Wednesday, March 30, 2016

“Managing Up” as a Freelancer Part 2: Take the Bull by the Horns

In the first part of this series on “Managing Up as a Freelancer”, I described how “managing up” is a necessary component of a successful freelancer’s career. It’s not merely a technique used by corporate staff to get promoted or produce companywide success. It is also a vital part of the freelancer’s strategy of constant diligence, yielding satisfied, repeat clients.

In Part 2, I will highlight key areas that help the freelance artist create a streamlined experience for the client, one that minimizes problems and yields excellent results.

Getting to Yes: Alignment
The first thing you want when starting an assignment, be it remote or on-site, is to get into alignment with your client.

It’s not effective to sit down, follow instructions and think you’re doing your best. Even though you are an autonomous freelancer you must be briefly informed of the project history and details of the intended outcome. Are they presenting to an internal or external client? Is the concept already sold and merely needs to be fleshed out for group discussion? Or are they risking their last dime on this presentation to gain the new contract?

Your designs should fit the presentation. Are they printing your illustrations for display on presentation boards in a conference room?  A Power Point slide show, or a PDF document distributed via Skype? If the big pitch is for the newest brand acquisition, the frames might have a higher fidelity than looser storyboards prepared for a director who wrote the script. Whatever the form, establish the parameters and details ASAP. Part of “managing up” is getting clear on what you’re asked to deliver and why. The more you know the better you can proceed.

My clients often invite me to brainstorm sessions. I consider it an honor. If you’re asked to brainstorm, give it the importance it deserves. Your client values your input and experience. Take charge of their concerns – remember you are building trust with clients. “Managing up” means you aren’t afraid to discuss decisions that will serve them best.

After you and your client are in alignment on what the desired goals are, you must agree on “when” to get there. Are you working the whole day? Lunch? Coffee breaks? Need to stop at a certain time so you can make your kids evening drama production? Communicate times and involvement up-front. Not only will you focus better, you’ll be uninhibited by questions and do your best work.

Agree on “how” you will submit roughs and final frames for review. Can you reach the client via email, or stroll over to their desk? Are they in meetings all day? Do they prefer you send a PDF which they can quietly review on their tablet during their weekly staff meeting?  Would they rather discuss progress at your work station? Either way, they’ll be happy if you make it convenient for them.

Other details relate to the “what” that you will create - that is, what formats and styles? Are you drawing digitally or hand drawn frames on paper? Black and white? Color? Line? High-fidelity refined frames or low-fidelity loose images? Maybe they have a visual target you can reference?

Since you both agree “when” to deliver, “how” to get there and “what” it should look like, forge ahead. Together, you can make adjustments as needed.

After the client and I review the script, I sometimes identify more frames than discussed.  If it turns out the original 10 frames to be finished at 5:30 have doubled to 20, get some clarity. Do they want all twenty frames now that you’ve got their adrenaline pumping? Is the delivery flexible? If not, what then? Should you remind them “I was hired to do only ten frames“ or should you bunt your way to 20 frames, hoping to score a home run?

A smart alternative is to suggest another solution. Maybe you deliver 20 frames at a much rougher fidelity level than planned in the same amount of time. If it serves their needs just as well, you’ve managed up. Take ownership of the final results by getting their permission to use your suggestion, or to produce another one.

Things can change rapidly on an assignment. For example, after lunch, the client suddenly asks if they can have the frames at 3 o’clock instead of 5:30. You’re starting to feel stressed and taken advantage of. But hold on - you’re the expert! They hired you to assist them in achieving greatness. There’s no need to feel manipulated or pressured beyond what you can achieve. If they really need everything earlier and you want to accommodate them, suggest what you CAN deliver by 3. Can the frames be painted with broad strokes, masses of shapes without detail? Can they choose a smaller selection of deliverables in order to meet the deadline?

How you handle changes in direction or deadlines makes all the difference. Communication is important every step of the way. Never take for granted that a client knows what your thinking. Constant communication and evaluation of progress is vital for client success and satisfaction. When details and plans change, remain poised. “Managing up” is a sign of professionalism and uses deliberate action to get results.

The greatest complement a freelancer can receive is when a client leaves them alone. They go to lunch or meetings knowing you’re on the job because you’ve won their confidence. They feel safe because your suggestions are good ones, and you are in alignment with them. 

When employers find someone who is great at their job and a pleasure to work with, they will love having you around. Since you aren’t subject to the same jaded outlooks many staffers are infected with, your enthusiasm makes you a perfect candidate to tackle a problematic or difficult job. As your storyboards, concept art or illustrations breath new life into their troubled project, you will become a favorite freelancer for future projects.

Satisfaction Guaranteed
After following the above practices, you’ve handed in all deliverables. Now take a minute to see if the client is happy. You may have to wait until after their presentation to find out. Usually, you can gauge their satisfaction by how relieved they are once completed. Since you partnered methodically with them and received their blessings every step of the way, they’ll remember how instrumental you were for a smooth production and how you inspired confidence for the project.

In the odd case the client is not happy with what you’ve provided, express regrets and ask what you can do to make them happy.  You also want to know where things went wrong. At what point did both of you not align in the process? Walking through it step-by-step allows the client to revisit the decisions they made, suggesting a constructive review both parties can learn from.  

Wrap it Up
After ending on a good note, mention that you would love to work with them again. Perhaps they can refer you to other potential customers. Also, it’s perfectly fine to ask for a testimonial that you can share on your web site or linked-in. They may not have the time or patience to put one together no matter how much they liked your performance, but assure them you only need one or two sentences. With that amount of brevity, their comments will get right to the point. If they are slow to get back to you, be patient. They just had a great experience, let’s keep it that way. You can always circle back when the time is right.

I hope these points on “managing up” as a freelancer are helpful. It may seem common sense, but many times we can forget to employ such basic principles. As your talent gives you entrée to seek freelance work, “managing up” is the method you use to secure a foothold. Get into Alignment. Agree on “how,” “what,” “when” and “where.” Adjust the plan as needed. Finally, build Trust between you and your clients. You’ll be delivering the highest level of Satisfaction their money can buy.

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