As a freelancer, I’ve had to learn many lessons.
Some of these lessons came easy. Others were excruciating.
Out of all the things I picked up along the way, these two were perhaps the hardest:
1. How to deal with conflict.
2. How to stand up for myself.
I grew up in a very protective environment, and was taught never to raise my voice. The main philosophy in our house was this:
Most people have good intentions. If you treat them with kindness and understanding, they will treat you in a similar way.
So, when my best friend asked if he could borrow some money, I immediately gave it to him. I think I was eight years old at that time, and I had earned a few bucks by helping out around the house. “You’ll get it back tomorrow,” he said, and I totally believed him.
Of course he never returned a penny, and I couldn’t figure out why. Was it something I had said? Was it something I had done? You see, that was one of my patterns. Whenever something negative would happen to me, I started questioning myself.
This made it harder for me to confront my friend and ask for my money. Part of me didn’t want to risk losing him as my best buddy. Part of me was just too scared to challenge him. “Don’t cause conflicts,” said that little voice in the back of my head that sounded very much like my mother. “People might not like you when you start arguing with them.”
A LOSING STRATEGY
I have to tell you right now: this approach didn’t work for me as a child, and it didn’t work for me as an adult. It left me with no backbone, and it made me vulnerable. Yet, when I started my own business, I did everything I could to avoid conflict by becoming a people-pleaser.
If you’re offering a professional service like I do, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You want your clients to be happy, and their wish is your command, but there are limits. I found it very hard to say “No,” even when clients made unreasonable demands.
“Could you cancel all your plans and come to our studio for an audition tomorrow? Let’s make it nine o’ clock.”
The next day I cursed rush hour traffic on my way to New York for a cattle call in some obscure basement. I would spend half a day on the highway, and a small fortune in parking fees to audition for a $250 job. It was madness.
“Since you’re a Dutch native speaker, could you check the translation of the script we sent you, just to make sure everything is the way it’s supposed to be?”
Unable to refuse, I would spend the next two hours proofing and correcting a horrible script that had been translated by stupid software. All of this for a cheap client who never said “please,” or “thank you,” and who expected me to do this at the drop of a hat, and for free.
“If I don’t do it, I might lose the job,” I told myself in those days.
Five minutes later, the phone would ring. It was one of my late-paying clients.
“Paul, we’re having some cashflow problems. Is it okay if we pay you in about… six weeks?”
“I’d rather get paid in six weeks than not being paid at all,” I said to myself, and I told the client not to worry. I was going to be the easiest freelancer they would ever work with!
Looking back, I had all sorts of people walk over me, and I found it increasingly difficult to put on a professional smile, and be okay with being treated like a dirty disposable doormat. Even though I began to resent being disrespected, there were three things I forgot.
1. Ultimately, my ultra-accommodating behavior gave me something I wanted: a way to avoid conflict. I would be seen as the amiable hired helper who always went above and beyond. Who wouldn’t want to work with me?
2. I wasn’t a powerless victim of those who took advantage of me. I was an active participant in the process by allowing people to walk all over me.
3. By behaving the way I did, I created certain expectations. I taught my clients how to treat me.
At the time, I didn’t see it that way. I saw myself as the always accommodating Mr. Nice Guy, smiling on the outside, but suffering in silence on the inside. It was only a matter of time before the last drop landed in the bucket.
PUSHING MY BUTTONS
I had finished recording a technical script for a high-maintenance, unorganized client who always needed everything yesterday. Even though I was swamped, I managed to meet his deadline. Two days later I was getting ready to go to a wedding, when he called me with some drastic changes to the script.
“Don’t blame me,” he said. “I don’t control the people I work for.”
He basically expected me to drop everything and help him out, and here’s the worst part: he wanted me to do it at no charge.
Already in my tuxedo, my frustration finally reached a boiling point, and I snapped at this man with an indignation that had been building up for years. I’ll tell you: when I was done, I felt so relieved!
My client, on the other hand, was speechless. Once he composed himself, he just said a few words:
“I wouldn’t want you to miss that wedding. We’ll go over everything tomorrow, and I’ll make sure you get paid for your time.”
Just like that!
I was stunned.
I looked in the mirror and thought:
“So, that’s what happens when you put your foot down!”
I later apologized to the client for losing my temper, and I thanked him for teaching me a valuable lesson.
This all happened quite some time ago. Eventually, I came to realize that I had to set some professional boundaries. Now, if you’re going through the same things I experienced, you might wonder:
How do you know where these boundaries are? They’re pretty much invisible.
It’s simple, really. You know where your boundaries are by the amount of BS you’re willing to put up with in your life.
As long as you’re okay, no lines are crossed. But if someone or something makes you angry or upset, it’s probably a sign that your boundaries have been violated. You’re likely to find out during some kind of crisis. That’s when you discover who you are, and what’s important to you.
Over the years I have developed very strong boundaries when it comes to rates, professional standards, and the terms and conditions under which I am willing to work with a client or a student.
I no longer drive to New York if a job pays less than $500. My agents know that, and they understand. Most of them will ask a producer if it’s okay for me to send an MP3 audition, instead of making me go to a cattle call. Usually, that’s no problem either.
If clients want me to translate or proof a script, they’ll have to pay me to do it, and payment is expected within 30 days after the invoice is received. I’m happy to record changes to the script after the initial, approved text was recorded, but not for free.
Did I lose a couple of clients because I refused to put up with their BS? Of course I did, but I was glad to get rid of them. Now here’s the kicker…
Because I was putting my foot down (ever so gently, of course), people started to respect me more.
As my self-confidence increased, their confidence in me increased as well. To my surprise I discovered that being clear about my boundaries lead to less conflict.
My rate was no longer seen as expensive, but as a sign of professionalism. These days, many clients are willing to do a lot to accommodate me, instead of the other way around.
All in all I’d say that standing up for myself has made me feel better about myself in general, and it has brought more clients to my business.
However, there’s one thing that keeps on bugging me.
Not long ago, the childhood friend I told you about in the beginning, found me on Facebook, and now he wants to connect. It’s been more than forty years since we last spoke, and I’m curious to find out how he is doing. However, I’m reluctant to honor his request.
After all, the guy still owes me money!
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS Be sweet. Please retweet.
photo credit: la colérica e inmediata respuesta gestual via photopin (license)
Edwin @VPI says
attaboy, Paul! you always hit the nail on the head! kindest regards from The Eternal City! Edwin
Paul Strikwerda says
Thank you, Edwin. I may have two left hands, but I do like it when I seem to nail it!
Debbie Grattan says
Paul, I think so many of us can relate to your message here. We want to be the “rescuer” and come to the aid of our clients whenever we can, so they value our service. But indeed, like you, I’ve learned that I have to train clients to understand my boundaries too. And what I find is that when I politely REQUEST what I need (more time, higher rate, whatever) they either meet me with what I need (and maybe wouldn’t have if I hadn’t asked) or make their own request, to which I then have the power to accept or reject. I think allowing myself to have the power to control my work in this way, ultimately helps me feel better about my work. Clients who can’t find a way to play by my rules are probably not my ideal clients anyway. I’ve also learned that there are many fish in the sea. There’s always another job.
Paul Strikwerda says
That’s precisely what being an independent contractor is all about. We work with clients, and not for clients.
To avoid any misunderstandings, I have developed terms & conditions that I send to clients before they hire me. At that point they can decide whether or not they want to work with me. Although it cannot prevent all problems, it certainly clarifies the relationship.
Tracy Lindley says
FANTASTIC advice!!! Thanks for the real-life examples too, and the tips on what could be done about each request. Being kind and polite doesn’t mean you have to say yes to every request. Respecting yourself and setting reasonable boundaries is what sets apart a true professional with confidence. Good advice for life itself–boundaries are good things!
Paul Strikwerda says
You’re absolutely right, Tracy. Me becoming more assertive also had a profound effect on my non-professional life. There’s only so much BS that I’m willing to accept.
Memo Sauceda says
I know most likely it’s a metaphor, but do ask him for your money. I had a similar situation with someone that stole a piece from a toy I had. The toy didn’t work without it, and I only had it for a week! 43 years later I found my friend and told him about how I felt. He was very sorry, and gave me something that was very valuable to him. I will share your post with my kids, hopefully they won’t have to wait 43 years to understand that it’s ok to stand up for what’s right.
Paul Strikwerda says
Thanks for sharing, Memo. I will remind my friend about the money. I can’t wait to find out how he reacts. He probably isn’t even aware that it ever happened.
Sally Blake ( Voice On Fire ) says
Good Morning Paul, I learned long ago that the majority of us want to avoid conflict. It’s basic human nature. You will always find that one in a hundred that enjoy conflict and that is usually the person at work who makes life miserable for everyone else:) I too had to practice setting boundaries and have found that clients respect them in the long run. I hope someday we find out if your little friend has changed over the years or these less than stellar qualities were ingrained at a young age. All best to all !
Paul Strikwerda says
I really hope that what you’re saying is true, that most people want to avoid conflict. But watching the news doesn’t make me very optimistic. I know at least a few people who seem to thrive on conflict… as if it feeds them in some strange way.
I too would love to avoid conflict, but it takes at least two to tango…
jan eliot says
As usual, your advice & observations are enlightening — and right on point! thanks!
Paul Strikwerda says
You’re very welcome, Jan. Thanks for reading my blog, by the way!
Paul Payton says
Excellent as usual, Paul. Even from closer to NYC than you are, going in for an audition costs, out of pocket, between $25-$45 a trip, not to mention the time and aggravation; I too will only go now for things where I have a genuine shot at it.
But to your main point: I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve pretty much bred out most of the jerks on my client list. If I’m “doing favors” now, it’s because I enjoy working with the client and/or their particular project. It’s really quite liberating; like you, I sort of wish I’d figured it out sooner!
Hope you’re having a great day today and thank you again, as always, for your thoughtful and thought-provoking posts. (True confession: yours is the one voice-oriented blog I read with any regularity!)
Juliette Gray says
Perfect timing on this one Paul. Just broke up with a client on Tuesday that I wanted to fire a year ago. At least I know now I should listen to my instincts. It’s just there needs to be a dividing line in one’s mind between firing a client and quitting, Sometimes the latter is not a sign of weakness.
I love the way you give a background into the early childhood indoctrination that explain our counterproductive behavior in adult life. I’m so glad to have your writings and musings in my love, xoxox
Paul Strikwerda says
Timing is everything, and I’m happy my story came at the right time, Juliette. Recently, a rather challenging client asked me to record a new script for him, and I told him point blank that I preferred not to work with him anymore. He knows exactly why, and I’m sure he’s bothering other talent as we speak.
Standing up for oneself is part of growing up. The older I get, the less I care what people think of me. Otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to be diplomatic when dealing with clients. They are the lifeblood of my business, and I’m willing to put up with a lot of nonsense in order to preserve the relationship. However, there are limits as to how for I’m willing to go.
MJ Lallo says
Yeah I hear you !! I left a comment on Facebook about
some of us setting wanting to get together and work on setting higher guidelines for the VO Web Casting sites.
There are some real strange things going on there!
Paul Strikwerda says
Thanks for commenting right here, and on Facebook, MJ. We’ve been discussing online casting sites on the EWABS-show for the past two weeks, and I’ve been writing about them for the past four years. Perhaps you could work together with the World Voices Organization on this.
Thanks for the wisdom, Paul. I don’t have any clients I need to fire but after a long time client said, as a compliment, “His rates are crazy cheap.” Excuse me? Not the topic I was hoping for. I will be establishing, and standing by, minimums and raising other rates.