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How to Handle Negative Client Feedback

One of the hardest lessons any freelancer can face, no matter their chosen field, is handling negative feedback. Whether they’re a writer, a marketer, designer or developer, receiving criticism is an unpleasant process to go through.

Perhaps the feedback you’re being given is on a piece of work you recently delivered, or an idea you’ve been waiting for approval on. Maybe it’s a comment on your processes or your working style. Sometimes we can even receive criticism on our personal behaviours and attitudes from a client, and it can often be hard to know just how to react.

In my time working as a freelancer, I’ve experienced both positive and negative feedback on a significant scale. From clients singing my praises to rejecting my ideas and critiquing my work, learning how to process, compartmentalise and productively manage this feedback was one of the toughest lessons I had to learn at the start of my career.

So today I wanted to share just how I cope with negative feedback, deliver some of the most constructive coping mechanisms I’ve discovered and hopefully help you to feel a little better about your latest critique.

Don’t react immediately

When we are given a piece of feedback that isn’t particularly pleasant, it often warrants a kind of emotive response. We can feel upset, angry, hurt or frustrated – it can feel like a blow to our self-esteem and a humiliating take on our entire working career. Our instincts take over and we want to lash out or cry or try to argue with it, before even really processing just what has been said.

Give yourself time to let the feedback sink in. Read it and re-read it and make sure you fully understand why the client isn’t happy. Often what might seem like a big criticism could be something easily fixed or changed, or something that you yourself aren’t actually responsible for. Don’t let your emotions get the better of you, it won’t help you or your client to move your working relationship forward. Feedback is a vital part of getting a job done, and as a freelancer, it is your responsibility to reach your client’s standards. So breathe, take a step back, try to see it objectively and respond professionally. Thank them for their feedback, and then work out how to fix it.

Make note of any recurring comments

The feedback we are given isn’t always lengthy and detailed, and it’s not always critical. Sometimes it can be about making some small changes, adding in some extra information or just trying something a different way. These smaller issues might not seem like anything significant, but it’s important to keep any eye out for any recurring notes or requests that keep cropping up.

For example, if a client repeatedly rejects your choice of imagery, it could be worth asking them if they have anything more specific in mind for you to use. Or if they refuse to include certain phrases and words in pieces of copy, it could mean that there is a much larger problem with your tone of voice itself. Recurring issues are a bit of a red flag for clients when working with freelancers, as from their perspective your work isn’t improving and you aren’t really listening to their needs. So pay attention to what your client is saying and how often they’re saying it, and make amends accordingly.

Remember that every client is different

Much like every freelancer is different, every client is different too. In the course of your career, you’re likely to come across quite a variety of different personalities, working styles and feedback processes as you go. It’s important to remind yourself that although one client might like something, another client might not, and you need to separate their preferences to help keep them both happy. You may have one client, for instance, who requires frequent updates and consistent communication throughout your project, requesting daily catch-ups and calls to check-in. You may have also clients who are much more detached, preferring to let you get on with the work and simply catching up when necessary. Both styles of working are doable and you can handle both of them professionally.

But this point also applies to how you handle their feedback too. What one client might tell you is a weakness, another client might feel is your strength. Don’t let your entire attitude to work, to yourself and your abilities become reliant on the comments of one client if you know that all of the others are happy with the results you produce.

Make it productive, rather than personal

The worst part about receiving feedback is often how our minds process it for the future. We can be working quite peacefully on a project, and suddenly be reminded of that one comment made to us by a client 6 months ago about a spelling mistake that we never quite got over. Whilst there’s no easy way to detach yourself from this, there are ways to make it productive – for example, change the tense of the feedback itself to make a future request rather than a past criticism.

I.e. ‘I don’t like the font you’ve used on this document’ can become ‘in future, remove this font from the document and replace with another’

‘The information on this post is out of date.’ becomes ‘in future, check all dates of the information provided before submitting for approval.’

This way, you’re not blaming yourself for constantly doing things wrong, but instead, you’re helping yourself to become better at the work. You’re taking the notes on board, even if they aren’t particularly constructive and encouraging future correct behaviours. Plus, by removing the more personal words and phrases from the feedback, ‘I’ ‘You’ ‘We’, you’re allowing it to become professional, giving yourself space to work on it effectively without beating yourself up.

Remain empathetic with the client

One of the easiest ways to deal with negative feedback? Get annoyed. Get frustrated with your client for not agreeing to your way of thinking, blame them for not liking your proposal, and convince them that they’re wrong because you’re the one with all of the experience here.

One of the easiest ways to lose a client? …All of the above.

Your client is running a business. They are responsible for a product or a team or a service that needs to grow and adapt and change. They have their fingers in a lot of pies and they have a lot of pressure to succeed. Their business is often their baby and your role here is to help them improve it, to help them build on what they’ve accomplished so far in their field. They will get stressed. They will get confused. They will disagree with you and they will correct you. But they also hired you, so their needs do come first. Stay empathetic with them, see their perspective and work with them rather than against them, and you’ll both become a lot more productive as the relationship improves.

Handling and coping with client feedback is never going to be easy. Sometimes comments will sting and they’ll stick with you. But learn how to detach from them and see them productively, rather than personally, and you’ll be a much stronger freelancer for it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this weeks post. To check out my last post, click here or to listen to The Lonely Freelancer podcast, click here!

Stay safe,

Nikki McCaig

Nikki McCaig

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