Michelle Coyle is president of BGSD Strategies, where she provides strategic advice for political business owners. Have a question about your business? Email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and she’ll answer them here.
Q: I pitched an organization where I know the chief executive, but ended up working with a VP, who I didn’t have a relationship with prior to the contract starting. We’ve run into a few issues, do I raise them with the CEO or just ignore them?
A: How about Option 3: address the issue directly with the person you have a problem with first. This isn’t just business advice. This is life advice. But let’s also play out each of these possible actions to its likely outcome.
Option 1: Ignore the issues
Without knowing exactly what the issues are, it’s difficult for me to advise either for or against this. Give yourself a gut check: are we talking about little stuff that’s mildly annoying to you personally, that you could really just let go? Or are we talking about problems that, if not addressed, are going to blow up into much bigger problems? If you can ignore the issues in question without negatively affecting the outcome you’re trying to achieve in your work or any of the relationships involved, and if the annoyance is temporary, this might be a good option. Otherwise, and I suspect we’re probably dealing with an “otherwise” here, letting it fester is tantamount to shirking your responsibility to your client. Don’t do that.
Option 2: Talk to your friend, the CEO
There are a few very select instances in which going over someone’s head makes sense. Almost all of them involve situations in which it’s not safe for you to communicate directly with someone because they’re harassing or abusing you in some way. If that’s not the case here, don’t do this.
Excepting the aforementioned circumstances, it’s not fair to raise a flag to someone’s boss without giving them an opportunity to address your concern first, and then, if it still needs to escalate up, to defend themselves. It also just makes you look bad to everyone: your friend the CEO will be annoyed that you’re adding to their daily load of problems to solve without doing what you could to solve the issue yourself first, and the VP will feel betrayed. If someone wrote a book called How to Make Enemies and Annoy People, there would probably be a whole chapter on jumping the line of command. (Side note: that’s a great book idea. I hope someone reading this steals it if it hasn’t been done already.)
Option 3: Address the problem directly with the person you have the problem with
Look, I get it. Confrontation is never fun. But unless you’re in some kind of danger, communicating directly is usually both the most efficient way to solve the problem and the morally right thing to do. Bonus: you’ll often find, in the process of talking it out, that the issue wasn’t nearly as dire as you thought, and that it can be solved with better communication between you and the person you’ve got a problem with.
If you’re choosing this option, I’ll challenge you to approach the conversation with curiosity and compassion. Try to avoid accusing the VP of anything or using the word “you” at all. Instead, use “I” statements and name your feelings.
“Hey VP, I’ve been feeling a little confused and hurt because I thought we had agreed last week that we should prioritize getting X thing done by Tuesday and it doesn’t seem like it happened. But I realize now I’ve been blaming you for that in my mind instead of communicating directly, and I’m really sorry. So I just wanted to check in on a few fronts. First, are you ok? Second, did I misunderstand the agreement? Third, if so, what was your understanding, and how can we work together to get this done?”
That’s gonna get you a lot farther than “Hey VP, why the *bleep* isn’t X done yet?”
I know you’re busy and stressed out, but try to dig deep and take the time to be fair and kind. You’ll almost certainly be glad you did.
Q: Should I charge clients an onboarding fee? As the years go by, I’m noticing that it takes longer and longer to get up to speed with non-campaign clients, to the point where I feel like I should be charging more up front and less as the work goes on. What do you think?
A: Maybe! Depending on the line of work you’re in, charging for your initial discovery and/or analysis process can make a lot of sense.
If you’re spending a lot of time getting yourself and your staff up to speed on what a client needs because you’re new at what you’re doing, then it’s not the clients’ responsibility to pay for your education.
But if we’re talking about a scenario where you’re an expert and every case is different — for example, if you’re in the business of building bespoke custom websites — then you’re doing the entire industry a disservice by not charging for your discovery time, AND you’re creating a disincentive for yourself/your staff to put in the actual time and effort required to gather and analyze the data you need to put forth the best deliverable for your client.
Q: I put a set payment window into my contracts, but still find myself chasing clients to get invoices paid — even big organizations whose budgets aren’t cyclical. What advice do you have for getting paid on time without ruffling feathers?
A: Why are we always so worried about ruffling feathers? Sometimes you’re gonna ruffle some freaking feathers, friends.
If you’re delivering a product or service that provides value to your client, you deserve to get paid on time. Full stop. Your contracts should be structured so that you’re getting paid at least partially upfront, even for campaign clients.
If you’re not getting paid as agreed in that contract, you’re not delivering. Yes, even if that means holding back a website or TV spot or mail piece that the campaign needs to go out at a certain time.
If someone tries to guilt you about how you’re not being a team player or blame you for a campaign loss or any such nonsense because you’re holding that boundary, stop doing business with that person. They’re making something your fault that isn’t your fault. That’s like walking up to a vending machine and screaming at it for hurting the movement because it won’t give you a Snickers until you put a dollar in.
No dollar, no Snickers.
And for anyone else reading this: pay your vendors as agreed. And if you can’t, communicate that clearly, make a plan to make it right, and adjust your expectations for the timing and quality of service you’re going to receive in the meantime.