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The key to a successful client relationship lies in clear and open communication, something I like to think I have with all my clients. However, a recent introduction to the power of using Clean Language has opened my eyes to a whole new way of having briefing and feedback sessions that can transform the experience for both parties.

The introduction came courtesy of Sheryl Andrews of Step by Step Listening. It was challenging and rewarding, and I am keen to learn from and embrace it.

Sheryl, who is also known as The Listening Detective, is a coach who uses Clean Language techniques and Active Listening to get to the heart of her clients’ problems and help them take action to overcome them.

Having a clear brief

Working with a new client is always a mix of excitement and trepidation. You have the thrill of being able to help someone achieve their goals and the nervousness of awaiting their feedback on what you have provided. Like most people, I want to be liked, and it is important to me to do an excellent job for all my clients, both for my professional pride and personal satisfaction.

As a copywriter, my task is to produce something that sounds like the client has written it. This could be a blog, some content for their website, or a piece of editorial. To make the piece sound authentic, I need to get to know the client’s brand and writing style. This usually involves me having a fairly in-depth conversation with them, in which I ask a multitude of questions. I also look at their style of writing, their use of language and their tone of voice.

Before I start a job, I like to take a brief from the client to establish what they want to achieve and agree on the ‘rules of engagement.’ I usually follow up a conversation with a written summary of what we have discussed, which sets out what I will be doing for the client, any timescale, and cost. The client then agrees to the brief and pays a deposit.

So far, so good. In most cases, that approach has worked well, and I am pleased to say that the work has been completed to the satisfaction of both parties. However, it is what happens in the minority of other cases where problems can occur.

The difficult conversations

When you present someone with a piece of writing, the feedback can take many forms. They may like the content but not the style, like the style but not the tone, dislike the vocabulary but love the approach and so on. None of the above is a problem if the client can articulate their preferences. The problem is more challenging if you are faced with ‘I don’t like it’ but no suggestion as to the alternative.

When I write a piece of copy, the price always includes two rounds of revisions. This allows me to gain feedback and then tweak the first draft. The third round is either unnecessary or gives me a chance for further refinements.

However, if a client is simply unhappy with what they have received but cannot guide me on what they would like to change, the result can be unsatisfactory for both parties.

So, how do you avoid those difficult conversations or help the client tease out what they don’t like?

Setting boundaries and expectations

What I learned working with Sheryl Andrews was how to take the initial briefing session to another level. We not only discussed what Sheryl was looking for from me, but she also helped me to understand how she works and her quirks. She left me in no doubt as to what I could expect from working with her and how it might feel. This was very new. It was more honest than I had known any other person be with me and helped prepare me for what working together would entail.

Sheryl then invited me to describe to her how I wanted to work, how I wanted to be treated, and how I wanted to receive feedback.

She used questions such as “receiving feedback helpfully would be like what?”

“What would you like to have happen?”

“If that happened, what would the impact be?

I had never felt so appreciated or valued as a supplier! Here was someone who genuinely cared about my experience as well as her own. It was eye-opening.

So how did it go?

Really well. Sheryl was happy with the quick turnaround on the work, and she gave me positive feedback on the blogs. I was pleased with how I had been treated and thrilled that she was happy with the service. However, that is not the whole story, as I found out when we had a feedback session a few weeks later.

Digging a little deeper into the feedback

It would have been very easy to leave things at that until the next time Sheryl wanted help with a blog. Instead, we decided that it would be a good idea to have a conversation and discuss what had worked and what could have worked better?

Once again, we were able to have an open and candid conversation.

This is when I found out the experience hadn’t been totally painless for Sheryl. There had been two parts to the original brief and whilst Sheryl had praised me for my role, some parts of how we had worked together didn’t go as well for her.

Sheryl had asked me to review a blog that she had written and make any minor alterations to tidy up the grammar and the second part was for me to write a blog for her based on a chapter from her book that she had provided.

When Sheryl sent me the blog she wanted me to review via email, she inadvertently sent me the wrong document. She didn’t realise the error until I had checked and sent back the blog.

For me, it wasn’t a big deal, and I expected her to send the correct version of the document she wanted me to review. However, Sheryl sent me an email saying she would take responsibility for her mistake and wanted to value my time. With this in mind Sheryl chose not to send me the correct document. I took this at face value and didn’t think anything more about it.

Don’t expect someone to read your mind

In our feedback session, Sheryl explained how this had played out for her. She had felt frustrated with herself for making a mistake and wasting my time.

She didn’t want me to have to pay for her mistake and she had to admit that when I did not rescue her, she realised that she had hoped I could read her mind and in between the lines and ‘just offer’ to redo the blog.

We had a good laugh about this misunderstanding, and I quickly offered to review the article without any problem. It just shows how we each make up our version of events. I had dismissed the error as inconsequential, and Sheryl was left feeling a bit miffed. Sheryl was quick to acknowledge how ridiculous that was and that it was, in fact her responsibility to ask f I would do the work again, but she was worried about having to pay more, so she kept quiet.

Because Sheryl once again adopted the Clean Language approach, we were both able to express what we would like to have had happen in the various scenarios and set out clear expectations for going forward.

It is all in the questions

As someone who makes a living from using words, I am fascinated by my introduction to Clean Language and what it can do to improve the conversations I have with clients. Whilst I am by no means an expert in the questioning techniques it embodies, I can certainly use my experience to inform the conversations I am having and make sure I am engaging in active listening. That should help all my clients to express their likes and dislikes more easily and enhance the service I provide.

Sheryl adds: “Knowing what you want is one thing but asking for it can be another. Even with all my years of experience helping others to communicate what they want with clarity and confidence I still find it hard when someone had worked on something and I am not happy.”

“One of my patterns is to take responsibility and blame myself.”

“By sharing with Joanne my pattern and asking her to call me on it if I seem to be ‘blaming’ me and inviting her to check if that is what I really want to have happen, I now have a space where  I can ask for what I want and I am more likely to keep delegating tasks to Joanne.”

“Massive thank you Joanne for being willing to adopt what I needed and for agreeing to the feedback and review session in the first place.”



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