Death by deadline

Death by deadline - article by Greg Alder
“Yes, master.”
“Right away, master.”
“Hit me again, master.”

Just for a laugh, try each of these phrases. Not in front of a client, for God’s sake. In front of a mirror at home. Try to look humble, meek and subservient as you say it. If it helps, bow deeply.

Feel a bit silly? Weird even? Well, file that sensation away because you’re going to need to remember it at some stage in your career.

Every now and then you’ll come across a particularly dictatorial and stubborn client. One who likes to get his or her own way. A real Mister Bossy Britches. (Or Mistress Bossy Britches – except that this seems like the name of the dominatrix in an S&M club.)

Something I have long believed about people who are tyrants at work is that they are completely the opposite at home. A man who bellows orders at work, fires people for raising eyebrows and generally seems to get pleasure from making people squirm is a different beast altogether at home. Lion by day, hamster by night. At home, he is pussy whipped to an unbelievable degree by his waif of a partner. Since his masculinity seems somehow challenged at home, he feels driven to right the balance at work. He does this by channelling all the testosterone he can muster to transform himself into He Who Must Be Obeyed.

Work is hard enough as it is. Don’t make it worse. Avoid ever getting into a situation where you have He Who Must Be Obeyed as a client.

Of course, avoiding an HWMBO is sometimes easier said than done. These imperious folks often wear disguises in early meetings. They’ll stop off at a fancy dress shop on the way to your office. They’ll try on a few outfits. They’ll choose carefully. They’ll settle on one that looks believable. So believable that it doesn’t even look like he’s wearing a costume.

And so it is that when you first pitched for HWMBO’s account, he might have come dressed as The Nicest Bloke You Could Ever Meet or even Your New Best Friend.

It’s not until later that your client returns the borrowed persona and the true demon is revealed. Long after the contract is signed, long after you have become accustomed to the additional income from his business, long after you feel you no longer have to woo and dazzle.

The chain of events often unfolds like this. You start to hear stories via your henchmen of your client’s bullying of a junior member of your staff. At first, it sits at odds with the personality identikit in your mind. Maybe it’s a one-off meltdown that took place when your client was having a rare bad day.

But it happens again. And then again. And not just to your junior staff, but also to more senior people – the guys and gals you really trust to keep things running smoothly. Tales of shouting, unreasonable demands, throwing of loose objects, deadlines shifted on a whim, inexplicable reversals of decisions. And now this – a presentation demanded on New Year’s Day.

You hear the increasingly frequent stories and you struggle to understand them. What on earth is going on?

Service or servitude?

I’ll tell you what’s happening (although I am pretty sure you already know). HWMBO isn’t as bright as you think he is. He knows that yours is a service business. In his I-didn’t-do-too-well-at-English mind, there’s some confusion between service and servitude.

He really does think that your company (and this includes you) exists to serve him.

Why? Who knows?

From the day of your first contact with someone employed by the government, you clearly understood that the term Public Servant didn’t mean what it seemed to mean. It was obvious that this person wasn’t there to serve you. Everyone understands that.

If so, then how can a client think that your business exists to serve him? Especially when the word Servant is nowhere to be seen in any of your flashy corporate credentials documents.

Whatever the reason, you now find yourself in a situation where a client is making unreasonable demands on your staff. In so doing, he’s making their lives hell. If pushed, they could easily leave. If they leave, you’ll have to replace them. Then you’ll have to train the replacements. All very tedious.

I’ll tell you something else about HWMBO. He was the school bully. Think about that for a moment. Does it all start to fall into place?

At school, he got some kind of perverse pleasure from making life miserable for kids who were much younger, smaller or somehow disadvantaged. He thought he was extraordinarily clever with his jibes.

“Hey, Fatty!”
“Oy, Big Ears!”

Day after day he’d push and taunt and shove. He’d do it because he could. Because his victim accepted it. Then one day he’d simply tire of it and move on to someone else.

Maybe he belonged to a gang. The gang would do the same. But now, thanks to strength in numbers, they felt even more powerful than they did as individuals. Steal an old lady’s purse? Easy! A teenager’s mobile phone? Done.

Once he gets a taste for his own power (however misguided), it tends to stay for life. Some turn bullying into careers. You can bet most career terrorists were school bullies. Even if a bully doesn’t make a career out of it, he sticks to his bullying ways. He buys a big four-wheel drive so he can intimidate his way through the peak hour traffic. (Dodge Rams are aptly named.) The bully expects to be served the moment he enters a store, no matter who’s waiting ahead of him. And now here he is harassing and haranguing your staff.

So how did things get so out of hand?

Frankenstein’s client

Sorry to say, your staff had a lot to do with the situation you’re now in.

You don’t need to have studied psychology (I had a go but didn’t like what I saw when I started to psychoanalyse myself) or anthropology to notice the following oddity. In many societies alpha males (for they are rarely female) aggressively maintain their positions by whipping upstarts and underlings. And yet, when they meet the alpha male of another tribe, there’s a kind of truce, born out of a mutual respect. Each seems to be acknowledging the strength and achievements of the other. Even in war, officers were often reluctant to kill their counterparts on the other side.

What your bullying client wants more than anything (well, maybe not as much as a new Hummer) is to meet someone his equal. Someone to call his bluff.

What he got, however, were people too scared to do anything but bow to his every whim.

Your staff obliged your client for two reasons. First, they didn’t want to be responsible for the loss of this business. Second because they didn’t feel it was their role to rebut your client.

A client makes a request. A really emphatic request. Your staff knows it will be difficult to pull off. But they scurry around, pull some favours, work really late and they do it.

Later, the client makes another request. This one’s a bit less reasonable than the first. Once more your team rises to the challenge.

And so it goes. Request becomes instruction. Instruction becomes demand. Deadlines get shorter and shorter. Workloads heavier.

“I WANT IT YESTERDAY!!!!!!”

However physically impossible, there’s something in your client’s voice that suggests he really DOES expect it yesterday.

Like a cat playing with a mouse, your client will soon tire of inflicting pain. At least, he’ll no longer get the same pleasure from it. But he won’t stop. Even when there’s no challenge left, he’ll still do it – just to watch his victim squirm.

The false deadline

You have surely come across these in your career. This is the deadline that isn’t a deadline. There’s no tender document due, no artwork required at the publication. This is simply a stick in the sand. As you approach it, you notice it. You pass it. That’s all there is to it.

False deadlines are usually created by clients out of a desire for neatness. The most common scenario? He or she is going on holidays and would like to tidy up some loose ends before heading off.

The other really popular reason for a false deadline is the sales conference.

“Yes, I know we don’t need this for another 2 months, but the conference is a perfect opportunity to show the team what we have in store for next year.”

Sound familiar?

So what’s your (or your staff’s) response?

Do you try to meet the deadline, even though you know the work will then just lie there gathering dust?

Actually, gathering dust is one of the better consequences of doing something so far in advance. The worst outcome is that the client will keep coming back to your design, concept, proposal or whatever. He or she will keep thinking about it, wondering if it’s as good as it seemed to be on first sighting.

Next step? Your brilliant work is now shown to others in your client’s office. Your client asks these colleagues what they think. The question is usually phrased in such a way that the colleagues know if your client is feeling positive or negative about it. If they are junior to your client and they’re smart and they have ambitions, they’ll know what their opinion should be.

Your client seeks the opinion of a supplier who comes in to show him some packaging. Then he shows a retailer. Naturally, he takes it home to show his wife, daughter, son, mother and dog.

Each comment, each suggestion is added to a catalogue of thoughts being compiled in your client’s mind. Next time you meet, your client arrives ready to reveal why he (and his colleagues, family, passers-by and others) has been having second thoughts. Because he has learnt that constructive criticism is an essential skill for effective leadership, he will share his suggestions in a helpful and encouraging tone of voice. Maybe he even has a bit of a go at changing your work of art – just to better communicate how he thinks it could be improved.

“I’m not a designer, of course, but …”
“Don’t take this as an instruction, merely a suggestion.”

Do you take all of his silly ideas on board? Do you turn your thoroughbred into a camel?

Of course, you do.

Okay, it won’t be something you’ll be proud of, but it’s good money. Those quarter hours will just keep ticking over (you lawyers know what I’m talking about).

The end result is worse than you imagined. Not just a camel, but a disfigured mutant one.

Now, what’s your client thinking after this hideous monstrosity has been born? Initially, there’ll be a bit of self-congratulation. Then (and this next thought will coincide with the arrival of your invoice) he will start to question what he’s paying you for. After all, it was his idea. All your team did was execute it.

In his mind, you have been relegated to the role of a supplier.

What happens eventually is that your client simply loses respect for your staff.

This loss of respect creeps like gangrene. In the beginning he loses respect for the juniors working on his business. Then for their superiors. Then theirs. And finally for you.

And that is pretty much the end of the line. Not many clients want to work with people they don’t respect.

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