Client expectations

G'day Heroes!

Do any of you also find that -even though it's a clear in the initial agreements that you don't supply content/that you are not the SME for the project - clients seem to want you edit the content/or are surprised when you say you don't have the expertise to edit the content properly?

(I do a lot of work in the medical area and find there are things I don't want to touch content-wise because of the expertise needed for the topic.)

How do you handle it when you have an agreement that you are not the SME, but the client still expects you to be able to rewrite and edit material in areas where you have no knowledge?

Thanks in advance.

10 Replies
Christy Tucker

Honestly, I think they're being pretty reasonable. You should be able to edit written content to make it easier to understand or to flow better for voice over. It's still the SME's job to double check everything that you revise to make sure it's still accurate. SMEs are terrible at writing for learning though; rewriting it is, in fact, your job as an instructional designer.

Content expertise is mostly irrelevant. Instructional designers are content neutral; we can design for any topic. You can use strategies to research and learn content enough to revise it and make it more instructionally sound. You don't have to be a SME to revise the content.

If you don't want to do anything on the writing side, you need to make your agreements clearer. You're going to only be an elearning developer, not an instructional designer. Then your clients will know they'll have to hire an additional instructional designer or content writer if they want those services.

Can you post the language of your agreement here? Maybe we can crowd source some edits to your agreement language about SMEs to set the expectations to focus solely on the development side.

Articulate 10

Hi Vickie, great question. I hope others chime in with their perspective. I agree, dealing with clients can be challenging at times. Let me know if you find a solution! JK, I also have to work with difficult clients from time to time and it can be frustrating having to deal with their behavior. You are smart to have agreements in place, but clients often do not understand what they are agreeing to or will outright ignore them to try and get more work out of you. I think it's best to be as detailed as possible about roles and responsibilities for all parties involved.  Are the projects you work on fixed bids contracts or time and material bids? If it's the latter and your clients are requesting services that fall outside the scope of your agreement, the best thing to do is tell them they will incur additional costs if you are expected to provide additional services or find someone who can. If they are fixed bid contracts, it get's trickier but that's when you dig in your heels and remind them of their agreement. I struggled with this early on because I thought I had to appear as if I had all the answers.  It took a while for me to admit that I didn't know everything and that it was ok to ask for help. Now I'm completely upfront about what my role is and what services I will provide. If clients want to make additional changes outside of the agreed upon terms I'm happy to do it because I know I will be compensated for it.  I also encourage clients to get stakeholder input and approval as early as possible to minimize future changes. 

-My two cents

Julie Stelter

Hi Vickie,

You have already gotten some great advice. I agree with Christy that your job is to edit whether you know the content or not.

Here are some strategies that I use with my medical SMEs:

Sometimes the sentences are so long (most likely run-ons) that it is difficult to identify the noun and verb. In this case, I ask the SME to identify them. Usually, this is enough for the SME to also see how the sentence can be made more clear.

If it is not enough, I ask them to identify the full medical term. Here again, sometimes the full medical terms aren't the adjectives, nouns or verbs I thought they were.

Similarly, if I'm on the phone with a SME, I'll ask them to explain a sentence. I listen for the natural breaks in their voice to help me add commas, semi-colons, and periods. 

If I'm really confused, I ask the SME, in a conversation, "What are we trying to teach here?" "What is the main point of this sentence?"

Trust is key in this relationship. The SME has to trust you to take care of their knowledge and present it in a way that is learnable. You have to trust the SME and build a relationship where the SME wants to give their very best. 



Christy Tucker

Yes, I would feel comfortable editing it. I've written training for doctors and nurses before. In that situation, I would likely mostly focus on edits for flow and readability. That makes it easier to learn and remember, but doesn't change the content. I would also draw the SME's attention to my revisions, especially anything that got a more significant edit. I'd also request an additional reviewer who isn't the SME I've been working with directly to double check it. 


But, I'm an instructional designer rather than an elearning developer. While I sometimes get source content from SMEs as a starting point, I usually write the storyboards myself. That means I invest the time and effort to get at least a basic understanding of the content. 

Vickie Sublette

You are spot on, Patrick. I am feeling like there is a bit of scope creep there when they throw a couple of PPTs at me and want  ME to create the course, when the agreement was that I would have SMEs and content available. I edit, design, and program. I need SOME content to work with!

When businesses (or managers) are struggling, they want to pull more out of their employees for the same price. They try to do this with contractors as well, not realising that we are the "hired gun" to do a specific job for a specific amount of time.

In Australia, we have fixed contact employment. I am on one of those now, in addition to my usual consulting bits and pieces. Here, you are an employee for a fixed term. Kind of best of both worlds because you get all of the benefits of an employee, but usually a higher rate. That said, there is no overtime pay or getting paid for extra work. So, if there is scope creep, I WON'T get compensated for it.





Christy Tucker

So, you and I can agree that eLearning developers focus on making it interactive, and instructional designers do all of that plus analysis, design, storyboarding, and evaluation. I don't think you can "adhere to adult learning principles" if you let the SMEs write the content, but that's beside the point. The reality is that these definitions are "squishy." They aren't consistent across organizations.

It sounds like you're stuck in your current contract. For future projects, you can focus on setting the expectations really explicitly before you sign an agreement. I'm not familiar with "fixed contact employment," but are you able to negotiate the contract language? If so, let's figure out what that wording needs to be to make it crystal clear that you do strictly development. Then, if they ask you to do something beyond that scope, you have something to protect you.