For years I thought I was alone. I thought I was the only one who had what seemed to be an endless list of IT related challenges to solve for my friends and family. In December 2009, The Oatmeal produced two comics that I couldn’t relate to more: How a Web Design goes straight to Hell and the even more apt Why it’s Better to Pretend you Don’t Know Anything about Computers.
Although I found them funny, there was a small part of me that really didn’t. I had lived those comical moments myself and, from my experience, hated them.
However, I have realised that living some of these experiences has helped me shape the way I think about my clients and what they want. I do this by thinking of my friends and family as clients when they ask me for advice. I’ll now give you a few examples of some experiences I have had and how it translates to how I work today. For this post, all references to friends and family will be “the client” or “clients”.
Some Background in 5 Sentences
I have been brought up with computers in the house. I first used a PC when I was 13 and built it myself without any prior knowledge of how to do so. I bought myself a 33.6kb modem with money I made building computers for my clients and joined AOL with that CD everyone got in the post. Within a year, my knowledge of IT was wide – from building computers, fixing most issues Windows 95 could throw at me; and unconsciously teaching myself to code, design and do SEO. This was great, but the more clients knew about this varied knowledge, the more they began to ask questions, and favours…
The “Machine Gun Tasks”
Machine Gun tasks usually occur when the client has a deadline within the next month when, as far as you’ve been told there is no specific deadline. Before the Machine Gun you’ll receive an email with a small low priority request with no stressful tone, nor any reference to a deadline. You finish the task within reasonable time and respond to confirm completion. A week passes… and the Machine Gun fires. You will receive one email with a thank you followed by another 3 hours later with a new request. The email is limited in detail and needs a 4 day turnaround. You complete the task early in the evening.
Sorry Alex – you think you’re evening is over? The next week will involve at least 10 tasks that will total around 15 hours work – at night. The deadline is so important that when it passes and you complete everything on time you’ll never receive a thank you.
Lesson: Your client may not tell you about important dates in their company’s calendar. It may involve a deadline that you find out about at the last minute, or an announcement or press release that you found out about from an external source. You’re going to have to do a lot of work and you’re not going to like it at the time but bite the lip – it’ll pay off and, if your work is trackable, be able to prove that the hard work you did counted towards a KPI.
A tip here is to try to minimise this by either asking for access to any public calendar the business may have and subscribe to it – or at least obtain a list of important dates and deadlines. Not only does this prepare you for these dates but it also provides evidence of being given these dates with plenty of notice.
The 7 Year Gap
Client asks you to build a computer – you build it. Fast forward [more than or equal to 4] years and the client wonders why their computer died. All their files since day one may have gone, with no backup (of course). For some reason I cannot buy a coat, wear it until it develops holes, and return it years later – but I am now obligated to deal with this. I look at the computer and meet the blue screen of death – it’s beyond repair. It was a slow and painful death. However, it lived a long life and it was time for the Client to buy a new computer. I could still salvage old files but no settings. This was not good enough – they wanted the old computer back to normal and didn’t want to spend money on a new computer.
Lesson: Hardware evolves, software evolves, code evolves and algorithms evolve. A website developed 5 years ago may be hell-onsite-earth. It may run on a CMS still popular today, but if it was hard coded by a freelancer that decided to move to Spain and stop building websites then there’s not much you can work with. Use your Geek-to-English dictionary and explain that what they want is like trying to insert a cassette into a CD player – use Spotify Premium instead. You’ll have to spend more but it will bring you more ROI.
The Really Really Small Tiny GIGANTIC Request
What the Client says: I want a 5 page website for £500 (random figure). I’m not too fussed about the design so long as it looks good.
What the Client means: I want a website with 5 static pages – home, contact us etc etc. The other 10,000 pages will be populated in a file that my developer will send to you repeatedly in the wrong format 3 days after he was supposed to. It will also have to connect to our unbranded bespoke CRM system. I will also have very specific, very unusual design requests that I will change my mind on as soon as you spend 3 hours making that change. You agreed to £500, and I’ll still be somewhat unsatisfied at the end.
Lesson: Make a spec. Agree to the spec. Take a picture of you and your client holding a printout of the spec in one hand and today’s newspaper in the other. Refer only to that spec. If the spec evolves, work increases and therefore the price increases.
Dealing with Dee Dee from Dexter’s Lab
If you’re not familiar with Dexter’s Laboratory, this 20 second clip covers Dee Dee’s character perfectly:
I produced a small website for the client. Without researching or having any prior knowledge into the issue, the client decides to try and fix “a design issue” themselves and does not contact me before the attempt. Drama ensues as the website goes down. This now turns into a Sherlock Holmes mystery – find the issue caused by the client and then make the edit to move one DIV container 20px to the right.
Lesson: Do not give a client more access to a live environment than they need to have – even if the client tells you how good or responsible they are.
It’s just after 7pm and I’m about to tuck into a lovely meal prepared by my wife. Three bites in and I hear a knock at the door. The client enters with a laptop and notes – notes with too many arrows and squares. The client notices a plate full of food on the table as I hold my cutlery. Conversation was short: “I’m in the middle of eating” – “That’s ok. I’ll wait”. This client was shown the door and my food was still warm.
Lesson: Don’t actually show your client the door – this was someone I felt comfortable being particularly blunt to. Firstly, save all your clients’ phone numbers in your phone so you know who it is before you answer (I used to forget to do this). If you receive a call on a Sunday evening answer it as it may be urgent, but ensure you don’t become the guy who has to take remedial calls outside of office hours.
Do not be a Yes Man
I’m sure we’ve all heard this before: “Hey, you work with computers, you’ll be able to help me with [insert random and varied IT problem]”. When I was a teenager I was happy to help – if anything I was learning from all this experience. However, this became more of a chore and didn’t want to sound rude to say no. I would solve issues from HTML and web design to hardware problems and even wiring up entertainment systems.
More recently I have been more blunt. Whenever a client asks me something where resource is usually available I tell them to simply search on Google. One request I was asked recently was how to add images to WordPress posts. My reply was short: “click here for the answer”. I realised that some clients relied on me so much that they will write an email asking a question without researching the answer themselves. The client is now in a state of arrested development as they will use me as their source of information rather than teaching themselves. This, to me, is the same as cheating in an exam.
Lesson: Early on in a client relationship you may agree to a lot of things that you shouldn’t – or at least leave your availability open to more than you should. Think about it before you do. Setting expectations from the outset is paramount for a healthy ongoing relationship rather than delivering promises or guarantees you know you can’t deliver on without it affecting your time. Someone with a tight budget should expect less than someone willing to invest more substantial sums to Search. Someone just entering a highly competitive SERP space with £500pcm is not going to win against your competitor’s dedicated in-house team of 15. This is an extreme example, but the client has to be told that they either can’t rank for that short tail term they dream of, but helping them achieve more realistic goals will secure their confidence for a longer relationship.
Experience isn’t just about how to do your job, it’s also about how to deal with Clients. If you start out you may be inclined to deliver more for your Client than the average company might. That’s fine, but remember that you may be sometimes put into a Catch 22 situation when it comes to resource vs spend, especially when your spend is small and the client’s budget is small. There are different solutions to different service levels and that needs to be controlled.