

Then they say it’s not working, you’re just not doing what they wanted. And then they pull the plug, and what’s more, they’re not going to pay you a penny, for your time, your efforts or for any of the work done so far. You know that some other fool is going to be on the receiving end of this before long - but it won't be you.

And the question is - do they understand the difference between freelancer and employee?

And the question is - do they understand the difference between freelancer and employee?

There's different types of micros out there....

Or…it’s a start-up. The start-up is the most common type of micro-manager. It’s their baby, it’s their business and it’s going to be their path to financial glory, I get it. They’ve never managed anyone before and everyone has a set of tasks they need to do; they’ll have invested heavily in a team management software and everyone must stick to their bit. It’s like being a potty-trained toddler, you’re constantly watched, your actions are commented on, you’re told exactly how to do it from beginning to end. They call you, email you, they want constant updates, they want to see where you are so far, is it being done exactly the way they wanted it done? And on and on it goes…

There are things you can do to help yourself...

It’s up to you whether you carry on, but there are certain things you can do to nip it in the bud early on. Show them your terms and conditions before you start, make sure it’s perfectly clear that they’re paying for your time as well as the actual writing itself. You need to make it clear how many edits you’ll allow, I usually allow one free set of edits and then I start charging. They’re going to be less likely to produce constant requests for edits if they know they’re going to be charged for it. Remind them in case they conveniently forget, and make sure you’ve sent them a copy of your T&Cs in a word document to their email address, as well as just pointing them in the direction of your website. They can always make excuses they haven’t seen it.

Oh no you don't - I'm a freelancer.....

Oh no you don't - I'm a freelancer.....

You may just have to walk away...

However, if you’ve got a micro-manager, then one of two things are going to happen, they’re going to carry on behaving this way regardless, because that’s just how they are and they can’t help it, or they’re not going to go ahead, because they know they won’t be able to resist controlling the whole thing from beginning to end. You will at least have been spared the experience if that does happen.

There’s nothing wrong with caring about your business, but if you hire a good copywriter, you need to trust them to get on with it. If you’re not sure of their suitability for the job, then ask for testimonials or samples of previous work – or better still don’t hire them.

I've been lucky and so can you...

I’ve been lucky to have had the most wonderful clients so I know they’re not all like that, and there’s nothing wrong with being supportive and nurturing. Without their involvement, you wouldn’t be able to produce good work. With time, you’ll come to recognise the micros and steer well clear, because working in that way is the quickest way to a complete burnout.

Further reading: Not always about micromanagement, but helpful articles on dealing with difficult clients and counting to ten, all of which I've enjoyed and found really useful.