• Advice

Is the customer really always right?

As a customer, I love the old adage, “The customer is always right.” As a freelancer, I am not as enamored with it. In fact, I find that if one is not careful, this can create contentious relationships and lead to unrealistic expectations.

When I first started, a woman reached out to me to inquire about my ghostwriting services. She was a first-time author who wanted to capture her life story in a memoir. We had a delightful phone conversation and I was ready to close the deal. As we began to wrap up, she said, “Now, can you guarantee me that my book will be a New York Time’s Best Seller?”

My words came out of my mouth before I could censor them, “Absolutely not and if someone makes you that promise, you need to run. Run like Forrest Gump!”

I never heard from her again and to be honest, it was probably for the best. Can you imagine the roller coaster ride that we would have embarked upon if she went into the writing process with that demand? Now, I am not advocating that you walk away from business, but I am a strong proponent of maintaining your emotional, spiritual, creative, and intellectual well-being.

And let’s be brutally honest, some clients can be difficult, especially if they have unrealistic expectations about your work. And as my late father used to say, “All money is not good money.”

And that can lead to a conundrum for those of us who freelance. How do you determine if a project is going to be worth it? Do you walk away from a great opportunity simply because it may require a little extra energy, more diplomacy, or even greater patience and charm?

I have found that the key is communicating with my clients at the very beginning before contracts have been signed and tasks have been performed. Before taking any writing or editing job, I ask my clients to clearly express their goals for the project at hand. Sometimes these goals are straightforward and easily conveyable; in other instances, even the client isn’t sure what she is asking of me. In those cases, we brainstorm together and I capture everything in writing. The same language is then ported over into the contract.

Although this process takes time, it provides the freelancer with a chance to make sure that the expectations are clear and everyone is on the same page. It also allows you to determine if a project is feasible or if you have the capacity to do it.

But let me forewarn you that even with all of the precautions in the world, you will still encounter clients who may make unrealistic demands or complain about the quality or caliber of your work.

I had another first-time author who was quite young and excitable. I explained to him the editing process that I use. Everything was spelled out and documented. Each step of the way, he was looped in and asked to sign off on the changes that I made. However, when it was time to sign off on the final proof of his book galley, he generated a list of things that he wanted me to tweak.

My first inclination was to send him a long trail of emails with highlights of my confirming that he was satisfied with the progression of the project. Then I thought about sending him the contract. Legally, I had fulfilled our contractual obligation as spelled out in the terms that he agreed upon and signed off on.

Making the changes that he was asking for would require additional time. When I indicated that there would be an additional fee, he confessed that he had not read all of my correspondences carefully. He apologized profusely. This was his first book. He was new to all of this.

I thought deeply about what I should do next. Even when running a business, there has to be some room for grace. Billy Joel once sang, “You’re only human. You’re allowed to make your share of mistakes.”

We are only human and so are our clients. There are occasions, like with this young man, where we have to decide if being right is worth it. In this case, I simply made the corrections he asked for and I didn’t charge him. He was happy. But, he wasn’t right.

Tyra Seldon Tyra Seldon is a former English Professor turned writer, editor and small business owner. Her writing addresses the intersections of race, gender, culture and education.