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When a Client is Mad at You Because Their Personal Thing Isn’t Your Personal Thing

Writers work on all sorts of projects for clients – advertising copy, press releases, romance novels…

Most of the time, these projects aren’t close to the client’s heart. They’re necessary for business or marketing, but they’re not excessively wrapped up with the client’s life and emotions.

Once in a while, though, clients make a personal request – sometimes overly, uncomfortably personal. Dating site bios, pleas to get into a student’s top choice college, letters to banks begging for more time to pay the mortgage.

Those projects are more personal, but only to the client. To the writer, it’s still a job: words that have to turn into sentences that require a format, etc. Also, these assignments don’t become strong client relationships. Even if you become the client’s “personal stuff” writer, how often does that personal stuff come along? Not often, if ever again. 

This type of client feels that their importance is your importance. You’re approached with a sort of “we’re in this together” attitude. The expectation is that you’ll accept the project at any cost, literally and figuratively

When a longstanding client of mine asked me to write a letter that went in-depth about a medical issue he’s ashamed of, I felt that the best response was a professional one. He was obviously uncomfortable with having me do this in the first place, and I thought I was doing him a favor by not drawing more attention to it than necessary. Keeping my distance caused him to abruptly pull the assignment, though. He had wanted me to straddle a line between “don’t make me uncomfortable about this” and “this should be as important to you as it is to me” that I just couldn’t straddle. I couldn’t rearrange my schedule to get it done before my normal turn-around time; I couldn’t give him a price break because the information was difficult for him to share; and I wouldn’t pretend we had a closer relationship than we had simply because he was trusting me with sensitive information 

Boundaries are still important, even when you’re dealing with a topic that makes your client well up with tears. To continue valuing and respecting your clients, you have to keep your distance. Getting wrapped up in a dramatic situation in a way that evokes your emotions or drains your energy means you can’t move forward with a clear head. When it comes to your own work, passion is a phenomenal motivator. But when it comes to helping another person with their priority, clearheadedness and pragmatism serve both of you.

You may also be feeling that thing we’re not supposed to feel: do it yourself. If it’s so important, personal and time-sensitive, and if you’re upset that I’m not as emotionally invested in it as you are, do it yourselfEvery time a mother sends me a frantic email because her child is about to miss a deadline for an admissions essay, college paper or letter of recommendation, I think, “Just do it yourself.”

We have to keep a safe distance from our clients and projects to move forward. Personal assignments are important, and many of them are confidential. They need lucidity, which is probably why the person closest to the issue can’t write about it themselves. Our boundaries, processes and workflows don’t fall away because a client has an urgent need, though. Putting yourself first will always result in better work. You’ll turn out focused, polished writing, and you’ll move through your workdays surrounded by better energy than if you had to carry another person’s stress on your shoulders.

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Spoiler Alert: Your Clients Don’t Care About You

how to work with clients
how to work with clients

When you care about your career, and by extension, your clients, you want to make them happy. You want them to keep coming back so you can keep getting paid. And you want them to like you – most people want to be liked. 

So you work for it. You worry about it. You toil and stress and move your own life obligations to meet their needs. You fret over something inconsequential. You lower your expectations while subconsciously raising theirs. You make it a whole thing. You put so much into that one client that the stress practically has its own heartbeat.

Then something happens. They cut their budget. They give you feedback that spits in the face of what you’ve been writing for them for a year (If you didn’t like how I do that, why didn’t you say something 25 articles ago?). They cancel the monthly orders they promised you. They do something that says, “I’m not overly concerned with you.”

All of that pressure was for nothing. Yes, you were paid for your work, you have new clippings for your portfolio. But you didn’t get commitment, dedication, longevity. You didn’t get nearly enough to repay you for how much agony you put into them.

It’s not about the work. The work fits into a box. You know what the project is before you start. You charge for it, you do it within your time limit, you send it off, you put a lid on it.

The real output isn’t the work itself. It’s the time and weight of thinking about it all. How you could be disappointing them. If you’re what they need. Where you’re going wrong. What will happen if you lose them.

Your clients don’t think about you like that, though. They don’t care about you in the same way. 

You can see it every time they don’t read an entire email – they only respond to part of what you ask, and you have to send a followup note to get clarity on the rest. You can see it when they forget they had a meeting with you, when you call and they don’t answer because it slipped their mind. You can see it when they pay their invoice two weeks later than promised or when they don’t bother to say, “Hey, this is great!” but instead randomly mention how good of a job you did when you talk to them a year later.

They’re not stressed over you. To them, this is a service – they’re no more strained than you are when you walk into a clothing store and casually ignore the person folding the jeans as they ask if you need help with anything, or when you return those jeans because you simply changed your mind.

What type of energy should go into them, then? After all, you do need clients, happy ones, if you’re going to pay your bills. 

There’s a type of effort that won’t suck you dry, give you a headache, leave you with an eye twitch. Be the one who’s responsible and professional. Get all of the information you need so you’re armed with the tools to do the project well. Put your head down and work. Send it in on time. Follow up with an email asking if they’re happy with the result.

Do your part. Don’t do theirs. 

Your commitment is to the bigger picture, the notion of supporting yourself, making a living by writing (or whatever your craft may be), having the type of flexible schedule that lets you design your days. The commitment is not to a loop of stress and worry and concern.

You can love your clients and set these boundaries. I love some of my clients. I’m happy to listen to their personal and professional struggles, to make life easier for them so long as it doesn’t make my life harder. When you work for yourself, it’s almost impossible to not wrap emotions up in it all. But when you’re confident that you’re doing things correctly – and if you fix them when you’re not – you can let the dread and tension drop away, no matter how your clients behave.