A week or two ago I received an email from a web design company I work with regularly. I write copy for their clients on a regular basis and usually my feedback is very positive (I have to blow my own trumpet a little you understand, in case someone reading this is looking to hire me!)
However, on this occasion the appraisal from the client was less than glowing which promoted the usual self-reflection that all professionals – no matter what their field – commit themselves to.
I’ve been in this game long enough not to be upset by criticism; when you’ve had work published in national newspapers and international magazines and had a blog post referenced by the New York Times you must be half-decent. But disappointing clients is something I never take lightly, so I went through everything: my notes, my drafts, my final article, with a fine toothcomb to see what insights I could draw from the comments.
I also decided to blog my ideas about the best process to follow when responding to negative feedback; and here it is:
1. Always Offer a Free Redraft
I offer two. The vast majority of your clients will not bother you for a redraft if they are only making the odd tweak, but if your hammer has missed the nail I think you owe it to them to try again – in your own time. This is also good customer relationship management and may turn a bad experience into a positive review (more about that later).
If you have done your preparation properly, and had an in-depth meeting with your client about their preferred style, amount of copy, audience etc. then you should never be so far off course that a redraft is too time consuming. Of course, if your client has had a complete change of heart – which does sometimes happen – you might want to introduce a contract clause that underlines that any free redraft has to be ‘within the scope’ of the original brief. You do want to maintain a good impression where possible but you also need to protect yourself from those clients who will never be satisfied with anything.
2. Read and Re-read your Feedback
You need to understand exactly what it was about your work that your client didn’t like. If they haven’t provided you with any reasons, I suggest asking them for clarification (along with your offer of a redraft). I would hope that a commercial writer isn’t going to be hauled up on the basic points of spelling and grammar, but you will often find that it is your style or audience that is the sticking point (which are really two sides of the same coin).
Of course, a professional writer should adapt their style to fit the client and their audience, but there is also a natural author’s voice that will shine through. If that voice tends to be patronising, sentimental, snarky or formal you might want to spend some time deliberately writing in an unfamiliar style. If you tend to write long, descriptive sentences practise writing some short, sharp, punchy copy. If you are always critical of a subject you are writing about, try to write a review that focuses only on what you really liked. This will help you to overcome your natural tendencies and become a more flexible writer.
3. Read and Re-Read the Brief
If your work is at odds with your customer’s expectations then it is nearly always your fault – not theirs. When you receive your project brief it is your responsibility to seek any clarification that’s needed. If my clients live or work within 50 miles or so of Torquay (Torbay) I make a point of offering to meet with them – at no extra cost – but everyone gets a telephone conversation if they want onw, wherever they are situated.
Of course, some briefs will be more demanding than others. For example, you may have a client who is trying to be all things to all people. It can help to ask them to list two or three words that describe the style they want to convey (for example, formal, professional and trustworthy or young, hip and chic). Make sure that you are both singing from the same hymn sheet before you start work – perhaps by summarising the brief in your return email.
The two questions you really have to ask every time are: ‘Who are your audience/customers?’ and ‘What do you want them to do after reading your ad/brochure/article/webpage.’
When you receive negative feedback, try to pinpoint where in the preparation process things went awry – and then work on changing that in the future.
4. Prevention and CPD
My partner is a nurse and she is expected to carry out a certain amount of continuous professional development each year to comply with her registration. I don’t see why this should be any different for a professional writer.
Preferred styles change, grammar evolves and writing for the internet becomes more of a specialism, tied in as it is with marketing and PR. Be aware when new stylebooks are released and get hold of a copy; familiarise yourself with Google updates so you know how to write for the search engines as well as for people; find out which new words have been added to the dictionary. Try to allocate time each week (or even each day if you’re keen) to improving yourself, both as a writer and a marketable business.
5. Make the Most of your Reputation
Reputation management is big right now, largely because the search engines are prioritising businesses and organisations that attract good reviews. They are reacting to the fact that customers tend to act on ‘social proof’ before buying a product or trying out a service, reading and trusting what their peers say. It makes absolute business sense for the search engines, who work on matching customer desires with those who are likely to satisfy them, to highlight those who are already making their customers happy.
As a commercial writer, you can maximise the chance of positive reviews by prompting happy customers to visit your Facebook or LinkedIn profile and wax lyrical about you. Perhaps you could put a link or note on your invoice or as a part of your email signature.
And what about bad reviews, I hear you ask?
Simple; you include a prompt to get in touch with you to remedy the situation. Remind them of your redraft promise or even offer a refund if you feel this is deserved. The odd negative review will not destroy you, but it is better to prevent them if you can.
As a caveat to much of the above, there is one situation that most freelance writers hate and dread – the client who also employs a freelance editor or reviewer as a ‘quality check.’ Unless they pay really well, the quicker you can excuse yourself from that kind of set up the better.
If you were a paid editor or reviewer do you think you would be employed for long if everything you reviewed was passed without comment? Exactly. In this scenario, you are doomed to be asked to redraft copy for the most ambiguous and illogical of reasons. Your sentences are too long; now they’re too short; this point needs elaboration; this one labours the point…etc.
Of course, it’s only right that the client’s team or even a trusted friend gets to have a look over the final copy before approval, but the client really should be able to decide for themselves whether you have fulfilled the brief or not.
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