• Advice

“I’m not happy”: What to do when a client hates your work

“I’m not happy.”
“This is not what we discussed.”
“I expected this to look different.”
“Let’s talk.”

If you’re lucky (and conscientious), you probably don’t see those responses often. But every now and then, even the hardest-working freelancer gets a negative response… particularly on first drafts.

What do you do, when you’ve tried your best – and they HATESES it with the fire of a burning sun?

1.) Have a revision policy in place before they ever see a draft

The best way to deal with potential client dissatisfaction is to deal with revision policies up-front, when you’re negotiating your contract. That way everyone knows what the rules are. Policies motivate clients to give concise, clear feedback, and ensure you’re not stuck in endless Editing Purgatory – or if you are, you’ll be compensated accordingly. Revision policies draw clear boundaries and assuage client fears; they may not prevent unhappiness, but they protect you from potential abuse.

For example, when negotiating on a per-project basis, I generally include two full rounds of revision for each piece; that’s enough for even the most persnickety client, and is rarely necessary. If they want more editing than that, they have to pay me an hourly rate – and that’s happened only once or twice in 7 years.

If a client seems really unusually anxious, high-maintenance, or disorganized, I build in an “exception” plan for myself. When estimating hours on a project, I add in an extra hour or two to have above-and-beyond communication with them. That means that I can give them extra attention without underpaying myself; often that prevents unhappiness on a first draft before it begins.

2.) Try not to take it personally

Unless you are working with some truly sadistic, unreasonable creeps (and if you are, look for other clients! It’s not worth being miserable!), you and your client are both working towards the same goal. You both want a finished product that they’re happy with – and that you’re not completely ashamed of. Try not to take criticism personally; odds are that they don’t really mean to devalue your work. They just want to express their feelings and opinions, and some people are better at critiquing than others. *

So you didn’t get it perfect the first time! You’re not psychic – how could you know exactly what to do? Forgive yourself, and try to let criticism roll off your back. It’s not about you, or your worth; it’s just about trying to refine and finish this one little project.

*all of this assumes that the feedback is not nasty or personal. If it is, don’t work with this client again – and I’d even consider cutting your losses and fleeing. Big red flag! Don’t work with jerks!

3.) Focus on the solution

Remain cheerful and calm! Become Captain Unflappable. If you can communicate to your client that revision is a normal part of working together, they should calm down pretty quickly. You may apologize for their dissatisfaction, but don’t dwell on the apology – you don’t want to act as if you’re ashamed of your work. Focus on the fact that you’re willing to collaborate with them to ensure their happiness; nobody can object to that.

Most unhappy clients just want to feel like they’re being heard and respected; some want to be talked through your process. Identify the chief decision- maker on your project; hopefully you know who that is, but make sure that you’re not missing out on some feedback. Listen carefully to what it is they like (or don’t like); try to get as many specifics out of them as possible.

Do all of this in writing, if you can – that way you won’t forget anything, and you can politely refer them back to those directions later. Again, stay solution-oriented; your message to them is: “No worries! I can do that for you! Everything is under control!

4.) Try again, and keep in mind – it’s their money

I have made edits that I considered unwise or obtuse. I have, on client request, turned perfectly lovely pieces into boring, flat articles full of buzzwords and jargon. I have re-written sentences in ways that made me roll my eyes so hard I thought they would hit the back of my skull.

As long as it wasn’t under my byline, I did these things – because these projects were ultimately about the client’s preferences, not mine. That’s why they were paying me.

I will (if I think that client’s revisions defeat their own objectives) give my opinion, and push back. I refuse to contribute to the destruction of the English language, so I won’t put anything in print that is grammatically loathsome. And I won’t use my powers for evil – so I don’t work for companies or clients that I think are unethical.

But ultimately, if the client makes choices that I feel weaken a piece, it’s their money – so I’ll do it. I may not put it in my portfolio, but I’ll adjust the work to meet most of their specifications.

A client telling you that they’re not happy isn’t pleasant (one would rather, of course, be carried about on shoulders and showered with cash and lauded as a Hitherto-Unappreciated- Genius) but it’s not the end of the world, either. Stay friendly and calm (and have clear policies in place), and you’ll emerge unscathed – one draft at a time!

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