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The Unconventional Guide to Work

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So, Your Client Wants Some Free Advice – What Do You Do?

The meeting ends on a high, smiles dangle from ears, you’re feeling an euphoric “hurrah!” ready to erupt, any minute now. But, wait. The client is taking out a black folder to show you something, instead of standing up to leave. You watch, as if in slow motion, as they open their mouth. And the question that comes out makes your heart sink: “You know, if you’ve got a minute, it would be really great to your thoughts on this…”

You nod graciously, pushing the other things on your schedule out of mind. What’s the harm in an innocent request after all? We’re all friends here, on the same side, working for the same goals, right?

Wrong.

That innocuous “minute” ends up taking an hour of your day as you give your opinion on something that is clearly not within the scope of this project phase. And that tiny (however reluctant) "yes" is the start of a vicious circle.

Whatever your role in the business – be it as a project manager, a business owner or employee, you have to value your time and your colleagues' or employees'. And whether you charge by project or based on billable hours, time is money. Think about it this way: would a lawyer do an hour of free legal work? Or an accountant for that matter? In the creative industry the line unfortunately becomes a little more blurred. While larger agencies may have the luxury of putting their foot down on “free advice” or “free work” requests, small businesses still struggle to say no. So what should you do?

Tip 1: Identify if it’s a recurring pattern

“I encourage people to remember that "no" is a complete sentence” – Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear

Ask yourself if this request a one-off, or is it happening more frequently than you would like? Whether it’s across the majority of your clients, certain categories of clients or just the same client again and again, you need to know! And if you’re not sure, here are some of the signs you should be aware of that your client wants you to work for free.

Tip 2: Establish ways of working

“There’s a place in my life for mystery and ambiguity, but in my professional life I’m obsessed with clarity...” – Adrian Shaughnessy, Graphic Designer & Writer

While this step should really be done at the start of any project, before you embark on a relationship with your client, if it’s been overlooked you can come back to it at any point of the process. When I worked at a creative agency, halfway through a major project with a client we had for years, we had to pull back and do a presentation on “better briefing techniques” – needless to say it was an eye opener for both the agency and the client. But getting the problem out in the open was extremely helpful going forward.

Similarly, you'll find a lot of problems can be ironed out by better communication and frankly discussing the issue out in the open. Do you feel like you’re being taken for granted? Is this interfering with your other work and potentially affecting your relationship altogether? Take the client out for a coffee or a fancy meal and explain what’s going on – they might not realise what they’re doing until you let them know.

You can find out more about implementing a comprehensive client onboarding process on our blog.

Tip 3: Use an online project management system

A complete end-to-end job management software like WorkflowMax will help you gain visibility over all your projects, especially with regards to helping you track your time against projects. You’ll know where you’re over-running, and be mindful of every phase of a project. You can add notes and information against jobs – for example, how many revisions were actually agreed in Phase 2 and are you being asked to do more? The client has access to this as well so you’ll be able to back yourself on what you agreed.

Tip 4: Take your time

Sometimes requests are just that – requests put out there hopefully. Before you jump into doing a round of revision because the client asked, take a moment to consider the request and re-examine the work. Does the client have a valid point? Are they providing feedback “for the sake of it” just to feel useful? Can you justify the extra time you’ll spend making some tweaks?

Don’t jump to the worst conclusion either – the client may not be familiar with what a "round of revision" actually is. Having a brief, clearly defined milestones and project deliverables can help mitigate this “back and forth”. Ask when you’re able to send  them a revised quote to include the “extra” work just completed, making it clear that you expect to be paid and you’re in control.  

Tip 5: Exercise your judgement

At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong answer as to whether you should work for free. Some situations may require you to use your discretion but equally in other case you need to respect yourself enough to say no. Should I Work For Free is an awesome little tool you can use in situations like this, designed by the amazingly talented Jessica Hirsche.

Bonus Tip: Know what kind of client relationship you want

Ideally you want to work with great clients and for the long-term. But if they can’t give you respect, they might not deserve your time in the first place. Read on to know whether it’s time to divorce your clients.


So there you have it: 5 + 1 tips on how to handle when clients ask you for free advice! Do you have any tips that have worked for you?


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