The Vague Client

                 The Vague One

                 The Vague One

I’ve already touched on the vagaries of the micro-client and today I’m devoting some time to the vague one. You know, the client who doesn’t know what he wants but hopes you do, the client who is vague about how much she thinks she should pay, and does everything to bring the price down and your mood along with it.

It’s difficult to know what to do when you’re faced with The Vague One, sometimes it takes years of experience to know what you’re dealing with. However, it helps if you have a few tips and guidelines with you, so the next time you’re dealing with the Knight of Ambiguity you’ll have alarm bells ringing in your head.

The I-don’t-know-what-I-want-but-I-hope-you-do client

I’ve sometimes had a client come to me with an idea, a new business they’re putting together and they need someone to write up the web copy. It seems alright at first, until you start asking questions. His/Her answers are usually as vague as the project, “oh you know, it’s like this business or this company, something along those lines.”

When their business is shrouded in mystery.....

When their business is shrouded in mystery.....

WHO exactly are you?

They’ll give you examples of other similar companies, links even, and then that’s it. It sounds great, but there’s relatively little else to go on, what’s the company ethos, who is the team behind it, who runs the business, where are they based, who is their target audience? It’s not like you need to know the intimate details of their personal life, but it’s like they don’t exist. There’s no personality behind the brand, there’s no hint as to why they’re doing this, no clues as to their ideal client.

Do they know what they’re doing?

You start to wonder if they have any idea of what they’re actually doing themselves, and if they don’t know why they’re doing it, then how does that come across to any potential clients. “It’s just like this, and you can write it like that” it’s almost as if it’s a carbon copy of another business, with nothing to distinguish it, no real benefits and no features. You ask more questions, they’re vague and unresponsive, because as you soon discover, they don’t know any more than you do. What do you do?

Please tell me more......

Please tell me more......

Ask lots of questions

The key is perhaps to ask as many questions as you can, and if you feel capable, continue to write to something and hope for the best. It’s possible they’ll come back and quibble about the content, and your argument at this point is that you’re only basing your content on what they’ve given you.

Sometimes you have to bail ship

If you really feel you simply don’t have enough to go on, it may be that you simply have to walk away from this one. Admit defeat and move on. You can’t create nowt from nowt as they say. Be polite about it and tell them that perhaps they need to sit down and think about what they want, where they’re going, and come back to you at a later time when they’ve had time to think about it. It’s not that you want them to do all the work for you, but sometimes, you do need a little bit more to go on than vague instructions for an identikit business, spinning copy from another identical website.

The I-don’t-really-want-to-pay-you-what-you’re-asking client

Someone comes to you and asks you to write up some web copy, or a series of blogs. They ask you for a quote, and you email back with it, then they disappear. Then they come back after a fortnight and ask the same thing again, you tell them again and what you’re charging. Then they disappear, then they come back and ask you to remind them what the cost was again, and this time they’re vague about the exact amount of content they want, they misquote you on what you asked for originally, and then attempt to barter with you in an attempt to bring the price down.

Please make this stop.....

Please make this stop.....

Sound familiar?

Yes, that’s the vague one who wants something for nothing, or something a lot cheaper than what you’re willing to do it for. What can you do? Hopefully, common sense dictates that at some point this backwards and forwards volley of frustrating emails will result in a large klaxon going off in your head.

A fair job at a fair price

There has to be a point at when you stop. And rather than waste valuable time continuing to exchange emails with them, and trust me some potential clients will go at this like a dog with a bone, you should say enough is enough. There may be some clients who are used to haggling and bartering in this way, and that’s okay, perhaps in their experience or in their line of business that’s perfectly natural. But, it’s isn’t natural to you, what is natural to you is offering a good job at a fair price, so you can support yourself and your family. You can’t continue with it indefinitely, it’s going nowhere, you have to put a stop to it. In the past, I used to continue for far longer than I should have done which left me feeling exasperated and extremely frustrated, but now I know better.

I can't take any more....

I can't take any more....

Be firm

Give them a final quote on a separate document, break it down, show them exactly what they’re getting and why you’re charging this much, and then in the body of your email tell them politely that this is what you charge and that it’s all there in the attachment. If you charge more than the average client, explain why, perhaps you have experience in a specialist area or you’re simply more experienced generally. I don’t charge as much as more seasoned copywriters, but that’s different to just giving the work away for practically nothing. Tell them that if they change their mind and want to do business with you, to get back in touch and then leave it. Don’t answer any more emails, don’t be tempted, let it go. If they sense you’re being firm and you’re not going to budge, they will eventually give up.

When you're at screaming point.....

When you're at screaming point.....


Negotiating vs haggling

This is entirely different from a client who genuinely wants to work with you but asks if there might be a discount or a special offer package for a large amount of work, they may mention this at the get-go and you can certainly consider it. I often give discounts on large orders myself, or offer to do a long-term package at a lower price. It’s good to negotiate with clients for a great deal and if they’re happy with your work and the services you provide, they’ll come back. At the end of the day, you develop a sixth sense for it, and there’s a world of difference between negotiating with a client and someone haggling with you and wearing you down till you give in to their way of thinking.

If you’re unsure, walk away, your time is precious and you can’t afford to give work away. There’ll come a point when you recognise The Vague One as soon he/she makes an appearance, leaving you with more time to find the clients who’ll value your work.

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.