Unless you were presenting a concept for a powerful new vacuum cleaner, that’s probably not what you want to hear after presenting something to a client that you put your heart and soul into.
When a moment like this occurs, one of two urges will attempt to overtake you:
- You distance yourself from the idea with the reaction as if the client just pointed out a creepy spider crawling on your shirt. Or “hey, how’d that idea get in here?”
- Or get defensive as if the client made a joke about your mother. You start loading up on rapid-fire answers to shoot at the client like you’re preparing to repel hostile fire.
Each reaction comes from the same place: you are emotionally attached to the outcome. That fear of a wrong outcome can turn feedback into becoming overly defensive and reactive. Neither is healthy in making any feedback more productive.
Welcome to the art of feedback Kung Fu.
Did you know there are different types of martial arts? Some are “hard” styles. You may know them as the styles that use the hard hand-swinging Karate chops. It’s style of combat is designed to injure and inflict damage in order to disable or discourage an attacker to back off. In many ways, similar to how our gut instinct wants to respond to client feedback.
“Bam! Now, Stop!” Unfortunately, just like the harder martial arts style, you are in greater danger of destroying things rather than making them better.
In martial arts, there are also “soft” styles. A couple of examples are Kung Fu and Hapkido. These styles work by energy conversion. That is, redirecting their opponent’s energy back at them rather than bluntly stopping it. By engaging them correctly, you use the momentum of their feedback or criticism to deflect or convert comments into more productive actions. This way you get to the same objective and are more productive without hard conflict. So in terms of handling client feedback, think Kung Fu.
How do you use a softer style in working with client feedback?
Step one: Stop. Breathe. React calmly.
Don’t follow your gut and use a “hard” style and be confrontational. Wait for the client to make the first move and let them spend their energy and work towards helping you by giving valuable feedback.
Step Two: Use the client’s “momentum.”
View and speak with your client with the belief that feedback is opportunity and insight waiting to happen. Not failure. Believe that you can use that energy and feedback and convert it toward something positive.
Step three: Get details.
Make the best of the opportunity by asking the client to elaborate and offer specifics to help you, and them, better clarify the issue you are both trying to resolve.
Step Four: The winning move. Show them you REALLY hear them.
If you really listen to their reaction, you’ll know if your idea is truly off base, or what concerns really need to be addressed to satisfy the client. Nothing soothes an angry client more than feeling a breakthrough moment that makes them feel you “get it” and that you understand how to move towards what they want.
Step Five: How to really hear: Don’t listen to the words. Listen to the needs and motivation.
It’s strong feedback. But not clear or actionable feedback. Since you are, presumably, the subject matter expert in your craft and the client is not, you must also account for the likelihood, the client sometimes can’t put their concerns into actionable words or language your practice commonly uses and acts upon. Hence their use of “it sucks” is really feelings and instinct that’s been put into a vague word container. Your job is to unpack that word container, see what’s inside and put the ideas into new thought containers that you can act on.
It reminds me of the movie Amadeus where the king says to Mozart that he didn’t like the composer’s symphony because it had, “too many notes.”
What’s true about that vague statement is that there something about what was presented that troubles Mozart’s client, the king. What may not be true are the exact words the king is using to define the problem.
“Too many notes” could be be driven by issues like:
- The king was bored.
- They were overwhelmed and turned off.
- He didn’t like it at all, so it was bad from the first note.
- Or maybe it was so different than what he expected, the king just needed more time to absorb it.
So there may be richer, substantive feelings and motivations about your work within a client’s shallow comment. How do you draw it out of them?
I use the three whys.
What people say is a problem is not always the real problem. You need to help the client reconnect to the real motivations that’s influencing their reaction.
I use the three whys. The idea that if you ask “why?” about a reaction three times, the third why will likely get you to core reason. And example:
YOUR CLIENT: “I think we should scrap this approach, I really don’t think it’s working”
YOU: “Why don’t you think it’s working?”
YOUR CLIENT: “It feels off base. It’s not projecting our brand.”
YOU: “Why don’t you think it’s not projecting the brand?”
YOUR CLIENT: “I think the tone is not right?
YOU: “What do you feel is a wrong about the tone?
YOUR CLIENT: “My boss took a look and feels we need to be more chest-out about who we are.”
See? Asking “why?” three times revealed a much deeper and more specific issue. Your immediate client doesn’t hate the work, but they are concerned that their boss thinks it should have a stronger tone.
If you had just accepted the client’s statement that the project didn’t work without asking why, you would have missed an opportunity to correct the problem. Instead, by digging to the core of the issue, we found actionable issues and concerns that we can improve and satisfy the client.
Feedback is not always about reflexively making changes. A lot of times, it’s people just kicking the tires on a good idea. By actionizing client feedback properly, we can turn client feedback into success.
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