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I hate you! How to handle negative feedback from a client when you’re a freelancer

rowan martin

Rowan Martin Copywriting

“Thanks for sending this through. I must admit it’s not quite what I expected and really needs reworking significantly. It’s not really aligned with our message, in terms of writing style, pace or content. Apologies, but I’m happy if you wish to cancel the job or rewrite, entirely up to you.”

Ouch.

Not the feedback you want to receive from a brand-new client, after submitting the first draft of their very first job.

It doesn’t say I’m an awful writer. Or the ring-master of a fraudulent and illegal (definitely immoral) copywriting freakshow. Or a terrible person that eats babies and makes the water in church fonts sizzle when she walks by.

But that’s how it made me feel.

Nobody likes being told their work is a bag o’shite.

Starting out as a copywriter, I was warned that receiving negative feedback from a client would be one of the hardest parts of freelance life.

‘Yeah, I bet that’s really tough’

I murmured, sympathetically. Secretly, I was twiddling my moustache and thinking: ‘You wet the bed over your crappy feedback, if you like. I’m Godlike in my mastery of the written word. I’ve been published by The Guardian. Three times. Negative feedback from a client? I’ll probably never even have to make changes on a first draft.’

How little me and my moustache knew.

There’s a certain anxiety that comes with freelancing. You’re selling yourself (not like that, gutter-mind) or at least the idea of yourself as an expert in a discipline. Your job, before you do the actual job, is convincing a potential client that you can add real value to their business, value that exceeds their investment.

Believing in your own abilities is a constant struggle for most of us self-employed people. Imposter syndrome is real – some days it’s more intense than others, but that small voice of doubt and fear niggles in the background, nearly all the time. (GO AWAY MUM, I’M WORKING.)

Feedback on a first draft, most of the time, is pleasantly neutral, pretty great or absolutely ecstatic. And it should be, because if you nail the brief, your first stab at the work isn’t going to fall too short of the mark. (You should also be keeping in close contact with the client as you go along, if it’s a substantial job, checking and rechecking that you haven’t strayed off to Dubai when you were on the road to Doncaster.)

So receiving negative feedback from a client can feel like you’ve got everything wrong. Not just that you’ve written a bad piece of copy. You’ve failed in every. goddam. way. possible. (And you eat babies.)

A large part of the learning curve, as a novice copywriter, was developing a process that ensured I got the info I needed to do my job well. In the early days, I was all too happy to work from a miserable brief (a few scant lines, sketchy information, nothing about tone of voice or intended audience, no mention of a CTA).

Hell, I was just glad someone was going to pay me for writing. I didn’t want to pester them with silly questions like a needy child (excuse me…tugs sleeve….but who is this piece for sir? Why you impudent wretch! Raises fist.)

If I’m reeeeeeeeeeeeeeally honest with you – that’s how today’s negative feedback from a client debacle came about.

Travel back with me, through the mists of time, to an afternoon in February.

I’d taken this job through bidding for work on an unspeakably embarrassing website, and for pretty rubbish pay (don’t judge, it’d been a barren month, and Justeat is an expensive place to feed two kids on a daily basis.)

I approached the work feeling pretty resentful that I’d had to scrape the freelancing barrel yet again, particularly as I’d spent January (metaphorically) hanging out on a yacht, blinging around with rapper-esque clients who shoved diamonds and $100 dollar bills in my pockets while peeling me grapes, pouring me vintage Cristal and promising they’d be faithful to my insane copywriting skills, for life. (By this I mean I’d had a really good month.)

So I didn’t apply any of my usual processes to this new client – basically, because I couldn’t be arsed.

Gasp!

Freelance professional admits she “couldn’t be arsed.”

Career suicide.

I’m just trying to be honest (and to show you my vulnerable, human side, in order to evoke sympathy and build trust, warming you up to become my next victim client).

In my defence:

  • It seemed like an easy job.
  • The pay was low – so expectations couldn’t be that high, right?
  • I was ill with pneumonia (my GP said it was bronchitis, but it felt like it was at least pneumonia if not, whisper, something even worse…)

So I winged it.

I didn’t ask the client to fill out the fantastic copywriting brief I’d spent weeks developing, over a year ago. The one that asked insightful and probing questions to tease out the most relevant and useful information from strangely tight-lipped clients (they’re paying you to write about their business, but they go all coy when you ask them about it. What’s is that?)

Also (GOD SORRY DAD, LEAVE ME ALONE, SLAM) I hadn’t asked the client to sign a contract. So if he had decided to pull the job, after a crappy first draft, I wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on (or a pot to piss in, while we’re regurgitating clichés).

I had asked the client some questions, before starting on the first draft, but his confused responses about his own business had left me feeling similarly confused. So I’d let it go and written what I thought he should want, rather than continuing to dig until I had a handle on what he actually did want. Are you confused too, now, dear reader?

It wasn’t the worst piece of writing in the world, but it wasn’t the sort of writing that produces this kind of testimonial, replete with smiley face emoticon:

“Hi Rowan. This is really good. Thanks very much for this. I think you hit the sweet spot J
Well-written and a nice flow and rhythm to the text. I think you really understood our USP.
I have some more work for you. Hope you’re free?”

Now that’s a testimonial fit for a three times Guardian published writer, with a godlike command of the written word.

It’s also the testimonial I received for the second draft of the offending article.

Shocked silence.

Rapturous applause.

So how did I get from exhibit A to exhibit B, in the course of only a few short hours? And why do people use the expression ‘a few short hours’ when hours are only short or long if compared to other methods of counting time? And how did my relationship with this client go from ‘I’m happy to cancel the job and walk away’ to ‘I have some work for you, hope you’re free.’

I did the work.

And the first part of the work was to take negative feedback from a client for what it was.

Nothing personal.

Not a reflection of my overall abilities, as a writer.

Not an insinuation that I ate babies.

But an honest expression of disappointment, by the client, for the return on their investment.

After I’d finished cursing and written then deleted an indignant reply, berating my client’s vague title and even vaguer brief, I gave this response.

“I’m sorry that you were disappointed with the first draft of your blog post. When this happens, it’s usually because I haven’t fully understood what a client really wanted from the work.

If you could take a few minutes to fill out the attached copywriting brief, it will go a long way to me understanding your business and the results you’d like this blog post to achieve.

I’d very much appreciate the opportunity to rework the article, based on some further discussion and some brainstorming of new ideas.
I’m convinced a second draft will come much closer to your objectives – so let’s not give up!

He agreed, filled out the form and sent some links to examples of copy he admired. As usual, the dusty cogs of my brain started to creak into action and, pretty soon after, a lightbulb went ping above my head, along with some loud klaxons and….

Okay, so I got the USP of his business and figured out what the audience of the blog post would actually find useful and valuable. Then I wrote it. And it was dead easy to write – it took a third of the time that writing the shitty version did (I KNOW GRANDMA, I AM MY OWN WORST ENEMY AT TIMES. SLAM.)

In conclusion.

I’m glad I didn’t do an uber flounce and bog off when I received negative feedback from a client, along with a free pass to bugger off into the sunset, job unfinished, invoice unpaid, reputation tarnished, kids eating home cooked food instead of delicious takeaway.

I wanted to. The pay wasn’t great. And guys – I’m only human. I spend a long time convincing myself I’m a decent writer, so when feedback clearly points to the opposite, I lose my shit somewhat.

But I learned some stuff because of this crappy feedback (here comes the moral message, please kneel piously.)

If I take negative feedback from a client personally, I learn nothing, and nobody wins. I don’t get paid, I feel terrible about my abilities as a writer and my client gets no blog post.

1. Copywriters are like icebergs. So much of what we do is hidden beneath the surface. The bit that sticks out on top is the first draft. But the huge expanse of ice, under the water, is the work we do behind the scenes, in order to produce that draft. That’s where much of the value lies, and that’s what the client is paying for. So make sure they get it.

2. The harder I have to work for a bone, the tastier it, well, tastes.

3. Great feedback happens too, and always feels great.

I was forced to be a great copywriter today. I did my job well, and I thrilled my client. Take a look at some of the other clients I scintillated here (first time round.)

It reminded me that’s what I do this for.

All joking aside, I love writing, but I don’t write into a vacuum. Like a golden retriever, I have to drop my stuff at someone’s feet and wait to be patted on the head.

Producing work that’s of real value to another person’s business (a business that’s as important to them as mine is to me, i.e. very, in case I haven’t communicated that in this post) is what I do.

Most of the time 🙂

Freelancers, how do you handle negative feedback from clients? Or maybe it doesn’t happen to you? If that’s the case, maybe you ought to keep it to yourself.

What do you think?

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