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How to Manage Client Expectations

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As an independent producer in an age when everyone can stream to Facebook from their smartphone for free at a moment’s notice, it can be a challenge to try to charge money for what is essentially the same thing. While people have been able to write novels on their computers and laptops for decades, the number of great writers hasn’t grown exponentially. The same can be said for live streaming. Even though everyone can live stream from their smartphone, not everyone does it well. When you start looking to add a second or third camera, different audio sources, etc., then it gets really complex, really fast. HOW TO

This is a bit of a departure from my normal gear-centric articles. Having spent more than 20 years working with high-end gear producing live-switched content for PBS and broadcast television, I’ve found there’s a lot of wisdom and experience that become valuable to someone who’s looking to do the same type of production with today’s tech—no matter the distribution method. Whether you’re delivering over the air (OTA) or via cable, video on demand (VOD), or OTT, knowing how to produce a good show is itself a marketable skill.

Talk It Through

A large portion of my time is spent educating clients on what I do, what I can do, and what I can’t do. In particular, what I can’t do is key to managing client expectations. Addressing these expectations requires delving deeply into what the client is doing, how they are doing it, what they are looking to achieve, what their end goals are, and what the measurements and analytics will be after the fact. By talking it through, I can get a better understanding of what effect they’re looking to have with the video, as opposed to “just” doing the video. By making sure we’re both working toward the same goals, we have a better chance of avoiding potential conflicts down the road.

For instance, if a video is supposed to educate, then instead of emphasizing cameras and lights, more effort should be focused on making sure the viewer is informed with good lower-third graphics, full-screen graphics, social media overlays, calls to action, and even a leverage of the social media platform to provide clickable links to other media and information. Creating a clear run of show when different things need to come on screen or happen online would be critical to ensuring that all the key information points are hit in a timely manner.

Talking things through can also create the need for additional content to be prerecorded and rolled into the live event. This is added production value you can bring, and get paid for, as part of what started as a simple streaming event. Find out if there will be a series of videos, and talk about expanding the scope to include more events, as the cost for certain production elements goes down when they are used over several events.

Recently, I was asked to live stream a ground-breaking event. The client and I talked through what they were looking to do and what services I could contribute. They also wanted an archive of the event and a clean recording of the speeches and interviews that they could use for other aspects of this yearlong project. In fact, they wanted that more than the streaming. It also worked out that they hadn’t realized they would need a microphone and amplified speaker for the 60-plus people expected at the event. So in the end, I provided that as well, and I made sure I could get the podium mic into my camera directly, ensuring I had perfect audio from the presentation.

By talking through the event, I established what I could do, and what they ended up hiring me to do was not what they initially asked me to do.

The Statement of Work

After going through the client’s program and exploring what is needed, what is wanted, and what fits in the budget, it’s time to write it all down in a statement of work. This document ensures that both you and the client are in agreement on all the specific work you’ll do. This is where things are detailed. So instead of simply describing the project as “Streaming Division 3b baseball games for the 2021 season,” you mention everything: “Our coverage will be for 25 Division 3b baseball games, held at Dyson and Raymond parks, on April 21, 22, 28, 29 ..., with contingencies for 3 weather-related postponed games. For each game, we will provide three-camera coverage, with a camera behind home plate, one near first base, and a wide-angle camera covering the whole field. Audio will be taken from announcers at the field. Our coverage will be streamed via cellular link to the Facebook page for the team. In case of poor cellular connectivity at the ballpark, a recorded file will be made available for upload after the game.”

By laying everything out well in advance, you’re not leaving up to interpretation what the “coverage” of the game will be, which games you will stream (Both home and away? What about rescheduled games?), and what you’ll do if you can’t get a solid cellular connection for streaming.  

It’s also important to outline specific things that can’t be done. For instance, there are dozens and dozens of copyright flags for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is played before every game. Streaming it is certain to get your stream flagged and in some cases, automatically terminated, as could any “walk-on” music or other copyrighted music played at the stadium. Specifically stating that “portions of the event with copyrighted music will be muted in the stream to avoid automatic termination of the live stream for copyright infringement” lets your customer know what will happen and why.

Then you invoice based on the statement of work you’ve built together. This helps ensure that there are no surprises for the client and that they clearly know everything they’re getting for the price they’re paying.

Avoiding Feature Creep

The statement of work and the run of show are not set in stone, however. Often, we wish they were, but something always changes. I’ve had clients who ended up with 20 or more revisions as their stakeholders and partners tasked them with more. Or sometimes, things change, the order of things changes, additional people have input, etc. As a show grows or gets smaller, it’s important to work closely with contacts and ensure that the existing gear, people, and negotiated hours can cover any changes that occur.

When two more people are added to a panel event, that means more microphones and an additional cost. When an event starts an hour earlier than originally scheduled or the event planners decide to have a “working lunch” during which my crew will need to keep operating cameras, then I have to add a “swing” person or two to allow each crew member to get a break while the work goes on. It’s never easy to explain that a particular change will add a specific cost. The best way to do it, though, is to detail how we are working to facilitate the client’s needs: “In order to keep the operators on through the working lunch event, we need to add additional ‘swing’ operators, so each of us is able to eat, go to the bathroom, and get a break during the long conference day. This will cost (price here) and is essential if we need to keep everything rolling through the breaks.”

At this point, the client must assess the value versus the cost. They may decide that the working lunch doesn’t have to be recorded and to keep the budget the same, or they may want to record the working lunch and will understand why the invoice will change.

Little things can be absorbed—for example, if the client suddenly realizes that they need one more microphone, and I have a backup microphone already set up, I just hand it to them. They’re happy, and the heat of the moment is no time to raise a stink. But if something is well outside of the statement of work, I let them know I can handle it (if I can) and am able to take payment right there on the spot to cover this additional work order. Having the ability to swipe a business credit card is also key in this particular situation. PayPal, Square, et al., can get you set up for that.

When it comes down to it, we have to determine how many additional billable items we’ll allow, when it is the right time to have the conversation, and if the client is abusing the relationship or is just caught off guard by the situation. We always need to respect ourselves and our crew first. Then we can make sure we take care of the client.

Conclusion

We are worth what we need to charge for an event. Our wisdom and experience help us establish our ground rules and what services cost. We can discount from a worthwhile starting point, but we always work through the project with the client to detail what we can, will, and can’t or won’t do. Being up front with clear information and getting it all written down and approved by the client ensures that we can focus on meeting the client’s expectations and that we will both be happy with a smooth-running event. 

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