This transcription belongs to Episode #10: Paul Stephenson’s walk on the dark side turned into a great client management lesson for our beloved audience and, of course, Our Beloved Host, Morgan Friedman. Please watch the complete episode here!
Morgan (Host): Hey everyone! Welcome to the latest edition of a new podcast client, horror stories. I’m honored to have my new British friend who lives in Victoria, BC; I believe it is. Paul Stephenson has a great story. I don’t know what the story is, but I just know it’s great. Let’s dive right in, Paul; great to have you here.
Paul (Interviewee): Thank you, Morgan. It’s, it’s great to be on the show. Yeah, so you and I were talking, and I think this is it’s, it’s such an interesting topic, the notion that you know, the feeling that you shouldn’t really talk about things that go wrong with clients. In fact, so many experiences are shared.
So you know, my background, just to give it some context is that both agency and client-side digital marketer for as far back as it goes. I won’t tell you just how far but the beginning is, shall we say of digital? For the last sort of five years, I’ve been running a consultancy here on the west coast of Canada. I am working mostly with software companies and helping them with digital marketing, particularly paid advertising, SEO, growth, that sort of things.
So I’m prior to that, I had an agency in the UK, a design and marketing agency, which I founded and ran for 13 years before selling it to my team back in 2016, and then emigrating to Canada, which was something that I wanted to do. So you know, I have this wealth of experience of being both client-side and agency side.
Obviously, over the course of those many, many years, you see the same themes emerging. To be honest, the last few years have been really good to me. I’ve had some great clients with very little churn. So you know, since I’ve been doing this consultancy for five years, I probably just ended engagements with one or two clients. Because it’s just me, a very small portfolio of clients. And so you know, I forgot what it was like when you get churn, whether you decide to stop working with a client or they decide to stop working with you until recently that was.
Morgan (Host): Ooh, the excitement is about to start!
Paul (Interviewee): Well, I just recently had an experience that set off the alarm bell, and it reminded me of all of the things that I used to know about client red flags. You know, so whether it’s a prospect or a client, that situation that you get into where emotionally your brain is trying to tell you something, but maybe the financial part of your brain isn’t listening.
Morgan (Host): By the way, Paul, I want to interrupt for a second as you build up the excitement and make an observation that I hadn’t thought about before, but you’re making a good point, which is, as good people, and as optimists, we always want things to succeed. So if you stopped doing it for a while, you start forgetting all the red flags and the yellow flags. And if this happens every day, it’s on the top of your mind. But after a while, the optimism comes back a little bit like dating a girl, and you both terribly broke up and then forgetting why he got so bad, so you got back together again.
Paul (Interviewee): No comment on that. So the first thing, obviously, client discretion is a must. The client will remain anonymous, and all of the things I’m going to say, some of them happened with this client, but then it led me to remember previous bad experiences that I had. So what I actually did is I ended up categorizing the bad things that can happen into four groups.
Morgan (Host): I love that you did your homework.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, this is organized, isn’t it? So I will tell a bit more of the story, but I’ll just tell you what those categories are now. The first is time. There’s stuff to do with time, stuff to do with scope, project scope, project management, and finally, attitude. Okay, but what I’ll do is I’ll touch on those as we talk and as the story progresses.
Yeah, we can explore them in more detail. So as I say, I mostly deal with ambitious software companies that typically are under 5 million annual recurring revenue. Quite a lot of them I just really bootstrapped, getting started, so under a million in revenue, and I really like working with small businesses where you’re dealing directly with the founder of the CTO, you know there’s a small team because you can actually make a big impact on smaller businesses. Whereas, you know, if you’re working with big companies, you’re a smaller part of what they’re doing, whatever element that you do.
Mostly I’m doing advertising, but typically with a software business, advertising is probably at the very most gonna bring in a third of their business, but more realistically, sort of 10% is a pretty good standard. So, you know, you’re not a priority, and they have other things. There’ll be doing content marketing, PR, partnerships, integrations, and anything else that they can think of that is going to bring users, and that’s right, and it’s right to have a mix of stuff. But for the most part, you know, I concentrate on the paid advertising side. So I got this referral, which is great, from someone that I know. And they’re referring me to somebody that they know who is the founder of a new software business that is only less than 12 months old.
They fit the profile that I’d like to work with, so there were no alarm bells there at all. So, you know, we started talking and, as is sometimes the case, there’s a time difference because of our locations. But that in itself, I think, should never raise a flag. You know, if you want a business and you have to talk to somebody at midnight, or whatever, so be it, that isn’t an issue. I think, you know, what is an issue is when you talk to someone, and the first time you talk to them, they’re in a hurry.
Morgan (Host): That’s a good one.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, and this is contradictory to some of the other things that they might say later. But, you know, the fact is, and this happens a lot in tech, they tell you that they’re a small business, they will tell you they’re a small team., they will tell you that all of their team are remote. But they have these big ambitions and typically, you know, the thing that I hear quite a lot of, maybe it’s just me, but they want to get to seven figures within the first 12 months of the business. So they want to turn over a million dollars within the first 12 months. Okay, so right there, when you hear that, an alarm bell should ring because what they’re basically doing is saying that they have very high expectations.
Which great you know, we all have ambitions in life. When I was a kid, I thought I was gonna grow up and become Spider-Man, an astronaut, or a millionaire, and I haven’t achieved any of those things yet, but I had high hopes, right? So they got on the call, and practically the first thing they say is, “Hey, we’re going to be a seven-figure turnover business within 12 months, and you’re going to help us do it.” I replied, “Okay, so you know what, what’s your plan and I’m, we’re in a hurry.
So, you know, you spell out your process, and they basically don’t want to spend too much time on the discovery part where you’re learning about their business, because they want to get on, because they want leads, they want customers, and it’s like “Chop, chop, get going!” so the first conversation was a little bit like that.
Morgan (Host): let’s dive right in from that because it’s really an interesting and a great point. So, then being in a hurry implies the broader version of that is unrealistic expectations. And the second point that being in a hurry implies is they are not that experienced at this. Anyone who has been around the Rodale knows that there are ups and downs, learnings, and it’s hard. So this combination of unrealistic expectations, combined with not having done enough to know how it goes, already is like two yellow flags coming together. So the flags are starting to look red.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, indeed. So you know, when I got off the call, my partner Lisa asked, “How did the call go?” And I said, “I have a bad feeling about this,” you know, the Han Solo immortal words. And the lesson that I should have learned, but because you know, I’m out of touch with dealing with any sort of bad feelings, is to go with your bad feelings if you have a bad feeling, it’s not going to get any better.
Morgan (Host): By the way, this advice is so easily forgotten like your gut knows more than your brain.
Paul (Interviewee): It absolutely does. So, you know, during the course of the conversation, this first meeting, it’s peppered with other time-related factors, like, “We should do this or you should do this and that shouldn’t take long.”
Morgan (Host): By the way, that phrase, I really hate it, and I make a point with everyone that I managed to never say that.
Paul (Interviewee): I never say to anybody, you know, if I’m using a contract or somebody supplies working for me, you know, I know we all want to say we all think it but I never ever say it because I’ve been on the wrong side of it so many times.
Morgan (Host): And I want to point out that a lot of people don’t realize that it’s little phrases like this that really set people off.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, it’s like a tiny Parana fish nibbling away at you.
Morgan (Host): By the way, we should create a blog post about phrases to never use with a client.
Paul (Interviewee): Oh, I think we could do a book. We could spin this off as a movie, you know, there are so many opportunities for this.
Morgan (Host): Maybe this is how you will make a million dollars.
Paul (Interviewee): Honestly, I’m not looking to make a million dollars, but I know a lot of clients who are. So yeah, they’re in a hurry, and they want to make a million dollars; this shouldn’t take long, and they would do it themselves, but they’re way too busy.
Morgan (Host): Well, that’s another one, that’s another one. We have two items on our list now.
Paul (Interviewee): And so we got over the first call, and you know, we decide we want to go ahead. So, you know, we set up this second call and pretty much along the lines of getting an email saying, “You know, I can’t really schedule any time with you this week.” This is from them because they’re too busy, “But I can talk to you right now, like right now, eight or 9 pm in the evening. Call me now!” So you know, there’s a lot of giving and take in collaboration and compromises.
But sort of, because you’re the client, you feel that you have to dictate, that everything moves at your pace, irrespective of what the scope is or your expertise is. Everything that has to fit around you is, I think, a terrible mistake for clients. I’ve been a client to plenty of people myself. What you’re doing when you’ve hired someone is you’re hiring their expertise. I’m not saying that everything should fit perfectly around them, you should fit into their processes, and you should be a dream client to them.
But certainly, you know, if you make fitting in with you a higher priority, I think you get a lower quality of work. Because if you make people jump through fiery hoops, they’re not going to put their best efforts into everything else that they do for you.
Morgan (Host): Yes, this is great, but there are a few other points that I would like to add to that. Communication in your first days or weeks, not just working together, even negotiating, sets the stage and the tone for everything else. You were so saying this right after the first call sets off the flags in your mind. Also, I feel like an underrated part of treating a professional is professionals control their own time. Like that’s at the heart of it. If you have a task, a professional gives you expert advice and helps you do it.
But he’s not a technician. Like the technician is the guy that’s like, “Okay, sit here for hours and fix my plumbing.” That’s different, and already, not respecting your time, the yellow flags are getting darker.
Paul (Interviewee): Indeed, yeah. And, you know, on that point, if you create as I do boundaries with clients, so what I say to my clients is, you know, I’ll tell them how long I’m working on their account each week, and that’s reflected in, you know, the cost to some degree and the value that they get. But, you know, what I’ve learned from that is I don’t tell people which day I’m working on their stuff now.
There’s a reason for that, and the reason is managing expectations because sometimes you have to juggle your schedule or whatever. And if, as I have done in the past, told clients, “Yeah, you know, I work on your stuff on Thursdays,” then that can be great for them if they’re organized around that cadence. I’ve got one long-established client who knows that I work with them on a Wednesday.
That works because, you know, we’re in synchronicity around that, but they’re a good client and with this particular example. I set out what my boundaries were in terms of how much work I’d be doing and even the day that I would be doing it on, which I thought was a good thing because I could get organized and manage expectations. As we got into the engagement, the way that they used that was to actually use that as a brick to pound my head the rest of the week, saying that basically, because it wasn’t the day, how could they expect it to go seven days without contacting me?
And I said, “You can contact me; you can contact me the rest of the week.” It’s just that you won’t get an instant reply, and so you know, the thing that I conveyed at the start of the engagement was the way that I worked my parameters and my boundaries. Then they decided as soon as we got into the engagement that actually they didn’t like it that way. What they wanted, and I think, I’ve come across this before, but I think it’s particularly with tech companies is that they want you on the hook all the time.
They want you in their Slack or in their project management software, and so, you know, if something or somebody asks a question or whatever, they want an instant response. Now, you know, I work async, and with multiple clients, I can’t be responding in everybody’s Slack channel and responding all the time. But then we had the situation coming back to time again, not only would they, you know, try and contact me anytime night or day and expect an instant response over multiple channels, and I’m one man, and they know that I’m one man. But, you know, they would sit on decisions, so I would tell them to hurry up and wait.
Morgan (Host): Hurry up and wait, exactly.
Paul (Interviewee): So, you know, there’d be something that I needed just to finish off, like a particular ad campaign setup. They would sit on it for a week, and then I chase them the following week, maybe even chase them, you know, a few days in between, and you just hear nothing. Then ten days later, you get the thing like, “Oh, we don’t want to do that this way. Now we want to look at something completely different” or, you know, and it’s just like, “They’d already agreed on the scope, the campaign was going to go a certain way, the creator’s been done, we’re waiting on you know, a testimonial approval or something that is being approved.”
After that, they just like, “We need this live tomorrow,” and then they’re like, “Yeah, we’re waiting on you to approve it for the last seven days.” So you know, there are lots of issues around turnaround time, but I think those should be very familiar to anybody who’s ever done any contracting or freelancing. Why is everything taking so long? Well, you know we are waiting for decisions from you. So pretty much, you know, within the first couple of meetings, all of the time, red flags that you could possibly have were triggered just with one client, and that’s probably a new record.
Morgan (Host): Question; as you were getting triggered, did you push back or dress it directly with him?
Paul (Interviewee): Yes, so I addressed it within zoom calls, in email, and in some fairly blunt emails. I told them, “When you signed up for this, we agreed on this, this, and this.” And now you’re moving the goalposts, which leads me on to the next category of red flags really, which is scope creep. I think there are three classic scope creeps that this client was able to demonstrate within 3 or 4 months.
That’s really short for me because most of my clients, you know, I had clients in the UK that I worked with for 13 years. I had clients here that I’ve had for 3, 3 and a half years, and even for five years. Personally, I see anything less than a year of engagement with a client as being, you know, something didn’t fit, something didn’t work. I take that very personally because my whole business life has been built on long-term relationships. And I think that’s where, you know, you create value for both sides. I don’t think short-term relationships; one nightstand rarely works out in anyone’s interests.
So I think the three scope issues that you would commonly see and that they demonstrated with, you know, the first one is as I say, you know, you agreed on the project scope, you agreed on the fees, you agreed on how you’re going to work, and then almost immediately, they move the goalposts. So suddenly, you know, it’s like you’re no longer building a shed, but you’re now building a mansion. Or the equivalent in the digital marketing sense. So, you know, scope creeping is a very classic thing that clients sometimes do intentionally. A lot of the time, it’s unintentional because I honestly believe that they don’t understand the difference in the workload that they’re giving you. This often leads to the very next phrase, which is, “Can you just dot dot dot.”
Morgan (Host): I love it; I heard that phrase so much.
Paul (Interviewee): I think you have to bite your tongue when you hear that phrase because you know, I think your job then is to educate them. Tell them why you can’t just “dot dot dot,” and why you can’t just do that thing. Sometimes you have to swallow it, and if it’s gonna, you know, be something that is relatively easy to do, and you have to take a little bit of a flyer on it. But when you have a succession of “can you just,” I think you then have to worry.
Morgan (Host): I love it! And the way I would make that point is that there’s this ancient Greek paradox that’s known as the “Sorites Paradox,” which is, it’s easier to think about with hair, so if someone has a head full of hair and you remove one strand of hair, are they bold? No, two strands? No, three strands? No, how many strands of hair do you need to remove for you to become bold?
And what’s powerful about that paradox is the obtuse angle phrasing of it; although I hate marks and angles, it’s an insightful way of saying it. Changes over quantity lead to changes in time. In other words, one more “just this five minutes here, just this five minutes here, just this five minutes there,” even if each one is just five minutes, just one strand of hair, enough of those just five minutes and the hairy man is bald.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, so a couple of other ways of putting that is that it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Or do you remember, you’re probably a similar age to me, but do you remember as a kid growing up, there was a plastic sort of Buckaroo, like a plastic donkey? And you used to load it up with little mining things like a pan, pickaxe, and whatever. It’s like a little plastic donkey, and then when it got too heavy, it would spring up, and all of the pieces would fly everywhere. We definitely had it in states and everywhere around the world because it was by MB games. It was called Buckaroo.
Morgan (Host): I don’t remember.
Paul (Interviewee): You can google Buckaroo because some projects can be like Buckaroo. If there’s so much on it already and you overload the project, the whole thing can turn to shit.
Morgan (Host): Love it.
Paul (Interviewee): There you go. I just got your explicit labeling for your podcast.
Morgan (Host): I’m so new to podcasting, I didn’t even realize there was explicit labeling, and in some previous episodes, people used worse language. I don’t mind because the vulgar language makes the point emotional and strong, so be as dirty as you want.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, yeah. Going back to this story, I mean, really, the whole scope thing. You know, they moved the goalposts on you.
Morgan (Host): So, what’s an example of how this client moved the goalposts?
Paul (Interviewee): So, you know, we started off by talking about particular channels that we were going to market in, and they agreed on channels based on the research that had done my experience and expertise. Then they came along and said, “Hey, we want to try this other channel instead.” So you know, for example, I might have recommended we’re going to do a Google search, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and they say, “Hey, we want to try Facebook and Instagram, or we think that this would sell really well on Tik Tok.” And, you know, that’s fine, I mean, that happens a lot.
But it’s when people push it, and they say, “Well, hang on, we define the scope of this, we talked about the pros and cons of the different channels, I did the research, I showed you the research, but now you’ve decided that you want to go off and do this other channel. That’s not in the mix, we can do that, but you’re going to need more budget, and you’re going to need some more of my time. “Oh, no, no, we don’t want to do that. We’ll swap it out for one of the other things that you’ve already been working on. That you had already put a lot of time into.” So that can be very frustrating and problematic, but it helps a lot.
Morgan (Host): A broader version of that is that a lot of clients don’t realize that everything’s a trade-off. They just give you more like, “Oh, it’s just five minutes,” but everything comes at a cost, and that cost is time and money. Maybe it’s none of them, but if you don’t get time or money, then it just increases the chance of a breakdown at some point.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, so there were definitely issues around scope, which you know, and I thought after 25 plus years in this game, shall we call it, that I was pretty good at defining the scope and managing scope creep. But, you know, I think you can get complacent with it, and sometimes it will come back and bite you in the ass.
Morgan (Host): This is so much that earlier point about a lot of these risks happening because we’re optimists and want things to turn out well, so it’s like you like him, you’re like, “Oh, I’ll just do this for five more minutes.” No one wants to be the asshole who says, “No, I won’t spend two more minutes on the account.” No one wants to be that guy.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, I mean, I think the interesting thing was, one of the pushbacks that I did do at one point is, you know when they rescoped a part of the project, and I said, “Okay, do you remember the first conversation we had where you said and you admitted that you had complete ignorance of digital advertising? And that you would rely on my expertise? It seems now that you suddenly have some really strong opinions on what we should do. So what’s changed?” So I pushed a little bit until I found out what changed.
Morgan (Host): What changed?
Paul (Interviewee): Okay, so what had changed is, they had spoken to a friend of a friend who was also an entrepreneur in business. That friend was selling something completely different, so they’re in software. This guy sells, I’m not gonna tell you what he sells, but it was a product. It was a business-to-consumer product. So my client is selling business-to-business software, and their friend is selling business-to-consumer products, okay.
They told me I can’t remember what the exact words were, but it goes like, “He’s killing it, or crushing it on Facebook and Instagram selling this product.” I’m saying, “So what you’re telling me is, you know, someone who is killing/crushing it on Facebook and Instagram, with a completely different product or service aimed at a completely different consumer?” And they were like, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s why we want to do it.”
Morgan (Host): I don’t know if I want to laugh or cry because I’ve heard a lot of variations of that so many times as well. It’s incredible to me also how often people who are otherwise smart and rational, as soon as a friend’s friend is crushing it, suddenly like, “N equals one.” Like, “This one guy is doing it so it has to work for us as well.”
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, and so on top of that, what they said was, “If you don’t think that this channel, Facebook, Instagram, whatever, is going to be good for us, then we’re going to use his guy to do it because he’s way cheaper than you.”
Morgan (Host): Wow! When people say things like that, it’s explicitly a threat. But I always wonder if they realize it’s a threat or not. Like, Is he seeing this? I don’t know to some people. So how did you respond to that?
Paul (Interviewee): I was like flabbergasted because I find that sort of thing really annoying. I tell you what, back in the day, I was building websites from about 1995 onwards. The thing that I heard a lot through the late 90s and early 2000s was, with my agency was, “Oh, we’ve got a friend or a cousin who can do that cheaper,” and it became a running joke in our studio. You know, we’re just like, “Oh, yeah, somebody’s cousin could do this better than us. His cousin’s cheaper than us. We were rubbish at this. We’ve been doing it for years, and we still don’t know what we’re doing. There’s always somebody better and cheaper.” And so my natural inclination is to say, “Yeah, go on then, go ahead and fill your boots.”
Morgan (Host): And did you say that?
Paul (Interviewee): I did, and I actually told them that face-to-face on a zoom call. That ended the engagement because, you know, It wasn’t the first time that they told me I was expensive, but they hired me knowing exactly what I was going to cost, what the scope was, and what the value that I was proposing to offer them. Then throughout, you know, the three or four-month engagement, they just harangue me almost weekly with how expensive I was.
I’m just like, “Yeah, I told you exactly how much it was going to cost.” You know, I mapped out a three-month plan and all the activities that I was doing for them and delivered it all. But still, they used this as a bat to beat me with. The fact that you know, they thought I was expensive. Well, you know, cost and value relative really, I mean, clearly there was an issue there in that they didn’t think, I’ll be honest, that they obviously didn’t think I was delivering the value that they were expecting.
But you know, some of that was on them because when you set up, say, retargeting campaigns or ad campaigns, there’s a lot of setups, and there’s a lot of collaboration needed. I started with another client at the same time, so I brought on a new client at exactly the same time as them; I did the setup, everything was launched, campaigns, and everything within two weeks. It took five or six weeks with them, and that was just because there were so many issues on their side. The communication was poor; they wouldn’t get back to me. When they did get back to me, it was like, “Oh, we don’t know what your problem is.” You know, there was this kind of arrogance about everything.
Morgan (Host): So this is interesting, and I want to make a couple of comments on that. First, what I hadn’t realized until now that I sit in the observation for me is how often it is that bad behavior is linked to other bad behavior. Like you rarely see a great client, but he’s doing this one painful, terrible thing. Instead, it’s almost always the case that these guys are acting terribly in this way and this way, even though, on the surface, it’s like time and scope and all these different things that you would think are like aren’t related to each other.
So there’s clearly an underlying something that is causing him to act that way. This is useful to know because this means if you see one yellow flag, you’re likely to see more yellow flags. So even one yellow flag should already start getting you to pay attention.
Paul (Interviewee): Well, this is a little bit out of chronological order, but I think you’re gonna like this a lot. The big red flag that I missed at the very start was when they told me that they had problems with finding and retaining other contractors. But they sort of brushed it off a little bit, and then as it got further into the conversation, the CEO actually said that hiring marketers had given them PTSD.
So what they wanted to do was to find a marketer who didn’t suck. I completely fell for it, and I shouldn’t have because it makes you feel like you should work really hard and try your best for this client. You know, because that’s what you do, isn’t it? It’s like being back in school, you sit up straight, and you do your best handwriting. But what I should have done is that I should have said, “Well, if you’ve had a lot of problems with contractors, that’s on you because clearly, you are the only common denominator in that.” And not every marketer can give you, surely, PTSD. You must have worked with some good people.
But you know, here I am now, and I’m another x marketer to add to their portfolio. And I’m sure that they would tell people that I gave them PTSD as well. You know, that’s a very powerful language and when they said it, I sort of laughed, you know, I just thought it was funny and that they were only being dramatic. But they weren’t being dramatic at all, and I only found that out in subsequent calls. They didn’t tell me what these people had done wrong. How that managed to give them PTSD, but they just kept repeating the phrase, like it was some sort of mantra that you know, all marketers suck, and they gave us PTSD. We can’t find anyone that is a great fit for us, and so, it’s the very small things, I think, in those first meetings that really matter.
And rather than laughing them off, I should have actually drilled in or dug in and said, “What do you mean, they gave you PTSD? How did they give you PTSD?” I still, to this day, don’t know what it was, and I think what it actually translates to means; subsequently, I think I have an explanation for it. They don’t understand how marketing works, they don’t understand how to do marketing, they find it really frustrating, and so then they find even very clear communication with an experienced marketer frustrating because they don’t really understand how to work with marketers.
Morgan (Host): I agree with all that because that makes sense. A couple of thoughts on that is when you have a bad experience for one time, then that is bad luck. But when it happens a bunch of times, like you’re doing something wrong. I think it would make normal people or less crazy people become introspective.
Like, “What am I doing wrong?” You know, sometimes I feel like it’s an ego reflection, like when your ego is too high, “Of course, it can’t be me. It just has to be that this industry attracts terrible people.” It’s also become a part of my standard questions that I use when I’m considering working with someone is to ask them all about their previous marketer that they work with. So I think that’s like a good question to just like put on the list of things to find out upfront because by drilling in how they left, you get some insights.
Sometimes it’s red flags like this, but also, it’s just, oh, these things went wrong even though it’s got major so you should know, okay, they really care about XYZ that usually don’t pay that much attention to so you can prioritize that for them.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, exactly. You know, I think as the engagement went on, or we first started working together, I think there was a couple of other things that came up which I’d put in the sort of project management category if you like.
Morgan (Host): This is a good segue to jump into that category.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, because you know, as you start working with them, you have the initial red flags, and then other things come up. There are two really common things that I want to talk about for freelancers and contractors. But the problem is these things seem benign when you first talk about them because I touched on one of them earlier. The first one is joining the company’s Slack channel for their Slack.
Morgan (Host): Let’s talk about this one. What are your thoughts on that?
Paul (Interviewee): Okay, so it seems benign, doesn’t it? That you actually feel that you are quite welcome, you think, “Oh wow, they trust me; I’m like a team member because they want me in their slack.” And you can see that their Slack is filled out with lots of other contractors and other people. But it’s really for their benefit; it’s not for your benefit.
And you know, if you’re a solo contractor, freelancer, or even a small agency, managing multiple relationships in the company’s Slack channels is not scalable. In fact, what it’s going to do is it’s going to destroy your productivity because what it means is that not only is that one contact, maybe it’s the CEO or the CMO exposed to you, but the whole of their team is exposed to you. And so, you know, somebody in their engineering team can say, “Hey, you know about those about the Google Tag Manager, we’ve been looking into it,” or “Hey, we can’t get this to work.”
So what happens is that the number of things that you’re doing balloon; it’s much more likely to go off the scope because there are so many more people involved. One of the things that you have to think about when you take on a project is how many points of contact are there going to be? Because if you’re dealing with just a big strapped, one man or one woman, or a software company, then that’s great.
You know, the total amount of contact is going to be one on one. But the more people involved, the more time-consuming it’s going to be. If you ever get involved in Zoom meetings where there are 6, 7, or 8 people, decisions are being made, and you’re there as an advisor or a contractor, those things can suck a lot of time. And if you’ve agreed like on a set scope and on a set cost for things, then Slack is definitely one way to, you know, blow your budget completely.
Morgan (Host): It’s interesting, and I agree with that. This is one more I fall prey to because I love Slack. So I consciously make that bad decision that it’s hard for me to resist. So a couple of things, all the time with clients, they hire you, but then they want things that are actually not in their interest.
Like they want you to go to all these meetings, and on one level and fluctuate they realize oh yeah, you spent so much time in these meetings are all like a getaway at the clock and you’ll have less time for the more important stuff. But like that, it almost never connects consciously because they keep on asking you to go to these time-wasting meetings anyway. So it becomes doubly important to push back and tell them, “Hey, it’s not in your interest that I spent this hour in the meeting. Like, I’m not gonna have any value to contribute to it. You can send me a three-sentence summary afterward and it’s better for you that I spent an hour in focusing on your goals.”
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, absolutely right. I think in a similar vein to that is project management software. So, you know, I use project management software, and I’m sure a lot of people use project management software when you’re jumping on projects.
Morgan (Host): I love Asana; I’m an Asana man.
Paul (Interviewee): Okay, so you’re an Asana man, okay. So it depends on what I’m doing. But you know, it’ll be like Trello, Teamwork, or I use Harvest a lot. Horses for courses really, you know, different project management software is appropriate for different things and to different businesses. But, again, one of the things that happened with this client is they said, well before that, I shared a Trello board with them, then I said, “Here’s the project for the next three months. Here are the stages, here are the months, here’s the breakdown, and here’s what we’re doing.”
They said, “Great, but can you put all of that into our Monday project management software?” I said, “Well, it’s already in Trello.” They said, “But we want the whole of our team to know.” I said, “Well, as far as I know, there’s just the three of us working on this project.” Okay, so then I logged into their Monday; I haven’t used Monday before. You know, it’s different, you can’t do the same things, so you spend an hour or two resetting up all of your projects in their project management software, so that other people, who it doesn’t really matter, it’s just so that they can have everything in one place.
But all they’re doing is looking at the progress that you’re making and the status; they’re not actually interacting that much with it. You know, it could be “view” only for all it matters, but they want it on their system because it’s there and they want to control it. And I think the problem with that is that as an agency or a contract or whatever, is that you have your own processes, you have your own integrations, you have your own project management software, hopefully, but even if you don’t, even if you’ve got a notepad or you do it all in Google Sheets, at least you’re doing it your way right?
And then making you change the way you do things to do it their way, but still expecting the same results is, you know, you’re not familiar with that project management software is actually not hugely beneficial.
Morgan (Host): I hadn’t thought about this one before, but I like it. You’re bringing up a bunch of new unsettle points. It’s awesome, one of my favorites so far. The way I would frame it, or the way I interpret what you’re saying because I agree with it is, by making someone else change the process that they know works, creates cognitive resistance in your mind, and the cognitive resistance in your mind makes it intellectually harder to stop the problems and focus on the tasks at hand. A non-working example I would give of that is I speak Spanish awesomely, and I can understand and say 95% of what I want to say.
But the problem I have in Spanish is whenever I’m speaking and understanding in Spanish, all my brainpower goes towards translating what they’re saying. I’m left with, like, unable to process to come up with smart, intelligent, clever things to say, so I end up saying generic, stupid, and simple things. I feel like I never realized this metaphor until right but what I’m really trying to say is that you had to adjust to Monday and how it goes, it just takes up so much time mental energy that it just becomes cognitively harder to focus on. Okay, I need to figure out your PVC problems and solve them.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, it’s cognitive load, right?
Morgan (Host): What’s the word? Cognitive Load? Right cognitive load, that’s the right phrase.
Paul (Interviewee): It’s a great name for a band. So the final sort of category, we’ve sort of talked about time, scope, and project management. The final one is probably the most important, and that is an attitude, in my opinion, both their attitude and yours. I am guilty of doing one thing really wrong with that client. Probably two things wrong, and that is having a terrible tendency to be very honest with people, and not everybody likes that. That is an attitude or mistake that I’m I make. I don’t know whether it’s my background, upbringing, or whatever, but I’m just not interested in lying. I just would rather or even sort of be all slippery about the truth; I would rather just tell them exactly what it is.
Morgan (Host): You don’t sugar coat?
Paul (Interviewee): I don’t sugar coat, and you know culturally that is difficult. I think with some cultures. Definitely, I think you Americans, you’re brilliant at that.
Morgan (Host): What I would point out is within the US, I’m from New York very clear New York culture, no sugarcoating. Once you leave New York basically, from New York and the more out west you go, the more sugar you get until you get California. It’s like you get diabetes just from crossing the border.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, so I’m on the west coast of Canada, and really this is the California of the North. It is the same, and I think it’s true. You know, I’ve met and worked with quite a few people in Toronto and find them to be a lot more matter of fact, a lot more like New Yorkers. But out west here, it’s yeah, you know, everything is just awesome, even if it’s terrible.
Morgan (Host): By the way, one trick I often use is because, like you, I try to be blunt, and I invest too much cognitive energy trying to think how to say that without them hating you. Because if you sugarcoat it, they won’t understand the point. So the challenge is how do you get the point across without being the asshole, and I’ll tell you some tricks that I use.
One thing I use is I really plant my “NewYorkness.” I tell them, “Hey, I’m from New York, I’m going to be blunt,” and I tell them on day one, so they go on with that expectation. A second thing that I do is often in conversations with them, I ask them, “Who do you want me to be in this conversation?” And I say like, “Do you want me to be the nice guy? Do you want me the blunt asshole?” I’ve had people say to me like and asked me to sugarcoat my response when I asked them that sometimes people who know they’re messing up and they want to hear it, but their little hearts can’t handle it.
Paul (Interviewee): Yeah, yeah, I think it’s the subtle part of the business, and it doesn’t suit everyone. So I’m definitely guilty of that. There are a couple of other things that came up in this engagement.
Morgan (Host): Tell me about other aspects of your attitude, and there’s because I’m interested in diving into this one.
Paul (Interviewee): Right, my attitude, well you know, I do pride myself on being horrifically honest. And you know as you do, I’ll tell people from the start, but unlike you, I’m really not very good at changing mode. I don’t think it’s ever really got in the way of business. I think a lot of my business is actually one on the back of that because quite often what happens, I had it the other day with a client I just took on, they said that they spoke to a lot of people, by a lot, I think they made like four or five before speaking to me, and they told me some of the things other people said that they could do with this particular project, this particular thing that we were talking about. And I told them it wasn’t possible and it would just be a waste of money.
And they said, “We were really surprised because nobody told us that we’d waste our money doing it that way and nobody suggested anything else. So we’d like to use you.” Honestly, I’ve made a career out of it. You know, I’ve talked to people out of just as much work as I’ve talked people into it. I’ve never talked anybody into doing any work with me. You know, but I’ve definitely talked a lot out of doing it, and I think, in the long run, that’s a much better place to be in. I do hear it’s definitely more prevalent over here than in the UK.
Agencies, contractors, and freelancers tend to over-promise a lot that everything is going to be awesome and amazing. They are very, very positive, upbeat stories, whereas my story tends to be more, “I don’t know if this will work. We’re going to do some research, we’re going to run some experiments that are going to be low cost, and then we’re going to reach some conclusions and iterate from there.” Whereas I think a lot of people are like, “Yeah, this will be awesome! Spend all your money with us, we’ll deliver this amazing result,” and then they fall flat on their asses. Sometimes they come good, and sometimes they pull miracles out.
Morgan (Host): So I have a question about attitude. Something I try to do and follow in my practice is I only work on projects that I’m excited about. And the moment I realized I’m no longer excited about a project is the moment when I realized, “Okay, I have to step down.” Sometimes you’re like a couple of week difference because you question yourself but always, within a couple of weeks.
Paul (Interviewee): So what is it if I can just turn the tables? What is it that would make you change your mind about a project?
Morgan (Host): Oh, so that was the question I was going to ask you about this one. So like, I would assume, or presume that you only take a project if, on day one, you’re optimistic. So on day one, you saw the yellow flags, but you thought they were light yellow. So when you saw the light yellow flags, you’re optimistic, but at some point between that and that point four months later, when you had that big conversation, and you stepped down, at some point, you had to realize it’s just not going to work out with them.
So sometimes it’s the client’s bad behavior were too many issues compound, and that’s what happens. But, it would also be misleading to say that that’s the only reason why it happens. Sometimes I’ve taken on projects where, just recently, but long ago, whereas I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. And it’s not even necessarily that it was too much work for me. But sometimes you have to be at the right moment in your life. “Oh, this other big thing is about to happen in my life that’s going to distract me. And this is actually going to be a ton of work. Yeah, I can make it work. And then sometimes, after three months, you thought it’d be able to juggle the 8 balls at the same time, but I can only juggle 4 balls. So I have to find out how to put 4 balls gently on the ground without them breaking.”
So yeah, sometimes it’s their fault, and sometimes it’s my fault, and in real life, it’s often a combination of those two things like things are never so clean and neat. That is 100% my fault or 100% their fault.
Paul (Interviewee): Absolutely! I mean, I think I made a lot of mistakes in this engagement with this client. But I think it was because, you know, I hadn’t seen a lot of these red flags for a long time that nothing was new to me. It was all like, “Oh, here we go.” And I sort of left them off as I you know, as I crashed through the barriers, you know, I laughed like an insane man, thinking I’d seen this before. And then, you know, the barriers just kept on building until you couldn’t actually move forward. So, you know, I think there’s one final thing on the attitude that I’d like to talk about, which is really important for me, and this engagement made me realize, and it’s a big red flag. That is, if they don’t have any humor or humility.
Morgan (Host): Interesting, interesting!
Paul (Interviewee): So, if you can laugh and joke around with people and you know, you can come to an understanding, can’t you? But I admit that my humor isn’t always in line with other people’s, like cultural gaps and stuff. But, you know, it’s a fundamental thing, that the ability to sort of, like people. They were likable people; it wasn’t that I didn’t like them. It’s a really nice business, and I think they will be successful. I don’t think they’ll probably turn over seven figures in 12 months, but even if they do, I think the two things that they weren’t able to laugh at themselves or just see the funny side to anything.
Not that there was anything to see the funny side about and like the whole humility thing, and staying humble, like, rather than sort of saying, “Yeah, you know, there’s a problem here. Oh, I wonder what that problem can be. Let’s have a chat about the problem and be like, yeah, you’ve got a problem. It’s definitely on your side.” You know, our technical setup is perfect. And then you go in and have to prove, you know, that technically, their setup was poor, and it was not working, and it was broken. And then, you know, had to do that multiple times.
And when they got to the third time, I just thought, now you know, this arrogance is just, you know, I don’t have a problem with people being ambitious. You know, I love that. I really want people to be ambitious for their businesses. You know, I like getting and feeling ambitious for somebody else’s business and feeling that I can help them reach their goals. But, you know, the kind of arrogance sometimes gets, I really, really struggled with. Almost to the point now where I’m thinking, “Do I want to carry on working with software companies? Because a lot of them are actually quite arrogant.”
Morgan (Host): So great points. I never thought so clearly about the importance of humor and humility, but I love it. I’m going to start using it. By the way, most of my books have been published, and one is a humor book, and the other one is actually a book on humility. So actually, I am selling a book, you know, the largest publishing house in the world, but I never thought so clearly about the importance of humor and humility. They are actually the subjects of my two favorite books of my own, so I am totally gonna steal that phrase.
Paul (Interviewee): Are you gonna put them on the video and say, “Here’s the link to the video below?”
Morgan (Host): Probably not. But the other point that I want to make is the humility one is interesting. I agree. 100% that’s important. The challenge is working with any CEO or founder, the founder, and the CEO personalities. By definition, those jobs are going to attract people who have the exact opposite of humility. Like you have to be arrogant to think that I can change the world in this little way. Even if it’s just I want to convince people to spend a million dollars on my shit, not in other people’s shit. Like you need arrogance in order to think that. So, as a result, the founder CEO, who is also humble, it’s not quite as uncommon as a unicorn, but it’s approaching that level.
Paul (Interviewee): I’ve never thought about it like that, Morgan. You know what I think the difference is that I spent probably the first 20-25 years of my career working with small business owners, predominantly, and they tend not to be so arrogant and tend to be more humble. And when you get to VC-backed software companies or even bootstrapped, they are more arrogant.
Morgan (Host): By the way, this is very consistent with my experience. I know someone is for business and like, you know, some guy that has 30 employees and like guesses what, like making millions of dollars it’s a real business.
Like real businesses that some guy started, he loves this thing, he did well, so now he just runs a network of six gyms, and he’s a great guy. Because that emerged naturally out of his passion for gyms, it’s much easier to be that archetype of someone without arrogance, as opposed to the wow, biggest VC firm in the world. Just give me $3 million. Like, that happens, you’re going to have, in almost all cases, almost the unicorn in ego that goes all the way up there.
Paul (Interviewee): That is fascinating; you know why I’d never made that connection?
Morgan (Host): Both of us are making new connections tonight. This is this has been fun. Now to read to wrap up anyone because I feel like we also jumped around a bit, so it was awesome. You mentioned a little while ago the final conversation where you had that entity engagement. Any other to wrap it up? Like a like after that? Any other problems, did you hear from them? Have they fired a few more marketers since you left?
Paul (Interviewee): That’s a really good point. So I think I made a really big mistake there and I have done this before in business. I took all of their criticism personally, and that is a fatal mistake to make in business. And so, when we had the final conversation, it wasn’t heated. But, you know, I laid down the way that I saw it, and there was no way in my mind that we were going to come out of that conversation and continue to work together.
Because I’d crashed through so many barriers, things that probably didn’t even register to them. Like you know, sending me emails and including stuff like oh, you know, we can get somebody else to do this for last, or you’re really expensive, or you know, when you when you’ve read that once or twice, you just begin to think well, you know, you’re probably not made to work together. Yeah, so I deliberately had the call with the intent of ending the engagement, I wished them luck, and I still wish them luck. I’m sure it will be successful, and I think both parties learned something from the engagement.
It reminded me of what client red flags are and how many there are because I’d forgotten it. I’ve had it quite easy for the last few years, just working with a handful of clients and I think for their part, you know, I think there was a lot to learn in terms of, mostly attitude really, of how you partner with people and how you deal with them and how you treat them. You know, in some ways, you need to actually treat them as well as or better than your employees. I also think that they will be successful, but I don’t regret it when I stopped working with them. And you know, strange things happen when you make the decision to stop working with someone, you’ll find that as that door closes, another one opens. And I’ve never liked the idea of being a sausage factory.
Somebody who’s just churning out work, and I’m not that interested in that. I only work with a handful of clients, but inevitably where you do have churn, that does free you up for other things, and other opportunities will come along. It won’t be the end of your life so, if you go to bed at night and you get that that heavy feeling in your chest, you think it’s a client that’s giving that to you rather than indigestion from something, the best thing is to let them go because you’ll feel better and they’ll feel better. Other opportunities will come along which will be better for you. How positive is that?
Morgan (Host): I love it, and I agree with that a 1,000% What I would add on a slightly less optimistic note is, unfortunately, I found that wisdom that you just shared which is fantastic, often comes with age. Like when you’re 23 and that $5,000 A month is life-changing to you at 23, that is much harder to turn down a few $1,000 a month. And then a few decades later, when you know that money comes in, money goes.
Paul (Interviewee): Money does come, and money does go, and you know the other thing to say on that is that, if you ever do a really good price for someone, or you know, do something less than you think you should be doing it. It will always be painful, so always charge more than you think. Because you know when it gets painful, the money is not much of solace, but at least the bills get paid.
Morgan (Host): Yeah, I bet that makes sense. A piece of advice that I often give people when they’re struggling with situations like, “How do I make more money or I’m unhappy or these annoying clients.” I often recommend people to list down their clients by how much money they’re making from them and how much you enjoy working with them.1 to 10 for each and multiply the two together.
Then at the resulting column, just take the bottom 20% and get rid of them. What I find useful about this process is that “Hey like you’re willing to put up with more bad behavior. If if the money is worth it. It’s just human nature.” But when it has that combination of terrible money and terrible kind of relationships, then it becomes doubly important in order to clear from your emotions and your time.
Paul (Interviewee): Well, thank you so much, that was great!
Morgan (Host): Thank you, this was fun. I almost want to do it again. I hope you have more terrible clients, so we have an excuse to do this again.
Paul (Interviewee): I hope I’ve learned from a lot of lessons.
Morgan (Host): This was fun; thank you for coming and to be continued. Everyone who made it to the end, I hope it was worth it. Thank you for watching.
This transcription belongs to Episode #10, please watch the complete episode here!