The Big Problem with Small Requests

It usually starts with a pretty simple request. You know the type. Something like creating a new page for a client on their website. Or maybe it’s something a little more complex like developing a microsite for an upcoming marketing campaign.

You go over the request and it seems reasonable. You give the client an idea about how much time you need and will get started when they provide you content. No big deal.

Except when it becomes one.

The Problem

As a freelancer, I’m used to getting one-off requests from my clients. It’s part of the job and the primary reason I have an hourly rate. I would consider ditching hourly work altogether and only accepting flat-rate projects, but the reality is that many clients need ongoing help that can’t be contained cleanly in a proposal or a retainer.

These little requests have been turning into major headaches for me. Not because they are particularly difficult or that I don’t enjoy helping my clients, but because they typically manifest themselves into more tiny little requests that then multiply into others. Before you know it, that 30-minute task turns into a three-hour project.

The problem occurs when you finish the request, then new details emerge that require you to go back in and make further revisions. I had this happen recently when I had to go back into the same set of code on three separate occasions because of revisions to the content that was originally provided to me. My work was done the first time through, but it turned out the content had not been properly vetted and approved by other stakeholders on the team before I was asked to start. That one-hour development request turned into two hours that I had never accounted for in my schedule.

Who’s to Blame?

Let me confess that bitching about this makes me feel guilty. I mean, I’m charging by the hour, so what does it matter if I earn additional income because my client makes an error? I have the time to do it and am getting paid for it, so what’s the big deal?

If I’m honest with myself, the problem has more to do with me than my clients for two reasons. The first is that, deep down, I hate the hourly rate model. It makes me feel slimy every time I start the meter on a client. We’ve all heard lawyer jokes at some point in our lives but, realistically, how am I any different when I charge by the hour? Every billable minute that ticks by reminds me that I’m a business in addition to being a web designer.

Secondly, I have a deep-seeded hatred for inefficiency. I’ve heard a saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I start feeling insane when I see extra rounds pile up on a project because of something that could have been easily avoided with an additional five minutes of planning ahead.

Maybe this angst is more about me than my clients. And that makes me the one to blame.

The Resolution

I think recognizing the source of our frustrations is key to resolving just about any issue, both personally and professionally. Before I started writing this post, I thought it would be about whipping clients into shape and fixing their bad habits. It turns out it’s more of a personal lesson about learning to appreciate the work I have as freelancer and that the final product every bit as important as the process it took to get there.

I still think there is room for us, as consultants, to be the smartest in the room and provide clients with insightful advice that helps them grow and improve. That means not taking any new request lightly and taking the time to ask the right questions before starting. In the end, it’s just as much my responsibility to manage my clients as it is their responsibility to manage me.

Hopefully, that’s an area in which we all grow.

✏️ Handwritten by Geoff Graham on April 11, 2014

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