The Tricky Six: a copywriter's guide to awkward clients

Difficult clients. We’ve all had them.

 

They’re everywhere, waiting to make your day as miserable as that time you left your lunch at home.

 

Here at 4-LW Towers, we’ve dealt with our fair share. In fact, we’re firm believers that you can’t honestly call yourself a copywriter if you’ve not worked for a client who makes you long for the sweet release of death. 

 

But instead of sitting here and whining about it (unlike one of our client types below!), we’ve decided to help out our copy brethren. Below is our quick guide of what client types to watch out for and how to deal with them.

 

You’re welcome.

 

It’s at this point that we’d like to stress that not all clients fall into these categories. Most of the clients we’ve worked with are bloody marvels! They’ve engaged at the right time, provided clear reasoning behind their decisions, delivered useful information that enhances their already-clear brief. And brought biscuits. Chocolate biscuits.

 

Anyway, back on point:

 

The Tank

Despite having a bloody brilliant name, The Tank is actually a bit of an arse.

 

They’re uber-confrontational and adopt a win-at-all-costs attitude that's almost admirable. Almost. They are challenging you to challenge them, almost begging you to call him/her out.

 

To The Tank, conversation is a war zone. In the killing fields of debate, words are your soldiers and need to be deployed carefully. Failure to do so will result in the The Tank’s cavalry being sent into battle to secure the victory. And by cavalry we mean fists.

 

Dealing with The Tank can be a struggle and your biggest ally will be your ability to remain calm. Don’t go head-to-head with The Tank and don’t get dragged into a he-said-she-said battle. Stay cool, lay out the facts as you see them and be firm with what you’ve got to say.

 

The Tank will know if you’re not convinced by your own suggestions, so don’t even think about presenting something you’re not fully behind.

 

Remind yourself that you are the creative expert, you are the one they brought in, you are the one with the fancy business cards that say 'copywriter' in big, bold letters. Don’t let them bully you around.

 

Do

·        Stand your ground and be strong

·        Allow facts to be your ally

Don’t

·        Fight fire with fire

·        Wet yourself

·        Punch The Tank. Although you’ll be seen as a hero to many, don’t expect that invoice to be dealt with any time soon

                                                      

The Know-It-All                         

Knowledge, they say, is power. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s why a Know-It-All is a bit of a knob.

 

They love to find mistakes in your work and have all the answers when it comes to why they think it all went wrong, even when it all went right. This client can actually be quite useful at times. I mean, yes they’re irritating. And smug. Boy are they smug. But they do know their stuff and who knows when you might need this frustrating fountain of knowledge. However, more often than not, their smugness just makes them as detestable as that sandwich that’s been sat in Ben’s drawer for just over a month. (Chicken mayo, if you're wondering...)

 

The Know-It-All can be really useful, so ask them key questions to get as much information on the subject as possible. Being over-prepared or having too much information to work with should never be a bad thing.

 

The biggest stumbling block will be how they present this knowledge. There may be an air of smugness but, similar to The Tank, you have to stay calm. Let them say what they have to say. You can glean useful information from them. If you want to challenge them, which is to be encouraged, speak to them how you would like to be spoken to.

 

They may frustrate you but try to remember that this is their passion. How else can you explain them knowing everything? Respect that and the experience will be all the better for it.

 

Do

·        Be respectful

·        Lean on this knowledge

Don’t

·        Threaten to wipe that smug grin from their smug face

·        Call them an idiot

·        Ask them what their favourite version of Windows is

 

The Think-They-Know-It-All  

What’s worse than a smug, know-it-all git? A smug git who thinks they know it all but, in fact, they know diddly-squat. Ladies and gentleman… The Think-They-Know-It-All.

 

Boosted by the power of confidence, mad bluffing skillz and an ability to make people doubt themselves, The Think-They-Know-It-All can convince their unsuspecting victims that they are correct and should be listened to. The frustrating thing is they know enough about a subject to sound knowledgeable but only as an attention-seeking mechanism that makes you want to shout into a pillow.

 

This type of client is a lot more difficult than The Know-It-All, who at least does actually know it all. The Think-They-Know-It-All still has a level of intelligence and knowledge that can be useful but you have to wade through the nonsense to get to it. Acknowledge this, point out a couple of good bits of information they’ve given, but do not be afraid to ask them to clarify their stance on something.

 

Asking them to repeat an error may cause someone else to spot the error. Heck, it might even cause them to spot the error. Asking them to explain their reasoning is key here because it forces them to defend a position they may not be comfortable defending. And if they can defend it? Well, then it’s a point that needs to be considered.

 

Do

·        Acknowledge that some of what they have to say is relevant

·        Ask them to clarify a couple of key points

Don’t

·        Take what they say at face value

·        Try to outdo them on the attention-seeking front

·        Scream into your pillow during a meeting

 

The Maybe Person                   

Decisiveness is important. Even if the decision is wrong, at least it shows a willingness to move forwards. Or at least try to move forwards. But indecisiveness is the Devil’s bedfellow. And so is The Maybe Person.

 

Crippled by a fear of making the wrong decision, The Maybe Person decides that no decision is a better option. Thus, they lead you on a dance down the garden path as they distract, procrastinate and do whatever possible to delay making a decision. And by the time they make it, it’s probably too late. Which is fun.

 

It’s important to get in the mindset of The Maybe Person, to understand why they are the way they are. They could be nervous, they could be new. They could be terrified that a wrong decision could be fatal for their career.

 

What’s key is remembering that they are the decision-maker and taking them on the journey with you. Talk them through the work you've done, why you’ve done it and why it’s the right thing to do. If you’re presenting a number of routes (which we’d try to avoid with this type of client), be sure to provide a clear rationale as to which is the best option.

 

Throughout all this, keep them fully aware of any deadlines and the danger of missing these. If their maybeness is down to fear of losing their job, being reminded that a looming deadline could provide the same ending might give them a little clarity.

 

Do

·        Spell it all out for them in simple terms and lay out their options

·        Detail the decision you think is best

·        Reinforce the timings around the decision

Don’t

·        Leave them on their own to make a decision

·        Change your own mind midway through a discussion

·        Ask them what their favourite film is

 

Dr. No                     

No is a beautiful word. So harsh and, yet, so therapeutic. That’s probably why Dr. No says it a lot. Us creative types realise you can't often say 'no' to a client. You’ve got to dress it up, garnish it, make it seem like you're saying 'yes', instead. The client, on the other hand, can say no as often as they like. And Dr. No does. A lot.

 

Dr. No isn't really bothered about the project or the end result, they just like destruction. They thrive on friction. Feast on the taste of despair. Their ultimate thrill is killing a brilliant idea dead in the water before it can generate an ounce of momentum.

 

We’ve all said ‘no’ in our time, so cut them a break. Let them get all this negativity out in the open. Who knows, it might actually contribute something useful. It might also be worth you laying out the potential pitfalls, preventing them from being negative by doing it for them. By looking at the project in this light, you might notice something you may have missed otherwise.

 

Once the negative energy has been cleared, it’s much easier to make progress. Without wanting to get all Plastic Population on you, the only way is up. That doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing from here on in, but it should help make it a little less choppy.

 

Do

·        Let them be negative to start with

·        Beat them to the punch and get all the negativity out the way early on

Don’t

·        Try to fight negativity with positivity

·        Force them to make any decisions

·        Make any life-altering decisions immediately after speaking to them

                                                                                 

The Whiner                                

The Whiner is a misunderstood beast. They love a good whinge. Hell, we all love a good whinge. But The Whiner takes this to a whole new level.

 

The world is a deeply unfair place and The Whiner knows this. Not only do they know it, they want you to know it as well. Every new idea is doomed to fail. Every plan of attack is overwhelming. Helplessness engulfs The Whiner and drags them into a pit of misery. And we all know what misery loves.

 

Whatever you do, do not get sucked into this vortex of doom. It’s easy enough to do but you have to stay positive. Because positivity breeds positivity. The Whiner can be depressing but, like The No Person, their misery may help you avoid stumbling further down the line.

 

The key to The Whiner is understanding they’re not an overly cheery individual and stressing that that’s what you’re there for! Be positive and paint them a utopian future in which everything is glorious. Don’t dwell on the negatives and stay happy.

 

It’s also imperative that you draw them into this positivity. Engage them and encourage them to look into possible solutions for this barren wasteland of a project they have pictured. This will both keep them occupied and also, potentially, present some fresh thinking. And who in their right mind doesn’t like fresh thinking!

 

Do

·        Encourage them to focus on solutions

·        Draw up a vision of a positive future

Don’t

·        Let them whinge relentlessly

·        Fall into a doom spiral with them

·        Treat yourself to a Ginsters and a bottle of cheap gin on the way home

 

So, there it is, our Tricky Six - half a dozen client types that can make things, well, a bit tricky. What do you think? Have we missed any? Too harsh? Or maybe too lenient?

 

And whilst all this is a bit of fun, there is an important lesson here: we’re not here to sugar coat the truth and make out that every client-copywriter interaction is heavenly. Yes, most clients fully understand what service we are there to provide and appreciate how our history leaves us better placed to deal with the copy conundrum they have so kindly laid out for us. However, some are exactly like we’ve discussed above. And while you don’t know where they fall until you’ve worked with them, hopefully this provides a teensy bit of help with dealing with them.

 

But, and this is a big but, the most important thing to remember is that while we (us creative types) can group clients into categories, the clients probably group us into categories, too!