Is the client ever right? No, but so what?
Are you a web writer? I’m not going to delay your gratification. There is no twist to this story. The answer isn’t a secret. The client is never right.
Ok, usually never right.
Well, if we’re being fair, the client sometimes offers helpful pointers.
But the client being right or wrong isn’t actually the point. There’s a far greater danger lurking under the surface of the client’s wrongness.
And to understand that, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to bear with me and read on a few paragraphs. In traditional story form, we’ll start with the problem.
Getting the phone call (Yes, that phone call)
It’s Monday morning.
No, I take that back. It’s Friday night and you’re doing what you usually do Friday night. Drinking? Sure, you’re enjoying a pint. Or the latest installment of the Halloween franchise. Or a game of Parcheesi with your loved ones.
Your phone bleeps. There’s something in your inbox. It’s from your friends at The Joy of Carpets, a small client who asked you to write their website. You wrote it.
You beg off your beer, film or Parcheesi and slink off into a corner and tap on the message with a sinking feeling that turns instantly to dread.
The website text you’ve prepared is ok, the email says, but they’re really looking for something different. Something with a little more pizzazz.
Here’s a list of alternative options for their website text that The Joy of Carpets has thoughtfully proposed to “liven things up”:
1. Their competitor’s website, except with the names changed.
2. A video (you’re going to write the script) of The Joy of Carpets mud wrestling their competitor in front of their competitor’s store, and stomping their asses.
3. Something, anything, that goes well with the color of this month’s sale carpets.
4. A rhyming ode to The Joy of Carpets where The Joy of Carpets taunt their competitor while randomly selected outtakes from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining roll by on a full-bleed slider
Does this sound familiar?
Wait, has this actually happened to you?
I can hear at least one of you saying: “Yes! Just not the carpets.”
As a professional web writer who enjoys what he does but occasionally (every week) runs into snags like this, I want to tell you that The Joy of Carpets being wrong isn’t the problem.
The problem is that the The Joy of Carpets doesn’t even know what the problem is. This isn’t rocket science, or a mark of shame. The Joy of Carpets aren’t professional writers, so they simply aren’t in a position to offer advice about their web text because they just don’t know how writing works.
I mean, you’re a writer. You wouldn’t walk into The Joy of Carpets’ showroom and start advising them on their sales policies or their longterm business strategy? You’re not that deranged or foolish, are you?
And that’s the actual danger of your clients’ “helpful suggestions”. It isn’t that they’re dumb or contentious or secretly aspiring to sabotage their own online presence. Many times, they simply don’t understand what you’re doing or how you do it. This kind of dynamic can waste a lot of your time.
The solution, kind of
A proposal they can't refuse
I’m not going to tell you that you need to sit down with your clients and tell them why mud wrestling videos or Stanley Kubrick sliders don’t work. Or that you owe your international clients, who don’t speak or write English natively, an explanation for every word or sentence that you wrote correctly and with the right nuance and they then “beautified”.
I’m going to suggest a way for bypassing client suggestions from the get-go.
Take out your pens and pads.
The most effective, and time-saving, way to avoid client meddling is to lay out the rational for your approach to any writing project you undertake before you lay down a single word of text.
This will take a little discovery. You’ll need to sit down and figure out each client's potential users and their needs. You’ll need to come up with a voice and make it speak. Writing a draft of the home page usually helps there. When you’re done, put it all in a document and send it.
Because, let’s be realistic, clients may forget what they wanted. They may leap off into precarious directions that jeopardize your budget and time. If you have that rationale in writing, you can always steer the conversation back on track.
So, while the client is rarely right, web writers need to shoulder some of the blame when time is wasted. If you’ve got the proposal you agreed to and the client still wants a mud wrestling match, I guess you can always follow Dan Wieden’s advice and tell them to screw off. (See above.)
Just don’t send them my way.
Max Sheridan's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.