Creative Pros: Design client from the depths of Hell. Help me deal...
June 4, 2014 7:42 PM   Subscribe

What seemed to be a nice new client has gone haywire on me. How do I survive this project?

Through a referral, I picked up a potentially substantial new client. A school district. Started in on a large-ish print piece for them (full color 32+ pages). Only then did I discover that they are completely dysfunctional, unfocused, with a heavy dose of decision-by-committee. Add to that a department-wide fear of the unpredictable leader (who I have no contact with and who has a tendency to throw cold water on the ideas the underlings like). Bottom line, 8 (widely varied) brochure versions later they are still feeding me long lists of vague input ("more magical"? "We're on the right road"?). Deadline approaching fast and I'm tapped out. Hours for this project are now roughly at 4 times my original estimate (they'll pay the hours ... If I survive). I'm the second designer on the project. The first had to drop off because of some "personal issues". I can guess what those were.

I don't mind input. I'm not a Prima Donna designer. I've been designing successfully for 20 years and have plenty of very happy clients, but never have I run into a situation like this. Frankly, were it not for my sense of professionalism, and respect for the person who referred me, I'd dump 'em tomorrow. But for now I'm committed to see it thru. I don't think I can deal with much more. Having design after design either rejected outright or nitpicked to death with nebulous "feedback" has done me in. Through it all: " we love your work!" "we're on the right road!" I'd much prefer "we don't care for your work... Bye." My referrer told me her contact said they really like working with me.

Creative professionals: How have you endured similar situations? I'm so tempted to give them the files and say "adios", but I can't. Can I?
posted by ecorrocio to Work & Money (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What are your contract docs like? Do you have a defined point of contact on the client side? Are they aware (not just tacitly) that the clock is running through all these changes? Are you adjusting the deadline accordingly?

Perhaps speaking directly to the leader and saying something like "Our agreed deadline is rapidly approaching, but review by committee is delaying the project and driving up the cost significantly. If we are to succeed, I need to work directly with you." If that doesn't happen, it is absolutely your professional option to fire them as a client, bill for hours worked, and turn over the files.

If you have a good relationship with the referral, and you conduct yourself professionally, there's nothing to be worried about. You have a twenty-year resume and the attendant list of clients; one bad one won't ruin that.
posted by a halcyon day at 7:55 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's time to have a project planning meeting with the entire committee where you work backwards from whenever they need this stuff--invent occasions, e.g., the first PTA meeting or whatever, if necessary--and get them to commit to the schedule. Put it up on a white board and facilitate the meeting. By working backwards through printing, layout, whatever the other steps are (not my world) up through today you can, if you're skilled, make it apparent that they can't continue this way and that there's only time for one or two more revisions. Consequently, in order to get it done, they are going to have to appoint a smaller decision-making group or elect to trust you. The key is to get them to come to this realization together, so they witness the decision to stop the behavior.
posted by carmicha at 7:57 PM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Could you fabricate an earlier deadline because you have to 'go away on short notice'? Then at least any issues will have to resolve themselves fast?
posted by Sebmojo at 8:00 PM on June 4, 2014

Best answer: Assuming there is a defined point of contact, it's time for The Big Talk. And yeah, at some point in the back of your mind there is the big adios, and frankly they need to understand that. I'd frame it something like:

"I want to make adjustments to make you happy, but usually there are about X iterations and we're at X² iterations and climbing. Further, statements like 'we're on the right road' are hopeful but we don't seem to be refining and closing in on something; rather we're going up and down this road a good bit with things that are changes, not really iterations.

At this point your cost is $____, and I know we're already over budget. I'd like to offer you 1 more cut on editing this, and if I can't make you happy I think I need to present you my bill and a disk with the work on it so far."

I've had to do similar things as an employee of a t-shirt design place, and as a web developer. You wouldn't think people could make an odyssey out of a t-shirt design, but it turns out they can.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:01 PM on June 4, 2014 [10 favorites]

And if there isn't a defined point of contact, it's time to do what carmicha said and have as a main objective that you GET a defined point of contact.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:02 PM on June 4, 2014

Response by poster: Halcyon: no contract. They're aware of time spent and will pay. Not worried about getting paid. Deadline fixed (Tuesday).

Carmicha: good advice for dealing with a rational group. These guys don't function that way.

Still: thanks both. Some good stuff there.
posted by ecorrocio at 8:05 PM on June 4, 2014

I think randomkeystrike's script is about perfect. I have had t-shirt clients go haywire with revisions & the only thing that settles them down is "We're not going to make your event if this isn't finalized by Tomorrow."
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:09 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: One more: I do have a defined point of contact. Problem is on their side: they group-think the thing (with nobody wanting to stick their neck out), have me execute, THEN run it by boss who cuts it to pieces. Rinse. Repeat.
posted by ecorrocio at 8:10 PM on June 4, 2014

If you don't have final sign off by their head honcho, you don't have sign off at all. Tell them that to cut down on the amount of revisions needed, you have to have the boss approve it before you'll work any further on it. Ask them flat out next time they try to return it "Has X seen it? No? I'm sorry, new company policy, I can't start working on it until I have final approval to go ahead from your boss." If that doesn't work for them, tell them it's not going to work out due to their businesses processes, give them the work to date on disk, send them your bill (factoring in the run around you've been given) and bid them good day. I've been there multiple times before, not only do you not make money off work like this, you can actively go into (time) debt on it.
posted by Jubey at 8:38 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Always have a contract. At a minimum, I like a one pager of this sort: that clarifies roles and success.
posted by griffey at 8:57 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Honestly, if the hours billed are 4 times the estimate and you believe they'll pay, then don't wore about it.

Have a drink, run laps, play tennis or whatever it takes to wind down for the day. It's out of your hands and you're making a lot of money. Stop worrying about it, 'cause you can't fix their disfunction, only your reaction to it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:59 PM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

If Tuesday's the deadline, at least it's in sight. I'd suggest to them that "because the deadline's fast approaching" you work directly with Big Boss so they don't lose any more time changing things that need his approval. If there's some reason they can't do that (which is likely), just hang in there and be glad they can pay for the hours. The good news is that you'll only make this mistake once... the next time your 'antenna' will spot this potential quickly. This Too Shall Pass.
posted by summerstorm at 10:11 PM on June 4, 2014

Best answer: A school district. Hee hee hee.

Yeah, they may not have any clue about how to direct design work and no particular respect for the work either, even though they "love" it. You know, naive clients, basically.

They're not going to want to drop you so close to deadline. My guess is that they're going to dillydally until Monday morning at which point the fear of god will strike. But hopefully that's sooner. At that point you can tell them "I have no idea what you're looking for, but we're out of time. Pick the one of these eight I've done already that's closest to what you want, specify your adjustments, and I will finish this up for you." They may not understand design but they are (ex) teachers and will understand deadlines. And then the boss is going to have to be dissatisfied.
posted by furiousthought at 10:17 PM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Step 1: Never, ever, ever work without a contract.

Step 2: The very moment the client needs to move beyond the agreed upon iterations, this is when you say, "Okay, it sounds like we need a fuller understanding of the business goals of this project. Let's do a workshop to help the whole group understand the needs." Then you get them together and use facilitation tools and techniques to help draw out of them what they need the project to achieve. You then you those agreed upon goals as the only criteria by which the work is judged. Coming to shared language is very very important.

Step 3: Do not enter into a project where you have no contact with the key stakeholder/decision maker.

You will have to get through this the best you can, because the above ships have sailed.
posted by gsh at 5:59 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've worked for this exact client, or their doppelganger. You just keep on trucking until the Big Deadline hits and then magically, things will be submitted and approved. But like Brandon Blatcher said, you won't get any approval or a stop to the tide of changes until the very last instant (and then they'll wonder why the printers are late delivering, but that's another story). It's as you have identified, everyone is scared of the big boss so they group think everything and go around in circles at lower levels and then the big boss comes in and is like, wtf is this?, and you have to change everything. I know. It's terrible. But if they're paying for it.... just go for a run, breathe deeply and just remind yourself you're getting paid for doing what they want you to do, they don't care if you're actually doing it the best or most efficient way - they want you to do it THEIR way. I think it takes a special kind of person to be able to work for people like this.. I'm not one of them (and probably neither are you..).
posted by annie o at 10:16 AM on June 21, 2014

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