How to Tell Your Client They’re Wrong Without Getting Fired
You’re on the phone, head in your hands.
It’s been 20 minutes and your client is still talking about the first ad that you sent over.
You know it’s good. And they said they like it, but then they say something to the effect of I’m just not sure.
Or the inevitable, Can we make it one shade of purple darker? And that font, I don’t know that it works.
Next comes the killer. What if we do it like this? And your client rattles off one of the worst ad pitches you’ve ever heard and suggests you change the font to Papyrus because they’re sure that it will be – how did they put it? - super classy.
You know that what you’ve done will work. And you know what they’re asking for will hurt the project. You’ve done this before. That’s why they hired you, right?
So how do you tell your client they’re wrong, without getting fired?
Take a Step Back from the Problem
Your immediate reaction is probably a sinking feeling in your stomach, followed by a groan that sounds something like this: “Ghhhrruuuhhh.” (I know, I’m a weird groaner.)
Avoid groaning out loud at all costs.
Other things on the Do Not Do list:
– Eye rolling
– Heavy sighing
Instead, take a deep breath and smile.
Do this even if you’re on the phone. It will help you take a step back and not give an immediate, emotion-filled reaction.
Look at It from the Client’s Point of View
Empathy is a powerful skill, and something that we have to learn slowly over the course of our lives. Unfortunately, we don’t start out with much empathy, so it requires a lot of trial and error (mostly error, really).
To see what I mean, let’s go back to childhood. I’m pretty sure all kids are born as tiny little sociopaths.
That’s why a little boy doesn’t run up to a little girl he likes and make a convincing argument about lunch time seating arrangements:
Emma, I really like the way you laugh at my dinosaur jokes. I like your ponytail. Maybe we could sit next to each other at lunch, and I’ll, like, ummm… let you eat one of the cookies my mom packed.”
Instead, he runs over to Emma, grabs her ponytail, and yanks it as hard as he can before running away laughing.
Eventually, he’ll do this too hard and Emma will start crying. When that happens a light will finally go off in his head… She’s crying. She’s crying because I did something that hurt her. I don’t like this feeling.
And that’s how we start learning to understand and share the feelings of the people around us. That’s how we learn empathy. (And how little boys ultimately make it to adulthood.)
This actually isn’t too different when you’re working with a client. They disagree with something you’ve done on the project, and you think to yourself, I get that you’re great at business, but didn’t you hire me to do this stuff?
Instead, try to remember what it was like when you’ve been in a similar position, but on the opposite side of the table.
Think about the last time you were excited about getting a project done and you needed help on it. You wanted the other person to guide you and do their part, but you didn’t want your thoughts and opinions disregarded. After all, you’ve got, like_ideas_, man.
That’s how your client feels. They want you to take control - but not dismiss or ignore their opinions.
Being empathetic is an easy thing to do. Just ask yourself:
If I were in my client’s position, how would I want them to speak to me?
Clarify What They Don’t Like
Now that you’re calm, you can start in on your reply.
Instead of defending your work, ask a question.
You’re asking a question that will give you more clarity so that you understand what the actual issue is.
The problem with all of us is that we think we know what we want, when really the only thing we ever know for sure is what we don’t want.
So ask exactly what it is that they don’t like.
How to say it
“You dislike the [insert the issue here]. What about it do you not like?”
This question also helps the client understand that you’re trying to work together.
It’s much easier to collaborate and work with clients who are happy; it’s exhausting having to tie them up and drag them behind you – all the way to business glory - knowing the whole way that you were right and they were wrong.
Let Them Know You Understand
Once they’ve explained what they don’t like, let them know that you understand their concern. Repeat it back to them in their own words.
How to say it
“Ok, I understand. You don’t like this because [insert what they disliked here]. You’re concerned that this will [insert their worry].”
Repeating the issue back to them does two things:
- It lets them know that you care more about getting it right than just getting it done.
- Once you’ve set the groundwork and show that you understand their worries, they’ll feel more comfortable being open with you so that they can continue clarifying the issue, which will make the whole thing easier for you to solve.
Explain Your Reasoning
Now that you’ve made it clear that you care about and understand their concerns, you can explain your reasoning.
An important thing to remember is that explaining is different than defending.
You explain something in order to make it clear to the other person.
You defend yourself from an attack.
Which one do you think will go over better?
So how do you keep your explanation just an explanation and not a defensive maneuver?
Explain rationally, in detail, without bringing the client’s opinion into it.
How to say it
The Right Way (a.k.a. Explanation)
“The reason I chose this wording is because it hits on the scarcity bias, which drives more sales.”
The Wrong Way (a.k.a. Defensive)
“Well the other way definitely won’t work, even though I know you think it will.”
An explanation is rooted in research, experience, and rationality.
A defense is rooted in frustration and fear. You don’t want to go there.
Remind Them Why They Hired You
After you’ve gone through your explanation, ask them what they think. Remember that you’re collaborating, not trying to bully or otherwise drag them into agreeing with you.
You want them to buy into what you’ve presented, because you know that what you’ve done is great work.
Remind them that you’re trying to reach a solution that works best for them.
How to say it
“I want you to be as confident and excited about this as I am, so I want to be sure we’re on the same page.”
This is also a great point to remind them that you have expertise in this area. That’s why they hired you, after all. They hired you for the expertise you have in your field, and also to save themselves time and effort.
To help remind them that you know what you’re doing, give them a few examples of how you’ve dealt with similar issues in the past by telling them your previous experiences.
Let Go of What You Can’t Change
Every once in a while you’ll get a client who’s adamant. They want that change made even if it’s going to be the death nell for their business.
Despite your calm and rational efforts, despite you appealing to their emotions by collaborating with them and trying to get their buy in, despite you nearly begging them not to do it – they just refuse to see it your way.
In that case, you’re left with your hands tied, but you can let them know that you don’t agree.
How to say it
“In my experience, the way I’ve done this will get you results. Of course you get to make the final decision. If you’d like me to make the changes I will, but my research has shown that these changes may hurt the outcome of the project.”
If the client won’t budge, and they’re determined to do it their way, you’ve got to just make the change they requested, even if it might kill you a little bit inside.
Just make sure you acknowledge that the client wants and is requesting the change, and release yourself of liability (in writing!) when it doesn’t work.
Part of working one-on-one with people is realizing that sometimes you need to be okay with the client doing the wrong thing.
You can’t fix them all, but dammit if you didn’t try.
And in those cases, you just have to let it go.
Communication is Key
Being able to clearly communicate when you disagree with a client is one of the most important skills that you can have as a freelancer (or as a human, really).
It’s easy to just go along and agree with people – avoiding the seemingly awkward conversation that follows when you say, I don’t agree.
It’s much harder to take a measured approach to disagreement and present your case in a way that will persuade the client to value your opinion over theirs.
But once you learn how to do this, your clients will have more confidence in your work, they’ll see the results they were hoping for, and you’ll have more confidence in yourself.
That’s a win-win. And I like winning.
Marisa is a copywriter who loves traveling, working on creative projects, and starting great conversations with new people.
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