Podcast Episode 41: The Importance of Professional Courtesy

We all grew up being told that manners cost nothing, and it’s never more true than when you are running your own freelance writing business. Treating your clients and fellow freelancers with courtesy is a must, and it is not unreasonable to expect the same in return. In this solo episode Lorrie talks about the importance of professional courtesy for freelancers and gives some handy hints and tips about achieving it, even in trying situations!

Show Notes

How to format an e-book. http://freelanceswitch.com/freelance-writing/format-an-ebook-for-kindle/

The sad smell of desperation: http://lorriehartshorn.com/episode-nine-of-a-little-bird-told-me-the-sad-smell-of-desperation/

Turning one-off clients into repeat business: http://www.philippawrites.co.uk/podcast-episode-39-how-to-turn-one-off-clients-into-repeat-business/

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LH: Hello and welcome to Episode 41 of A Little Bird Told Me: the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.  You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and there you can subscribe to the podcast via RSS feed, iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio or just there on the Podomatic page itself.  It’s worth clicking the subscribe button, it really is because you’ll get a notification as soon as our new episodes are out.

On the Podomatic page itself you’ll also find the links to our Facebook page where you can come and chat to me and Pip and ask us any questions you might have and give feedback on the episodes you’ve listened to so far, and you’ll also find links to our websites and our social media feeds, as well as to other episodes, transcripts and show notes, many of which are actually handy links to resources for freelancers.

I’m Lorrie Hartshorn and this week, I’m here without my usual co-host Pip, who has been off down South, gallivanting at this year’s Content Marketing Show in London. She’ll be back next week as usual, though, so stay tuned for what will hopefully be another really helpful solo episode.

English: Table Manners
English: Table Manners (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This episode is all about professional courtesy. When you’re your own business, and you’re all that stands between you and oodles of work – or bankruptcy for that matter – it’s important that you keep your standards up and your interactions courteous. So here I am with a few dos and don’ts about dealing with people courteously. And, because in my world, the client isn’t always right, I’ll also be talking about what I think is acceptable – and unacceptable – behaviour on the part of your clients.

Whenever I chat to clients and other freelancers, one thing that most people can agree on is that they think professional courtesy is an important part of a working relationship. And yet, everyone I speak to has some kind of horror story they can tell about discourteous clients, churlish designers and grumpy, off-hand writers. The only thing I can really conclude is that most people think manners are really important but not everyone agrees on what constitutes polite and what doesn’t.

For that reason, I’ll be sharing my own opinions and those of other people I’ve chatted to. If you get to the end of this episode and find there’s something you think should have been included – either as a hallmark of manners or the height of rudeness, please do come and let me know on our Facebook page or on my social media feeds – the links to all those are at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.

So first off, why is professional courtesy so important for freelancers? When you start out as a freelancer, it can be easy to get carried away and think “Haha! Now I answer to no one!”. There’s no gruff manager breathing down your neck, you don’t have to suck up to that evil woman in accounts who wields your payslip with an iron fist, and you’re not representing another company. Plus, you can’t get fired.

But, since I began freelancing, I’ve realised that it’s more important than ever to be really polite and show professional courtesy on a consistent basis. In person, over the phone, by email – you’re the sole representative of your own business, so first, second, third and 100th impressions count for a lot.

When clients work with freelancers, the relationship can actually become quite intimate. They’re dealing with one person for the work itself, the business relationship, the invoicing, the admin, and they need to find you approachable in all of those roles. To my clients, I’m a marketer, a writer, an editor, an advisor, someone to chat to when they don’t know what to do with a piece of work or a press release or a marketing campaign, someone to laugh with when a frantic last-minute project lands in their lap and they can’t handle it, and someone to talk seriously with when it’s all gone to pot and they need a hand fixing it. I have to be respectful, approachable, available, appropriate and courteous through it all.

Likewise, if you’re a client – and lots of us freelancers are clients as well as service providers – it’s important to treat your freelancer with respect and manners. I for one know that a rude, disrespectful client is almost never worth the hassle, and while I’ll never be rude in return, I might well not be available next time some work is needed!

A rude client really can be the bane of a freelancer’s life, even if they’re not relying on the income from that person. From personal experience – my own and other freelancers I know – rude clients can make you question yourself. They can ruin an otherwise really nice day or week, cause sleepless nights and wear away at a freelancer’s self-confidence, self-assurance and general enjoyment of their career. You don’t want to be the person whose thoughtlessness or actual discourtesy contributes to someone having a really rubbish time of it, so listen up.

These are my top six rules for professional courtesy – a lot of these apply to both freelancers and clients.

1) Do what you say you’re going to do. From the moment you get in touch with your client or freelancer, it’s important to do what you say you’re going to do. If you meet someone at a networking event and say you’ll drop them a line when you get back, do it. If someone’s expecting a phone-call or an email from you, make sure they get it – or let them know if you’re not going to be able to keep your word. If work’s due in on Monday, get it in on Monday. If you quote a client £200 for a project, charge them £200.

There are times, particularly with quotes and deadlines, where you face a choice between being inconvenienced and inconveniencing your client or service provider. In my books, it’s better to take one for the team if you’ve under-quoted or given a tough deadline. You might lose out on a bit of money or sleep, but it’s better than putting your mistake on the other person for the sake of an easy life.

2) Communicate. In the case of things not panning out how they’re supposed to, as well as other situations, I never usually mind so much as long as I know what’s going on. The same thing goes for clients. If, for some unavoidable reason, you’re not going to be able to stick with number one and do what you say you were going to do, let them know as soon as possible. Don’t give them rubbish excuses, or your life story, and acknowledge the inconvenience you might be causing them rather than taking a “like it or lump it” approach. Most importantly, don’t let them down more than you absolutely have to.

Likewise, even if there’s nothing wrong, make sure you check in often enough with your clients. This can be a difficult one to master – when I started out, I was wary of getting in touch with clients too often – besides which, it just wasn’t my preferred MO: with a predominantly academic background, I was used to burying myself in books and dictionaries and emerging only when I’d done a project. But clients like to hear how you’re getting on. Sure, they don’t want a minute by minute update, but if you’re working on a project that runs over more than two days, it’s best to check in with them and let them know that everything’s running smoothly. I’ll admit, this is still something I slip up with occasionally – I get so focused on my work that I find myself forgetting to drop a quick “Everything’s coming on fine!” message to clients sometimes, but they do worry, so it’s something I try really hard not to fall down on.

3) Don’t be clingy. This is one a friend suggested, actually. Although he works for himself, my friend – and fellow freelancer –  doesn’t really have clients that he deals with directly. What he does have, though, is a wide range of freelancers who work for him on a regular basis. And one thing that really gets up his nose is people harassing him for work. As Pip mentioned in her last solo episode, which was about how to turn one-off clients into repeat business, it’s great to check in with clients and see if there’s anything you can do to help them – any more work they might need doing, any advice they might need and any chance of repeat business in future. What it’s not good to do, though, is bug clients for extra work when you’re having a quiet period. As I’ve mentioned before, desperation is never attractive, and it’s not good to be interrupting your client to beg extra work from them. Likewise, if you’re a client and you have a regular arrangement with a freelancer, it’s fine to get in touch with them to see if they have any extra capacity to help you out, but don’t guilt-trip or penalise someone if they just don’t have time to help you. I’ve had this before and it’s really awkward when clients take it personally that you have other clients and commitments. If your freelancer is consistently not available as much as you need them to be, that’s one thing. But if you contact them on a Friday afternoon needing something by Monday morning and find that the answer is “Really sorry but that’s not do-able”, don’t take it out on the other person.

4) Ignoring someone is rude. This has to be personal pet peeve. Although it’s similar to tip two, which was of course to communicate with people, I felt this one deserved its own category, simply because of the number of people – both freelancers and people who hire freelancers – who go, “YES!” when you mention it. Not to mention (and of course I will – you know I will!) my own experience.

Many is the time, sadly, where I’ve had my emails and phonecalls ignored by clients. Whether it’s repeated requests for clarification on work they want doing, invoices that need paying or work that’s been completed, emails and phonecalls are commonly ignored by people for whom politeness is not high up on the list. What’s more, it always seems to be the most demanding clients – the ones who want to pay the least and give the shortest deadlines – who suddenly ignore you when they’ve got what they want. Now, forgetting to answer someone’s email is easy. I have lovely clients who are scatterbrained, and that’s different – I expect it from them and I’ll usually get an email or phone call a while later saying, “OMG, I’m so sorry”. And I do the same – say if a client tries to call me while I’m out and about for the afternoon, or emails me while I’m busy with something else, I do have to put off responding to the query, but I answer it eventually! What is really not acceptable is people for whom radio silence is a standard response.

Manners Count
Manners Count (Photo credit: jessamyn)

If someone’s sent you a query, answer it. If someone wants to know where they’re up to with you, let them know. If someone invoices you, pay them or let them know when you’ll be paying them. If someone pays you, email them to say thank you. A two-line email only takes a few seconds, but it pays dividends to acknowledge people. A recent client of mine – a one-off client – took to ignoring me once I’d completed the work they wanted from me. I asked for feedback on the final piece of work in the project and got nothing. I asked if the project was complete as agreed: got nothing. I waited a few days, sent the invoice and got nothing. I was fully expecting them to pay me late as well. As it was, they didn’t, but given that they’d ignored three emails from me, I was left really underwhelmed and frankly unimpressed. When you can see someone merrily tweeting away and updating their LinkedIn, all the while ignoring you after you’ve put some real effort into working for them, it’s a kick in the teeth. I wouldn’t work for that person again – although I’ve obviously got no idea whether they’d want me to!

5) Don’t run rough-shod over your client or freelancer’s feelings. As a freelance writer, you’re being hired because you’re good at writing and everything that entails. No big newsflash there. You’re supposed to be good at what you do, and have confidence in what you do. Confidence, when well-placed, can be a reassuring thing to demonstrate to a client. What it’s important to avoid doing, though, is being arrogant and high-handed with a client.

As a freelance writer, I am often surprised at how many people struggle with what I would consider quite basic literacy. Grammar, spelling, punctuation – all of these things can prove a struggle for even the most successful business people and executives. Unsurprisingly, then, more complex aspects of commercial writing and editing – anything from SEO copywriting to narrative voice in literary editing, can be a minefield. Every freelance writer I know has experience of being questioned by a client. Whether it’s “Are you sure those commas should be there? They look funny…” or “I think that should be a semi-colon. Why? Um…” or “This email subject line needs to be something like, “WE CAN SAVE YOU MILLIONS TODAY!” because everyone loves money…” everyone’s had a client who thinks they know best.

Other times, you might have an endearingly helpful client, who’s full of great ideas and wants you to love them. I find a lot of this with literary editing clients – creative writing is a hugely personal thing, so characters or scenes will often be based on an idea or experience that the author holds dear, so the idea of chopping or changing anything can hit really hard.

Alternatively, you might be a client – say, you’re a writer who’s hired a designer for a project. Your designer comes back with work that you hate. In all of these cases, it’s important to be courteous.

Firstly, avoid arrogance. Avoid the temptation to pull rank and wax on about what an expert you are. “Trust me, I’m an expert” is obnoxious, and absolutely not the same thing as reassuring someone that you’ve done your research and have lots of experience in A, B or C “so try not to worry”. It can be really frustrating to explain yourself to a client who might know absolutely nothing about writing, and who might be being aggressive or defensive or clingy, but slapping someone down with a “Please, you know nothing!” is never going to be appropriate. It takes more effort to send someone a rant by email than it does to send them a quick email saying, “Have checked the commas” or whatever it is, “and it’s all fine.”

In the event of a well-meaning but perhaps a bit inept client, be careful with their person’s feelings. If someone’s come up with a really bad idea, it’s your professional duty to voice your concerns, but it’s never OK to ridicule someone, talk them down, ignore them or go ahead and do something they haven’t OKed simply because you know – or think you know – it’ll be better.

At the end of the day, the client often has the final say. What they want might be plain wrong or it might just really not be to your taste, but if they’re insistent on having it, there’s not much you can do. Sometimes all you can do is voice your concerns, say, “Personally, I would advise against that because A, B and C” and let them make the final decision. If you need to be clear that you don’t want your name going on that piece of work, then so be it, but try to be sensitive about it. Same goes for hiring people. I’ve ended up cutting short projects with designers simply because I’ve felt that the work is so bad or unsuitable that it’s unusable. What I don’t do is insult people, start blanking them, or bad-mouth them.

6) My sixth and final tip is one that I always hope is obvious but that never seems to be and that’s Don’t get into flame wars! If you get an angry phone-call, email, website, social media or blog comment, don’t respond in kind. Stay professional, no matter how wrong the client might be and try and take the discussion private if it isn’t already. If you can talk the other person round, so much the better. If you’ve done something wrong, apologise, outline how you’ll resolve the situation and try to move forward. If you haven’t done anything wrong, explain yourself politely but firmly and take your lead from the other party. If they’re being abusive, you’re well within your rights to step away from the conversation. I’ve had to do it once or twice and I’ve never regretted it – being polite doesn’t mean being a pushover. But, no matter what they say or do, and no matter where they say or do it, don’t be rude or abusive. If you handle a situation with dignity and class, you’ll not only be remembered by anyone who’s privvy to the situation as a professional, you’ll be minimising stress for your own self by being safe in the knowledge that you did nothing to make the situation any worse than it already was.

So I hope you’ve found these tips a helpful reminder of the different kinds of courtesy you can show to your clients and suppliers. As someone said to me on Twitter the other day, “Manners at work, as in life, are vital. They grease the wheels and make everyone feel better about themselves.” And it’s true. You don’t technically need to be polite to anyone. Sure, clients might not come back if you’re rude to them (some might!) but you can always find more, even if it is less energy efficient. But being courteous to people is about more than just fulfilling a necessary duty. It’s about being the best kind of freelancer. It’s about making other people’s lives more pleasant, and it’s about not being one of those horrible people whose emails and phonecalls other people dread. Being courteous puts you in a league above, sadly, as there are still plenty of people who aren’t. And if you stick to your standards, clients and suppliers will thank you for it.

I know without a doubt that I’m willing to go one further and one better for clients who treat me with respect. I’ll hit tough deadlines for clients who have the manners to give me the time of day and say, “Hi, hope you’re well…” before they launch into a request. I’ll throw in bits of advice and consulting here and there for clients who pay me on time, thank me for getting work to them and keep me up to date with what they need from me. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the people I hire – usually writers and designers – do a brilliant job for time and time again. I try to treat them as I’d like to be treated and, while I’m not the perfect client or freelancer, a little bit of effort and courtesy usually goes a very long way.

So now it’s time for this week’s Little Bird Told Me Recommendation of the week. This week’s recommendation is a little bit different to most of our previous ones, which often focus on commercial copywriting, SEO and things like that. Recently, on our Facebook page, a listened asked us about self-publishing on the digital market – ie. publishing an e-book. And while the query was about publishing in general, it got me thinking about a big bug bear of mine when I purchase Kindle books by independent authors: formatting. I bet you thought it was going to be editing, didn’t you? And you’d be right, usually, but not this time!

Poorly formatted e-books are a total pain. Bad formatting ruins the reading experience which, for me personally, is already compromised by the book being in digital format. I’m a traditionalist – what can I say?

Bad formatting seems to happen for the same reason as bad editing: through sheer laziness. It’s easy to focus on the content of your book and think, “Oof, finished it – now time to publish and make millions!” but there are boring things like proof-reading and yes, formatting, to be perfected before your book is suitable for sale.

Be courteous to your readers by making sure that they can enjoy what they’ve just purchased from you. If the spacing, margins, headers and pages are all to pot, you’re on to a loser.

A recent article on Freelance Switch offers a really in-depth tutorial on how to format an ebook. While the author, David Masters, is clear that he’d recommend using paid-for tool Scrivener, he goes through all the steps you need to go through if you decide to format your book using Microsoft Word or other free software.

The article has really clear guidelines, screenshots and links, and is the perfect go-to guide for anyone planning to self-publish online, whether you’re a blogger, marketer, copywriter or fiction author. I’ll pop the link to the article in the show-notes and I’d encourage anyone who’s thinking of writing an e-book to have a look. If you’ve got the time, inclination and talent, an e-book can be a brilliant way to promote your services, as long as you do it the right way.

So, there we have it – episode 41 of A Little Bird Told Me. If you’ve got any comments, queries or questions, or you just fancy getting in touch, go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and follow the links to my and Pip’s social media feeds and websites.

Pip and I will be recording another dual episode next week, and you can subscribe to that and all future episodes right there on Podomatic. Until then, though, I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn – thanks so much for listening.