December 10, 2014How do you work with a client who keeps you guessing?

I think it’s happened to every copywriter at some point. The client who knows exactly what they want. But they can’t put it in words. Or rather, they probably can put it in words, they just won’t. Instead, they make you play a guessing game. Because you’re the copywriter. You should know.

It’s the exact opposite of the pixel-pushing backseat designer (or “hovering art director“) who watches over you constantly “suggesting” adjustments. What do you do when you get a client who knows exactly what they want but won’t tell you, insisting ‘you’re the copywriter, you should know’?

It’s time to talk psychology.

Most human beings crave validation, whether that’s an “I love you” from their loved one or a “yes, this is exactly how your brand should sound” from their copywriter.

They want their beliefs to be confirmed. And the way they’ve chosen to do that is a double-blind test. They have (consciously or subconsciously) some copy — or a style of copy — in their mind. And they want you to reproduce it in order to confirm that a professional would naturally reach the same conclusion.

So what do you do?

Obviously, you give it your best shot. The last time I had a client like this, my best shot was the simple “time to party” (it was an alcohol brand). Too laddish, was the reply. OK. “time to celebrate”. Too girly. And celebrate is a bit worthy, don’t you think?

“It’s time to party?” By this point, my copy has question marks. “Tonight we party??”

The question marks proliferate.

A hundred (OK, I exaggerate, but not by much) revisions later and we still haven’t cracked it. By this point, my thesaurus looks like a well-thumbed copy of Razzle magazine, though marginally less sticky.

Clearly, the client has expectations. How do you meet them?

Here’s three suggestions:
1. Refer to the tone of voice guidelines.

In fact don’t just refer to them, quote them chapter and verse. “This line of copy is correct because on page 13 it says here to use this exact language”.

If there aren’t any tone of voice guidelines (there weren’t for my tricky client), refer to what’s been written (and approved) in the past. The trouble with this method is that very often you’ve been brought in because what’s been done in the past hasn’t worked. However, it can be a useful starting point: ‘can you explain why this hasn’t worked, and how you see the tone of voice changing to something that does?’

2. Hold a tone of voice workshop

It’s time to get inside the client’s head. When you think workshop, you probably think of flip charts, post-it notes and playing Candy Crush on your phone while you think nobody’s watching. But with the right questions, you can really get your client to open up.

If the client loves music, ask them what songs they’d set their brand’s copy to. Then go away and write with the music ringing in your ears (or your headphones). Ask them, if their brand was a person, who would they be. Then copy the way they speak — a film character, a famous politician… so long as they’re famous enough, there will be enough youtube clips and copy examples out there.

Or you could try opening up a dialogue, one on one. They might not want to tell you exactly what kind of copy they’re looking for, because that would be “writing it for you”. But you can get around this by roleplaying: “You’re the brand and I’m the customer… reply to me the way the brand would talk… So hey, how’s it going, what are you up to tonight?” They might not want to talk copy, but you can get copy out of a conversation.

3. Argue your case

When you’ve exhausted all the other options, sometimes you have to have faith that your way works. If you really are the professional, you have to be willing to put your point across and prove that your way is better than whatever they’ve got in mind. If they’re big data buffs, bombard them with statistics on conversion rates and retentions. If they’re more casual, make them laugh. “This copy is funny… and that makes it engaging, here’s why.”

Despite this, you won’t win them all. Everyone has had clients that they can’t please, perhaps because you’ve said or done something that has made the client lose faith in you, or perhaps because you’re simply a bad fit for the brand. A 40 year old man can write copy for teenage girls, but he’ll struggle to sound authentically like a teenage girl. This lawyer trying to translate teen-speak for a judge is a great example.

In conclusion…

Sometimes the client is looking for ultimate authenticity. They don’t want a copywriter, they want a writer who embodies the brand. If that’s the case, and you don’t (say you’re writing about sneakers and you’ve only ever worn boots), it might be best to move on.

Ultimately, the client is looking for validation. Can you give them that validation, either in your copy or in the way you handle their brief?

Have you ever had a difficult client? What were your strategies to satisfy them?

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