Constructive Criticism From Clients, Pt. II: How to Ask for Feedback

Written by Elizabeth Wellington on November 23, 2017

Asking for constructive criticism from clients is a scary necessity. Whether you mastered your craft in school or have a distinguished career, there’s always more to learn. Instead of trying to avoid constructive criticism at all costs, I’ve built it into how I work with clients.

Although I sometimes hear more criticism this way, I control the flow of information. By asking for feedback in a thoughtful way, the criticism is constructive rather than mean or unhelpful. There are no surprises and no unexpected disappointments at the end of the project.

If you can’t stand criticism, this as an opportunity to get more comfortable — after all, it’s part of the growing process. Here’s how I ask for feedback in every stage of a freelance project:

Set Clear Expectations

Before I even start working with clients, I talk about transparency and open communication. During those first conversations, I emphasize how important it is that my deliverables meet the client’s goals. I let them know that I ask for regular feedback to make sure we’re on the same page. Freelancers, take note: Unlike your W-2 colleagues who live in fear of their annual performance review each year, you can encourage regular, constructive feedback from the get-go.

I also set up expectations for the process. Not only do I include deadlines in my contract or statement of work, but I also write out timing benchmarks that we need to hit to complete the project efficiently and effectively. For example, if I need information from a client by a certain date to meet a deadline, I include that in the contract. Even though these two extra steps take more time, they set the foundation for an open, productive client-freelancer relationship. Feedback is always more positive when clients understand the steps to completion.

Plan Feedback Opportunities

Throughout the duration of the freelance project, I like to touch base about feedback on the phone. Here’s why: It’s a lot easier to convey the right tone, and sort out any challenges we stumble across along the way. For example, if a client were to say, “This article you wrote is too short,” it would most likely come across differently on the phone than over email, where it can seem sharp and prickly.

I plan a few calls in advance to ask about feedback when I set benchmarks. If the client gives a lot of negative input and recommended changes, I usually type them up and send them back to the client to make sure we’re on the same page. That way, there’s a written record of what we discussed.

That said, sometimes very detail-oriented feedback about, for example, why a sentence or two doesn’t work, is better done over email. It forces clients to be succinct and clear in writing. Depending on the style of the client, you can discern the best plan of action.

Ask a Few Questions

Although it helps to always ask questions relevant to your specific project, these thoughts can help guide your conversation. I like to start by talking about the process, and then get down into the nitty gritty of the deliverables. For your project to be a successful collaboration, both the process and the outcome should be positive:

Process:

  • How has the process been for you so far?

  • Is there anything I can do differently to make things go smoother?

  • Have you been happy with the timeline?

Deliverables:

  • What were your first impressions of the work?

  • Is there anything you’d like me to change?

  • Do you feel comfortable moving forward with this deliverable?

  • Is there anything you want to share before we wrap up the project?

Depending on their responses, I ask follow-up questions that dive deeper into the topic at hand. For example, if they said their first impressions weren’t great, I’d ask, “Okay, is there anything in particular that disappointed you?” Later, I would follow up with, “Were we able to fix that through the editing process?” Again, setting expectations from the first call means that it’s more likely you’re all on the same page when you dive into the final opportunity for feedback.

Say Thank You

When you ask for feedback, it’s important to follow up and thank people for being open about their experiences with you. I always mirror constructive criticism from clients with language like, “I understand that the messaging could be more succinct. Let’s pop into the Google doc and figure out what to cut.” This is even more important during the last conversation with a client. I always thank them for trusting me with the project before reiterating the payment terms.

I often follow up with a handwritten thank-you note, too. This extra step means I get more work from past clients, as well as strong referrals. In the age of emails, a thoughtful letter really stands out from the crowd. If you received so-so feedback from clients, this is still a good idea.

Just as with anything, asking for feedback is as much about how you do it as it is what you say. Although you’ll probably feel shaky and uncertain at first, the calmer you can be during this process, the more you can improve in the future. There are a ton of benefits around asking for constructive criticism both in the short and long term. By starting the conversation yourself, you can pave a path for more success moving forward.

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