Columns by Eric J. Adams
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Dealing With Nightmare Clients
There are two kinds of IPs: those who have experienced nightmare clients and those who are going to experience nightmare clients. If it hasn't happened to you yet, it will sooner or later, guaranteed.
What makes a nightmare client so awful? Let me count the ways. This client can't make up his (and most certainly it can be a her) mind, and when he does it's unquestionably a terrible decision, until he changes his mind again, and makes a more disastrous choice, blaming you or others, naturally, when things go wrong. Then when you save the day through a tremendous effort and sheer brilliance, he decides to take all the credit.
This guy may have retained you for the slightest of jobs, but, rest assured, the agreed-upon price will not even come close to compensating you for your time and energy. He has a way of becoming your dominant client, if not in terms of workload or pay, then certainly in terms of precious psychic energy.
Your rotten client doesn't care that you have other clients. He will call you frequently for the silliest reasons or no reason at all. You may be in a crucial meeting with your most important or lucrative client. Somehow, he will have a way of interrupting, if not by way of the many telecommunications devices you'll learn to shut off, then certainly via telepathic transmission of annoying thoughts designed to throw off your concentration and timing.
Even if he was once meek and mild, the knowledge that he represents a major part of your life becomes intoxicating and emboldens him to intensify his unreasonable demands. He will ask you to do increasingly outrageous things that conflict with your professionalism and common sense.
The nightmare client is narcissistic and self-absorbed, paranoid and passive-aggressive, relentless and cruel, and he will shake your confidence to the core. He will prompt you to question your values and goals, reassess your self-worth, and trigger within you an urge to get a "real job" or move to another state -- anything to regain your sanity.
Okay, so I'm exaggerating just a bit, but you get the picture. So what can you do? There are some solutions, though none of them perfect; after all, this is your nightmare client.
1. Blow him off. That's right, you can say adios anytime -- for any reason. You're an independent professional! You became an IP to rid yourself from oppressive bosses and untenable situations. (As Lawrence San reminds us, IPs should be Always Ready to Walk.) If it comes down to a choice between your mental health and your nightmare client, choose the former and you'll be a better person for it, maybe not richer, but certainly happier.
But, here's the caveat, before you do cut the cord, be certain of a few things. First, be sure there's absolutely no way to fix the situation by the methods listed below or other creative ways. Second, take a deep, excruciating look within yourself to see if the problem or prejudice lies within. If your situation is unsalvageable, and you are truly not at fault, drop that nightmare client and get on with your life.
2. Train him. If you are a parent, you know that the best way to gently sculpt a reasonable human being out of a wild child is by picking your battles carefully. You'll never turn the nightmare client into a sweetheart, but you can make him tolerable by identifying one or two of his most atrocious behaviors and working like the dickens to change them.
Does he phone ten times a day? Let him know that you'll have to bill extra for the additional time, or, better yet, wait a day or two before returning calls. Does he ask you to do extra work? Decline until the requests become reasonable. It very well may be that no one has had the gumption to stand up to him previously, and who knows, he actually might admire you for it.
This sort of on-the-job training may cost you a bit of effort, but when it works, it is a very good investment.
3. Restructure the deal. Gather all your courage, place a phone call without a hint of doubt in your voice, and demand an increase in your fee or other stipulations that will alleviate the pain or compensate you squarely. Be truthful, courteous, and, above all, immutable. If you're ready to walk and you capitulate, there's no hope for your soul. It's forevermore in possession of this agent of the devil.
4. Deal with it. There are, in fact, some times when you're going to want to keep your nightmare client. It may be the grand amounts of money you're getting, or it may be the client's prestige, but some clients are too stubborn to change, too inflexible to negotiate with, and... unfortunately... too valuable to dump. In these rare cases, you will simply have to tough it out.
If this is the case, remember that others have been through greater ordeals, and dealt with more monstrous people -- so just grin and bear it. If you need a method of coping, simply circle the last day of the gig on your calendar and mark off every day until then.
Whatever you do, don't let your nightmare client get the best of you. Keep your winning smile and your professional attitude. Remember: this, too, shall pass. And when it does, you'll be a better person for it.
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