Writers: how do you educate clients who don't value your work?
October 14, 2011 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Copywriters and other creatives: how do you protect yourself when dealing with clients who suck up time with extensive revisions, general indecisiveness, or just plain bad judgment? My larger projects can handle some ballooning of time in one direction or another, and for my big national clients there is always client awareness of my expertise and what it's worth. My problem is with taking on smaller clients who seem great at first, but then balk at suggestions, revise good writing into terrible, etc...

I'm a freelancer with some lovely first-tier clients. I do excellent work. I have good client skills, and I work hard at really listening to the client. I get loads of repeat business and referrals, and my clients vary from major fashion houses to technology and manufacturing.

For recent smaller clients (local/small biz), I have a sit-down or phone call where we both lay out expectations, I send over an SOW/contract (sometimes with examples of typical deliverables for that type of project), get a formal acceptance of same, and then we go through the writing-revision cycle. When I hand off work, I preface it with an "as we discussed" paragraph so that clients see the work in context of previous conversations and find it easier to see how the work has developed off those conversations

I find that small-business clients are more likely to
- change good solid writing into bad
- rewrite elegant taglines that fit their business into clunkers that make people say "wait...what?"
- spend huge amounts of time on one aspect of the project and then once invoiced say "oh we never looked at X because we didn't have time, so will revisions to X be an additional charge"?

I am willing to be edited, and to work with clients to make them happy, but I'm wondering if I need to give these smaller clients a REALLY detailed SOW stating what our working relationship should be. This seems silly to do on projects lasting <10 hrs, but not if they turn into double that. And now I have to tell one client that light edits, but not wholesale revisions, would be covered under contract (even though I probably should charge extra), and wondering how to do it kindly.

What could I be missing? Do I need to append a short statement of what is NOT covered, with examples, sort of an anti SOW? Is this a recession-economy backlash against spending money, in the sense that everyone thinks he or she can write/design, etc? How do you notify clients of approaching time limits in a way that is not burdensome (especially on small projects)? I wonder also if there is another type of question to ask clients, sort of a "what are you not telling me" or "what do you see here that you think does NOT fit your plan" that I could ask early on to avoid big problems without coming across as negative toward my own work.
posted by mdiskin to Work & Money (22 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
two rounds of revisions free, bill by the hour for revisions after that. Stick to your guns- if they could do your job, they wouldn't have hired you. Make the terms clear up front.
posted by jenkinsEar at 10:23 AM on October 14, 2011

Budget and plan for two rounds, and indicate further revisions will be extra and likely affect the final time-line.

"We can make XYZ changes if you want, but here's how they will affect the timeline and cost."
posted by canine epigram at 10:28 AM on October 14, 2011

Best answer: F*ck You, Pay Me.

"oh we never looked at X because we didn't have time, so will revisions to X be an additional charge"?

Yes. Yes it will.
posted by rhizome at 10:28 AM on October 14, 2011 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: jenkinsEar and canine epigram, I forgot to mention that I state that exactly in my current contract. I'm wondering how I define "revisions" for these clients without insulting their intelligence. As for major quality downturns in how the client wants to revise... how do I manage those?
posted by mdiskin at 10:30 AM on October 14, 2011

When we deliver visual designs we label them "Revision 1, Revision 2" etc. So the client knows what they're getting. Minor tweaks we will add a sub number (Revision 1.1) so they know we're still working on edits to the first version.
posted by bitdamaged at 10:34 AM on October 14, 2011 [7 favorites]

Best answer: i don't spend a lot of time trying to prevent quality downturn anymore. they're paying me for what they what and if that's what they want, then they can have it. i am comfortable knowing that a) i did provide quality work/advice/design and b) they chose something else.
posted by elle.jeezy at 10:39 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering how I define "revisions" for these clients without insulting their intelligence.
Every time they call you or send you an e-mail saying "oh, and can we do this?"

I had a job back when I was starting out where the client sent 20 rounds of changes. In one day. In some cases they didn't like what I had done originally (but somehow hadn't mentioned it in any of the previous faxes), in some cases they were just adding new shit. In every case, it was a couple small changes. Death by a thousand cuts. You want to discourage that, and encourage them to get all their changes in as a bundle. Money is a good motivator.

Clients that want to fix your work are common in my business (translation). It's frustrating, but you can't let it get to you. I'd make one attempt to convince them, using the most objective line of reasoning possible, and when that fails, let them do their own thing. It's their money.
posted by adamrice at 10:41 AM on October 14, 2011

I find that nothing focuses the mind of a client so much as the invoicing for time spent. Tell them you're billing by the hour from x point forward.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:55 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was freelance, I included in my SOWs that each revision over the agreed X would cost them more money, incrementally. If it was quick turnaround? More money. If it caused me to work late nights or over the weekend, or took me away from another opportunity*? More money.

Doing this a.) curtailed the back and forth pretty quickly, as my costs ramped up for each revision, and b.) made me feel a lot better about the revision frustration because I was making more money and wasn't being steamrolled.

When any of these issues did come up, I would reply to their email with a reminder that the newest round would cost $XX and that if there was a subsequent round, it would cost $XXX—as per the SOW. Just to keep them aware.

*My really wonderful, nice clients didn't really understand that I was working my fingers to the bone, around the clock, and often had other clients and obligations. I wasn't a jerk about it, but doing this made them aware.
posted by functionequalsform at 10:56 AM on October 14, 2011

i also provide two rounds of revisions written into my contracts, and any further revisions get charged beyond the agreed fee (i prefer to have a project fee with revisions outside those provided to be charged at my hourly rate).

I'm wondering how I define "revisions" for these clients without insulting their intelligence.

meet + present, make revisions (round 1). meet + present, revisions (round 2). meet + present. any further revisions after this final presentation qualifies as extra charges. when you have this final meeting with the client, you can remind your client that if they have any further changes, they will be charged beyond your agreed fee.
posted by violetk at 11:00 AM on October 14, 2011

2 rounds of revisions in the contract. Don't allow them to piecemeal you revisions; indicate that they should review for x business days and then get back in touch with all of the revisions. Be sure that you outline what they are supposed to be reviewing, even if it's totally obvious. Nothing, really, should be considered obvious.

We bill *hourly* for work beyond what is in the SOW. Number your revisions as above, and then when you get beyond that, indicate that you will bill them x per hour with a minimum of x hours to complete those revisions. Add that to your contract.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:09 AM on October 14, 2011

Response by poster: Rhizome, thanks for the F**k You, Pay Me link. I have contracts, my contracts state the number of revision rounds and rates beyond those bounds, having a single point of contact who handles client side revisions, etc. The vast majority of my clients have no problems with the work, the terms, or the hours. It's the more subtle things that are harder to define with a smaller client, such as what constitutes "acceptance" and "revision."

I never thought of one thing MM and GL state: having a timeframe to accept a deliverable. So that if 10 days go by with no comment, that deliverable is deemed accepted. I'm putting that in my contract now.
posted by mdiskin at 11:23 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Is this a recession-economy backlash against spending money, in the sense that everyone thinks he or she can write/design, etc?"

I think it's really that small business clients are typically less sophisticated. More of their employees are, of necessity, generalists rather than specialists. And whatever type of work they hire out, they hire out less often just because of their scale. This means that no, they may not fully your work because they don't have the in-house expertise that a big client has; and since they don't do it often, no, they don't understand the process as well.

Sadly, I have no good solution for you, but it isn't just you; it's a common complaint in professional services.

Like, I'm on a board where we frequently have to hire lawyers. There are two lawyers and one C-level executive on the board, and the three of us are very willing to hire lawyers because we understand the work they do and why it's cheaper, in the end, to hire it out to an expert and get it done faster and properly. A couple of the non-lawyer board members request to be walked through it almost every time (which is fine but slows things down and I'm sure is frustrating for the lawyers whose time they're taking up), and one of them constantly asks, "Well, why can't we do a bond issuance in house?" "Well, why do we have to defend this lawsuit at all? It seems like we should just pay, the lawyers will cost us money anyway." "Well, this is a dumb law, I don't understand why we have to do compliance." It's grar-y enough for me, I imagine our lawyers want to bang their faces on the table over it.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:38 AM on October 14, 2011

Response by poster: functionequalsform, can you elaborate a little on how you present that structure of fast revisions, opportunity costs, etc., to your client?
posted by mdiskin at 11:46 AM on October 14, 2011

Add language to your SOW that clarifies what a "round" is, as per violetk (slightly expanded by me): "Meet + present, one set of consolidated revisions (round 1). Meet + present, one set of consolidated revisions (round 2). Meet + present. Any further revisions after this final presentation will incur extra charges."

As for the client changing good writing to bad: some amount of this goes with the territory. If you really feel that the changes are undermining their goals, say so clearly -- but then let it go, and don't take it personally. It's their money and their business.

On the other hand, it is kind of a crappy way to treat an expert resource, so you may decide to be "too busy" whenever they next call.
posted by ottereroticist at 11:52 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

In addition to the above excellent advice, you need an hourly rate in the contract. Then you can say "Sure we can look at that if you want to tack on three more hours at the standard hourly."
posted by DarlingBri at 11:56 AM on October 14, 2011

I'm wondering how I define "revisions" for these clients without insulting their intelligence.

What about including a reminder of what stage you're at each time you deliver first round, 1st revision, 2nd revision? Also with a reminder of deadlines (for both you and them). Just something along the lines of "As per the contract, requests for the first round of revision are due on date", "... requests for the second round of revisions are due on date. I would also like to remind you that all further revisions will be charged at hourly rate".

As for the good writing changing to bad: a few years ago I edited a book which started out as a sprawling mess. Once I was done, the publisher asked the author to add a chapter and make further additions to the existing text. I wasn't involved in editing these extras, and the publisher didn't bother editing them (the author is a sort of sacred monster in his field). The result is a book of very mixed quality, and my name appears in the acknowledgements as editor. Not at all the kind of publicity I want. So I have taken to ask people to leave my name out whenever I feel that the changes they make to my suggestions are severly detrimental to the text. More often than not, this gives them pause - and we tend to reach a more satisfying compromise. The fact that I don't want to be associated with the output seems to be more convincing than my word alone. I don't know if you can apply this method, but I find it quite efficient.
posted by miorita at 12:24 PM on October 14, 2011

Best answer: If you wish to continue working with this type of client, you must provide them with a detailed written scope of work before you agree to the job. Lay it out in detail, step by step, and explain that this is what they are hiring you to do. Any deviations from the stated plan will cost extra.

However, I would recommend that you strive to get your business to a point where you no longer take on this type of client at all. You already know that you are able to attract and satisfy a better class of client, so put your effort into getting more of those and you will be far happier in the long run.
posted by spilon at 12:25 PM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I should reiterate that 99% of my clients get a detailed SOW that includes deliverables definitions, jpgs showing what these look like, a detailed hours and rates list with a statement that says "anything beyond the scope of this document will be billed at a rate of X/hr", etc. But a few recent jobs are small enough that a SOW of that size doesn't make sense.

Spilon, I think you're right-- I need to focus on my big clients and let the small ones pass by.
posted by mdiskin at 1:38 PM on October 14, 2011

Best answer: Minimum of 1 billable hour for anything you have to do after the initial statement of work, per occurrence. This will teach clients to batch up and send you their edits all at once, because they will pay for an hour of your time if they send you all the edits at once, and five hours of your time if they send you a couple every day for a week. If they are good clients, you always have the option to waive this.
posted by kindall at 1:50 PM on October 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

One of the best third parties I've worked with has exceedingly strong language about how many revision cycles they will have, what format feedback must come in, and the deadline on said feedback.

They do a good job of setting expectations up front at initial meetings, though for small jobs that amount of in-your-face language might be overkill. Still, even a form saying "I want this filled out, anything not on here doesn't get done" might be enough.

Because otherwise you end up in design hell.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 4:29 PM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's another vote for just dropping the small clients. I did that by raising my rates, which pushed away the little clients but kept the professional, bigger ones. It also helped to overhaul my web site so it looks like the site of an "expensive" service, with the result that small, inexperienced prospects don't even call me.
posted by ceiba at 6:42 PM on October 14, 2011

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