Updated, July 2020
A reader and I were talking about how to tell a client they are wrong. He asked a question that got me thinking:
“What do you do if a client wants results by going in a direction you know won’t work? Should you make them happy or use methods that you know will work?”
Freelancing is a relationship-based business and being on good terms with clients is essential.
As long as you are good at what you do, most clients I’ve come across prefer someone who is easy to work with.
Sometimes we might fear that a disagreement will lead to being let go from a project. In those situations, it can feel challenging to focus on the long term relationship but often it just stems from a mix up in communication that can be easily fixed.
In relationships, we have balance giving and taking. I prefer to give as much as possible first because everyone else seems to do the opposite.
We also know that most people like to dive head into arguing why they are right and the other person is wrong, and again I suggest doing the opposite.
This situation happens because we are emotional creatures. If this was logical, the solution would be obvious for both parties and there wouldn’t be a discussion in the first place.
Your client might have paid a lot of money for training without realizing that it doesn’t work for his business.
Imagine what happened if you spent thousands of dollars on help only to be told that you made a mistake. How would you feel? We don’t want to look stupid even if we are wrong, so it is natural for us to guard our stance.
Your client might have already gotten something in their head that they now have to ‘unlearn’ or tweak to have room for what you want to educate them on.
You might also discover that some will hire you as an expert to make themselves feel good about their decisions, so rather than them wanting to be educated, they want to be reaffirmed that they are right and boost their ego.
Another reason might be that he trusts someone else’s results, authority or gut-feeling over yours for whatever reason. There might be invisible stakeholders like a mentor, investor, friend, or significant other that he wants to impress or avoid disagreeing with. While many of us don’t like to accept it, these things are usually political.
If the first thing we do is counter-argue, we are now entering the hell of “he-said-she-said” where there will be no winner. Only annoyances.
When you focus on making your client happy, it’s important to agree specifically on the work upfront, and in writing, so you can refer back to the project brief or proposal, in case there is any confusion later.
If they are not willing to make things more specific, I’d strongly consider dropping the project. But if they simply don’t know how to be more specific, that is an opportunity for you to help them upfront and earn bonus points.
How to tell a client they are wrong
No matter what, you have to make up your mind in advance. What will you do if your client wants to pursue a bad direction after all? Will you continue to work with them or not?
Ultimately, it is your client’s business and it is their privilege to choose how they would like to go about it, just like your freelance business is yours and you decide which clients you want to work with.
Luckily, we can respectfully disagree by being firm and polite and say something along the lines of:
“In my experience, [this approach/idea] is not the ideal way for us to reach goal Y because of YXZ. I am a team player and I’ll support your decision but I would not be doing my job if I didn’t at least bring this to your attention.”
What is going on here? What do you notice?
First, we acknowledge that we disagree without being disrespectful. You might have noticed that many people are not good at disagreeing while being constructive and driving a project forward.
We need to help our clients understand exactly what that means for them so they don’t misunderstand our intentions. Busy clients don’t like a freelancer who only brings problems to them without solutions.
That’s why I like to clarify right away that I am supportive of their ideas and suggest an alternative solution. When someone hires a contractor, it’s annoying if they can’t work with the team and causes more problems than they helped solve.
At the same time, your client needs to be able to count on your expertise without your feelings getting in the way.
All those feelings are about US. We need to switch our thinking from it being about how WE feel to how it will help THEM and impact their business. Even if it puts us in a difficult situation sometimes.
If you’ve ever worked with other freelancers that your client has hired, you might have experienced an email to everyone with a question where most of the other freelancers will agree with the client’s suggestion like a sheep.
They are usually afraid of losing the gig but if the client has hired multiple times in the past, they’ll see right through it. And when everyone does it, it can feel annoying as a client because you feel that people might not be honest and you might even lose a bit of respect for them.
But if you respectfully disagree and open up to learn more, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
We also have to remember that the client might know something we don’t. After all, they have been working on their business longer than we have.
It is essential that we enter the situation with the purpose of understanding them first and work to be understood LATER.
How to keep it from happening again in the future
The best strategy is to approach the client as a long term partner and accept that these situations will happen, especially in the beginning when your relationship is fresh. Let’s look at two tactics you can use going forward.
The Trusted Advisor
Simply just telling them that they are wrong doesn’t work in most situations. You’ll have some clients where it is just that simple, and that is great. Unfortunately, that is not common in my experience. Rather, you’ll have to earn their trust.
I prefer to focus on making them happy first and then educating them second as part of an on-going thing throughout projects.
The most effective way I’ve found is to work to become their trusted advisor. It is a strategy used by Ramit Sethi and Jay Abraham for a reason, it works really well…
Basically, you focus on helping your clients even if it puts you at a disadvantage. In some situations, you’ll earn more trust instead of cash short-term. It might feel like a step backward but you are building a more stable client base that trusts you and will appreciate working with you over and over again. And in the long-term, you’ll earn a lot more money.
Imagine you are a client hiring a freelancer for something you do. Wouldn’t you trust your freelancer if they recommended something that would be good for you and bad for them?
The point is to focus on more projects down the line rather than what you can get now. Everyone else is busy trying to maximize their gains right now so by doing the opposite we can stand out and win big.
When they trust you, educating them is easier and they will see it as an added value.
You have already done the hard work of finding and pitching them, so maintaining the relationship long-term will be little work yet you stand to gain a lot in the future both in terms of more projects, new client referrals, etc.
Identify invisible stakeholders
I first learned about this concept from Chris Voss and I’ve since found that invisible stakeholders are everywhere in everyday life, yet they are invisible to most of us. Invisible stakeholders are people that influence a decision but aren’t visible to the naked eye.
Take me for example. When I was working for a startup and freelancers would pitch me, my invisible stakeholders might have been my boss, a few of the investors, and other directors. If the freelancer didn’t take those into account, they would lose out right away.
Identifying them can be as simple as just asking your client who else is involved in the decision.
- Disagreements with clients usually come from unclear communication and is an emotional response. The rule of thumb is to first work to understand them before trying to be understood yourself
- I invite you to find situations where this doesn’t work so we can improve the solution together
- If you want to dive deeper, I can recommend these two books: Never Split The Difference and Difficult Conversations