9.0 Conflict

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End Notes


Video Transcript:

I debated whether or not I should put this section in this course. I don’t want to make you think that everyone is out to get you or perpetuate stereotypes that clients are awful, but sometimes, they just are. And I think it’s helpful to talk about a few different common conflicts so that you might be better prepared to face them. In all of my client projects, I try to assume the best in others, communicate with kindness and clarity, and try one more time before I throw in the towel. All of this assumes that the other person in this client relationship is doing the same, and wants to work with you. That has been the case for almost every project I’ve ever done, but I learned the most in the few that weren’t. There are thousands of moving parts in a project and conflicts could come up at just about any of them. But I think most conflicts could be boiled down into two main categories:

  1. Communication conflicts
  2. Bad intentions

Communication conflicts

I read a bunch of articles about different kinds of conflicts you can have at work. Leadership conflicts. Task conflicts. Value conflicts. But the more I thought about it, the more I just kept distilling it into a communication issue. If you have a value conflict as a freelancer, you either didn’t communicate your values clearly, or the client didn’t understand them - communication issue. If you have a task conflict, you either didn’t communicate the scope clearly, or they didn’t communicate their expectations clearly. Freelancing is different from a job, and as you become more experienced you should rarely come across a true task or value conflict. I really do think all of our interpersonal conflicts freelancing come down to communication issues.

This is why it’s so important that we are clear about the type of work we do, and our values. I always want a client to know exactly what they’re getting into, so that if we are going to have a conflict, we are still both on the same page about wanting a successful project.

Communication conflicts can be recovered from sometimes, and others it’s best to let it go. I’ll talk about two instances where I had communication conflicts and how they turned out.

Client Story

I had been working with a startup on a web design and development project for 3 months. We were super close to launching the site, but they were facing delays and told me they were going to pause on things until they were in a better spot to focus on the site. I left the door open to future work, and we settled up our remaining payment for the contract. They came back 6 months later and wanted to get back to work on the launch. They had a bunch of design edits and another designer had reworked the pages I’d already designed, and they wanted me to build them out.

I was super busy with other client work, but they were a high value client and I wanted to impress them. So I agreed to start work again and began implementing the new page designs. Some of the designs were incomplete, so I filled in the gaps where I thought was necessary. We went through feedback for weeks - the typography didn’t feel right to them, they thought the website didn’t reflect the new designs the other designer had done, I reworked and rebuilt just about every aspect of the project. I was frustrated, because I thought that we were going to make a few small tweaks and launch. They were frustrated because they felt like I wasn’t listening to them. It all came to a head when I got a message from the founder on a Saturday afternoon that made me burst into tears. They expressed how disappointed they were with the work and that I wasn’t the right partner for them. I immediately burst into tears. I called my mom. I went for a run. I was so upset that I was letting this client down, but they were also kind of rude and I was frustrated with how the project was going. I felt defeated, and I didn’t want to keep working with them. I don’t think they did either.

I reflected on the situation once the dust had settled. We parted ways respectfully. I put together documentation on the website based on all the progress we had made so someone else could adopt the project. And I realized that while they were sending me tasks beyond what I was expecting, I also hadn’t clarified the scope at the beginning of this project restart. I had also been afraid that I would let them down if I didn’t take on the work, but because I didn’t have proper time to work on it, I rushed things and that probably didn’t help the situation. I had to face the fact that I didn’t do my best, and vowed to do better next time, for myself and for the client.

Client Story

I was working on a brand, web design, and development project for a small business. They were super excited to start, as was I. We go through sitemapping, but when I presented the initial design concepts, they weren’t thrilled. They expressed that the designs weren’t really what they were hoping for, and we discussed what they would like to see instead. At this point I said to myself: “I have one week to turn this around. If I can create new designs they love, everything will be great. If I can’t, the project is over.”. I really wanted to try for this client, so I put in a huge effort, designed 10 new hero sections to help set the direction, and approached everything with an open mind. The client was definitely influenced by their personal taste, which can be tricky to navigate, but I wanted to make it work.

At the next presentation, they really resonated with one of the options and I kept going in that direction. We progressed through the rest of the site and launched smoothly. They were really happy with the work, and I felt good about how I had handled it.

The difference with this client is that while they were disappointed, they came back to me with an open mind and a spirit of collaboration. They didn’t mention cancelling the project. They just wanted to know if I could try again. And so I did. The communication conflict was addressed early enough that we could recover, and I’m really proud of the effort I put in to get there.

Bad intentions

And every so often, you’ll come across someone who does something harmful to your business, because they have bad intentions. Whether they want to make money off of you, exploit your work, get something for free, or worse. Sometimes people just suck. And my advice to you is that when you recognize that this is happening, cut your ties immediately. This has happened to me a couple times and I will detail them here. Obviously you never know someone’s full intentions, but they sure felt bad, so I’m including them here.

Client Story

The first instance of encountering a client with bad intentions happened to me on a design project for a startup. They had been keen to design a new website, and were going to have in-house development resources built it. We had a great kickoff meeting and I got to work. They wanted a very specific element included, and I put together two options with different looks and feels that both included the element. I presented the options to the client in a meeting and they received it well. I sent over my next steps after the meeting and more than a week went by with no response. I followed up to get their feedback, and a day later received an email that they were very disappointed with the work so far, and that they thought I was going to be illustrating the motif element, which was never discussed. The specific element was very complicated, and I had used stock assets to set direction, and presented the option that we could customize it further with an illustrator.

Their email essentially gave me an ultimatum - either I redo the work that I had presented, and come up with two brand new concepts, or they wanted to cancel the project.

At first, I chalked this up to a communication conflict. Had I not explained the scope of work clearly? Could I have done a better job presenting the work? But with further reflection, I realized that even if that were the case, a client who wanted to continue the project would have brought up their misalignment in a more productive way. I had had a project before where the client didn’t like either of the initial brand directions. But they came to me in discussion, with an open mind, and expressed that the designs weren’t hitting the mark. And because they were kind, and the spirit of the project was still in a direction of progress, I created new designs. I wanted the project to succeed and so did they. But this client’s message was totally different, and their tone was not one of collaboration, but an order. And the best part about freelancing is that you don’t have to take orders! So I cancelled the project, reinforced that their 50% deposit was nonrefundable and that the hours had already been spent. I wished them well in a respectful email and never talked to them again.

With even further reflection, I realized that they may have just been trying to get out of the project and get their money back. Maybe they had an investor or advisor that questioned why they were working on the website, but they didn’t want to back out without trying to make it seem like my fault and get a refund. Either way, they didn’t have good intentions, and I ended it.

My conflict tips

  1. If your gut says that someone is trying to take advantage of you, you’re probably right. And you should trust that gut and get a clear answer, even if you have to investigate a bit.
  2. Make sure you have all the facts before you make any big decisions. Perhaps the brewing conflict is merely a misunderstanding. Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions or reiterate back to the other person how you understand what they’ve communicated.
  3. Once you have all the facts, you can judge whether you’re dealing with a communication conflict or someone with bad intentions.
  4. If you’re dealing with a communication conflict, try to assess whether the situation is salvageable. Do you want to salvage it? Can you speak with them directly and candidly? Do you see a path forward? If you think there is even a small chance to change the tone, and you want to see it through, do your best to work through it. If you don’t want to go forward with something, even if the client hasn’t been outright rude to you, you can also choose to do that! You don’t have to work with people who are making you miserable or taking up your mental space in a negative way. End the relationship respectfully and move on.
  5. If you’re dealing with someone with bad intentions, you should probably cut ties immediately. This is when someone is outright rude to you, is trying to take advantage of you, or has crossed your boundaries in some way. You don’t need to be rude or unkind back, just state that you are ceasing the relationship because you don’t see a productive path forward, take care of any contract questions or possible refunds, and move on. Dealing with someone with bad intentions is not a good use of your time or energy, and if you’ve assessed that they are doing something that doesn’t feel good or right to you, end it. You absolutely should not work for someone because you feel bad you might hurt their feelings, or are worried about how it will look on you professionally. It’s going to look a lot worse on you if you do get taken advantage of, or associate your brand with a bad actor.
  6. You should absolutely tell someone about it, vent to your friends or your family, it will make you feel better. But for the most part, I wouldn’t air your conflict to the internet. Nobody will have the full context, it could be taken the wrong way, make you look petty, or erupt into something you didn’t expect. I know this is conflict-avoidant and removes any consequence if someone did have really bad intentions, but your peace is usually worth more than anything you’ll benefit from airing your conflict publicly. I say usually, because if someone has done something illegal or discriminatory, I wouldn’t fault you form making that known. That’s a decision you’ll have to make for yourself.

I hope that you never have any conflicts in your freelancing career. But the reality is, that it’s likely you’ll come across some sort of small conflict at some point in time. Remember that you are the one who has to live with you decisions, and you should do what’s going to make you proud. The most empowered I have ever felt in my business is when someone tried to take advantage of me, I recognized it for what it was, and said “no way”. You have to treat yourself with respect first if you want anyone else to.

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