This column first appeared in a long-defunct newsletter for writers, written by this young wiseguy, in 2005.
I enjoyed revisiting it recently, and thought you might too. —DM
As a freelance writer, it’s my aim to please. I want to be as low-maintenance as possible. After all, my client hired me to take work off their hands, not to trouble them further. It’s my job to efficiently, cheaply and quietly do exactly what they would do if they the time and/or the talent to do it.
At least, that’s been my philosophy for five years, since I started writing for hire for corporations, nonprofits, newspapers and magazines.
I’m starting to think my philosophy is wrong.
I’m starting to think it’s absolutely wrong, exactly wrong.
I’m starting to think it’s a miracle that, with a philosophy this wrongheaded, I have made any money at all over the last few years, let alone enough money to afford a cleaning woman twice a month.
On her very first day in my employ, this cleaning woman debunked my entire philosophy of customer service.
Stefanie is Polish. She’s about 60. She is big—very big—and wears big flowered dresses. Her hair is white and her stockings are nylon.
Everything about Stefanie is thick: Her arms, her legs, her meat-mitt hands, and her accent. When she says “Yes,” she doesn’t say, “Yes.” She says, “Yest.”
But usually, she says, “No.”
This was my first conversation with Stefanie, on her first day:
“Stefanie, can you work on Wednesdays?”
“Can you work any other day than Tuesdays?” (A regular deadline day for me.)
“Can you do without Tilex today until I get some next week?”
And I was off, running down the sidewalk, hoping and praying that the corner store carries Tilex. I returned, empty-handed and ashamed. She let me off easy.
Except, while I was gone, she had had a closer look around my house, decided it’s bigger than she thought, wanted to charge $10 more per visit than she originally quoted.
“How about $5 more?”
“Yest, okay. We see how it goes.”
It didn’t start out well.
The vacuum became clogged almost immediately with dog hair. I leapt out of my desk chair and tried to help her clear it.
“No. I clean. You go work.”
And I trundled back into my office like a good client. And she stood flat-footed over that vacuum, her big rear end in the air, bending at the waist and never kneeling, for 25 minutes, digging hair out of the machine.
Eventually, she cleared the vacuum and got back to work. But I didn’t. You try working with Stefanie banging, roaring, scraping and shaking her way through the house. Muttering to herself, yelling at the dog: “Move, dog!” Closing, opening, turning on, turning off, pulling out, putting back.
In short, doing her job. And, as I discovered when she left four hours later, an absolutely beautiful job. A beautiful job, my new theory goes, because she had demanded the proper tools, demanded the proper pay and worked to her own rhythms (and at her naturally high volume).
I admire Stefanie in the way I want my clients to admire me. Not for staying out of their hair and being compliant and being nice and never making a peep.
Rather, I like Stefanie because she does a kick-ass job and she’s worth the money and she doesn’t make me feel I’m doing her any kind of a favor—she makes me feel I’m lucky to be associated with a person of such character.
How can I be more like Stefanie?
First, I can get that client to switch that deadline to Wednesday.