The Creative’s Struggle: Managing Expectations & Getting Paid



by Cameron Alcorn October 6, 2014   Entrepreneur

NOTE: This is a re-post of an article first published on the Massive Catalyst blog.

The struggle is real. Managing expectations and getting paid for work in any creative discipline often times takes more effort than the commissioned work itself. However, there is hope. By showing your value, converting leads into contracts, and utilizing a solid contract, you can rest assured that you will not only have a satisfied client, but that you will also be paid.

Before you begin any work, you have to prove that you’re worth the price you set. And so, we’ll start at the top.

1. Show Value

This is an absolutely essential element, which transcends everything else listed below. It should go without saying, but so often, we look at our own work, smile with satisfaction, and assume a potential client will do the same.

But what separates you from the rest of the crowd? If you’re a photographer, what separates you from that college kid whose parents just bought him a DSLR? If you’re a web designer, what separates you from that web development outsourcing agency from India? If you’re a graphics designer, what separates you from that intern who just pirated Adobe Photoshop and is now a self-proclaimed designer?

Sacha Greif, a graphics designer from Paris, touches on this issue in a recent case study about the true cost of logo design and the quality of work you receive for $5 on Fiver. The message is clear enough: there is a difference between professional work and amateur work. Yet, somehow, these pseudo-designers on Fiver continue to thrive off unsuspecting customers, who willingly pay for sub-par work. This isn’t just an issue with graphic design; it’s an issue with all design and creative disciplines. The reason? Customers are uninformed.

But the customers are not entirely to blame. In a study I personally performed, I contacted 25 different creative agencies specializing in web design, posing as a client and presenting a relatively simple project proposal. At the end of it, I found that there was a 1500% price difference between the lowest and highest estimates I received, with a huge amount of variation in between, yet, only a handful of the agencies I contacted would explain to me how they arrived at their estimated prices. When we’re not properly displaying value, how is a client supposed to know what separates the pros from the rookies?

Clearly, there is a communication gap between our clients and ourselves. How do we close this gap? Show your value and clearly present to a client how your solution is the optimal choice before, during, and after project completion.

Once you’ve shown enough value to get a potential customer’s attention, the real work begins.

2. Convert, Convert, and Convert!

There is an old adage, “Why keep running once you’ve caught the bus?” In other words, why keep making an effort after you’ve already sealed the deal? Far too often we make this assumption and stop putting forth effort before we’ve converted a lead into a contract. In fact, according to Gleanster Research, 50% of client leads are qualified but not yet ready to make a purchase. What’s worse yet, is that, according to, 79% of leads never convert into sales, due to a lack of lead nurturing.

Now, if you’re directly contacted by a possible client, you truly have no excuse for not converting that individual into a paying customer. Chances are, if you’ve piqued a possible client’s interest enough to have them call you, email you, or fill out an inquiry for your services, you have a pretty good chance of converting that individual into a paying customer. You’ve shown enough value to put the idea into that individual’s head that you’re the man (or woman) for the job. So, why on earth would you ever take that client for granted?

Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “But I’d never take a client for granted!” Although you may not blatantly take your clients for granted, there are actually many ways to take a client or lead for granted, such as making it difficult for possible clients to contact you, having slow response times, and over-complicating the process of gathering project requirements. What’s the best way to hedge against ruining relationships with clients in such ways?

First of all, don’t make it difficult for clients to contact you. This sounds oversimplified, but it happens all the time. If you’re on social media or other promotional websites, possibly including your own, make sure you make it as easy as possible for potential clients to contact you. You have their attention, but not for long – make it count!

Once a client has contacted you, don’t take an eternity to respond. That individual has contacted you because he or she has a problem that needs to be solved. Guess what’s happening while you let that inquiry gather dust in your inbox? That person is seeking out other capable individuals, just like yourself, who can also solve his or her problem. According to, 35-50% of all sales go to the individuals who make first contact. The Internet is a powerful tool, and I guarantee, whatever you’re doing, there is someone else who is doing it, probably for less money too. The clock is ticking, so respond in a timely manner.

Last, don’t rely on the customer to know what he or she wants. As professionals in a creative field, half of our job is determining our clients’ needs and wants. Our job is to put into words what others cannot put into words. There are many methods of cutting down on the length and complexity of project requirements gathering, such as creating online forms for customers to fill before ever asking a question, knowing ahead of time what a client is truly asking for, and using less technical language.

Should you make it to this point, you now must perform the most vital task of all.

3. Sign That Contract

You’ve put in your hours, your work is complete, and now it’s time to present your masterpiece to your client. Except, there’s something wrong – your client isn’t satisfied with your work and threatens to leave you unpaid unless you correct your shoddy craftsmanship. What’s worse yet is that everything that is “wrong” is entirely outside the scope of the original intended work.

Now, you’re left with one of two choices: swallow your pride and be bullied into working extra unpaid hours or bite the bullet and accept the fact that you just won’t get paid for this job. Unfortunately, this is a reality many hard working and honest photographers, graphic designers, web design specialists, and other skilled workers of a creative discipline face every day.

One of the downsides to being in a creative field is interpreting client requests and managing expectations. There is a serious need for what I would like to deem as prevention tactics. As Jenika McDavitt, writer for Psychology for Photographers, states in one of her many articles, “mismatched expectations are inevitable without serious prevention tactics.” What is the most important prevention tactic to prevent misunderstandings? A contract.

Are you performing work for a trusted business associate? Use a contract. Your best friend? Use a contract. A family member? Use a contract. No matter how well you know or trust someone, if you’re performing work in a professional manner for any amount of money, use a contract. It is your opportunity to lay out, in writing, the expectations for both you and the client.

On the off chance that someone is unwilling to sign a contract, don’t worry. As Jenika states, “If someone’s going to say ‘no thanks’ on account of a policy, it’s better if they do so before any money is at stake.”

Don’t Forget

Whatever situation you find yourself in on your creative ventures, don’t forget, we’re all just human, creatives and clients alike. The customer typically has just as hard of a time understanding your workflow as you have interpreting his or her expectations. At the end of the day, you can do everything right, and still have that one client who is dissatisfied. Regardless of the circumstances, be patient, because the best way to encourage cooperation and patience from those we work with is to lead by example.


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Business professional by day, web developer by night, when I’m not creating solutions for my clients, I’m writing or creating meaningful content for the Web.

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