Ever had the situation where you and your writing client just didn’t seem to be on the same page? Me too. I reckon it happens to all of us at some point. And there are a couple of reasons why this might be the case. There’s the hidden brief, incompatible working styles or personality clashes or the too many cooks syndrome.
The Hidden Brief
I’ve written about the hidden brief before (actually, more than once). It’s where your client provides guidelines on what s/he wants and you think you are following it to the letter. The next thing you know, you have a piece of work returned to you with the words “I don’t think this is quite what I’m looking for”. (Luckily, I don’t hear that much these days and I’ll tell you why in a few.) You return to the brief in puzzlement, check that you’ve ticked all the boxes (you have) then go back to the client, who digs his heels in. Then you spend time talking to or emailing the client to find out what is really required. The problem in this case is that often the writing client doesn’t know – till s/he doesn’t get it. And you have to spend a lot of time teasing out what’s going on in their minds till you get it right. Hard work, because after all, you’re not psychic.
Too Many Cooks
Then there’s what I call the “too many cooks” syndrome. It’s where you’re working with a particular client and you suddenly find the work has to be approved by someone else. Like his boss. Or her sister who’s a marketing expert. Or her cousin who everyone says is a good writer. Or some “guru” you’ve never heard of. This is a tough one, because it means you’re producing work to be approved by someone you’ve never talked to when you have no idea what they want. There’s a solution to that too – and I’ll get to it soon.
Other Client Issues
And sometimes your clients have unrealistic expectations. Like the client on the other side of the world who wants to communicate by phone, even if all calls will be at unsociable hours for both you and him.
Or they have different communication styles – which means that your client constantly wants to Skype you when you’d rather use that time for actually doing the work, or doesn’t give enough information to be useful when responding to queries by email.
Or personality clashes – I don’t even need to explain those, because we’ve all come across those before.
Or the client who expects all your work to be perfect – as if you’re not human – and is ready to slap you down for any tiny mistake even if 99% of your work has been excellent.
Or the client who seems to be standing over your shoulder firing off conflicting demands, but not giving you the time or space to do your job like the professional you are.
And then there are the clients where all you can say is “what were they thinking”? Like the client who wrongfully accused me of using the work I was doing for him to promote my other clients. And locked me out of his writing system before giving me a chance to respond. I had to send ten emails back and forth to get the details of what he was talking about, then send him a point by point rebuttal before he retracted unreservedly. Of course, we never worked together again because the relationship had been irretrievably damaged.
Streamlining Communication with Writing Clients
So how do you get to the point where you and your writing clients are on the same page? Apart from the last situation, here’s how I weed out some of the potential problems. Let’s start right at the beginning.
- If I get a cold approach from someone who has seen my work (for example on Crazy Egg), then I reply with details of what I can do and what the price of posts like that usually is. I also ask for details of what they want and may send my client questionnaire.
- If I get a cold approach from someone who has found me online but is non-specific about their services, I send my client questionnaire.
The questionnaire forces them to focus on what they want, what audience it is for, what style of writing they prefer and who is the key person I’ll be communicating with for copy approval. The answers to these questions help solve the problem of the hidden brief and the too many cooks syndrome.
Note, and this is important, what they say here becomes the basis of any future agreement with them.
If I get an enquiry from a repeat client who I enjoyed working with, we will thrash out the details by email.
In all cases, I will confirm what we have agreed by email or contract email and get them to sign off on it and pay any necessary deposits before starting work. That eliminates 99% of the hassle over what we’ve agreed, who can approve work, communication expectations and so on.
The other 1% (personality, poor communication and stuff that’s out of left field like that last example I cited), you can’t do anything about except breathe deeply, gut it out and smile till you collect the check. After that you have no obligation to work with that person again.
If you get the client to spell out what they want, whether via a questionnaire or an email, then you have a reference point for discussing any future disagreement on delivery. I have no problem asking questions till I understand what a client really wants. And that’s why, in spite of having run across all the client situations I listed above, I have excellent and harmonious relationships with all my current clients. How do you deal with client communication issues?
This post is part of the October 2013 Word Carnival, with the theme How to make sure you and your customers are speaking the same language. Read the rest of the posts in the Carnival here.
Illustration by Luana Spinetti. See more of her work on the Writer’s Mind blog.