On Freelancing: What To Do When Your Client Hates the Work

Jul 21, 2014    /    my location-independent career

For those days when client feedback feels like a punch in the gut.

I recently got a letter from a freelance writer who just took on her first challenging client. She was distraught because the content she’d been working so hard on hadn’t gotten a very rosy reception from the client—and she wanted to know how to deal with negative feedback. She was committed to getting it right (which is most definitely the first step), but was feeling drained and nervous after the client’s negative reaction.

I thought today I’d share with you all what I shared with her: 4 steps to turn negative feedback into a positive experience.

1. Take a deep breath & remind yourself of your value.

If you’re getting feedback by email or voicemail, take a minute to make a cup of tea, take a deep breath, and remind yourself of some of the nice things past clients or colleagues have written or said. Be willing to learn and grow, but also practice a little self love.

2. Listen and empathize.

Messages, words, and language can be surprisingly emotional topics.

Just because a client is sending you emotionally charged emails or using always-never-love-hate language doesn’t mean the situation is dire. Sometimes it is one simple phrase that triggered the emotional reaction. Sometimes the client just needs for you to connect the dots—how did you get from the strategy to the written copy. Sometimes the client is just having a bad day.

This is where it’s really important to come into the call or meeting recognizing that it’s not about you. Feedback is complicated and messy and full of the emotions each individual attaches to not only words, but the values and experiences those words connect to in his or her own life.

However silly it seems to those on the outside looking in, sometimes a sentence fragment (even an intentional one) can feel like that proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

This is where the listening part comes in.

Listen carefully to people’s concerns and let them know you hear and understand and that you are on their side. You are writing or designing or developing for them because you want their business to succeed. You both have the same end goal. It’s just a matter of how to get there.

I had a client when I was working full-time at the ad agency who gave my project manager a heart attack when she wrote to tell us she “hated” all the copy we’d written. My project manager came to me in a panic and I told her it would all be okay and she should set up a quick call to find out what exactly the client hated.

As soon as we had the client on the phone and I asked some specific questions about the things she didn’t like, we learned that what she “hated” was one specific phrase that appeared throughout the copy because her SEO specifications required it to. Her hate language was just a result of her own anxiety about having the right words on her website, not a real reflection of how big the problem was. We fixed that word, cleaned up a few other minor things, and the client was really happy in the end.

If someone says they hate the word “savvy” or “sun-drenched” or “offshoring,” simply reply, “Okay, so you don’t like it because it is {fill in the blank}. We can find a better word. Any other words like that that rub you the wrong way?”

3. Calmly explain your reasoning—and let them know they’re still welcome to make the changes.

Always make sure your clients have full information. Don’t argue. Don’t get upset. Remember that it isn’t about you. And say something like this:

“Great. We can definitely change that word if you want. The reason I used that kind of simple language is because your audience has varying literacy levels and I want to make sure we are clear to the largest number of people possible. Do you want me to go ahead and change that or do you want to mull it over?”

The final decision is the client’s, but making sure they understand the nuances and reasoning behind your choices will often impact those final decisions.

If you have a content strategy, personas, SEO keyword lists, etc. and the client has already seen and signed off on them, this is a great time to draw the line from your strategy to your content and always always always make sure to update the strategy, style guides, and other documentation if things shift based on your conversation with the client.

4. Don’t be afraid to fire bad clients.

I hate to say it, but occasionally listening, respect, and a genuine concern for the client’s business success doesn’t solve the problem.

When I worked full-time at the ad agency, I actually had to go to the CEO once and ask to be taken off a project because the client had crossed the line from providing feedback into actual verbal abuse.

In case you are just starting out and feel like you have to take on anything and everything that comes your way, let me be the first to say to you: it’s never okay for a client (or anyone) to verbally abuse you. Name calling, sweeping generalizations, racism, sexism, or any other form of discrimination are absolute grounds for you to fire a client. If you do end up in this situation (and I hope you never do), always be polite and firm as you end the client relationship. Do your best to respond in kindness. You never know what impact that mix of kindness and self-respect will have.

* * *

Any other tips for dealing with negative feedback?

Photo by Vu Bui.


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6 Comments
  • Maria Falvey
    August 22, 2014

    Oh this is a tough one – I experienced it this past summer.
    My contact loved the writing but the end-client hated it for what they were trying to accomplish. They took a very direct journalistic point of view that had me scratching my head as to why they hired a creative writer like me. It wasn’t easy and they didn’t accept the work in the end, but I did get it published elsewhere. However, the same client now uses my proofing skills. *shrug* Just gotta keep trying to connect with them, what they want and sometimes… others.
    Maria Falvey recently posted…Lost Second ChancesMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      August 23, 2014

      Sorry to hear that! This was definitely one of my not-favorite things about my copywriting career.

  • Andreas Moser
    September 1, 2014

    If we are honest, we sometimes could have told from the beginning who is a complicated client. Now, after a few years of experience, when I see the tell-tale signs, I either say I am busy or I quote a prohibitive price.

    • gigigriffis
      September 1, 2014

      Really good point. I also do this. If I think the client is going to be difficult or high maintenance, I build more hours/budget in for myself to make it worth my while. I also bill more of the cost up front.

  • Eve G
    December 2, 2015

    Thanks for posting this. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only writer with this issue. Seems common throughout our industry.
    I recently took a gig to write several articles for a client.
    The Account Exec gave me a very tight deadline, which I didn’t charge extra for. (my mistake)
    I finished the work and met her deadline. Found the links to my published work on their client’s websites. 3 out of 4 used.

    She was given my edit policy (3 edits per project) up front. After I delivered the draft I sent several emails asking if the articles were heading in the right direction. She never replied to any of them. I didn’t hear from her until I sent my invoice.
    She asked me to negotiate my prices, stating they only used one article because the others didn’t meet the company’s standards. I really don’t know why she would think this is acceptable. Is this common with clients?

    The other thing that confuses me is that she was given my portfolio prior to working together and then tells me my writing didn’t meet their company standards???

    I agree that firing a client is necessary. What can you do upfront to get them to understand the edit policy and the process of revisions?

    • gigigriffis
      December 2, 2015

      Oh man, I’m so sorry! I hate when that kind of thing happens.

      I suggest charging half up front for every project. Don’t start the work until they pay you. This helps because if you do have financial issues later, at least you have some money in pocket right away. And I also send over a work authorization (basically a mini contract that outlines revisions, number of pages promised, word count, late fee policy, etc. and have them sign it before moving forward). And if you have a bad feeling about a client, either quote double (and still get half up front), walk away, or charge full payment up front.

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