The relationship between a client and a creative professional can be complex, colorful, and never the same twice. Even the same partnership can give drastically different results depending on the medium and goals of the project. While many contractors and professionals alike have literally no idea what is going on inside their client's heads (*cough*), we nevertheless have an obligation to our clients, from the best to the worst. Like anything creative, though, how do we define what that obligation is, and what it isn't?
The best place to start is the rock bottom foundation of pretty much all work you're going to be doing. It doesn't matter if you're freelance, consultant, on staff, whatever. You are using your skills, knowledge, time, and tools to create some kind of creative good for your client. Your absolute obligation in this equation is to deliver on that good, as agreed upon in the contract signed out the outset of the project. Some people are more comfortable with vagueness of contract than others, but I highly encourage considering specifications such as "Will provide client with Four separate draft versions to pick from, followed by (insert additional revision specs here)". Sometimes I employ them, sometimes I don't. What's important is that we've pinned down what your concrete responsibilities are in this exchange.
Legally definable goods aside, how we deliver on those promises is certainly what makes or breaks our reputations and professional practices. It's this murkier water where many, many creative professionals start cutting corners, losing momentum, or generally just not living up to their potential. The reasons for this can be multi-fold, with some more legitimate than others. Let's take an in-depth look at what these details encompass, when it's okay to push back versus giving ground, and ultimately what taking one route over the other can say about your work and professional caliber.
In a Perfect System...
I've been told there's a magical land where clients know exactly what they want, can clearly express it in a timely and concise manner, and are constantly in respectful awe of the work you do for them. I'll make a fortune selling maps once I find it. One of the reasons skilled creative professionals can really do well for themselves is because even the most awesome, best intentioned client comes calling on our service specifically because they can't do any of those things. If they could, they'd be way too close to being able to do it themselves for any of our career paths to be comfortable with. It's not a shortcoming; they just have a decidedly different skill set. I'm always glad to work with a friendly client who's proven he can sell thousands, or even millions of dollars of goods or services, but doesn't know the first thing about doing his own design, SEO, or marketing material.
So the question arises, beyond actually delivering something vaguely passable at the end of the day, what should we 'do' for a client? If a client contacts you, excitedly offering you a very generous paycheck, up front, for some easy work, you say "Yes!". When he then pulls out a crumpled fax showing a web-page deftly designed with fourteen different shades of traffic-cone orange, and dutifully explains that roughly half the page is made of animated gifs... what do we say then?
The simple answer is that, at least as a fellow professional of even the smallest shred of honor, you should inform your client of the ill-advised tact his current design has taken, and suggest more viable options. When your client is agreeable and truly involved in the project, this can be a simple and even enjoyable process. The greatest problem arises when the client who has the most issues is also the one you least want to engage in such an involved way. They could be simply distant from the work/communication, or could be openly hostile to you and the process that needs to happen. The reasons are infinite, but odds say that the clients who need the most involvement are the clients who greatly resist it.
Here Be Dragons
We're now at the impasse of a client who desperately needs guidance, but seems to resist that guidance at every turn. The knee-jerk reaction we all have is "If they don't want the help, then I'll gladly make exactly what they're paying for an leave it at that." Sometimes, it's all you can do. I urge you, however, to triple and quadruple question yourself before you throw your hands up in the air and chalk up a professional retreat. First, every time you do so makes it easier to justify doing it next time. Even an awesome client will have moments that leave you beating your head against a wall; it comes with the territory. A wall unblemished with plaster-prints of your face means you aren't trying hard enough. Second, giving in, even when justified, impacts your reputation.
The most common way you see a reflection on your reputation is directly in a resume or application scenario. If you've got a great portfolio, but someone asks why there's a large gap in your work, you'll have to explain what happened. Even if everyone in your industry commiserates with you, most will still remind themselves of that time when they did push through with all their might, and wonder why you didn't. Does that speak to your work ethic or dedication? On the other hand, sometimes the benefit of going that extra, unwelcoming mile might result in a reward all its own. One of my favorite 'in the business' stories is of the client that almost broke the camel's back... until the professional got through to them and they really made something awesome happen. Those are the clients who can give you serious word of mouth connection business, and are willing to come back with their own business to the person who earned their respect through hard work and solid advice.