Being Right Won't Pay Your Bills

Austin L. Church
January 6, 2016
Share this post

A client once sent me an email asking that I look at our contract and agreed-upon deliverables. He wondered if I didn’t owe his company a “credit” of some sort. I'm not going to lie: I have a weakness for being right, so my reaction was less than gracious:“Credit? I’ve gone above and beyond on this project!” The deliverables included some social media strategy and posts, and because my client didn’t fully understand what they were asking me to sell to them, I created a Glossary of Terms, as well as a document that briefly explained best practices for various social media channels.We creatives must sometimes educate our clients, and it’s usually worth the effort because they’re more likely to pay for future projects if they saw the value in past projects.Feeling very righteous and indignant, I fired back an email, explaining the extent to which my efforts had already exceeded the scope. Though I’m sure I couched my frustration in some softer language, I said, in effect, “How dare you!”We eventually got on the phone and talked it out, and the client did send a couple more small, low-budget projects my way over the next several years.But in retrospect, I can see that my touchiness in that moment probably cost me tens of thousands of dollars.Was I right? Yes. I didn’t owe the client a credit, and had in fact quietly been very generous with my time and expertise.You may have heard the old saw about marriage: “You can be right, or you can be happy.” I’d extend that to creatives and the businesses that we run.

You can be right, or you can prosper.

Now I’m not saying that you should roll over every time your clients complain. I’m saying that you should do everything in your power to keep your clients. The lifetime value of a relationship can easily be in the six-figure range. A single slip of the tongue or a few shortsighted keystrokes, can cost thus you and your business a significant sum of money.You may on occasion need to fire bad clients for the sake of your financial, mental, and emotional health. But think long and hard before you begin that process.Are you just as much to blame for the project that stalled out or blew up? Did you take the time to explain how the design process works or how there’s no such thing as perfect software?I know I have been the culprit.We creatives are a paradoxical crew. Our strength is our weakness.The very creative and critical faculties that enable us to do magic and conjure beautiful somethings out of nothing can make us unreceptive to criticism.Ego is a primary ingredient in creativity. In order to create, we must have the compelling desire to touch the world, mark it, and make it remember us.But when a client sends a stupid email or starts spitting blame, the Hulk comes out. He does not want to be gracious and reasonable. He wants to rage and destroy some stuff. He wants to make you very sorry you didn’t give him his way.The Hulk can be a big baby, and once I realize that razing a city might not be the best way to support my family, I take a deep breath and send a cordial reply to the email that set off the Green Guy—that is, if I'm smart.That’s the funny thing about creative work. You need your ego right up until the point where you ship everything off to the client. Then, you need to put your ego on the shelf next to your Seth Godin action figure.I’m guessing you have bigger goals than to always be right and get your way. I want to pay off my house early and spend time in New Zealand, Iceland, China, and the Holy Lands.Being right doesn’t pay for plane tickets.

Be easy to work with.

Trading your clients stuff for money isn’t what keeps them happy. That’s simple reciprocity. It is the grease of civilization, and is nothing special. No, it is creating a positive experience for your clients that will enable you to meet your financial and lifestyle goals.The stuff is just the by-product. Remember that.If you treat a project as a transaction, you will always compete based on price. Your work will be a McDonald’s hamburger.But if you develop a sense of showmanship and treat a project as a special dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant, then your burger becomes a Wagyu filet.The project’s perceived value, apart from time and materials, apart from stuff, is all fairy dust and packaging and, yes, your ability to roll with the punches.Have you ever opened a new Macbook Air? That’s what I mean. A pretty white box doesn’t increase screen resolution or the size of the hard drive. But unpacking the computer is a compelling aesthetic experience of itself.Be the thoughtful maitre’d, not the prickly artiste. Prickly things tend to live in deserts where resources are scarce.

being right

Photo Credit: Agustin Lautaro via Unsplash

If you’re difficult to work with, before, during, or after the actual project, then your personality will detract from the value of that quality. If you take every change request as a personal affront, then client work is going to be agony, my friend.A relatively minor misstep in your professionalism can cost you your reputation.

How well do you finish projects?

Many of the moments worth creating for your clients come at the very end of a project. You throw in a surprise for free. You create a few extra designs to leave them smiling. You mail them a t-shirt and a handwritten thank you note.Back in 2012, a contractor put a new roof on the house where my wife and I were living. What stands out in my memory is the scraps of metal flashing, tar paper, and wood in the front yard, the large piece of soffit hung up in the branches of the maple, and the roofing nails in the driveway.The last 2% of the project ruined the whole experience for me.Ask me about the roof, and I'll tell you the contractor did a shoddy job. Has the roof leaked? No. Does the roof look good from the street? Sure. Did my landlord get a good value for what he paid? I couldn't say.But I can say what I thought when I found that nail a few inches away from one of the tires on my wife's car:"Sloppy. Unprofessional. Lazy." (There may or may not have been some profanity mixed in.)Home Depot and Ace Hardware sell big magnets on poles for the sole purpose of cleaning up nails and other metal debris that can puncture a tire or a foot.If I knew this, why didn't the "professional" roofing contractor?

People remember the last 2% most vividly.

How do clients remember you? Would they use words like “sloppy,” “unprofessional”, or “lazy”? Would they say to a friend, “He got really defensive”?Or would they use words like "responsive,” “talented,” and fun"? Or just plain "Wow. I can't believe how thorough she was!”?High-quality work might help you attract clients. But professionalism and a winsome personality will help you to establish a brand and keep your clients.If you’re selling a product, people will leave as soon as they find a better price. If you’re selling a positive experience, then people will stay because they like you.

  • Value, not prices.
  • Experiences, not products.
  • Outcomes, not processes.

And the last 2% is what people remember most vividly.98% of what you do might be terrific, but most people remember only what happened at the very end.Push back when you must, but do so out of a genuine concern for the outcome. Put the Hulk on the shelf, and take down the pixie dust instead. Your smile may be forced at first. Be kind. Be polite. Grin and bear it.Being right won’t pay your bills. Being hard to offend will.There you have it.If you found value in this blog post, please sign up for my weekly newsletter. I’ll send helpful freelancing tips your way.