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The Initial Consultation ~or~ No One’s Going to Tell You How to Do This

I first met with my client about a month ago. I had no idea what she would be like, and basically no information on the project. A few days beforehand I prepared by writing out all of my questions in to Google Docs, and going over in my mind how the meeting would pan out. I was certainly a bit nervous, but confident in my ability to catalogue just about anything, so I figured I’d be more than prepared. In addition, I had been purposely putting myself in front of strangers, generally older (read: more advanced in their career) and very professional people for the past few months in order to become more comfortable with this type of situation. Nevertheless, as soon as I got to the meeting, everything I had prepared went out the window. It was nothing like I expected, and it took me awhile to regroup and remember that I had notes in the first place.

In order to get clients you need to do some sort of initial consultation, so I’m going to go over my experience with this for this project, in hopes that it’s useful to newly minted graduates in particular. That is, people who, in the pit of their stomach, have little confidence about their abilities as a professional in the field. These meetings are about getting information out of your potential client, yes, but the’re also about projecting confidence and professional know-how at the same time.

Tips for the aspiring freelancer

1. Be early.

Very early. I simply could not find this woman’s apartment. I was at the right address, but the front door was actually on another street, and I ended up in a Nike store, asking the cleaning staff where the heck I was supposed to go to find the elevators, with two minutes left before I was supposed to be there.

2. Be friendly and talkative.

You will have to small talk when you meet a new person. Be nice, chit chat, make eye contact, laugh. If the thought of doing these things terrifies you, I suggest you set up some info interviews with nice old ladies until you get to the point where you prepare for these meetings for five minutes before you go in to them, no problem.

You want your client to both trust and like you. To get the person to trust you, you have to show that you understand the point of the project and what is most important to them. For this contract, that’s creating a catalogue that’s functional and has great descriptive bibliography, so that collectors/book sellers from other countries can get a good sense of exactly what the works are, and buy them. Also of crucial importance is respecting the collection by taking great care of the works. A private collection is a very personal thing, and its value isn’t just monetary. Since I will be staying for multiple days and nights in the collector’s other residence in order to do the work, trust was of a very high importance to the client, and so I was very upfront about my understanding of the importance of the collection to her.

3. You are the expert.

Most likely, your client won’t be able to give you very much direction/advice on how to do what they want you to do. They don’t know, that’s why they’ve contracted you. At the same time, you need to project, without lying, of course, confidence in your professional ability (even if it’s only confidence in your ability to “figure it out”, as is the case with me). If you’re anything like me, you’ll be terrified at nearly every moment that you can’t do the job. Having a large professional network is very useful in this case. Luckily for us, our profession is filled with incredibly kind and helpful professionals who want to help us whenever they can. Reach out to them if you feel you’re missing any information before going in to the consultation. In addition, spend all of the time you have googling and researching everything you need to know to do the job. At the end of the day, however, you have to realize that no one is going to hold your hand through the process, no amount of research will ever be enough, and the first time you do something all you can do is try your hardest and if you fail, try something else. A hard truth I’m just beginning to learn is being an “expert” is  50% pretend, and 50% being persistent in doing the best job possible no matter what.

4. YOU ARE THE EXPERT.

Come prepared with lots of questions. Really think about what you’re going to need to know before doing anything for the client. Try to ask the questions before they answer them for you (something I didn’t do very well, for sure). Remember to start out with who you are and how you got to be sitting in front of them, in that “professional yet personal” way that you’d use in an interview. Don’t be a robot, but don’t talk to them about your cat dying.

Here’s the document I used, with my initial questions on it: Cataloguing Project

At the end of the consultation we arranged a time to go look at the collection, which will show me where I’ll be working and give me a sense of the current state of the library. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking regarding the length of the contract, and all those details, so my next post will be about that. I visit the collection on Friday, and I’ll take many pictures I’m sure, so stay tuned for that as well.

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