The Best Way to Manage Relationships

Patrick McCormack
Mar 17 · 5 min read

Why failing to set terms hurts our relationships in the long run.

“If there are no consequences for bad behavior, the behavior doesn’t change.” — Kier McLaren

When do you know you’re being taken advantage of?

For relationships to work, there must be balance.

It takes an equal distribution of responsibility, respect, and compromise.

Things fall apart when one person begins to feel like they’re being taken advantage of.

If a client begins asking for too much of your time, this is a sign of an unbalanced relationship.

“But They’re Paying Me…”

It’s easy to look at relationships with clients as unbalanced from the beginning.

After all, they’re paying us to perform a service.

There’s a certain element of courtesy we’re expected to uphold.

It’s called “professionalism” and it’s a critical element to being successful.

But professionalism works both ways.

If a client expects us to uphold a certain level of professionalism but doesn’t demonstrate any in return, it’s a bad sign.

When we feel taken advantage of, the relationship suffers.

How Does This Happen?

At the beginning of any professional relationship, a client will set terms; they have expectations and they’ll make them clear.

They set a timeline.
They ask for something — a logo design, website copy, etc.

Creatives often fail to set terms of our own.

We’re generally elated that someone is paying us that we just take the proverbial check and wave off the details.

If anyone is given free reign of your time, they’ll take it.

We’re only hurting ourselves.

Failing to set terms sets us up for being taken advantage of.

A few years ago I had a client with a simple request.

They asked my design partner and I to develop an e-newsletter for their golf store.*

I drafted copy and we sent it off for approval.
The client asked for a few reasonable revisions.
We obliged and sent our final documents to them for approval.
Hours later, our project manager informs us of another client change.
Another stakeholder had reviewed it and had some changes.
We got back to work.

This back-and-forth occurred 11 times.

Eleven versions of copy…for a newsletter.

Two weeks passed by the time the project was finished.

The timeline was delayed because of too many rounds of revisions.

I’ve written scripts for national TV ads that didn’t have that many revisions.

Who’s fault was it?

Sure, the client was detailed in their requests; they asked a lot for little gain.

But Who Let That Happen?

Myself and my team failed to set expectations at the beginning.

As a result, we fell prey to a one-sided relationship.

Normal wasn’t “we get maximum two revision requests.”
Normal was “we’ll make as many requests as we want.”

Does that sound mutually beneficial to the people doing the work?

How to Maintain a Balanced Relationship with Anyone

Relationships, whether they’re with clients, romantic partners, or friends all require one thing to maintain balance:


Without consequences a client will steamroller you with demands.

They don’t know any better.

If we had set the expectation with our golf client that after two rounds of revisions they’d have to pay a fee for every additional round, I can guarantee the outcome.

They would have consolidated their feedback and sent us everything at once.

All the revisions would be made in one round, saving us time, and saving them money.

If anyone is given free reign of your time, they’ll take it, and they have every right to.

It’s Your Responsibility to Prioritize Your Own Time.

That requires having uncomfortable conversations with people so they know where you stand.

Every time you hold back what you expect it gives more power to the other person.

You start living on their terms.

A person can only take that for so long before something gives.

My partner and I failed to set terms, and we paid the price.

Unfortunately, the only people to blame was ourselves.

“If you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.” — Greg McKeown

Set Clear Boundaries and Expectations Early

Make it clear what you’re willing to do, and be firm.

Yes, I’m advocating that you should be “mean”.

If you equate “firmness” with “being mean” you’re mistaken.

It’s mean to bully, lie, steal, or knowingly take unfair advantage of someone.

Being firm is steadying yourself against someone being mean to you.

It’s as easy as saying “Our process involves 5 days of creative development. You’re allowed 2 rounds of revisions. If additional revisions are requested we reserve the right to charge a fee of $200 per round. This policy is not negotiable.”

Setting a firm expectation accomplishes two things:

  1. It removes all mystery from what could happen if the client steps out of bounds. The fewer surprises in a relationship the better. Sometimes they may even be willing to pay the fee if they really want the changes, but good luck trying to tack one on if you didn’t agree to terms before the work began.
  2. It protects and respects the time of your other clients. If you let Client A think you’ll drop everything for them, you jeopardize your relationships with Client B and Client C. They all deserve equal attention and will appreciate when you protect your time because it means you won’t ignore their needs if another client asks you to.

If a client walks once you set reasonable terms, you’re better off without them.

They’re unwilling to compromise and that’s not who you want to work with.

Call To Action

Stand up for yourself.

Sometimes you need to go above and beyond to deliver for a client, but it can’t be a weekly occurrence.

If they make unreasonable demands, politely inform them of how it’s impacting the relationship.

And do your best to set expectations early so the relationship is set on firm ground.

The more you respect yourself, the more clients will respect your time and efforts.

Strength respects strength.

The more you demonstrate it, the better you’ll feel about the work you’re doing.

*Some parts of this story have been altered, but the important details are true.

Patrick McCormack

Written by

I’m on a never-ending search for meaning as an artist. Perhaps you’ll help me find it. Copywriter at DEG | Creative Director at Pursuit @full_pursuit

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