Speaking When Spoken To

When you’re at a place full-time, you have a little leeway as to how hard you can argue with your co-workers. If you’re a jerk on occasion, they’ll usually put up with it. Sort of like Olympic scoring. Throw out the low and the high score, and you’re judged on your average.

When you’re freelance, though, you can’t really go to the mat on anything. Say the wrong thing, inadvertently piss off the wrong person, even disagree too strongly with the wrong person, and you’re outta there. Sure, you can be nice about it, but you have to know when to cut bait.

I look at it this way: I’m there to make someone’s life easier. But I also figure they hired me for my expertise and my opinions, so I do give them. But if someone disagrees with me, maybe I’ll keep trying, but if I see them getting angry or I see they’re not budging and it’s pointless to continue, I shut my pie hole.

If I overhear people having a discussion, I give my opinion only when I’m asked. Otherwise, I stay out of it. If I constantly butt in and give my opinion when it’s not wanted, or if I continue to argue a point as if I were a staffer, people won’t want me around.

The whole “not pissing people off by opening my mouth” thing took me some time to master. I still can’t say that I’m perfect at it. I’m very much a work in progress. But I do know that I’m much better at it than I was earlier in my career.

I remember one of the first meetings I ever went to. I thought my job was to produce the best copy possible, so when the client wanted to change it and I thought his changes were bad or stupid or both, I must have argued too strongly. Or maybe my body language was too transparent. I admit I’m a pretty straightforward kind of guy.

A quick tangential story: A relative of my wife’s who I didn’t care for came over to visit. So I went out in the garage and closed the door and started working on the car I’ve been building for 20 years. Hey, cut me some slack. Time and money, y’know? So this guy came over, and after awhile, he asked where I was. Heidi said I was out in the garage. She couldn’t just say I was busy or out with a buddy or something. No, she has this thing about not lying, no matter what. It’s one of her many flaws.

Her relative said, well, I know he has some problems with me, so maybe I’ll go out and ask him what he thinks. Heidi said, okay, but just so you know, if you ask him what he thinks, he’ll tell you.

I have to hand it to the guy. He came out and said, “I understand you have a problem with me. Why is that?” I started laughing. Then I laid it all out. To his credit, he stood there and took it. He said he understood, and he apologized, and promised to change the behavior I so strongly objected to. And he did, and our relationship is now good.

So anyway. I’m not sure exactly what I did to piss off that client way back when, but when we got back to the agency, the client called the AE and said, “Don’t bring that guy back to a meeting ever again.” I was truly shocked. I didn’t know what I had done wrong. I realized then I had some work to do on moi.

It’s kind of embarrassing to share that, but hey, we didn’t all start out polished, did we? And besides, that can happen at any stage in your career.

Case in point. We were in a meeting a few years ago, and we were working on a video project for a client. It was a big anniversary video and the client was counting on us to kill it, which we definitely would have.

But we were all in the input meeting, and one of the senior people on the client side, whom we rarely worked with, decided to join the meeting. At one point in the meeting, she said, “I’m putting (this guy) in charge.” One of her internal people, and again, not one of the people we usually worked with. “If at any point in the process he feels you’re not meeting expectations, I’ve authorized him to take the project over.”

At that point, the president of the agency said, “Then you should have him take it over now.”

The senior person looked puzzled. “Why?” she asked.

The president said, “Because we don’t work like that. You either trust us to deliver your project, or you don’t. But we don’t work with a gun held to our head.”

I wanted to let out a whoop, jump over the table and hug him. But that’s no longer appropriate behavior in a meeting.

The senior person was pissed, but said, “No, we want you to do the project.”

The president said, “Okay, we will. And we will exceed your expectations. That’s what we do.”

You gotta love a guy that has your back like that. But of course, the AE got the call when we got back. “Don’t bring that guy back to a meeting ever again.”

Which leads to another story, which is actually just a continuation of this story: The only time I ever told off a client. But I’ll save that for a future post. You have things to do today, don’t you?

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