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Of the King’s Fist and the Peasant’s Freedom – A CRUNCHTIME Rant

I’ve been quiet about this and kept it to myself for a long time but please let me rant a bit. For the longest time, both working as a freelancer and as studio manager in my company, there has been one constant. And this is a practice that is not unique to me alone but has been experienced by many a creative. It is often the case that during any business interaction the client assumes the position of greatest influence and prominence. The client dictates the scope of work and the time given to do the work. The client gets to dictate how much he believes your work and time are worth. He can even decide when he will compensate you and the terms thereof. Why is that?


I have often heard that the “customer is always right” and that the “customer is king” and for the longest time I too have been an ever submissive sheep to that rather unbalanced school of thought. But here’s my problem with that line of thinking. Saying that the customer is king or, worse still, that he’s always right creates a dangerous premise that not only invites abuse but also encourages it. Whoever said that the customer is king told a lie that not only watered down the role and importance of the service provider but it also gave the customer undue and undeserved leverage in the transaction. It created a disproportionate relationship where the customer begins to believe he is doing the service provider a favour by buying from him and as such can manipulate the conditions to make them more favourable for himself. With this perceived leverage the customer can negotiate for a better price. He can force the creative to work within an unreasonably short time. He can force the creative to incur the production costs of the job and only get paid after delivering. The list of arm twisting tactics is long and saddening. All these are pointed our all with the threat of withholding their business if their polite demands are not met.

Let me make this abundantly clear. The customer is not more important than the service provider in any business transaction. Both parties are equal contributors in a reciprocal business transaction. True, the service provider might need the money accrued from the customer’s patronage however it is also true that the customer needs the product or service that they initially approached the service provider for. Understanding this will help restore balance between the two parties. You will find discussions undertaken on an equal footing more often than not breed mutual respect. Both parties respect each other’s time, effort and results. There will be less arm twisting on price, less fist clenching on the scope of work and ultimately less strife.

The interesting thing is that when those same individuals find themselves at the supermarket, like Pick n Pay, they willingly subject themselves and submit to the terms put in front of them. They adhere to the stipulated hours of operation. They pay before taking their loaf of bread, without negotiating the price no less. They never threaten to take their business elsewhere unless their conditions are met.

For many creatives the creative process that involves difficult clients feels like all the creativity being forcefully squeezed out of them, when in fact the creative juices should just flow so that the client gets the best out of them.

So what does that mean for my fellow creatives reading this? Simple. Do what the big guys do. Set working hours and invite your clients stick to them. Have a clear and unflinching price list and be unflappable in your use of it. If he threatens to go elsewhere because “that guy over there charges less” or “the guy downtown said he can do it faster” you are allowed to politely usher him towards the door. Just as he can find a creative that can do the job for less, you can find a client that will pay you more for your service. If he will be able to find a creative willing to work outside rational office hours, you to will be able to find a client that is willing to work within your stipulated working hours. In a nutshell, just as he may be able to find a creative that meets his conditions, you too will be able to find a client willing to meet yours. The caveat, however, is that those conditions have to indeed be stipulated and stuck to. Compromising makes you look desperate and hands power and leverage to the client.

And what does this mean for my fellow clients reading this? Simple. Respect your business partners. Yes. Partners. Not employees, not slaves, not underlings. Partners. Whenever you engage a creative and commission him or her to do some work for you, you become equal partners in that project. Yes, you may be paying the creative but that doesn’t mean you own them. It certainly doesn’t mean that you’re doing charity work either. Of course you do have the final say because ultimately it’s your work. We can all concede that on that wise you may be considered king, but that doesn’t mean the king has to rule with an iron fist. After all the king has butchers, bakers and candlestick makers that he relies on to do things that he cannot do.

So don’t command, instead consult. Don’t dictate, demean or deride. Instead ask questions and provide answers to the questions you’re asked that will help you and the creative carry out your roles properly and effectively. That way, if you can unclench your iron fist, the freedom the peasant receives will help him place something more worthwhile in your open palm. This has been CRUNCHTIME. See y’all next time.