Friday, June 02, 2006

Growing up is hard to do

One of the most useful books I’ve ever read is Eric Berne’s Games People Play. I read it in 1968 and I’m going from memory here. Plus I never took a single course in psychology. So please forgive me if I mangle this a bit. But the book is an explication for the layperson of transactional analysis, Berne’s theory of personality. He described us as having three personae, the child, the parent, and the adult, as components of our personalities. I think these correspond, roughly, to Freud’s id, ego, and superego, respectively; but I’m sure anyone with training in the field would by horrified by that comparison. The games of the book title are the transactions that occur between people when one individual’s active persona is not matched with the other individual’s active persona. For example, if your inner child reacts to my inner parent, our transaction follows a different story arc than if we interact as adults. The adult–adult relationship is the gold standard (for adults, anyway), because it is straightforward and mutually respectful.

The reason I bring all this up is to talk about the relationship between consultant (me) and client (you). Actually, that isn’t true. I’m addressing this post to other freelance professionals who have troubled relationships with their clients. I generally do okay in this regard, although I admit it took me a long time to grow up. But I see, from what other freelances post on mailing lists, that a lot of them, especially the younger ones, could do with a bit of gentle coaching.

The specific incident leading to this essay is an exchange on such a mailing list. Here is the question that arose, stripped to its essentials: The client engages the freelance to do a job. Both parties assume at the outset that their respective computers can communicate with each other for the exchange of files. Once the job begins, it becomes apparent that, to facilitate file exchange, the client should download and install a free software utility. The question raised is whether this is an unfair imposition on the client.

One poster, imagining herself in the role of the client, said, “Still, if I were hiring someone to do editing for me, I wouldn’t want to have to make the effort of downloading software. If the freelancer downloaded it, put it on a disk, and sent it to me, I might be willing to install it. I think it’s fine to ask the freelancer to install some software if they want the job. I just felt it wasn’t right to expect the client to install them.”

Here is how I responded:
Perhaps you would like the freelance to fly to your city, rent a car, drive to your house, and install it for you, as well, all at no cost to you. I’m sorry, but the relationship between editor and client is a business relationship. Both parties are interested in getting the job done; both parties have some responsibility to overcome random obstacles. I don’t think asking a client to follow a simple procedure to download and install a free utility is overly burdensome.

As freelance consultants we are not servants to our clients. If you put yourself in that position relative to your client, the client will devalue your services, impose on your time for favors, pay slowly or short, and generally treat you like a bathmat. Make it an adult–adult relationship, not a parent–child relationship. In an adult–adult relationship, you, as the freelance, are empowered to help the client behave in a less entitled manner. Try it. You’ll like it.
What do you think? Am I being too harsh on my fellow freelances? Am I shattering the preconceptions of my potential clients? Do you feel entitled, as a potential client, to treat consultants as servants? If you are the sort of person who yells humiliating insults at servers in restaurants, I really would rather not work with you. If that is a problem for you, the help you need is well beyond what my credentials allow me to provide. Harrumph!


Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Harsh? Not at all. You gave excellent advice.

Anonymous said...

I think the advice is good, generally. But I also think the professional has the responsibility to keep his/her equipment current and serviceable for client needs. I use a PC, for example, when I'd rather use a Mac, because 98% of my clients are on PCs and the other 2% know they're going to run into jams that are not my fault. If one is going to hang out one's shingle, one should be prepared to get the equipment required. Working on a Mac but then expecting PC clients to adjust to your eccentricity in zipping files, etc. is really not the same as flying to the client's city, etc. and so forth.

Anonymous said...

Love it!


Anonymous said...

Amen, brother! I'm new to freelancing, and I certainly want to be treated as an equal, not a slave. Problem is, companies are made up of individuals, who have been trained to expect the world from service providers. If a client doesn't want to treat me as an adult, they can hire a child instead.

editrx said...

Excellent post! I have a current client who poses unusual challenges in the adult-child relationship, which I keep pushing back into the adult-adult mold: he's from Nigeria, where anyone providing a service does all but grovel. Today he called all the way from England in response to an email where I broke down the pricing for a new project, which will be higher than a previous one (as it's twice as long), and he said, "I was hurt by your email. It's as if you don't need my business," and talked to me like a child-servant. I pointed out that, indeed, at the price he wanted, I couldn't afford to keep his business, and that I work as a professional consultant, not in a servant relationship -- that business in this hemisphere is perhaps different than what he's used to. I suspect this client won't last long, and I think I know why he has gone through at least three previous consultants/freelancers.

Your post, and email on the list, was timely for me. Thank you for putting down what I've been saying for years. (And why I quit an abusive, 16-year-old job as a production manager under a publisher who regularly called me screaming obscenities and telling me that a trained monkey could do my job. I doubt he's found that trained monkey by now. I looked at some of their recent books in the store yesterday -- terrible quality now!)

Dick Margulis said...


I've had my share of abusive bosses like the one you describe. I couldn't have lasted sixteen years in that situation. Oh, wait. I take that back. My first marriage did last longer than that by a little bit.

But bullies like you're talking about had trouble with the fact that they couldn't make me cower no matter how loudly they yelled; so they invariably ended up firing me.