The Happy Studio – Conflict. When it happens- and it will.
It’s unavoidable. We work in a field where you have to fight for what you believe in. Conflict is part of the job. Finding careful, and complimentary ways of saying “no” feels like a recurring calendar event. This is more than a service industry, it’s a creative service industry, which makes it more perilous. It can get you down if you let it. We’ve evolved some ways of coping with conflict. Some of them through good advice, some through trial and error- most of them out of pure necessity.
Some clients feel like they need to beat you up a bit to feel like they got their money’s worth. It’s not right, but it’s a fact. The first, and most important thing you can have is a thick skin. When a client singes your eyebrows in a meeting, learn to absorb it as best you can. A healthy dose of self confidence will help more than anything. If you know the work you are doing is great, you can get through a lot of tough conversations. If you walk into every meeting knowing where you stand, why you did what you did, and how you earn your money, you’ll avoid a lot of bruised egos. Try very hard to make every client your friend- but remember that you’re being paid to do a service. You might forget about the money in your fervor to make a great project- the client won’t.
So you got beat up a bit in a meeting. They had the usual laundry list of complaints (logo bigger, etc.). You stayed up late, went over budget, crashed a computer, and still made a miracle only to have it dumped on. The client is not spending money to be sympathetic. They hired you to do a job, and if you didn’t want to do it, you should have said “no.” Realizing that you can say “no” when you don’t want to do a project is the most liberating tool you have in your belt. It helps you take ownership of this process that we call graphic design. It’s not fine art. Your brochure will not hang above someone’s couch. It’s art made for hire. If you can adjust your thinking, you can bounce back much faster.
Once things are off-track, you better keep your mouth shut. Your job is to not let them get off-track in the first place. In the heat of a meeting, sometimes you want to bite your tongue. It’s uncomfortable to speak up and re-route the conversation, or tell someone they’re wrong. Think about it, though- would you rather have an uncomfortable 5 minutes, or spend the next week working on a project that you don’t believe in, and that could lead to a lost client? You don’t think it’s that serious of a decision? The client might want to have their voice heard in the project. Everyone likes to feed their ego. But in the end, they’re paying you for results. If the results don’t happen, they’ll find someone else to do their work. Period. It won’t matter how much butter you rubbed on them to placate their badly formed ideas if the campaign doesn’t work.
Have a Support System
It’s tough out there. You better have a support system that works. Despite what you see on Mad Men, heavy drinking is not the best answer. Find a good gym, a copy of Wii Fit, a willing listener, or a hobby. Keeping your energy bottled up might mean you lose your cool with a client who’s only barely pushed your buttons. Sometimes an unsent email is more therapeutic than you can imagine.
A Team Effort
Coworkers are a great resource for blowing off client steam. They’ve been through it, and they can relate. Don’t be afraid to share the story-just save everyone the drama. The last thing you want is for your staff to start resenting the client.
Once some time has passed, and you have some perspective, write about the conflict. Try to condense it down to a knowable nugget. Don’t use your blog to get back at you client, or to poke fun at them. Never mention names, but put the story out there. If you write a thoughtful article, the client that instigated it could read it without even knowing it’s about them. Telling the story is therapeutic, and it also sets an expectation from your audience of clients about how you prefer to be worked with.
If You Let Them, Bullies Will Monopolize Your Time
A few months ago, we fired one of our most long standing clients. He was a friend, and doing work for his company was a great source of pride for our us. There were a number of reasons why it was time for both of us to move on, but the biggest was that we hadn’t redefined our relationship. Both of our companies had grown many times over since we started working together, and yet we were still charging low rates, and he was still treating us like he was our biggest client. It was a bad relationship for us in our workflow, and in our portfolio. Every time he called it was like a fire drill. We simply weren’t able to do our best work when we were under such tight deadlines, and poor budgets. He monopolized our time because we weren’t firm enough about our boundaries. There were no ramifications for his disorganization, or indecision. Anyone of us would turn into a little Caligula if we were allowed to do so without consequence. It was more our fault than his. We’re both better off for having made the split. We’ll have more time to concentrate on the projects that bring us the most money and joy, and he’ll have someone brand new to do dial-up fire drills with.