When You’re Struggling with Low Paying High Expectation Clients and Are Overwhelmed

When you're struggling with low paying high expectation clients

[ There is a way forward ]

In an online group of creatives that I am part of, someone new to starting a freelance design business posed a question to get advice and suggestions on dealing with overwhelm particularly in terms of having to manage low paying high expectation clients. Most of us can relate to the fact that many facets of our daily lives are overwhelming, that the constant state of busyness we seem to find ourselves in is one that is never-ending. Inevitably, it leads us to a feeling that things are really out of control.

The Hamster Wheel Phenomenon

In a thought-provoking article, Get Off the Hamster Wheel and Drive Real Change, Paul W Critchley drew reference to his career as a manufacturing engineering manager and talked about a mentality that is often present.

“…Although I’d been trained and believed in things like ISO, TS and lean, I also knew what my team and I were up against every day. From the time we walked into the shop in the morning to the time we walked out, it was a complete deluge of requests for assistance. Go here, send a guy there, go see this operator, fix this machine…We barely had time to think about continuous improvement let alone practice it. Despite being largely unsatisfying, often that is life in operations. You balance what you can do with what you want to do. In our case we did the best we could, even though we all knew we could do better,” Paul explained. (the italics are mine)

Paul referred to this as the Hamster Wheel Phenomenon. He continued, “You can work a lot harder and move a lot faster, but you’re still ultimately getting nowhere. Lean teaches us that those closest to the work are the best ones to effect positive change to it, yet we often do not allow them the power to do so. All we do allow them is to spin the hamster wheel faster, which offers no reward to them or to the organisation.”

Can we not relate to this? The idea that we keep trying more, working hard and yet achieving no real traction is one many of us can really understand. Yet often, we have no clue how to make real, lasting change that addresses our issues. Paul’s advice : “The truth is that there is nothing that is beyond our control, given the proper corporate culture and mentality. It’s a matter of how organisations operate and how they challenge their employees to think.”

The fact is the principles here can apply in many areas of your life and even if you are not a creative or running your own business. If you take the approach that you are CEO of your own life, then you will notice see how the issues discussed here go beyond the narrow confines of a person’s business.

In your business or in your life, you benefit greatly when you spend the time needed to clarify what you are about, what you will choose to focus on and what is important to you.

For example, at the workplace where you may be tasked with additional responsibilities yet no additional pay or bonuses for such contributions. “Clients” in this case, could be replaced by employers or valued colleagues. “Low paying” could be replaced with contributions (of any kind) that bring little benefit to you.

So, here are some things you can think about if you’re dealing with these issues and coming up short on ideas.

Clarity of purpose is paramount

This cannot be under-estimated. In your business or in your life, you benefit greatly when you spend the time needed to clarify what you are about, what you will choose to focus on and what is important to you. What you need to understand though is that achieving this may be more “journey” than “destination” in that you cannot expect that it will be clear just because you’ve spent some time on it over a weekend.

Some of this clarity will come from experimentation, exploring the things you are curious about, trying and failing as much as trying and succeeding. Which inevitably means that clarity will take time to achieve and you may change course several times. This is acceptable and to be expected.

Negotiate in order to set clear parameters

In my years working with partners, clients and colleagues, I notice, frequently, the area where things tend to fall down on mostly are related to how parameters are drawn up. Whether it’s a casual project you’ve taken on with a few friends, a large initiative with a new client or ongoing work with long-standing clients, being clear about the job to be done, who’s to do it, what each party brings to the game, what expectations each has of the other and what outcomes are envisioned are some of the major elements that clarify how two parties come together.

In good times, kinks can be easily worked out. Yet, as we all know, problems do tend to crop up from time to time and if the foundations laid are not strong, achieving desired outcomes let alone moving forward in one direction become difficult and fraught with contention.

It does not always have to be a long, detailed Agreement, although frequently, that helps. It can be a series of email exchanges or a face to face meeting with a clearly defined agenda on moving forward and how the parties will work together.

Each party should look to negotiate with two sets of eyes : their own in order to protect their interest and put forward their aims and goals for the partnership. Yet, they also need to see things from the perspective of the people they will work with and ensure that their own goals do align with that of the others. When both parties are happy with how things will take place as well as who will benefit and how, then things have a good shot at working well.

What fear and overwhelm do

You feel stressed, there’s a knot in your throat that does not go away. You imagine the worst frequently and you’re pulled in many directions. Ideas come to you yet they are jumbled up. Which should you tackle first? Will this even work? What if I fail? There are so many things to do and think about and they clog your brain, making your thinking foggy. You know you need to start but where? You know there are things to do but it’s just too much.

Just solve one thing at a time.

Paralysis. Inaction. Over-thinking the problem. A repetitive cycle of behaviour. Leads to a passive voice. A feeling of hopelessness. Guilt. Resignation. Apathy.

The solution? Baby steps. Just solve one thing at a time. There’s no need to take on the world.

Mark Watney’s character from the movie, The Martian, puts this best :
“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

Introspection will bring you direction, peace and purpose. Action will help you move forward.

Increasing your prices

It’s the obvious way, though not always the best way. Increasing your prices is a tricky thing  for anyone but especially so when you are just starting out. You may not know how to charge very well, how to take into account the learning you’ve done  and how to truly value your work and time. Trial and error, looking around at how others charge to benchmark yourself, talking to others in your industry, keeping abreast of trends, reports and surveys, getting a mentor – all of these can come together to give you ideas. Ultimately, however, you call the shots.

A good strategy is to do your homework to figure out a baseline fee to start with, taking into account what others charge, what you are thinking of charging, what your hard costs are and taking a stab at valuing your hourly rate. If you find you’re getting good responses, you work your way up slowly, reasonably and consistently. Be clear about your prices. Be consistent with how you charge so people can rely on it.

Addressing the real problem

This involves the ability to recognise and distinguish between an issue’s symptoms and its cause. When you address the symptoms, you may alleviate the problem faced to some extent but it remains present. To give you an example of going on a hike with a shoe that has slowly gained a hole in its sole, you find yourself with small pebbles inside your shoe over time, making the process of taking a walk painful. You begin to notice the discomfort, at times, a pain, caused by these small pebbles. Simply stopping every once in a while to remove the pebbles does not end the issue. You’ve removed that pain for now but until you stop to take a good look at your shoe, discover the hole beneath and begin to address that (whether by changing shoes or patching that hole), you continue to be in pain.

Sometimes, you don’t want to see the problem as a problem at all or even as your problem.

Life, however, is not always as simple as that. Some problems do not seem like problems.

Sometimes, what you perceive as the other person’s problem is really your own.
Sometimes, you fail to see the problems because it may be hidden under layers of disguise or complications.
Sometimes, like the layers of dust that slowly settle on your lampshade, you don’t notice it’s been there. By the time you’ve really begun to grasp what you have to deal with, it’s a lot bigger than you could have imagined and you wonder how you could have missed it the whole time.
Sometimes, you don’t want to see the problem as a problem at all or even as your problem.

You need to open your eyes to see what you have before you. It takes courage, experience, introspection, honesty and more than anything else, a desire to do the needful not because others are watching but because you know it will be good for you.

If you find yourself repeatedly in a situation, you have to wonder whether it’s the others or it’s you.
If you find yourself facing one particular challenge not just with one person, but with others too, you have to ask yourself what you need to learn from it.
If you find yourself stressed all the time, you have to dig deep to discover the root of the stress so you can resolve things.

Clarifying your true value

This takes time, experience and curiosity. You may think that most successful people have always had burning ambition or such clarity in their life. But many successful people, the ones I’ve read about, heard speak or discovered in other ways, have lived lives similar to you, in that they have had doubts, challenges and failures. They were, however, willing to fail in order to learn, imbued with a curiosity to find their place and discover new paths. Not everyone has a clear path laid out to them. Along the way, they discover who they are, what they are about and what values they hold dear.

You too, in the course of time and experiences faced, will gain clarity about your values but it requires an openness to expose yourself to try new things and value the desire to learn. It is these values you hold dear which then infuse your choices in business and life.

Addressing strengths and weaknesses

Peter Drucker said it best: “It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.”

As Susan Sorenson said in the article,  How Your Employees’ Strengths Make Your Company Stronger, “The best way for people to grow and develop is to identify how they most naturally think, feel, and behave — their talents — then build on those talents to create strengths, or the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance.”

The idea here is to focus far more on what you’re good at than what you’re not as good at, in the belief that you will advance further and gain more traction in your endeavours. So time spent figuring out your passions in order to develop them further, into building a strong foundation in the areas you excel in, will be time well spent.

Figuring out the time management issue in all of this

The feeling of overwhelm can best be addressed through introspection and action. If you spend the time to figure out what is bothering you, you can begin to do things to resolve this. Over time, as we fail to address the issues that affect us, whether it is unresolved conflict, indecision about important matters or unfinished business, they sit in our brains and psyche, draining us of energy. It is that nagging feeling that you can’t quite put your finger on that simply will not go away. It’s the feeling of tightness in your chest that you push away because it’s just “stress”.

It can be clearer than that, you can actually get down to the root of the issue.
It may be that you are unhappy to charge the prices you do. You feel you ought to charge more.
It may be you know you do good work but you don’t get that feeling that others appreciate or value it in the same way.
It may be that you know what you should be focusing on but things keep getting in your way.
It may be that you’ve got too many things to do and not enough time to do it.

Since we all get the same 24 hours in a day, we understand that our solution lies in how we are choosing to spend the resources and time we have that make the difference.

Once you have spent the time to truly address what you believe are the problems, you can then begin to take the necessary steps to resolving it. Asking the right question is key to this process for it helps pave the right way forward.

Time management I have come to see, is frequently, less a question of resources as it is a question of clarity of focus and purpose.

With each problem, figure out what you are challenged by. What are the specifics of that problem that affect you? If you have too much to do and to a tight deadline, ask yourself how you got here?

  • What were the decisions you made that got you to this point?
  • If you could turn back time, what would you have done differently? How can you ensure you act like so in future decisions?
  • What is the main challenge for you in having too much to do? Is it resources, the time to complete the work, the feeling of overwhelm that prevents you from doing good work, the demands that surface with multiple existing projects?
  • What can you do in the future to avoid this? Should you take on one project at a time instead? Should you adjust your estimated project completion dates? Should you manage expectations better from the start? Should you hire support staff? Should you outsource? Should you turn down doing specific work within a project?
  • What steps can you take now to figure out how to move ahead? What can you do with existing client work to begin addressing this immediately? What can you do to deal with new clients that will come in? What areas do you expect you will need help with? What solutions will you explore?
  • What decisions about project completion do you need to change? What avenues will you look into?

All of these are open-ended roads, there are no fixed right or wrong answers. It depends on what you’re willing to do, how far you are interested in pursuing something, what you’d like to focus on and what you want to release yourself from. Give yourself  permission to be curious, be willing to change your mind a few times as you discover more about who you are and what you can do. Time management I have come to see, is frequently, less a question of resources as it is a question of clarity of focus and purpose.

There’s always gonna be someone who charges more and someone who charges less

The less you worry about this, the better it will be for you. Accept that it’s a question of balance. Know that you need a starting point to begin the journey and you will adjust upwards from there through time, as you gain experience and knowledge. Understand that you need to invest in yourself as much as in your business to see growth.

Your goal should not be about keeping up with market expectations and market demands but to exceed it. For when you do, it won’t matter what you charge.

Offering to do work for free

I believe that there is value in free work. Many businesses today believe in this too or the concept of content marketing would not have taken off. While content marketing is a form of advertising and branding for a company or brand, it also seeks to provide tremendous value.

Think of free work as establishing a solid foundation for what you can bring. Consider it as providing a taste of what is to come, which appeals to most people. We see that in the free sausages offered in supermarkets when we are grocery shopping to the 30 day free trial of a software download or app we’re interested in. We see that in the tons of really valuable content out there today in the form of articles, interviews, podcasts and eBooks all wanting to share, to showcase, to provide immense value at no cost.

What these personalities, businesses and brands understand more than anything else is the importance of delighting the new customer or reader. Fill them up to the brim and make them happy, glad to have made the connection, enthused about the topic and raring to go. And when they are eager and excited, the hope is that they will choose you to come with them on their journey.

Work that never seems to end

Be honest with yourself. If you find that your client is giving you work that never seems to end, it may be possible that :

  • you’ve not spent enough time defining the project parameters;
  • you’ve not indicated to your client what you are willing to work on specifically;
  • you’ve not had many clear conversations about how things have been progressing and where they are heading now;
  • you’ve not gotten clarity in yourself about exactly what it is you want to do;
  • you’ve been ambiguous to your client about your goals, so they are left to figure out what they want with insufficient guidance from you on what you will do.

The list can go on and on. The point is that if you choose to blame the workload, the lack of money, the insufficient time, the client who won’t listen, the work that is under-appreciated, nothing gets fixed because it is not you. But if you choose to ‘blame yourself’, if you choose to say “I am in charge and I will fix this”, then things will start to move.

It does not matter whose fault it really is. When you take ownership of a problem, regardless of its cause, you know you will achieve a positive outcome eventually (even if it’s not the outcome you intend). The problem will be addressed because you’ve spent the time and resources on it.

Clients that do not seem to appreciate you or won’t provide a reference

You need to put your stick in the sand and say “this is it”. Move on. What is the point otherwise?

Sometimes, it is about you and what you think and do. Sometimes, it is more about others. A positive outlook, driven by clear goals and underpinned by a solid set of values and a desire to do good work and provide value however, will take you far. When you take charge of your business and your life, regardless of who has done things to you or what has happened to you, it will bring tremendous energy and momentum to your endeavour.


If you like this post, I hope you will share it. If you need help with your writing, with getting published or with strengthening your brand, feel free to reach out. Let’s have a chat.

#overwhelm #entrepreneur #strength #purpose
headline image black high top sneakers standing on grass courtesy kaboompics.com

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