Advice For Copywriters: How to Deal with Client Feedback Without Exploding

Chase Roberts posted this in
Inside Rocket Media, HVAC
on May 21st, 2015
Dealing with client feedback is a tricky balancing act.

On one hand, you want to make your client happy because, hey, you need to get that sweet cash.

On the other hand, you must maintain your integrity as a copywriter and give your client the best work possible.

To do that, you gotta gracefully respond to client feedback with the rationale behind your work without sounding like this:

So what are the nuts and bolts of striking this balance—without exploding at clients?

Here’s the simple step-by-step method I use.

Side note: I’m assuming in this article that you have already properly presented and explained your work and now you’re about to hear what your client has to say.

Step 1: Prepare your mind before receiving feedback

There was once a Japanese master who had a university professor come to him to understand Zen.
The master poured him a cup of tea until the cup overflowed. The teacher couldn’t restrain himself, “It’s overflowing! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” the master said, ” you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Similarly, to receive client feedback, your mind must first be receptive to feedback. You have to empty your mind of certain opinions about your work to hear from another’s perspective.

So, before you even get feedback, banish these opinions from your mind:

“My work is awesome. The client is going to just love it!”

With this mindset, you’re basically thinking:

Don’t assume your copy is the bee’s knees and will go unscathed in the editing process. Remember: there is no good writing, only good rewriting.

“The client doesn’t know anything about copywriting, so any feedback will probably be wrong and stupid.”

That scathing attitude prevents you from hearing any of the client’s feedback. So stop it.

Instead, remember that part of your job to teach and educate why you chose to write something a certain way. That’s what makes you the expert. And if you can’t rationally explain why you did something, then assume that the one who is wrong and stupid is you.

“I’m great at responding to feedback.”

Are you reeeeaaallly? Be honest. Be your own pundit and look for potential places where your ego gets in the way of receiving feedback.

For me, my ego gets bruised when a client wants to change a headline; I take things personally and get flustered and defensive. Knowing this now, I soothe my ego beforehand by telling myself, “This is the best headline I could create based on the research I had. But if a client wants to change it, try and understand why.”

“If they don’t like my copy, that means I’m a bad writer.”

Thinking this way, you will take any negative feedback personally because you equate feedback with “You suck.”

A disagreement does not automatically mean you’re wrong or bad. An old professor of mine taught me that no two writers agree on everything because we all have stylistic differences. So don’t take a client’s negative comments to heart.

OK, with that out of the way, let’s talk about when you start getting the client feedback.

Step 2: Ask for the right kind of feedback

If you’re tired of getting back generic, ambiguous feedback, (e.g.: “it’s bad. Please make it sexier.”) then stop asking generic, ambiguous questions.

Questions like, “So what do you think of it?” or “Do you like it?” aren’t going to get you anywhere.

Ask more specific questions like,
  • “Does this copy reflect your brand’s personality? Does it sound like who you are?”
  • “Have I properly communicated your company’s USP?”
  • “Is it accurate?”

And so forth. Now you need to…

Step 3: Shut up and actively listen to the feedback

By “actively listen”, I mean listen without getting distracted by thinking about what your response is going to be.

I know, I know. You’re just aching to chime in with, “Yeah, but—” No. Stop. Listen to your client.

Once you’ve truly heard them out, you need to…

Step 4: Ask open-ended questions to clarify

If the client’s feedback is unclear or vague (despite your awesome presentation), get clarity by asking open-ended questions like:

Why?” as in, “You said this headline does not accurately reflect your USP, why is that?”
What exactly?” as in “What exactly didn’t you like about this headline? Help me understand.”
Could you elaborate?” as in “You said this wasn’t the true benefit of this feature. Could you elaborate?”

Notice that each question acknowledges the client’s feedback first and then presses them to give more details.

Keep a pen and notepad handy and take notes on what they’re saying.

Step 5: Respond to the feedback by connecting your copy to the goal

Let’s assume your client says they don’t like part of your copy because reasons. But you don’t agree with those reasons.

What do you do?

Instead of saying, “No, you’re wrong. Here’s why,” try this:

  1. Acknowledge their reality and/or soothe their ego
  2. Define the goal
  3. Transition to how your copy was trying to achieve the goal
  4. Provide proof

Let’s explore each of these in detail.

Acknowledge their reality and/or soothe their ego

By acknowledging their reality, I mean saying things like, “Well, I totally know what you mean by this…” or “I can totally agree that…” This acknowledges that you’ve heard their complaint without 100% agreeing with them on the solution.

When a client tries to replace your copy with their own, soothe their ego by genuinely complimenting them on their effort. “I liked the way you said…here’s why…”

Then you can transition to “but here’s another way to look at it…”
That’s when you’ll…

Define the goal

Your copy is just a means to an end—a goal. Ask your client, “So what is the goal? What are we trying to accomplish here?”

Or you can nudge them in the right direction by stating the goal and asking them if they agree. For example, “The goal of the home page headline is to explain what you do and display your unique selling proposition, right?”

Or you could bring up a goal you both agreed to in a previous conversation,“You said you wanted to convey to your customers that you’re honest, right?”

Once you both agree on the goal of the copy, you need to…

Transition to how your copy was trying to achieve the goal

You can say, “Right, so I was trying to achieve that goal by…” Then you give your rationale behind why your copy was achieving a particular goal.

Provide proof

Here you need to provide proof that your copy actually is connected to the goal. This could be simple as citing:
  • Research from your discovery phase surveys and user interviews
  • Studies
  • Relevant statistics
  • What your competitors are doing (social proof)
  • Results from your previous work experiences

If you’re going to get feedback on the phone, then before the call get proof on issues your client will most likely object to. Otherwise you’ll be floundering around to justify your decisions.

Let’s pull together everything in this step with an example.

Here’s how I responded to a client that didn’t want me to add pricing on their website.

“So, I can understand why you wouldn’t want to put price on your website since your competitors could see them. (Acknowledge their reality.)

But remember when you said that you wanted to be known as “honest” without actually saying you’re honest? (State the goal.)

Well, that’s what I was trying to do by adding price because you’re SHOWING them you’re honest about pricing without saying you’re honest. (Transition to connecting copy to the goal.)

And pricing is certainly something people are looking for on your website. In user tests for HVAC websites, we found that price was the #1 thing people were looking for. (Provide proof.)

This conversation only took a few minutes over the phone and it was painless.

Side note: The above method only works if you keep a calm, kind—but confident— demeanor. Talk too quickly or too harshly and you’ll lose your client. But if you’re not confident enough (especially with your proof), they may not believe you.

Step 6: Provide options

In the end, the client is the one that’s paying you to write, so they have the final say. But you can nudge their final say in the right direction by giving them options.

So after you’ve provided your rationale and proof and the client is still waffling on the issue, give them some options—3 is a good number.

Segway into giving the options by saying, “Well, I work for you, so this is your decision. Here are my recommendations. How do you want to handle this? I think option 1 is best because [insert reasons]. But it’s up to you.”

Just my 2 pences (and further reading)

As a copywriter, there’s no set way to deal with client feedback. You must be like water: fluidly moving based on the situation. So take everything here as general guidelines—not rules.

If it makes sense to do things out of the order that I’ve presented, do it. You’re paid to think, after all.

To learn more about dealing with and persuading clients, read 27 Powers of Persuasion, which I briefly review in my article The 7 Best Copywriting Books That Aren’t About Copywriting.

Just for reference, in this article I applied these persuasion powers:
#1: Focus on the goal
#3: Soothe or sidestep other egos
#9: Recognize their reality
#10: Make it about choice, fairness and accountability
#15: Get third party validation
#16: Get a couple of numbers
#22: Don’t say no, say “Let’s try this”
#24: Challenge bad ideas by challenging the details
#27: Be your own pundit

Another good book I’d recommend is Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, which overlaps with the above book, but provides more depth.

Chase Roberts

Web Copywriter

Yes, ladies, that southern drawl is authentic. Chase hails from a small town in Alabama. He loves sweet tea and all the bacon. But, in between consumption of these favorite treats, he plans and writes the copy for Rocket Media’s clients.