Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Poor planning on your part..."

Say it with me: "...doesn't constitute an emergency on my part."

If you've spent any time in a corporate environment, you've known someone with that saying tacked to their office wall. It's usually (though not always) a signal of a person who's out the door at 5 p.m. on the spot, and not likely to pitch in when things go sideways.

The successful freelancer can't afford to adopt such a poisonous customer service attitude, unless you don't want to eat and/or have any client loyalty. The key is to de-escalate whatever you can. For the past week, I've dealt with a number of emergency projects; my general guiding principles can be summarized thusly:
  • Find out what the true problem and key components are—sometimes the client is not communicating clearly in the panic.
  • Uncover what the client thinks he or she needs—right now, you're just listening; don't talk solutions yet.
  • What's the timeline and deadline?—ask for specifics, don't settle for "OMG ASAP!!!!"
  • If the solution is easy, present your idea immediately. 
  • If the solution requires more thought, say you'll get back to them in a half-hour with a couple of ideas.
Now it's time to consider your own situation: Is this a long-term client or a client with long-term potential? Do you have any pressing deadlines that you need to manage? Do you have a couple of different ideas on how to accomplish what the client needs? Are there other resources you could draw upon to help you out? What is the simplest, fastest way to put out the fire?

Ultimately, if you feel the need to tape a sign to your wall, it should be "My loyal clients are worth my 100% support in a crisis. It will pay off in the future." 

All that said, if you have...
  • a task that is truly, objectively impossible given the time and resources, say so as soon as you realize it; i.e., don't start something that you know has no way of succeeding.
  • a Client Who Cried Emergency on your hands, i.e., someone who *never, ever* has a plan, you need to do a better job of guiding them...or you might be better off parting ways.
  • a client whose *first* job is a five-alarm emergency, the universe has kindly given you a glimpse into the future. Plan accordingly.


  1. I hate clients that are always pulling the "emergency" card. I don't think they're always telling the truth!

  2. Great points, Jake! I've personally found that so often, those "emergency" projects don't actually take that long. It's more about mindset. And it's amazing how much clients appreciate quick turnaround on something that might take you less than an hour. You're right — it builds loyalty. I'm surprised by how shocked clients are when I say, "No problem." Being an unflappable copywriter goes a long way.

    Good post.

  3. @Anon, that's a whole different kettle of fish. Might want to have a heart-to-heart conversation with those types of clients and how you can do a better job with more lead time. Then again, you can always cut 'em lose.

    @Stephanie--Yes, "unflappable"! And you're absolutely correct about the mindset of it. If you can keep your wits about you and deliver, that client will surely remember you.

  4. Brilliant. I've delivered on what I was told were emergencies, only to watch them sit on someone's desk for 2 days. I don't mind coming through in a pinch, but I don't care to rush and postpone my own stuff when the "emergency" turns out to only be someone's histrionic style.

    The worst thing is when you do realize there isn't enough time to pull it off. You're right in that saying it ASAP is the way to go but I always get a pit in my stomach just the same. I feel like I should be able to do "anything" which is just ridiculous, of course.

  5. Hey Valerie, thanks for chiming in. It can be agonizing to admit that something can't be done. I had it happen this week, in fact, and what I did was suggest a halfway solution that WAS possible--which the client immediately said "Yes!" to.

  6. This is a great post, Jake. You made several excellent points.

    First and foremost, our goal is always to meet the need of the client, if possible. Second, the more excited or upset a client becomes, the more calm we have to be in order to serve as a balancing and reassuring force. Third, it is critical, as you pointed out, to determine which people are high maintenance.

    Some people are always in crisis mode. They are very demanding and want everything done yesterday. Other people have legitimate difficulties and have reached roadblocks that they can't surmount.

    Personally, although I understand and respect the dilemma of crisis-ridden clients, I try to limit my work with them. It's just too draining. But ordinarily, I find most people easy to work with, once I find out exactly what it is that they need.

    Thanks for the great advice. Sigrid

  7. Hey there, Sigrid--thanks for your comment. In particular, your penultimate sentence is right on target!