Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How Not to Become a Client

or, Strange and Tangential News of the Weird

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from someone who had read one of my articles on writing online. He had appreciated the information in the article and sent me the following e-mail:

Do you give consultations? I need help with a few questions now but I also have big writing needs. I am available either now (my preference) or soon or later.

I was catching up on my e-mail late on Saturday night. I responded: "Yes, I do provide consultations. I also edit, ghostwrite, and co-author on occasion. I would be happy to learn more about what you need, to see if what I offer would be a good fit for you."

Then I asked him to tell me a bit about his writing project, and let me know what sort of help he wanted from me. (I noted that he had a well-received book in print, and had been featured in the front matter of another, so he was no newbie to the publishing industry. I was intrigued as to what questions he had for me...)

Almost immediately, I received a reply: Do you want to talk now? A phone number was included.

Now, I don't know about you, but this struck me as odd. I generally do not accept new clients on the spur of the moment, at 11:30 p.m. on a weekend, without knowing the nature of the problem I'm going to be asked to tackle.

(Regular clients, because they live in so many different time zones, know that they can contact me any time, day or night. Some have been known to dial the phone first and do the math required to figure out the time difference later, but without malice aforethought. Still, they generally get in touch via e-mail and we schedule a mutually agreeable time for a phone consult.)

So, I wrote back that I tried very hard, with varying degrees of success, not to work on the weekends. I suggested times I was available on Monday morning, and left the ball in his court.

The next day I received an electronic manuscript -- a lengthy one -- of a fairly polished book. This book dealt in great detail with a subject that is SO not my area of expertise: finances. My would-be client had indicated that he'd like me to look at two specific pages and a complete chapter. I took a look at them, but, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what he needed my help with.

For one thing, the text in question dealt with detailed investment information for people in their 50's and older, so the subject matter was completely foreign to me.

For another, the writing style, syntax, punctuation, and grammar were all passably fine. Hardly riveting, given the content, but literate and readable, nonetheless.

Still, I was willing to listen to his questions and help, if I could.

I asked him to let me know a good time to contact him (within the parameters of my schedule availability), and I would be happy to chat with him. But first, I reiterated, please tell me how I could be of use. I reminded him that he must be aware that finances are not my field of expertise. I stressed that any assistance I would be able to offer would be primarily in terms of editing for structure and clarity.

I thought that was pretty open-minded and inviting.

Evidently, I was mistaken.

The response I received said that he already had an editor. He thought I was an expert in helping people write forewords (I am), and he needed my help RIGHT NOW. It couldn't wait -- nope, nope, nope. So, since I didn't drop everything and consult with him immediately, he'd referred to my article online. He'd gotten along just fine without me, and had no further use for me.

As for the pages he'd referred me to, he thought those "gems" would be most applicable to me in my current financial position.

To which I audibly responded: "Bwuuuh?"

I wasn't sure which confounded me more: his assumption that I was a good decade or so older than I actually am (yesterday's birthday notwithstanding), or his expectation of becoming an instant client -- with me at his beck and call.

Perhaps I'm being overly harsh. Perhaps I genuinely let the guy down by not immediately picking up the phone and doing a Saturday-night consult. But I doubt it. I also doubt that in HIS professional life, he would have responded differently if our roles were reversed.

There are certain Rules of Thumb that govern How Not to Become a Client. These include:

1.) If the person with whom you wish to consult is a woman, overestimate her age.

2.) Be intentionally vague about what you would like the consultant to help you with -- even after repeated requests for specific information.

3.) Cut into the professional's personal time.

4.) Disregard the scheduling boundaries the professional gives.

5.) Expect to take precedence over the consultant's family AND current clientele.

I have to say, the experience caught me off-guard. I'm very picky about who I work with, because I want to make sure that we will both make the best use of each other's time and fields of expertise. I honestly believe that my clients are the best in the world. I consider most of them as friends rather than business acquaintances. We tend to have lengthy business relationships that grow over the years.

Perhaps that's why the entire experience struck me as weird. Ah well, into each life, a little strange must fall...

And Speaking of Strange

"Strange" isn't always "bad," you understand. Today, the mailman brought me a very strange, wonderful, and completely out-of-the-blue unexpected package. One of my film industry friends (who, incidentally, is one of those who phones first and calculates time difference later) sent me some way cool screenwriting software as a birthday gift. I suspect that he may want me to provide some writing services using the gift, but so what?

I was FLOORED, FLUMMOXED, and at a LOSS FOR WORDS. Which doesn't happen very often, but is an altogether pleasant experience.