When Clients Attack
I’m actually talking about the situation when a client disagrees with or criticizes your approach to a project. You’ve done the best you can, but the client isn’t happy.
Sooner or later, a client ‘attack’ is something that happens to nearly every freelancer.
As a freelancer, how do you deal with that delicate situation–without endangering the relationship with your client?
Here are six approaches that have worked for me during my freelance career.
Firm Up the Brief
Often, problems result from not having a tight enough brief before starting work. But you are where you are, and you can’t go back. Even a suggestion of ‘revisiting the brief’ can be risky if there wasn’t one in the first place–it makes YOU look slapdash for not sorting it out earlier.
(As a freelance, it’s tempting to get the project underway rather than holding things up with lots of discussion, but it’s always risky to proceed without a proper brief.)
But you still might be able to ‘talk through the aims of the project’–without admitting that you should have asked the client to clarify their needs before work began.
Get Something Constructive
Sometimes, clients offer blanket criticism like ‘it just isn’t working’, which is unproductive as well as hurtful. ‘Anywhere but here’ is not a useful destination.
The best way to get constructive feedback is to ask open ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions that elicit descriptive, precise answers. For example:
- What would you like to change?
- What’s missing, from your point of view?
- What is working, and what isn’t working?
- How would you like the text (design, site…) to develop from here?
- How would you like to proceed?
This type of questioning puts the onus on the client to explain what they want, which is crucial. You mustn’t fall into the trap of responding to what you THINK they want, or what ‘clients like them always want’, or any other projection of your own ideas.
By the same token, make sure you listen to what they actually say. Recording phone conversations (with consent) allows you to listen back later, when you’re not so angry. You might be surprised at how little actually needs to change.
Critique Their Ideas
Sometimes, clients respond to the request for feedback by doing their own version of the work.
This is particularly likely for writers, since the tools of the writer’s trade are within everyone’s reach. Many clients of mine have proposed their own text and invited me to respond to it. It’s very difficult if their version is wordy, jargony, inconsistent, or gramatically unsound–but at least I’ve got something to work with that could, if push came to shove, be used.
Designers, art directors, web developers and other creatives are in a worse position, in some ways. They’re much more likely to receive a bunch of hasty, half-formed, and mutually incompatible ‘amendments’, perhaps from several different people within the client organization, which they then have to reconcile.
Whatever you’ve got to work with, it can sometimes be worth critiquing the feedback rather than acting on it. Explain point by point why the ideas won’t work. Obviously, this has to be done with great care and tact, since you are effectively criticizing the client, and they may take it badly. Be prepared to backtrack or bail out if things get ugly.
To take the sting out of the situation, cite third-party exemplars if possible, rather than challenging the client head-on based solely on your own authority. Whatever happens, this has to remain a collegial, collaborative discussion between colleagues–not a ding-dong argument between opponents.
The ‘feel, felt, found’ technique may be useful: ‘I understand how you feel.
Many of my clients felt that way about their site (advert, leaflet…). But what they found was that…’ This tells a story about someone else that might help the client see why they shouldn’t go down a particular road – although they still might insist that their situation is different.
Justify Your Ideas
Another approach is to return to your version and mount a case for it. Say something like ‘Could I just talk you through the reasoning behind what I did?’
Then work through your text, design, concept, or whatever and explain how you arrived at your solution. You may even want to show your ‘working’–early drafts or rejected designs, which might well include some ideas the client wants to try now, but that you’ve already rejected as unworkable.
Designers, in particular, often enjoy the ‘reveal’, where they present the finished solution as a fait accompli, having addressed all the issues in their studio during the working process. Sadly, the client may not be able to see exactly how the final product meets the brief. Showing the journey to the goal can help with this.
Connect each aspect of your work to a desired outcome for the client:
- The bold colors gain the reader’s attention.
- The headline expresses a benefit.
- The call to action tells them exactly what we want them to do.
- The image gives the reader something to aspire to, so they buy into our message on an emotional level.
- The navigation helps the visitor understand how the different areas of the site fit together.
Use ‘we’ to emphasize that you and the client are sitting ‘on the same side of the table’, working together to solve a shared problem. Don’t fall back into using ‘you’ and ‘I’, which might come across as confrontational, and risk tipping the discussion into a point-by-point argument.
Focus on Outcomes
Sometimes, the client may simply say ‘I don’t like it’. This can be very tricky indeed. It’s a subjective position, so it’s impossible to argue with. By doing so, you’re effectively telling the client that they’re wrong, or that they’re stupid, or that they lack taste.
It’s tempting to go down the road of saying you DO like it. But that kind of goes without saying–it’s your own solution, after all–and the discussion will quickly descend into deadlock.
The key is to move the discussion from subjective opinions to objective evaluation–insofar as this is actually possible when dealing with writing, design, or any other discipline with a creative or aesthetic dimension.
Somehow, you need to get the client thinking in terms of the goals of the project, or the business outcomes it’s supposed to deliver, rather than their own tastes and preferences.
If they are the owner/manager of a small business, there may be very little distinction between their views and their brand, or their character and the culture of the firm. But there is still a difference between what’s right for them, or what they like, and what’s right for the business.
This links up with justifying your ideas. If you can link your chosen approach or technique to business outcomes, perhaps backing up your position with authoritative, third-party evidence, your position will be much stronger.
If, after that, they still insist they don’t like it, you might resort to my last option, which is…
For some creative freelancers, it’s more important to propose the right solution than it is to please the client. The rest of us just need to get paid. And that can mean swallowing our pride and letting the client get their own way.
It’s not fun, nor is it particularly good for the ego. But if what the client wants is usable, and doesn’t constitute outright commercial suicide, why not let them go with it? At least they won’t associate you with discord and difficulty.
Ultimately, the client has to be happy with their solution. If they really can’t see the value of your ideas, you have to let them go with their own. It might not lead to a fruitful stream of ongoing work, but at least your invoice will be settled this time around.
Of course, it’s a different matter if you’re being paid, or assessed, on results. If the client wanted you to write a PPC ad or landing page, but insisted you include their clunky slogan, you’ll have to disclaim responsibility for what happens when it goes live.
As Confucius said, ‘you turn the handle the way it goes, not the way it ought to go.’ Freelancing is often about choosing your battles and going with the flow. You haven’t ‘lost’ anything by accepting a situation you can’t change, so bite the bullet and walk away. You’ll be back!
How do you deal with client upsets?
Share your techniques in the comments.
- 10 Secret Reasons Why You Lose Clients
- How to Get Clients to Absolutely Love Your Freelancing Work
- 7 Reasons to Consider Small Clients
Thu, 17 Mar 2011 13:30:25 GMT
Tags: Client Disagreements, Client Disputes, client problems, Managing Clients, Writing,
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