Sometimes a hard conversation with a client is what gets things back on track...

How to Have Hard Conversations with Clients

When a client hires me to do some web writing, I become a part of their business team. My copywriting supports their business goals.

While I’m writing for them, their goals are my goals. We are on the same side. On the same team.

But sometimes, it doesn’t feel like we are.

I once did some work for a firm of energy and utilities consultants. Their clients were cities, municipalities, school districts, universities, hospitals, food processors… organizations with massive energy and utilities bills. They evaluated these huge bills and made sure their clients were being charged the appropriate rates for the services and resources they were using.

When they found errors — and they frequently did — it often meant hundreds of thousands of dollars refunded back to their clients.

They were a big deal.

They’d been in business since the early ‘90s, and they hired me to rewrite their website with a stated goal of better search engine ranking and lead generation. Their existing site was purely informational, and they wanted it to be a better tool for getting new clients.

The partners in this firm were highly educated, and the existing site used big words, complex grammar, and abstract generalities to describe what they did. It was like they took an academic paper and published it on their website.

One of the first things I asked was if their prospects understood what was written on the site about what the firm did. Probably not, the partner in charge of the website revision conceded.

The first draft I turned in was simpler to read. I used shorter sentences and smaller words. I wrote calls to action inviting the reader to contact the firm.

They hated it.

They said my writing style was all wrong. I had over-simplified their process and reduced their value.

It was a harsh rejection. But, I swallowed my ego and had a hard conversation with them to clarify things. I needed to know what they had expected. I needed to know how to fix it.

I discovered that they wanted the writing on the site to reflect their level of education — they had advanced college degrees. They wanted prospects to be able to come to the site to verify their credibility and see some case studies… to confirm their legitimacy.

They didn’t actually need the website to be a lead-generation tool at all. They were getting in front of enough prospects as it was. They simply needed it to tell their story and convince these prospects that the firm was the solution they were looking for.

My next draft came closer to what they wanted. I took out the calls to action. I used bigger words. Instead of the 6-8 F-K (Flesch-Kincaid) score I generally strive for, my target was 12-13.

It was better, but it took another two drafts before they accepted the copy.

That conversation after the first draft was a tough one to have. But, I’m glad we had it. Without it, I could never have finished the job and made them happy.

5 Tips for Making Those Hard Conversations with Clients Productive:

1. Verify your understanding of the project’s goal and desired outcome.

Is it for lead generation? Sales? Educating existing customers, clients, or patients? Increased retention?

If you’re writing copy based on a perceived goal of lead generation, and your client simply wants to build their credibility and be seen as an expert, your copy isn’t helping them get what they want. And, they’re right to question you. Sometimes this simple act of clarification is the only thing needed to get you back on track and in sync with each other.

2. Focus the conversation on the desired outcome.

Talk about achieving the results your client is hoping for, not all the details of how you’re going to do it.

With my clients in the example above, I didn’t discuss sentence structure and F-K scores. Instead, we talked about getting the reader to view them as highly educated experts… and how adjusting my writing style could support that goal.

3. Remember that they hired you for your experience and training

But recognize they probably don’t share that same experience and training. As the copywriting expert, it’s up to you to figure out how best to give them what they want.

I was able to merge my client’s language with my understanding of web users’ behavior in reading copy. I used some of their bigger words, but I shortened their paragraphs and wove internal links into the copy where it was natural to do so. I also added headlines and bullet points to enhance the reader experience.

4. Consider that they may actually be right.

They know more about their business and their target audience than you do. They have much more at stake.

In my example, what my client didn’t tell me at first is that their prospects are high-level executives, government staff members, or elected officials with advanced college degrees. So, the more elegant and complex writing fit better with their prospects’ expectations. It was how they communicated amongst themselves, so using it helped them trust my client’s expertise.

Knowing this information allowed me to change my writing style to better serve them.

5. ALWAYS be professional.

Conflict and rejection can feel personal, but we must put personal feelings aside and act in a professional manner if we’re to come to a professional resolution.

It all comes down to communication. Clear, open, constructive communication. If conflict arises from unclear expectations and miscommunication — and it often does — then it takes better communication to resolve the issues.

There’s generally more than one path you can take to arrive at a destination. You may think yours is the most direct — and it may be — while another may be a more scenic route.

Your direct route may involve steep grades, sharp twists and turns, and limited visibility at the summit. While the alternate route may take a more gradual, gentler ascent around the side of the mountain. It may take longer, but it could feel safer.

Your client may prefer the scenic route. It may be what’s most familiar or most comfortable for them. Ultimately, it is their choice.

As professional web copywriters, it is our job to have the hard conversations needed to clarify our client’s goals and desires and then give them the best outcome possible.

Have YOU had to have these hard conversations with clients? Drop a comment below and tell us about your experiences in having them!


Michele Peterson

I'm a Freelance Direct-Response Copywriter specializing in web content and social media. I help clients attract new prospects, get new customers, and retain existing clients with engaging web content and strategic social media. I'm a Master Networker, having attended 400+ networking events in the past 3 years. AND I'm a proud Baseball Mom, Wine Wife, and BBQ Daughter who loves Christmas, Disneyland, and rescue dogs.

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