Are You and Your Writing Clients Speaking the Same Language?

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.

Writing Client Communication

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.
Are You and Your Writing Clients Speaking the Same Language?

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.

photo credit: Matti Mattila via photopin cc

About Sharon Hurley Hall

Sharon Hurley Hall has been mentoring writers here at Get Paid To Write Online since 2005 to help them improve and build sustainable and successful writing careers. Check me out on Feel free to connect with me online on Google+.


  1. Sharon what I love about your questionnaire idea is that it would automatically eliminates anyone who is just kicking tyres. If they are not serious about getting a professional job done, they are not going to take the time to fill in the questionnaire. Then those that do are obviously compliant in wanting to get the best outcome. I could never understand clients who for whatever reason seemed to sabotage your best efforts to serve them, but your questionnaire idea would have resolved that before it got to the difficult stage.

    • You’re right, Sandy. The questionnaire is a great gatekeeper. Of course, I get the odd person who doesn’t want to fill it out, but I can also ask the key questions in an email. 😉

  2. Hi Sharon

    It isn’t just your niche this happens to. I ask customers to complete a detailed web design brief when they decide to go ahead.

    On some very rare occasions the customer has decided that isn’t what they are looking for and changes the brief completely.

    As long as you have terms in place to protect you against this it shouldn’t affect your business too much.

    • Well, there’s not much you can do when the client realizes that what they asked for isn’t actually what they want, Mark, but at least having the parameters in place makes sure you get paid for what you’ve already done.

  3. I too like the questionnaire idea. I had one when I first started for myself as well as my clients, but as time has progressed, I have gotten away from it. I have been contemplating revamp it and you just gave me more reason to do just that. Thanks for the reminder and great advice that I know I will refer back to when I need to complete it!

  4. I had to chuckle a little when I read the title of this post. With the global nature of the internet, I do work with clients in far-flung regions of the world.

    Your advice to nail down the details upfront is spot on…what better time to address any real or perceived issues?

    • I do too, Denise. I’ve got another post somewhere about moving between UK and US English, but I’ve also dealt with people whose first language was Spanish, French or Polish. 🙂

  5. This is why you are so successful, Sharon. BTW-love the unsociable hour-better than saying an $%#@ hour. 😉

    I follow a similar approach and finalize an agreement with what I call a Statement of Work that spells out the scope of work, what it includes, doesn’t include, and timelines.

    The questionnaire is a great way to get everyone on the same page.

    P.S. Love Luanna’s illustration.

    • Your Statement of Work is a useful way of achieving the same thing, Cathy, and your simple, straightforward contracts also ensure that everyone understands what’s involved.

  6. Excellent advice Sharon.

    I always make clear exactly what I’ll be doing and when it needs to be done. I’m fortunate that my clients (large textbook publishers and other education companies) usually know what they want and send me a detailed contract that provides specifics.

    • That’s useful, John. You’ve just reminded me that it’s also useful to spell out what’s not included. E.g. I’ll ghostwrite a post for you but the fee doesn’t include sourcing images or social media sharing.

  7. Getting everyone on the same page from the get-go is SO important and you’ve done an excellent job here of outlining how to do that.
    I used to only do work locally so it always amazed me when I would sit across from a person and look them in the eye, go over the written contract with them, ask if they had questions, and STILL things would go sideways. Just goes to show you that the ever-elusive “same page” won’t always guarantee miscommunications. That’s when you’ve also got to grow a pair and be ready to have those awkward conversations to clear things up. And/or be ready to say good-bye, if necessary.

    • No matter what you do, sometimes you just can’t agree, Tea. I recently had a situation with a client who had unrealistic expectations about communication. I eventually had to explain that the working hours on my email were accurate, so expecting me to be available for discussion four hours after close of business was unrealistic.

  8. Plain speaking is essential in any writer/client relationship and, as you point out so well, a client questionnaire is an excellent place to start. In addition to helping me know what my client wants, I’ve found that my questionnaire helps the client figure out what he wants. The questionnaire also acts as a point of reference for the completed project. It helps both the client and myself recognize when the project is completed. It took some time to put together a clear questionnaire, but the time I’ve saved in revisions and rewrites has been worth it.

    • Yes! The questionnaire helps the client focus. A lot of people have a vague idea about what they want when they approach you, but after filling in the answers, they get a lot closer to something definite. At the very least, they know what additional questions to ask so you can get closer to a scope of work.

  9. I have a reputation among my clients as being someone who likes to play the game 20 questions. This is due primarily to the fact that the first time I meet clients in person, I tend to go through a massive interview process wherein I asked them about all of their marketing assets, all other marketing capabilities, their personal skill sets, their personal lives, and anything else that I think might be relevant to our working together.

    What I’m doing as I’m asking them these questions is sussing out their ability to think critically about their own marketing and their own business situation. With each new question I get answered, I’m finding out information about their business that they likely haven’t thought of yet. I’m also finding out where they’ve had troubles, missteps, drama, the too many cooks in the kitchen syndrome that you’ve mentioned, or any other roadblocks that might appear in my path as I help them.

    Left-field misunderstandings are often result of not having a common lexicon. Jargon is so prevalent and so often shared willy-nilly that it almost becomes impossible to shield your clients from misunderstandings of that nature. Worse still, when the client feels as though you have to trade their trust, or made them look foolish, the results can be disastrous.

    I love your approach, and this blog post has identified a lot of common pitfalls. My approach is similar, and was summarized neatly by local paper as “marketing firm works best when clients are off-balance”. Whenever I send written questionnaires, I find that the clients will often polish their answers, removing context cues that I found particularly important. I prefer the off-balance approach of an person interrogation. 🙂

    • Good point, Nick – written communication IS different. That’s part of the reason I keep asking questions. And of course, if I end up Skyping with the client, I get the chance to test my gut with some more questions. 🙂 It’s interesting that you use the word “interrogation” – it implies a “no stone unturned” approach that should result in clearer understanding. 😀

  10. Your point about having a consistent, written, intake system for new clients is priceless. I would add one other thing before signing up a new client – do a gut check. Even if everything looks good on paper, and sounds good on the phone, yet you have this unexplained uneasiness – think twice. I’m not saying you have ESP (wouldn’t that be cool though?), I think it’s really your subconscious noticing something and trying to say, “WARNING”.

  11. Oooo the questionnaire (or multiple questionnaires as I often use) are KEY to getting a client’s tone, audience, and outline. They’ve removed hours of back and forth and eliminated confusion before it arises. I lurve a questionnaire. Great post Sharon!

    • Multiple questionnaires, Ashley? Do you use a different one depending on the work required? I guess that’s another way to be sure you’re on the same page. 🙂

  12. I laughed about the “too many cooks” issue. That one’s the best…. and by best I mean worst! It happens a lot when it comes to design, too. We do a logo, client loves it, client’s wife thinks the blue should be lighter, client suddenly wants to change the blue. So far I haven’t put anything in our contracts about “we do not design for your wife” but it’s close!

    I love the idea of a questionnaire for EVERYTHING. We’ve been working on ours as we go because of course, you think you’re being so thorough and then someone asks you a question and you say… oh heck, why didn’t I ask that!? It’s a great point of reference, too, because when it comes down to “the blue”, we can look at the project brief/questions and see if we’re meeting goals or just haggling over personal preferences.

    All I know is that if you got 99% of your clients on board without a headache, I want YOU to be my PM!!

    • LOL, Carol Lynn 🙂 Thanks for the compliment. I would add that having details on my site about my business values, how I work and so on gives clients some of the information they need up front to decide if we’re a good fit from their viewpoint. This year I’ve found that many of the people that come my way have already made the decision that they want to work with me; it’s just a question of hammering out the details (and, on my part, finding the courage to say “no” when something doesn’t feel right).

  13. Been there and suffered all that! I had a client who’d asked for a 700-word DETAILED overview of the workers’ compensation industry. I followed her words verbatim (I’d taped the interview). After three attempts, they fired me. Why? Because the target kept moving. The PR person told me I was their fourth writer in as many months.

    The too-many-cooks issue I clear up in my contract. I require them to state who is involved in the revisions process and have a clause that voids the contract should an unnamed third party be introduced. It’s helped them as well as helped me because they slow down and really think about whose opinion they’ll accept.

    Those clients who have expected me to be on call at all hours have had those requests politely declined and their incessant calls head straight to voice mail. It’s about boundaries. If they can’t respect them, they’ll not respect my efforts usually. Not the kind of person I’d continue working with, to be honest.

  14. Great post, Sharon – I think these tips are applicable to all kinds of service providers, not just writers. I especially like the idea of starting with a questionnaire. Seems as if that would force the client to sit down with the project, metaphorically speaking, and get clear internally (both personally and within the organization) about the goals and the audience, as opposed to just coming up with ‘top of the head’ answers during a phone/Skype interview.

  15. Contracts/agreements are huge, as well as trying to identify “red flags” in the initial client meeting. I try to talk about a team atmosphere for the project, wherein we work together to create the best possible thing by listening to each other in their area of expertise (e.g. you for writing, client for their business/industry knowledge).