It's taken a couple of days to write the new song. You've pulled three days without sleep to mix the album. The idea for the latest commercial is, in your mind, one of the best you have had for a long time.
Or you've sent over the voice over for the commercial, or the guitar parts for the album. Its just taken you 4 weeks to finish the gruelling mix for a movie.
And then comes the feedback...
"It's not what we were looking for."
"We were hoping for something different."
"Sorry, this is not right."
"Can you do it again?"
If you've spent any time as a creative professional then what I've just written will have been your experience, not once but on several occasions. There are many challenges to making money from your skill working in audio or video creation, but one most never get entirely used to is having our work criticised.
You see if your bass player tells you that your latest songs suck or your partner thinks your mix isn't very exciting then you can deal with that and in many cases, you can say to yourself well that's just their opinion. The difference with a client is that they are paying the bill and if they don't like what you've done then how you respond to that feedback is of great consequence.
You can ignore their feedback, which isn't going to help.
You can have a hissy fit and start asking saying all sorts of stupid things like "Don't you know quality when you see it?" or something equally unhelpful.
You see your idea may be better than theirs, you may have better ears than your client, and if they had the same time and budget to do what you did then they would probably come up with something far worse, but to be blunt, this is the gig. If you want to write songs, mix, edit or do some other creative pursuit and get your own way, then don't do it for a living.
This week I've had to deliver several new projects, I also have about ten more on my white board waiting for me to start. Some of those projects are very well briefed, and others are the proverbial blank sheet of paper that to most creatives is like staring down the barrel of a gun. It's much more comfortable having ideas when the clock isn't ticking, and the only person you need to make happy is you. When you get paid to do this, only having one person to please is an easy gig but in some cases, it's a lot more. My worse gig involved getting the opinions of 17 people, on most days I just thought 'kill me now!'
We are not unique in the creative industry, all professions have standards, and many are more stringent than ours. For example being a surgeon or an airline pilot requires adhering to a strict set of standards to do the job right, the consequences of getting it wrong are serious - life and death, so compared to many professions we get it pretty easy. No one's going to die if the guitar is too loud or the ad you've mixed fails broadcast compliance.
That said, dealing with client feedback is one of the most significant challenges we face.
I don't think waiting for client feedback ever gets any easier, especially if you care about the work you produce. The best way to approach it is to accept that there will be amends and hope it's not one where you have to start all over again.
I was inspired to write about this on the blog this week because a new client apologised to me for giving feedback and wanting changes. It's appreciated, and I like the courtesy of that approach, but I'm of the opinion that if you can't handle having your work criticised by those who are paying the bills, then you need to either get used to it or find another way to make your living.
In fact, I would go as far to say that how you handle client feedback has a direct bearing on how successful you will be in this industry. No one wants to work with someone who is demanding and who doesn't handle feedback well, it's a small world and word gets out. They certainly don't want to have an awkward conversation every time they want you to change things.
Does that mean clients are always right? Hell no, but that's irrelevant.
Should you just roll over and take everything without questioning it? Not at all, you should be able to justify your creative decisions, and on some occasions, you will win the argument, after all, they've hired you because of your track record, of course, if you haven't got a track record then it makes your case a lot harder. However, picking your battles carefully will help you to make a case for something you are convinced is right. Even then, it's not just about making the case but making it in such a way as to keep the client onside, there's an old proverb I was once told 'you can make anyone swallow ants as long as you cover them in chocolate first.' Or in the words of Mary Poppins, 'A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.'
Just yesterday I got feedback from a client who I've been working with for a very long time. The email gave four items to look at it opened with the line "I have only small nits to pick." and ended with "1 and 2 are the most important." One of the items on the list ended with "but that may just be me – so take with a pinch of salt."
It's nice when you've built a rapport with a client who turns amends into a conversation instead of an ultimatum, and at this point, you have more wriggle room. To this specific set of amends, I changed the first two and not the last two, and the client was happy. I certainly wouldn't have tried that with a new client. Like everything in life but certainly in business building strong and lasting client relationships makes the process of amends a whole lot easier. Most of my clients will write amends emails with 'Would you mind changing." or "What do you think about changing this?' type requests, and I appreciate that less confrontational approach that feels more like a conversation than litigation.
Does handling criticism get easier the longer you do this? Perhaps, but as with an actor who always has nerves each time they take to the stage, I think there is something healthy about the internal pang that strikes each time you get feedback. I think it indicates that you still care about the work you do, you've invested a lot of time and energy into the project.
One of the unintended consequences of modern production methods is that more and more of us are working remotely on client work. In the past studios and post houses were partly designed around the fact that clients would be sat there in the mix or the edit. In many cases this has gone, especially for those of us running small creative businesses. I want to address this in my suggestions below, not having the client in front of you makes the whole process of making changes to a project less relational and more transactional.
Some Practical Suggestions For Dealing With Client Feedback
There are also some practical considerations I'd like to suggest that can make this whole part of the job easier;
- If you've just pulled 7 straight all-nighters living on Red Bull and you've not seen your family in an effort get the project finished then put a little space between your submission and the feedback. You'll be drained and in no position to either take or respond to even minor client niggles.
- Don't read client feedback before you go to bed, or before a day or weekend off. One of my team emailed me yesterday having been up all night with the client feedback running through his head, the email was sent at around 3am. That's not good for anyone.
- If you can get a second opinion on the feedback from a colleague or a trusted friend, but not your Mum or partner. They think the sun shines out your ass and will just tell you not to listen to the horrible client while rubbing your hair and offering you an ice cream. I work most of the time on my own, I do have a team, but they are scattered around the globe so on most occasions I'll call up Mike Thornton and ask his opinion. I guess that about 50% of the time he says that the feedback is valid. If not then we talk it through and he helps me to consider how to respond without burning my bridges.
- I'd suggest that the best way to work this stuff out is by phone, often your amends will arrive by email but if there's something contentious, a phone call is always a better way to deal with it. I've come to the conclusion that quite a lot of us come across worse in emails and in written form than when we speak by voice. That may just be the nature of the medium, but I prefer conversations over emails any day. I had a team member once who was really decent in person and on the phone but the moment they took to the written word they came across in an entirely different way. I'm sure all of those who hate my writing would want to marry me if they met me in person... but then again perhaps not.
- Which leads me to my final sanity saver, don't allow this stuff to get personal. Not liking your work and not liking you are not the same thing. We are doing a job, and we need to be able to detach our work from our self-worth. Otherwise, you'll be miserable. That's the one thing I can say does get easier, but only if we manage to firewall our hearts.
No one likes being criticised, but when you make your living from your craft, then you have to accept that it is part of the terrain. As part of my role, I also have to give feedback to those working for me on projects, and I can guarantee that the people I continue to work with are the ones who handle it well. You might be a creative genius but if you are also a pain in the arse then don't expect too much work to come your way, being easy to work with is a strength worth cultivating.
What about you? Do you have any advice for dealing with this stuff? We would love to hear your strategies for making this part of the creative process better.
In the meantime, if you think you are the only one who has to deal with this kind of stuff, then you are not, it's par for the course. Find a way to make it work for you before it breaks you and your business.