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By Linda Formichelli


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Force yourself to find clients who will jazz you. There's nothing like new, exhilarating projects to get your heart pumping again.

Are your client relationships what they used to be? Or have things between you and your clients… changed? Do you dread your next on-site visit? Your next flurry of phone calls? Your next contract negotiation? If so, don't get all mopey -- do something about it.

Make an honest examination of your IP life: take a good look at what you do, and the people you do it with, and change what must be changed. To get you started, here are six signs that your client relationships are on the rocks, and some practical advice about dealing with them.

1. You're Not Attracted to Him Anymore

You'll never forget those first few weeks with your client: the awkward, sweaty-palmed introduction; the sound of desperation in his voice when he called; the checks that let you know he was satisfied. But lately, traits you once found charming in your client have started to grate on you.

It may be time to see other people.

"Most IPs keep the same type of clients year after year, and all of a sudden they find themselves totally bored. It's no wonder they start to hate their work," says Jennifer White, business coach and author of Work Less, Make More.

Fantasy illustrator Craig Maher, whose stock-in-trade is painting chicks in chain mail, knows this feeling far too well. "You start off thinking that the industry is full of people who are into dreams and myth and self-expression, but after a while you start to think that they're all just a bunch of perverted assholes," he says.

If you're sick of dealing with "a bunch of perverted assholes," or other unsavory creatures, look for new kinds of clients. Bored with drawing barbarian babes? Try illustrating a kid's book. Tired of writing tech manuals? Write a short story, and then sell it. Remember, being an IP means that you choose the way you want to operate.

Author White agrees: "The best solution is to dramatically upgrade your business. Let the bottom 15% of your client base go -- those clients who don't pay well or whose projects are just plain dull -- and force yourself to find clients who will jazz you. There's nothing like new, exhilarating projects to get your heart pumping again."

2. You Have One Night Stands

Clients use you once -- and then disappear from the scene, leaving you to wonder how you failed to satisfy them. Your desperate calls go unanswered, and your letters go unread. Don't just sit there feeling cheap and sad -- figure out what went awry.

According to White, you probably made one of three mistakes:

  • You didn't complete high-quality work for the client. Obviously, producing inferior work is the number one no-no.

  • You didn't invest enough time in building a relationship with the client. Your clients need that emotional attachment that tells them you care. Start now by calling your clients to see how they're doing, and mail them occasional updates on your activities.

  • You didn't screen the prospect. Not everyone can afford a high-class babe like yourself, and not everyone is ready for a commitment. You may be collecting losers. Next time, do some research before getting involved.

How do you know which IP faux pas you're guilty of? Suck it up, pick up the phone, and call a few of your past flings. Ask them for the lowdown on your work and what you can do to improve your services.

3. You Always Fight About Money

If you're still eating mac-and-cheese from a box (the generic brand, yet), you're probably not getting all that you should out of your client relationships.

The solution to this one is easy: ask for more money. "You'd be amazed at how many people whom I coach simply ask for more money and get it," says White. "The problem is not with your clients not wanting to pay. The problem is that you're scared to ask for what you're worth. You must put this fear aside." (Of course, just asking is not a guarantee -- but your fear of asking must be overcome if you're serious about upping your income.)

To solve your financial problems, take the advice of the wise Susan Vaughn in her article Charge Your Clients More: give your clients reasonable notice before the new rates take effect, and don't apologize. Another tactic, called leapfrogging, is to raise your rates for new clients first. Once you have enough clients paying the new, higher rate, you can safely tell the old clients that you're upping the ante. If they refuse to pay, you can dump them without endangering your business.

4. He Treats You Like Dirt

Why do you put up with it? Why do you let your client push you into doing things you don't want to do, into agreeing to impossible deadlines, into making unpalatable changes in your contract? Have you no shame?

Independent consultant Marilyn Mobley used to have no shame. One of her clients asked her to develop an ad. Though she insisted that ads were not her forte, Mobley eventually backed down, hired an artist, and produced an ad. The client hated it. Finally, at Mobley's insistence, the client hired an ad agency to create an ad that he really liked. "Our relationship was never the same after that," Mobley says. "He seemed to question my counsel on just about everything. After five months, I resigned the account because I felt I was hurting my reputation. I should never have accepted the ad assignment. I tried to be what he wanted me to be, not what I am. Never again!"

The moral of the story? Stand your ground when your client asks you to do something you can't or don't want to do, or he may lose respect for you.

Do you get a little melancholy when you realize that the client you worked your heart out for isn't dousing you with words of love and appreciation? Snap out of it! You're not in that type of relationship. He's using you, and the only thing you should expect for your efforts is a wad of cash.  

5. He Never Says He Loves You

Do you get a little melancholy when you realize that the client you worked your heart out for isn't dousing you with words of love and appreciation?

Snap out of it! You're not in that type of relationship. He's using you, and the only thing you should expect for your efforts is a wad of cash. "IPs expect clients to give them the 'attaboys' or 'attagirls,'" says Linda Talley, author of Business Finesse: Dealing With Sticky Situations in the Workplace -- and more likely than not, it ain't gonna happen.

If you need to feel affirmed, don't turn to your clients. Instead, Talley suggests making a list of accomplishments at the end of the day -- whether it's finishing a project before deadline, backing up your files, or making a few cold calls -- then calling friends or family members who will provide you with the love and support you need.

And be happy that he never says "I love you" -- because it can be even worse if he does say it. "My biggest car dealer client just yesterday said, 'Come here and give me a bad girl hug so you won't forget me,'" says Marsha Koller, owner of the "virtual agency" MBK Marketing & Advertising. "God, I just looked at it as a $2,500 hug. Whoever said prostitution was a lowly business didn't know about advertising for car dealers."

6. He Doesn't Trust You

You tell him that you spent a lot of time with his project last night, but he accuses you of gallivanting around town on another client's expense account. You offer him heartfelt advice on an assignment, and he runs to someone else for a second opinion. If you can't win your client's trust, your business is doomed.

"I had a young client who would ask for my PR counsel, then call a friend of his at a PR firm who had far less experience than I did to ask if I was on the right track," says Mobley. "Sometimes the friend would suggest a different solution, in which case the client would call me and ask why I didn't suggest his friend's alternative."

Finally, Mobley did what all IPs need to do with an untrusting client: she gave him an ultimatum. "I told the client, 'You hired me because I know what I'm doing. If you've changed your mind and think your friend provides better counsel, then hire your friend,'" she says. "That was the last time he ever questioned my counsel."

There's always the chance that the client will call your bluff and look elsewhere, but don't worry -- you're better off without him.


So take heart, unhappy IPs, it's not as bad as you think. Expanding your client list, becoming more independent, and taking a stand for what you believe in can add some much-needed zing to your troubled business relationships.

June 26, 2000
Primary Editor: Ken Gordon
Illustrator: Steve Smallwood
Production: Fletcher Moore

We'd love to hear your comments about this article!

Linda Formichelli is a freelance writer who lives in Blackstone, Mass. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with her, or with any of the other IPs named in this article.


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