8 ways to handle the haters

I remember it like it was yesterday.

15 years ago, I was working for a small-press publisher. After months of begging, I finally got my chance to write my first back-jacket blurb – you know, the promo paragraphs designed to snare you into buying the book? What’s more, it was for a well-known author in the self-help field. Needless to say, I sweated and slaved over every word.

A week after I turned in the copy, the publisher called me into her office. Apparently, not only did the client NOT like the copy, he felt compelled to break down why he didn’t like it on a line-by-line basis. The letter ended with (and no, I’m not making this up,) “I don’t know who this Heather Lloyd-Martin woman thinks she is…”

I was devastated. Looking back, I’m amazed I stayed in the industry. But I did – and this experience taught me a lot.

The reality is, some clients are going to hate what you write. They won’t be satisfied. And they will tell you in no uncertain terms.  Here’s how to handle it:

  • Calm your heart rate. I don’t care how many years you’ve been in the business, reading “I’m not happy with the copy” sends ice shivers down your spine. Immediately, self-doubt kicks in. “Was the writing that bad? Did I totally miss the point? What’s wrong with me?” Or sometimes, all you feel is anger. “Do they realize what I went through to write it? Those &*##@*^.” The more you panic, the less you’ll be able to appropriately react. And react you must do, for the next step is to immediately…
  • Email the client. The best step you can take after receiving a nastygram is immediately respond to the client. Don’t explain, don’t defend, don’t sound angry. Just tell them that you received their email and appreciate their comments. Keep in mind that most clients don’t like sending nastygrams. It’s as hard on them to write as it is on you to read. When you ignore their email because you’re freaked out, the only message you’re sending is “I don’t care about your email.” And that’s the last message you want to send to an unhappy client.  Remember, how you handle the situation is incredibly important, and can mean the difference between keeping the account and letting it go – so this is no time to hide.
  • Schedule a time to talk on the phone. Scheduling a phone chat gives you two advantages. One is you can talk through the copy changes rather than relying on email back-and-forth. Many times, a 10 minute conversation is all it takes to give the client exactly what she wants.  The other reason for a phone conversation is to assess how unhappy the client really is. Email won’t tell you if you need to tease out additional objections and do additional damage control – but a phone call will.
  • Own your mistakes. Did the client catch a mistake and that’s what’s making them cranky? For goodness sake, just own it. Don’t try to explain why it happened, or talk about how many deadlines you’re juggling. Guess what – the client doesn’t care. All they want to know is how you will fix the problem. (As a side note, if it is the client’s fault, it does no good to point out, “Hey buddy, this is your hit, not mine.” Handle situations like that with extreme care.)
  • Send an email immediately outlining the changes you agreed upon. Yes, this is a CYA move. But this also helps prevent “scope creep.” A quick email outlining the changes – and insisting on the client’s written agreement before you proceed – will make your life easier. Otherwise, you run the risk of the client saying after the second draft, “Oh yes, we didn’t like this part either…I know we didn’t mention it before, but we need you to change this” – and you’re stuck in a constant editing spiral.
  • Make the changes immediately. This is the time to clear your schedule, make the fixes, and turn the copy around fast. Don’t schedule it for “when you have time.” Do it right away. Quick action will impress your client and show that you care about the account. Taking your sweet time to turn around the copy will do nothing but alienate them further.
  • Follow-up again by phone. Once your client has your second draft, there is nothing that will impress them more than a quick call making sure that all is well. And if it’s not well, make their changes and send the copy through again.
  • If it’s not clicking – and both parties have tried – let the client go. This rarely happens if you’ve really listened to your client’s needs – but it happens for various reasons. Sometimes, it’s just not a good copywriting “click” and nothing you write will make the client happy. Sometimes, the client is facing behind-the-scenes political pressures and that’s why nothing is working. It’s OK. It’s not fun, but it’s OK. Just give them their money back, refer them to other smart SEO copywriters and wish them well. I’ve had this situation happen three times in 12 years. Two of the clients eventually came back because they liked the way I handled the situation. And guess what – there were no future client issues.

Dealing with unhappy clients can be scary, frustrating and maddening. But remember, if you handle the situation quickly – and take the time to really hear your client’s needs – you can save the gig. Plus – like what happened to me 15 years ago – you may even get more work because the client likes the way you handled the situation. What a great way to transform a stressful problem into a profitable, happy client relationship!

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13 replies
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Thanks so much for your post, Graeme. You’re exactly right – moving past the “blame game” does free up mental space to fix the issue. Thanks for your feedback. :)

      Reply
  1. Rullegardiner
    Rullegardiner says:

    I’m not a good writer but in my profession – many clients ceased me for mistakes!. Later I give up explaining the situation and just point out “Yes its me..and next will take care of it”. But those clients must know that errors is common for all human.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Hello!

      It’s true that people make mistakes…and things happen. What’s almost more important that the mistake (other than trying not to make it again!) is how it’s handled. Being proactive and saying, “I’ll take care of it” can be a powerful way to help a client feel at ease.. :)

      Thanks for your post!

      Reply
  2. Amy C. Teeple
    Amy C. Teeple says:

    Well said Heather! I think you outlined the toughest part very well. It can be easy to second guess yourself and wonder what you did wrong, when sometimes it was just a miscommunication.

    One of the toughest blows I took was when a lawyer said to me on a conference call with our entire group, “No offense, but this writing is fluffy sh*t.” Why on earth would I be offended? :-) Basically, he wanted a website that was found for keywords, but that didn’t include those terms in the copy … except for in a spammy footer that he saw on other websites. Since we were not in the business of creating spammy websites, we had to work for some time to reach a compromise (since the sales team did not want to lose him as a client). In the end, I documented every change he requested and our response to it, which proved to be our saving grace when he later claimed we never explained SEO copywriting to him.

    It was definitely a learning experience.

    Thanks for the article!

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Ouch! Yes, writers do need to develop a thick skin…but wow, hearing that must have been harsh! Definitely no fun.

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad it all worked out in the end. :)

      Reply
  3. Scott
    Scott says:

    Great advice Heather. Putting your ego aside and trying to do what the client wants as opposed to what you want can be very difficult. Ultimately the client is paying you and you need to do it to their satisfaction.

    Your suggestion about making the changes immediately and getting them a second version to review can go a long way toward turning an unhappy client into a client that will do business with you again in the future.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Hi, Scott-

      Thanks for your comment. I love what you said – ultimately, the client is paying you and you need to do it to their satisfaction.” Great quote – and a good reminder. :)

      Reply
  4. Jacqueline Peters
    Jacqueline Peters says:

    Heather, no one likes to be chastised for their work, let alone receive harsh criticism. One way to deal with this is to think, “it’s my writing they didn’t like, not really me”.

    By not taking it personally, you can try to resolve the issues with a measure of clarity. If you can’t help yourself and you take it personally, beware of your retort.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Exactly. The worst thing you can do is pop off and say something stupid because you’re hurt (and you feel like the client doesn’t love you anymore!). :) “Beware of your retort” is excellent advice. :)

      Reply
  5. James Daniel
    James Daniel says:

    Most of the time, this approach is the best way out. But there are times when you have to take a harder line, e.g. when the first draft makes the client realise that the original brief was flawed (perhaps in terms of style), and they ask you to revisit the job from scratch. That’s either a sign of a client who doesn’t know what they want until they see it, or someone who’s exceeded his authority by supplying a brief that doesn’t have support higher up the food chain. Thankfully this is rare (and questioning the brief usually eeks out these issues in advance), but when it happens you have to stress that you’ve delivered as requested and negotiate a way forward. If you just own the error outright, it sends out the wrong message and creates a dangerous dynamic in the relationship.

    Reply

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