Writing Professionalism: Resolving Conflict with Clients

When working with clients, a service provider should always be prepared to handle conflict. Even with clients who are easy to work with, some small conflicts might arise which can slow progress. Significant conflicts threaten the completion and success of a project if not handled in a professional manner.

Assessing Points of Conflict

First, determine if the point of conflict necessitates a full discussion. Some issues which arise with clients are not worth the emotional/mental energy and time to debate. These are often preference items that will not affect the success of the project.

Examples may include a character name or setting you do not like. If it does not negatively impact the story and is simply your preferences not matching, remind yourself that the client’s desire takes precedence and move forward. Arguing will come off as antagonistic and unprofessional.

If the issue is likely to upset the client and will not negatively impact the project if not addressed, accept their preference and proceed to work with their preferences to the best of your ability. This shows respect and validates their ideas.

Examples may include the client having an emotional connection to a story and wanting it told in a specific way, even if that is not how you would typically write it.

Use the Right Nonverbal Cues

This is especially important if you do not have the benefit of face-to-face interactions with a client. Tone and attitude can still be conveyed in written communication and it is important to be aware of how your words are perceived by the client.

Short choppy sentences come off as brusque and formal, and can make a client feel as though they aren’t be spoken to respectfully.

Overly simplistic wording or overexplaining a concept may be perceived as condescending.

Harsh or aggressive words (dislike, absolutely, never, etc.) make the client feel attacked and can disrupt communication. If a client is afraid to speak up for fear of a negative reaction, it is unlikely they will get what they want from a project and may end up dissatisfied.

Focus On Facts

Facts are important when working through conflict. Opinions not backed up by something concrete come off as argumentative.

To be blunt, when writing or designing for a client, your opinion is not as important as your expertise, so lean on your industry knowledge to discuss a difficult situation.

Personal opinion is always slanted by preference, life experience, attitude, etc. Do not rely only on your personal opinion to make suggestions or offer changes to what a client wants.

Instead, use facts and writing or design experience to back up suggestions or persuade the client to make a change you believe is necessary to the project’s success.

Some examples include: Retailers bury “taboo” subjects in the rankings, alpha behavior and abusive behavior are not the same thing and there are clear distinctions in many genre conventions, and an ending that doesn’t answer all pertinent questions will disappoint readers.

Ask for Client Input

Before attempting to change a client’s mind or offer advice contrary to what he or she wants, ask for their input or to explain the reason or motivation behind a specific preference.

Clients who feel unheard or dismissed will find a new companies to work with. Do not downplay a client’s concerns or opinions. Address them directly and thoroughly so she knows she is being heard and that her opinion matters.

If you have a differing viewpoint, explain why what he wants may hurt the project in polite, but clear terms backed up by logical reasoning and industry standards.

Ask open-ended questions that are nonjudgmental when requesting clarification or reasoning for what the client wants. Don’t jump to defend your point of view. Listen first and, if needed, provide factual background information.

Choose Words Mindfully

Certain words often trigger defensiveness or mistrust.

  • “But” insinuates an argument is coming
  • “I” language makes the client feel like you aren’t listening and are more focused on yourself and what you want
  • “No” makes the client feel like she is wrong

Other words inspire cooperation and positivity

  • “And” instead of “but” acknowledges you are aware of both the client’s and your concerns and that you are considering how to address both
  • Focusing on the client’s needs makes him feel listened to and respected
  • “My concern is” instead of “No” tells the client you are aware of her wants, but your expertise suggests there are better options

Focus on the Goal

The end goal is producing a high-quality book, copy, or design that will engage readers and sell successfully. Any time there is an issue with a project, keep yourself and the client focused on the end goal and finding solutions to problems.

True problems are those that will negatively impact the project. Differences in preference or opinion on issues that will not affect the end goal should not impede progress.

When you use your expert knowledge to communicate to the client why something he wants will hurt the end product, it refocuses him on the end goal rather than winning a particular argument.

Be Empathetic

How you are impacted by the overall process of completing a client project should not be the focus in conflict resolution. The client’s satisfaction is the priority.

The client hired you to complete a project for him or her. It is ultimately the client’s product and he or she wants it to be the best it can be, but may not have the ability, time, or skill to produce it without help. Your purpose as a service provider is to meet the client’s expectations and deliver a high quality product.

The difference in skill or understanding between client and provider is often the root cause of conflict in working with clients. When the client can better understand the process, research, and technique involved, it will not only build trust, it will help avoid future conflicts.

Treat clients with respect and empathy, working with him or her to address conflict and reach a successful and satisfying end.

Writing Professionalism: Improving Communication Skills

Improving your professional communication skills is not only essential for building a successful business, it is integral to developing strong client relations.

Tips for Improving Professional Communication Skills

Avoid fowl language. Never use profanity when speaking with a client, particularly new clients, even in a joking manner. The use of profanity can affect how a client perceives you and your suitability for their project. In reality, there may be specific clients you break this practice with, but the general rule should be avoidance of fowl or crude language.

Expand your vocabulary. Use correct grammar and know key industry words important in communicating literary, editing, or design concepts. Don’t dumb down your language to a condescending level. Clients often have a strong working knowledge of the task they are hiring out and simply do not have the time, resources, or skill to complete it on their own.

Avoid gossip. Do not discuss other clients or projects and do not disparage popular authors or books, or other service providers. This sends the message to the client that you may also talk about them to other clients or industry members. Use market research or data when suggesting changes or differing trends.

Keep it positive. Keep communication upbeat and positive, especially during difficult situations where you might be at odds with the client. Discuss problems by asking for the client’s feedback and suggestions on dealing with the situation so the client feels like he or she is working with you to solve an issue rather than being attacked.

Leave your personal life at home. Do not discuss your personal life or problems with the client. If you have a situation affecting your ability to work, it may be necessary to give a general explanation that there is a personal situation requiring your attention which may cause a delay or necessitate changes. Be sincere and apologetic without getting too personal.

Communicating with Potential and New Clients

When meeting with a potential client, prepare your pitch ahead of time, including information about yourself, your services, and your prices.

Introduce yourself to potential clients and detail your qualifications briefly. Do not go overboard touting your skills or awards. Give enough information to instill confidence and move on.

With a new client, review all the provided documents at the start of the project and assure nothing is missing. Make sure you know what products you will be providing and whether you have all the necessary materials. If anything is missing, politely contact the client and let him or her know there are additional documents or information needed from them before you can get started.

Once you have assured that you have all the basic materials, review all the provided information and make a list of questions you need answered in order to get begin working, such as setting location, names, steam level, etc. for a fiction project. Politely ask for more information as needed. Never blame the client for forgetting something or not having all the answers. If he or she is unsure of certain aspects, work with them to determine the needed answers as a partner rather than as a demanding parent.

Let the client know when you will get started, if you need to conduct additional research first, and what order you will work on the requested products if more than one is purchased. Clearly communicating timelines helps avoids frustration or instills confidence in your abilities and professionalism.

Any time you are unsure how to handle an interaction with a client, remember the golden rule and ask how you would like the situation to be handle if you were the client. Kindness and respect will help every project flow more smoothly.

Writing Professionalism: Avoiding Miscommunication

Much of client work happens virtually, increases the chances of miscommunication due to a lack of verbal cues, delays in communicating, differences in communication styles, and more. Consider these tactics for avoiding miscommunication when working with clients.

Asking Questions

Missing information, assuming understanding, and differences in connotation are just some of the ways misunderstandings can occur when working with clients. Asking clarifying questions is an important method of avoiding these pitfalls.

Never guess at what your client wants if the original project proposal or material is unclear. Clients may not have a full picture of what they want out of a project or what type of editing they might need. In order to fill in any gaps, ask specific questions about anything you feel is unclear. Moving forward on faulty assumptions leads to rewrites/redos and delays.

With a book cover design project, you may need to discuss the tone and genre and what current trends are to flesh out what the client wants. With editing, discuss what the client feels are the main weaknesses or what they need the most help with. If character development of improving storytelling is needed, that is more of a developmental edit while cleaning up typos and misplaced commas is more in line with a proofread.

If information is missing from a project plan, politely ask for clarification or for the client to provide the information that is lacking. If the information is missing because the client is unsure of the answer, discuss elements of the missing information by asking specific questions, such as where a book might be located in a physical bookstore if the genre or subgenre is unclear.

If a client wants you to fill in any gaps on your own, first suggest ideas or propose a specific path before moving forward. A client may be unsure of what they want, but they are often quite sure of what they don’t want when it is presented.

Paraphrase and Summarize

After a clarifying discussion, it is important to paraphrase and summarize the information discussed in order to make sure both parties understand what was discussed and what the conclusions are.

If you discussed project details or story elements, take a moment at the end of the conversation to summarize the topics discussed and what decisions were made in your own words. This makes sure you and the client are on the same page about what was discussed and how you will move forward.

Summarizing and paraphrasing the information helps prevent communication errors due to lack of nonverbal language, misunderstood humor, differences in connotations, etc. This tactic also shows the client that you were making a solid effort to understand what he or she wants and that you are truly listening. Making a client feel heard and understood helps build a stronger relationship.

Following Up

Miscommunication can also arise from lack of timely follow up. Not hearing back from a provider can cause a client to doubt that he or she understood the plan and create a sense of anxiety and overthinking or frustration.

Do not leave clients waiting for a response or a follow up on decisions made. Respond quickly with a thorough response or an update on your progress. Of course, delays do happen at times, but it is still important to communicate any delays to the client. If you are unable to fully respond in the moment, acknowledge that you received their message or email and give a specific time when you will be able to follow up.

When a client asks questions, be sure to answer each one fully. Answering some questions but not others or only partially answering a question makes a client feel they are not valued and creates confusion. If there are multiple questions to respond to, it can be helpful to reply by copy/pasting the questions into your reply and addressing them one by one.

After answering all questions, ask the client if everything is clear and invite him or her to follow up with any additional questions or clarification on any of the answers. Including the client in the process of clarification not only improves communication, but also shows that you value their input and insights, improving the overall relationship.

The process of clarifying a client’s needs can be a lengthy process, but it will improve the overall chances of success on the project and the relationship with the client.