What to do when a client requests shitty changes

Photo by Lachlan Cormie on Unsplash

A huge source of frustration for creative freelancers is clients messing with your work.

I spend my days working with and coaching creative freelancers. And a recent question that comes up is: “My work is good but the client is requesting terrible edits. What should I do?”

Responses to posts like this are always in one of 3 (wrong) camps:
1) “NOT THE CONVERSIONS! You tell them they must make NO edits or face certain doom!”
2) “NEVER work with them again. They are clearly monsters who hate you.”
3) “Your contract should state that you create the final product and any changes have to be approved by you and/or split tested.”

So what do we do in this terrible moment?

First of all, let’s step back and define a client/creative freelancer relationship.

It boils down to this: They have the business, you have the expertise. To go deeper — they take the risk and you give them the best shot at success.

So, in most cases, you hand off your photo/copy/design, which is their best shot at success — better than they could do themselves. BUT (and this is a big one), it’s still their website and their risk. And they feel that. So, they are going to want some control over the outcome. Of course, many times it’s a false sense of control because their changes actually make it worse. But, regardless, it’s their right to change it and feel better about it.

(NOTE: Famous copywriter Clayton Makepeace would disagree with me here. I know this because he said so at Copy Chief Live. He doesn’t allow ANY changes to his copy without a split test. And when you’re Clayton Makepeace, you can do that. For the rest of us, that usually won’t fly).

So since we’re not Clayton, what’s our recourse? Here’s what I do as a copywriter that works with high-level clients.

First step is a little reflection. What is upsetting me about this change? Of course the answer is “It won’t convert” But, usually that’s your ego talking. MOST changes aren’t significant enough to really affect conversions. So really sit down and think about whether it’s your ego or a real concern.

You’re an intelligent, self-aware human so let’s assume that in this particular instance, it does.

Let’s compare copywriters to chefs (this is my favorite comparison to make). So, you’re a chef. You’ve gone to culinary school. You’ve worked under master chefs for years. Now you got your own place, and it’s magnificent. You’ve just come up with a new dish, and holy moley, it’s a good one. The first order comes in.

You perfectly season it, plate it, and send it out into the world. The server sets it down in front of the customer. You peak out the kitchen window to watch the look of ecstasy when they try that first bite. The customer takes a good long whiff and you can tell they are excited.

Then, they pick up the salt shaker and unceremoniously salt the shit out of your perfectly seasoned dish. W.T.F. Your masterpiece, ruined.

Now, in this case, the customer is clearly going to have a worse experience than if they had just trusted you to season it properly. And they’re paying you, why wouldn’t they?

Because people are weird. And they have bad taste.

So what do you do?

You roll your eyes and get back to work. You make another dish for a better customer and you move on. Because you don’t have time to let one idiot derail you.

That’s strategy #1 and covers most situations, I think. Most of the time, it’s just not worth wasting your time. Roll your eyes and move on.

Strategy #2 is for those times that it IS worth it. You have a pretty good relationship with the client and you want to see them succeed. And you TRULY believe their changes will have a negative impact.

This is where Hanlon’s Razor comes into play. Hanlon’s Razor says, in short, “Don’t attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.” Most client issues are not ones of malice (“fuck her copy” which is what it feels like), and more likely ignorance, (“This section sounds weird, so I’m going to cut it”)… Basically, they hired you because they don’t understand your craft the way you do. You’re a consultant, so consult them.

Write them a nice, caring email explaining your viewpoint. Why you wrote what you did they way you did and why the change is going to affect that.

Now, all this can be prevented by employing strategy #3 (which should probably be strategy #1).

When you present your work, especially to more inexperienced clients, do just that… present it. I don’t just hand off copy and expect them to understand why I did what I did. I explain, in Google comments usually, what each section is there to do. If it’s a particularly tricky client or tricky letter, I’ll present it on a call with them.

Here’s a real life example.

I wrote a sales letter for risingtideu.com for a course called “The Autism Advantage”

It was for an online course for parents of adult children on the autism spectrum. The “big idea” was that when your children “age out” of the education system, there are few opportunities that aren’t charity, when in fact, people on the spectrum can contribute in amazing ways. And one option is to start a business with your child.

As you can imagine, there’s a lot of objections to answer here — the main one being, “yes I want to give my kid an opportunity, but I’ve never thought about starting a business.”

This was a really tricky letter for me. So, when it was done, I had people in the market read the letter and tell me where they would click away or stop reading. It was an amazing exercise and it identified one small but extremely detrimental sentence in the copy.

The founders of this course had started a Car Wash in Florida. It was extremely successful due to the fact that most of the employees were on the spectrum. Because their employees were reliable, detail oriented, will follow systems to the letter, and great with repetitive tasks, they were better than neurotypical employees.

However, when I mentioned “car wash” early in the copy in the bio section, people were immediately turned off. The point of the course was not “start a car wash” but “start a business” (there are many options). But people heard, “we started a car wash” and immediately thought, “A car wash!? I have no desire to start a car wash.”

So, I edited that section to talk about the success of the business without actually revealing the type of business. We identify it as a car wash later in the letter when the reader was more bought in to the idea of business in general.

I knew this was going to be an issue for the client, and something they would most likely change or view as an oversight on my part. They are very proud of their business, so would probably want to share more details early on.

So I made sure to highlight that section and explain my findings to them when I turned in the copy. Issue resolved before it was ever an issue.

So, to recap TL;DR style:

If your client makes changes you don’t like, your options are as follows:
1) Get over it and move on with your life
2) Talk to them about it as a partner, kindly and educationally
3) Prevent the whole situation by presenting and explaining your copy when necessary.