Handling Last-Minute Requests

We all get them, even if we’re not technical writers in our professions. Is there a sensible way to deal with last-minute requests? Fortunately, yes. Is there such a thing as hard-and-fast rule that covers every situation? Alas, no. But fear not! I’m here to help.As an employee

If you work for someone else, your time is not your own. You might have several managers or internal customers pulling you in different directions throughout the day. You might be hip-deep into a major proposal effort when the CEO, most important customer, or department director comes to you with a hot request that must be handled immediately. Now what?

How can I help?

I can usually work pretty fast, given half a mind, and I’m not inclined to say “no” right off the bat, so I will try to ask “How can I help?” (which sounds a lot nicer than “What do you want?”). If it truly is a small task–I’ve been asked to proofread anything from museum exhibit captions to mission patch stickers to business letters–and the thing I’m working on right now isn’t critical, then I say yes.

How much is it worth to you?

I used to politely debate (that’s a more pleasant term than “argue”) with one of my managers because I dared to say “no” to customer requests. Obviously you’re there to serve, and your service is writing content. How dare you? Well, if the request is frivolous (editing someone’s holiday card message, for example) and I’m in the middle of a major proposal worth X millions of dollars and it’s got a hot deadline, guess who’s going to hear a “no.”

One essential rubric you can use, however, is simple dollar value: how much is the task you’re working on at the moment worth to the company/organization vs. the value of the task that suddenly needs to be done right this second?

Who’s asking?

Another decision-making tool I’ll use is simple rank: what is the corporate position of the person making the last-minute request: is the person a peer or the owner/head honcho of the company? If I’m working a task for one manager and another manager nearly equal in the hierarchy makes a last-minute request, I would say, “Maybe, let me check with my immediate supervisor.” Then I leave it to him/her to make that call or to escalate the issue to a manager above the other two to deconflict the matter.

When do you really need it?

Just because a request comes in at the last minute does not mean that it’s always due in the last minute. Sometimes you might get called into a meeting because someone realized, “Oh, hey, we could use a technical writer on this.” Will the meeting eat into the deadline dealing you’re working now? If not, you attend the meeting (again, subject to the two provisos above), then work the task later, when it’s actually due.

As a freelancer

As a freelance writer, you  might be under the same constraints as you are as an employee, but the only “boss” you have to defer to is yourself. So you must ask yourself: “Self? Is this something I can do given the limited time I have to complete Task A?” Since you are the final arbiter of your time and your customers are all coming from different companies, you have to make the call as rationally and diplomatically as you can. You know what your workload is, you know how much time it will take you to do X versus Y. And yes, you know very well how much Customer A is paying you vs. Customer B. The questions are essentially the same as you would face in a 9-to-5 office, but you have the decision-making power. As a freelancer who depends on the goodwill and money of your customers to keep yourself rolling.

So I’ve slowly learned to accept the advice of that aforementioned manager I used to politely debate with and try to say, “Yes, if...” And that if could be, “Let me speak with my other customer first.” Or it could be “I can, but I’m right in the middle of something, could you give me five minutes to close it out?” Usually the answer is yes. If your customer is adamant about the request, you’ll need to make a cost/benefit call based on your history with the client to decide if interrupting the other client is worth putting their project on hold to handle the other customer’s last-minute crisis.

The joy and the hurt of being your own boss is that the decisions are yours and depending on how you handle them, you stand to gain or lose income. Your goal is to be of service, not to be a servant, so if someone is making an unreasonable demand on your time, you need to find a diplomatic way of refusing to handle that request right now. If there is no way to handle it later, I have resorted to a “last-minute convenience” fee, which charges the customer extra for the drop-everything service. I prefer not to do that, but it can be a useful defense mechanism if the last-minute-itis is a regular behavior.

Bottom line: you might think that saying “yes” to everything should be your default response. I would respectfully suggest that you get the whole story and give yourself a moment to do some calculating on how a “yes” will affect your other work. As one of my friends likes to say, “A lack of planning on your part shouldn’t constitute an emergency on mine.” Just be careful whom you say that to…or how.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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