Not-so-happily ever after

March 10, 2010

We all love to talk about our most fabulous clients — the ones where everything clicked, where the stars aligned and the heavens opened and sun flooded down and everything was right with the world. Every time you propose an idea, they happen to email you at the exact same moment with the same idea! It’s like working with your muse, your best friend, your brother-from-another-profession. I call these the “happily ever after” clients. It’s likely that they’ll send you lots of referrals and talk you up to their clients and send you work on an ongoing basis. Awesome! The upper echelon of self-employment bliss.

If your business was a reality TV show, this client would be The Bachelor — except that he’d send all the other girls home after the first date and propose to you right then and there.

Chances are, you had a good feeling about this client from the get-go. You knew from your first meeting, call, email or retweet that this was one of your Right People. You spoke the same language, you had the same vision, and your gut (don’t undermine the gut!) said this was going to be great. If you’re a designer, maybe you and the client used the same style terminology to describe their future collateral. If you’re a writer, maybe you had the same sassy tone and style standards in your correspondence.

But what about those times when you’re wrong? When your seemingly-Right-Person is a Wrong Person in sheep’s clothing? I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly not batting 1000 in weeding out right vs. wrong people. Sometimes it goes something like this. Sometimes it feels like crawling out of the flaming river of death. And sometimes, after both of those, I have to deep-clean the house and eat these cookies out of the bowl with a spoon.

Somewhere along the way, we all learned that romantic fairy tales — of the Cinderella variety — are, well, tales, and only marginally tied to reality. Even in the healthiest, most stable relationships, things like work and communication and reflection and understanding are required for success. And let’s face it: We’ve all (or most) had relationships with people where we worked really hard and communicated fully and reflected often and practiced empathetic understanding and it still didn’t work out.

Yet, in our relationships with clients, we seem to expect a “happily ever after” from every relationship. When we don’t get it, we feel like we did something wrong. Despite telling ourselves it’s not you, it’s them, there’s still that little voice inside that says, but if you’d just…

Seriously. It’s not you.

I can say this, honestly and sincerely, to every single person who has experienced a client break-up. Whether you’re the breaker-up-er or the break-up-ee, it’s all about fit. There isn’t something fundamentally wrong with you or your services or your craftsmanship or your work ethic or your approach. Is there something wrong with them? Wrong isn’t the word I’d use; not ready for what you’re doing seems more accurate.

As one of my friends wisely said to me once, “Sometimes, it’s like you’re trying to sell them a Super Bowl commercial, and all they want is a stick in a bucket.” Sound familiar? If it does, you’re dealing with poor fit.

Keep trusting your instincts.

It’s all too easy to draw everything into question after a bad break-up. If I was wrong about them, how can I be sure about the other prospects I’m talking to right now?

Think back to a bad break-up with a significant other. The feelings are similar, are they not? And yet, in life, you figured out how to rest in the complete amazing-ness of your true self and continue putting yourself out there.

Let’s say your ex was kind and intellectual, a fantastic cook, a triathlete, and took care of abandoned kittens in his free time. Are you going to go and date someone who’s cruel and hates books, whose culinary claim-to-fame is instant Jello, who can barely walk from the car to your house, and who kicks kittens for fun? (No kittens were harmed in the making of this description.)

Yet this is what we do (or think about doing) with our business. Don’t give in. You know what’s right for your business, and your instincts are rockin’. Soon, someone’s going to come along who desperately needs that package that Wrong-Person-so-and-so told you to trash. Vindication!

Is there anything worth gleaning?

One of my favorite (and by favorite, I mean most despised) phrases is, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” In silver medal position is the ubiquitous, “Can I give you some constructive criticism?” In both cases, whatever follows needs to be handled with a hazmat suit and a strong cup of coffee.

Someone may approach something in the worst way possible. They might ambush you by mentioning it in passing, or they might sucker you by toting it as constructive, or they might just be rude and careless and coming from a Not-Your-Right-Person place. And experience tells me that 98% of what they said is complete rubbish. But there can be something to glean from that 2% if you can wade through and discard everything else. You may disagree that that section of your copy is poorly written or that your website sidebar is confusing or that your communication with clients is not timely or consistent. But maybe you could reach out to people you trust and ask for their input on that section of copy. Or maybe you could strategically rearrange your sidebar and see what happens.

Now, there’s a giant caveat: If that 98% is just going to ransack your hard-fought strongholds and pillage your creative spirit and and leave you without the energy or desire to reflect on the 2%, don’t bother. It isn’t worth it. Someday you can come back to it, or (if it’s really important) someone else will come along and give you the same advice in a loving, respectful, encouraging way. (If this is you, go read about having shoes thrown at you. I think you’ll like it.)

Maybe, just maybe, this is happy after all.

In other words, give yourself permission to cut your losses. You could’ve dragged out this relationship for weeks, months, years and been utterly miserable as they put you in a teeny tiny box and/or treated you like a monkey-puppet and/or took up space, time, energy and creativity that you could be using for real Right People.

Sanity check.

Do you run into trouble discriminating right people from wrong people? How do you improve your screening process while still listening to your heart/gut/intuition? Or maybe you don’t have trouble with this, in which case, please share your magic formula. (Does it involve a strange test in a temple by a samurai?)

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  1. The gut instinct is ALWAYS right. It just takes:
    1. accepting that the gut instinct is always right
    2. learning what is gut instinct and what is fear
    3. acting consistently with the gut instinct

    I’m currently kicking myself for not listening to my gut instinct. But we broke up with the client, so it’s OK now.

    Lesson learned: If your gut instinct is telling you not to take a project but you really really want to because it’s a high profile organization and it would be just such a great portfolio piece… then do this: Create an extra extra strict and designer-protective contract, bid high, and get as much money up front as possible.

    It’s always nice to know that we all have good experiences and bad. Thanks for posting.

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