Fighting fire with finesse: How to handle communication breakdowns like a pro


This post originally appeared on the blog.

Fun fact: I got kicked off from my first ever ‘big break’ writing gig in a matter of weeks.

Nope, not my proudest moment. But the experience did teach me an invaluable lesson about creative work: communication. is. everything.

The client in question was the name in my niche at the time, and I’d been a huge fan of hers for years. The first time she called me to discuss joining the team, I was so riddled with nerves that my hands shook.

Then, work began, and it was… rapid-fire. The client gave swift orders (usually third hand through a few layers of assistants and managers), and awaited as-perfect-as-possible execution on the first round.

Almost instantly, I began flailing.

I was 6 months into my career, and so green I was still sprouting. I was constantly on edge and causing mistakes and misunderstandings. While it was hell at the time, looking back I realize I was actually struggling for one main reason:

I had no idea how to guarantee myself all the information I needed for every project.

So back then, I did the only thing I knew how to do: I asked a lot of questions. All the time, to anyone. But when you’re on an advanced team, eventually people get sick of answering.

(You’re starting to see where this is going, right?)

I had entered the dreaded realm of total communication breakdown. And there was no climbing out.

When I got the email letting me know I was off the team, I was simultaneously crushed and massively relieved. To this day, it’s still one of my most formative work experiences.

The process of a dream job slipping through my fingers forced me to sit down and get serious not only about the way I was getting information from clients, but also how they were sharing their information with me.

Truth is, the swamp of bad client communication runs deep. And it flows both ways. (Yep, between clients and creatives).

Ask any freelancer you know, and they’ll have stories for days about clients who ghosted, or were nightmares to work with, or just generally made life an uphill battle. Likewise, the same could be said for most clients. (There’s more than a few sketchy freelancers out there giving us all a bad name!)

But upon closer inspection, almost all of these tales can be traced back to the same issue:

One, or both parties didn’t know how to communicate their ideas and needs properly.

Through years of communicating with clients (both good and bad), I’ve identified some of the most common archetypes of poor communication, and how to tackle them with a graceful and teaching hand.

The Panicker

What they sound like: “Oh god this isn’t right. I don’t like it/It’s not what I asked for/It’s all wrong *calls you 4 times to tell you*

First things first, if you’ve got a Panicker on your hands, remain calm.

The Panicker tends to surface in the earliest stages of whatever you’re working on when you’re first sending out drafts and trying to give life to what they’ve envisioned.

Still, it’s easy for negative feedback to completely crush your concept, and kill your motivation. So just remember: what the client needs in that ‘This isn’t what I was looking for…’ moment is your confidence and sense of control over the situation.

Take a deep breath, and get on the phone with them ASAP, or respond to their email with as much detail as you can.

The best way to approach a meltdown like this is to be open and transparent and talk about what might be missing and what felt off. Did something not sound like them? Are you not nailing the value prop? Is it too ‘salesy’, or not direct enough? Keep it light. Be encouraging. It will be better than OK in the end.

Then, get that second draft done, and fast.

The Vague Vampire

What they sound like: “Mmmm yeah, I’m not really sure… I was hoping you could help me figure it out?

Vague vampires are so named for their gift of creating total time suck.

Fortunately, most vague vampires are actually very nice people, they’re just not completely clear on what they’re doing. Less fortunately, it’s exhausting working with someone who’s unsure of who they are, what they do, what they want, and who they help.

Not only is it a waste of money (because creatives cannot be held responsible for making good ideas appear out of nowhere), but it will send you both into unending, confusing rounds of feedback that can spiral on ad infinitum.

The best solution to the Vague Vampire scenario is simple: screen your clients before you start working together. If someone’s not clear and is giving a lot of ‘Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that…’ answers to your questions, consider turning them down, or pausing the project until they’ve gone through enough clients to figure it out.

The Deadline Bandit

What they sound like: “No, can you give it to me Thursday? No, Tuesday. Actually how’s tomorrow looking?” *doesn’t give feedback until Friday*

These clients are clinging to Einstein’s theory of relativity as their last hope of conquering their own personal procrastination.

Suddenly, almost every assignment is an emergency. Yet, when you put the pedal to the metal to deliver, you get radio silence for days after the fact.

I find this tends to happen a lot when clients have a lot of great ideas they want to deliver ASAP. The breakdown happens when you hit your finish line (like delivering the content, or designing the website, etc…), and they realize how much work they still have yet to do.

In order to escape the deadline bandit, present them with firm, specific timeline requirements in your contracts. Make sure they understand you need 24/36/72 hours, a week, or more on projects of varying size.

Charge a premium for rush projects, and stick to it. No exceptions.

The Super Sensitive

What they sound like: “Do you like it? Do you think people will like it? My mother’s best friend’s dog’s uncle said he wouldn’t buy it. I don’t know.”

One of the perils of putting the majority of your life and work on the internet is the constant fear that people won’t approve of what you’re doing. And chances are, if you’re working with a small business owner or solopreneur, this fear is hiding in the back of their brain.

Though a little kindness and encouragement should never go amiss, you’re there to create for them, not be their therapist. And the ‘What do you think?’ thought cycle can be never ending.

If you catch your client constantly worrying, encourage them to to re examine their ‘why’. Ask them to review their super positive testimonials as a confidence booster. Suggest they put samples of the work by someone they trust who represents their target market, and get their feedback. Better yet, 3 people (but no more than 3).

Authentic, reassuring positivity will get them back in the saddle again. But it’s up to them to keep their momentum running.

The Scope Creep

What they sound like: “Oh, and one more little thing. Can you get me [project that usually takes days] by tonight? It should only take you like, half an hour.”

Scope Creeps tend to believe that because money has changed hands, they’re free to ask you to complete additional work, regardless of how large the project.

Luckily, their habit of minimizing the time it will take for you to complete the project is borne almost entirely of ignorance, rather than malice. To them, you’re a magic maker, supplying them with top-notch work in so much less time than it would take for them to make it themselves. So of course this ‘little extra thing’ won’t take you long, right?

To counteract the creepin’, do not hesitate to push back immediately.

Explain to the client that because the project was not included in the initial span of work, you will not only need more time, but will also have to bill them for additional hours (at your rush project rate or otherwise).

The Thesaurus

What they sound like: “Be a touch more effervescent. You’re giving me Arizona when I asked for Patagonia and it’s not working.”

No joke: a client said this to me once upon a time. What did that feedback actually mean? It’s anyone’s guess! As you can imagine, it turned out to be one of maybe 3 projects I’ve managed to flub in 4 years.

When you start getting incomprehensible feedback like this, it’s a sign your client isn’t sure what they’re saying either. So sit down and work through the responses, step by step. Don’t be shy about asking ‘Why?’, and keep asking until you’re clear.

Request additional examples, ask for additional details, etc… Examples will be really key here if they’re struggling to articulate what it is they need verbally.

The Example Avalanche

What they sound like: “Can I send you onnnne more little example? Please? It’ll just take a sec.”

How much is too much? Only you can decide.

There’s a belief in the back of some client’s minds that the more examples they provide, the better the end result. This is true… but the law of diminishing returns also applies. Eventually, (and almost without fail) the client sends over so many ideas they end up muddying your creative waters.

The occasional extra example after 1 or 2 after weeks of work is fine. But Example Avalanches will send you 15 emails at 2 AM when you’re 6 weeks deep, packed with Refinery 29 articles and obscure virtual publications written in a language you don’t understand that suggest an entirely different direction for the project.

(And, reader beware: if your client is using this tactic, chances are they have an issue with comparison syndrome too).

So my approach is to have a cutoff. Personally, I ask my clients for no more than 5 examples of the overall look, tone, and ‘vibe’ they’re going for with their content. This helps me get clear as they show me what they need, and helps them get clear too, as they whittle down their inspirations into only the most useful, astute examples.

Not everyone is a dream to work with. But with the right communication, you can make their dreams work most of the time.

Yes, you should set boundaries, and push back if they’re being violated. But above all, good communication centers around treating your client the way you’d want to be treated, and expect the same.

That means having the good grace to answer questions when they’re feeling confused, explaining what you need, and piecing together what they ‘really’ mean, so they can understand themselves.

Of course, there will be times when you need to cut ties for your own sanity. It happens. But part of success as a creative means knowing when to re-think the way a project is being approached in order to find the answers you’re looking for.

When a door is locked, the best professionals search for the window. How will you find yours?

Photo credit: Thomas Lefebvre via Unsplash

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