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Clients say the darnedest things: How to deal with bad feedback

by Elizabeth Saloka on March 18th, 2010

You spend weeks writing your client’s site. And it pays off. Your messaging is dead on. Your copy is fresh, clear, and active. Deliriously tired but satisfied, you email the document to your client.

Two days later you get the document back. You open it. 

MAMA SAY WHAAAATTTTT?! 

She. Butchered. Your. Document. Butchered it! Using track changes, she reformatted your beautiful bulleted lists into gigantic paragraphs filled with run-on sentence after run-on sentence. She added “dynamic” and “synergism” to the home page intro. As an overall comment, she requested you please “change all the links to ‘click here’, so people know to click.”
 
This feedback is bad. Very bad. But she’s the client. What do you do?
 
First, let’s clarify something.
This article is about dealing with bad feedback. Not dealing with negative feedback. Bad feedback and negative feedback are two different things.
 
Negative refers to how the client perceives your work.
 
Bad refers to how the client expresses their perception (negative or positive) of your work.
 
For my fellow visual learners, a chart:   
 

Now let’s talk about types of bad feedback—and how to deal with them.
Below, a profile of four popular types of bad feedback accompanied by coping tips: 
 

1. Jargon-y feedback.   
Your client: “I’d like the copy to be more delightful.”

You: “Sure! No problem! I’ll make it more delightful!”

Wrong move, buddy.

When a client uses subjective, vague terms in feedback, you MUST call her on it. Right away. Even if you know stopping to dissect and analyze her feedback is going to take extra time and effort. Even if you have to revise schedules.
 
In the long run, you will save time, the content will be better, and your client will be happier. Promise.
 
If you can, help your client see the flaw in her logic. If she wants the intro to be more “robust,” respond with an open-ended question such as, “What does ‘robust’ mean to you, exactly?”
 
Also, make sure you get examples—ask the client to email you “robust” copy samples. That way you have something tangible to work with. 
 
2. Vague feedback.
She says, “Looks great!!!” And that’s, like, it.
 
Your client read all 87 pages of your copy deck and had no changes? Riiiiiggghhht.
 
I’d bet my bellybutton this is what’s really going on: your client didn’tactually read your whole content doc. Or at least not thoroughly. She’s so busy worrying about the site’s design/other projects/her newborn octoplets she didn’t have time to read it.
 
So she’s cool with it. For now. That is, until her site is four hours from launch and she calls you for a boatload of last-minute revisions.

Do yourself and your client a big favor and make it very clear she needs to provide feedback now (remember, do so nicely!) or forever hold her peace.

Say something like, “I’m so tickled pink you went through ALL the content and you don’t haveANYrevisions. I’ll go ahead and send you the invoice and close out your project. It was great working with you!”

 
If she responds with, “Wait! Wait! I might still have some revisions!” you can firmly (but nicely!) remind her of the feedback process you agreed to when the project kicked off.

Tip: Include one or two questions using the comments feature in your document when you send it to the client. That way, if she gives you the ‘ol, “Looks great!” you can respond by asking if she had any further thoughts about your questions.

If she has no idea what you’re talking about, or if she responds with, “Oh, right. We’re going to have to change that,” you know she didn’t look it over thoroughly. Proceed with caution!

 
3. Contradictory feedback.

She says, “We only call ourselves ‘managers’ internally. Please don’t use that term in the copy.’”
 
You say, “Okay.”
 
What’s so contradictory about that, you ask? You’re right: It’s perfectly straightforward direction. Until you get your document back from your client and see she added ‘managers’ to the company tagline, home page headline, global navigation, footer, and image ALT tags.  

Clearly, you need to clarify what your client wants.

But, for the sake of your working relationship, you also need to be careful not to put her on the defensive or make her feel foolish. There are many ways to proceed. For instance, you could say …  

“Earlier you said I shouldn’t call you ‘managers.’ But throughout the document you inserted the word ‘managers.’ What exactly would you like me to do?”

There’s nothing wrong with that approach. I guess. But doesn’t this just seem friendlier …

“Hey! Thanks for the feedback. I had one quick question regarding the word ‘managers.’ I see you’ve added it in a few places—is it okay to use that term now? Thanks!”

See? Nicer. Generally, clients like it when you’re nice to them.

 

4. Nonsensical feedback.  
Maybe she’s high on coffee. Or she prefers expressing thoughts verbally. Or maybe she’s been up all night watching Lethal Weapon and its sequels. Whatever the reason, sometimes your client will give feedback that, well, makes absolutely no sense.

“Could you please add another future verb to this entire beginning of copy paragraph? Thanks!”

Huh?

“I talked to Janice and she said Tom’s player copy doesn’t need any more action-oriented dropdowns (except maybe for twice?). Thanks!!”

Whazza who?

“Legal review. Stakeholders. Danny Glover. Thanks!!!”

Mmm.  

If you have no clue in sweet heaven what she’s talking about (it does happen), schedule an in-person interview with her—over the phone works, too—so you can walk through her, um, “points.”

Start by reading a couple of her comments back to her. Hopefully, she’ll stop you after a couple minutes and say, “Geez. I wasn’t making any sense! I meant to say blah, blah, blah.” Or whatever. If she doesn’t, hopefully you’ll be able to glean some insight into her state of mind through verbal cues. 

Finally, a request.

It’s easy to roll your eyes when a client gives you slick, vague, contradictory, nonsensical feedback. But you know what? She’s likely juggling a billion things, from wireframes to babies to Lethal Weapon DVDs. Your copy is just one of them. Cut her some slack. And remember, she’s not a writer. If she were, she wouldn’t need you.

If you’re willing to have patience and put forth a little extra effort, you can help your client. You can educate her about content best practices. You can show her examples of successful websites with great content. You can take time to really understand where she’s coming from, so you can put her feedback in context.
 
In the end, your content will be better. And your client will be grateful. So, what do you say, ‘ol chum?

  • davidhorn

    Great article. I have one client who specialises in the 'Legal review. Stakeholders. Danny Glover. Thanks!!!' feedback style (*always* with the three exclamation marks, natch). Thanks for sharing the advice.

  • seantubridy

    This article is both dynamic and delightful! Looks great!

    Thanks!!!

  • http://incisive.nu/ Erin Kissane

    Well done — super-practical AND funny. Yay!

  • muna0001

    hehe, this post makes me smile. good one :)

  • http://www.twitter.com/mbloomstein mbloomstein

    SUCH a good read, and perfect for folks who sling copy–or design. Whether we hear “make it more bloggy!” or “more dynamic here!” this is the classic “make it more like Apple” scenario. It begs that we dig in for the concrete, non-contradictory feedback and repeatedly ask “what did you mean by that?” After all, feedback–like fortune–favors the bold. Thanks for this!

  • danielgenser

    As someone who both receives and gives feedback on creative work every single day, I find that the best feedback often includes the words “for example” and “because”.

  • anniesmidt

    Your point about stopping clients from going the subjective route is one I love. I harp on this to the point where I bore myself… but clients need to be educated about it, again and again.

    I try to tell them nicely. Ask them to reframe, ask them what's BEHIND what they're asking for. What's bothering them? What's the pain?

    It doesn't matter if your wife/husband/aunt/cat likes navy blue. It's not a good creative strategy for your business goals.

    It doesn't matter if you love reading long pages on a black background, it's bad UX and will not help you meet your business goals.

    Keep bringing it back to their conversion goals, their bottom line, what they asked you to achieve in the first place. If possible, keep reminding them that they hired you because you are an expert at this, as a matter of fact.

    But politely.

  • http://deliverbliss.com Tim Sanchez

    Great post, hits home for me.

    I once spent 3 days writing the spec document for a new portion of an enterprise web app. The client “reviewed” it for a week. When I asked them for feedback they said, “Looks good!” Uh huh.

    4 weeks of programming later and the project was delivered. They promptly wrote up 3 pages of changes. It went on like that for four or five months. Change this, change that, change that back the way it used to be.

    Lesson learned. Get feedback early and hold them to it.

  • http://www.axzm.com/ AXZM

    You can almost guarantee that clients will deviate out of scope, but there is nothing worse than non-descriptive feedback. I would much rather have my client tell me what they do not like, than just tell me “it's not that good, make it pop”. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?! Do I need to cover their project in rice krispies and milk? Should I hire some breakdancers?

    What I do that always seems to work is tell them to write down 5 words that describe what they want to convey in their message. By simplifying their message down to just 5 descriptive words, I am (usually) able to define their core objectives a lot easier. Plus, it makes them evaluate what they are really trying to say.

    Great read… tell Halvorson her presentation was one of the best at SxSWi… and she rocks a mean Karaoke face.

  • http://www.blue-ferret.com/ BlueFerret

    Ouch. This is so true it hurts. #2 pops up the most for me. I'd rather have them go out of scope at that point – well before the last minute – than pages of bizarre, self-contradicting, memory-lapse-induced changes show up four hours to launch.

  • http://www.ideaswise.com/ Peter

    Good article, thanks – feedback can be one of the most contentious areas.

  • claydelk

    I wholeheartedly agree with the tip from #2. I love including questions in my copy docs (for clients and account services).
    It's the grownup version of putting “Tell me if you actually read this” in the middle of your high school English papers.

  • http://www.frequentfollowups.com Ryan Williams

    Nice post. The scary thing is that according to research 96% of people who have feedback to give, never tell anyone. If you believe this statistic you would have to conclude that for every negative feedback you receive, 25 other people didn't say anything! That's pretty scary.

    Ryan Williams

    Free Customer Follow-up System
    http://www.FrequentFollowups.com
    Twitter: @freqfollowups

  • http://www.wordsofvalue.com/copywritingservices Nikki May

    Great piece, thank you.

    Sometimes feedback is bad and negative, and sometimes its difficult to decide how to handle the situation.

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