EP. 009

3 key lessons on handling feedback as a freelancer

Feedback is a core element of collaborative projects—which is what most creative freelancers work on. But how do you separate yourself from the work and handle feedback effectively? And how can you teach clients to deliver constructive feedback? Paul and Kaleigh dive into this very important lesson and share their answers to these questions.

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Paul Jarvis:
Have you ever been in a situation where you presented work to a client and they’ve been like, “No, I don’t like this.”

Kaleigh Moore:
I have and it’s a lot of different things.

It’s frustrating. It makes me feel bad. I feel like I didn’t do a good enough job. I think this is a problem for a lot of different freelancers because feedback is just part of the equation when you’re working with a client, especially when they’re a new client and you two are just getting familiar with each other’s work and your needs, and what both parties need out of the working relationship. My short answer is yes, I have been there. I’m trying to be better at handling the feedback and also teaching the clients that I’m working with how to give the right kind of feedback.

Then also I think there’s a third part of it too. I think you have to learn to look at feedback also as an indication of do I want to work with this person again in the future. It’s really a big topic to tackle and there’s lots of things that go into this.

I want you to start because I want to hear what your thoughts are on the first part of it, how do you handle feedback, especially when it’s negative feedback.

How do you take that gracefully and not damage the working relationship?

Paul Jarvis:
Obviously positive feedback is pretty easy to deal with… “I am the best!”

Negative feedback or constructive feedback, like you said, it’s basically all the feels because you question like, “Oh, am I good enough as a freelancer, do they not like me?” all this kind of stuff. I think the first thing to do, like definitely it’s easier said than done, is to try to figure out a way in your brain to separate you from your work. If somebody doesn’t like your writing or my design, it doesn’t mean they don’t like us, it doesn’t mean they don’t trust our expertise. It just means in this one instance, for this one time, what we did was off the mark. Like I said, that is so much easier said than done to separate like you aren’t your work, especially when you’re freelancing. It definitely feels like you are because you put so much into the work that you do.

That’s definitely the first part of it is dealing with the mental strain of just getting negative feedback, especially if it’s in person. I don’t know if you’ve ever got negative feedback in person…

Kaleigh Moore:

Paul Jarvis:
It’s super awkward! It’s awkward, but it happens. If you get it in email, it’s a bit easier. It still sucks but it’s a bit easier. The main thing and what has helped me with getting feedback, because it doesn’t matter how good you are as a freelancer, there’s going to be a time when a client doesn’t like something that you’ve done. That’s just the way that it works. The way that I think of it now is that I start to think about it not as a problem with the work, but as a problem with the communication. Either they didn’t communicate in a way that I understood that resulted in the work not being what they assumed it would be, or I didn’t properly communicate what I was doing for the specific deliverable that I gave them, and they’re shocked that it isn’t what they thought it would be. For me, that negative feedback always is a communication issue, not a work issue.

Kaleigh Moore:
That’s interesting. I think that that’s important to remember, I think you also have to just keep in mind that in 99% of situations it’s business, and it’s not personal. Like you said, just because one person gave you one instance of negative feedback, that doesn’t mean you should hang up your hat and quit because it’s so easy to catastrophize, especially negative feedback, and if there’s a lot of it. In my case, if I open a Google Doc that a client has sent to me and it’s full of red comments, that on the screen to me is like “Oh my gosh, I’m terrible.” Sometimes it’s just notes. Sometimes we need something different. It’s never a personal attack. I mean I hope it’s not a personal attack. I think you really have to separate things and remember that it’s a communication problem. It’s something that needs to be worked on on both sides of the equation, it’s not just you.

That leads me into the next question I have for this is so how do you teach clients to give you better feedback and improve that communication between the two of you? What do you need to tell the client so that they are helping you deliver better products?

Paul Jarvis:
I love this question and I love the word catastrophize that you just used. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before. That’s a good word.

Kaleigh Moore:
It’s my life in a word.

Paul Jarvis:
I think that part two of how to teach clients how to give better feedback I think is really important. This is obviously something that we cover in Creative Class, but I’m totally cool to talk about it now because it’s that important. The fact is that clients, it’s not their job to know how to give a freelancer feedback. It’s not in their job description. Their job is their business. I think it’s up to us as freelancers to at least guide them a little bit in how to give the right feedback that moves a project forward and that keeps momentum going. You have to show your clients like this is the type of feedback that is really going to work because both sides, and this is the thing with feedback that again is much easier said than thought about, is that you both want the same thing.

The client wants an awesome project so their business can do better. You want an awesome project because you want it to be easy and not stressful with the client. You want something good for your portfolio that has a success story attached to it. You both want things to work out really well, so in essence you’re on the same page.

Where feedback can fall apart is when clients get—we talked about this either in the last episode—the differences of being thought of as a technician and being thought of as a professional freelancer. I think that this really relates to feedback because if a client thinks that their job is to just tell you what to do, the type of feedback they’re going to give you isn’t going to be good. It’s going to be change this word to this word or change this hex value of a color to this hex value. That’s very prescriptive. That’s telling you how to do your job and that is stressful because I think we’ve all been there when clients have been like that. It doesn’t let you do the job that they’re paying you for. You brought this up in whatever episode you were talking about this in is the client hired you because you’re an expert at the thing you do. If a client doesn’t let you be an expert, if they’re just prescribing what all the feedback is, then it’s not a good thing.

Whereas if they’re describing feedback, if they’re being descriptive instead of prescriptive with feedback, then what they’re going to do is tell you why your work isn’t working and then let you pitch a solution to fix it.

Descriptive feedback is something like, “The word “poor” doesn’t feel like the right tone for my brand, Kaleigh, what should we change this to?” That’s really good descriptive feedback because then you get to lean on your expertise as a writer to think of something better, or if a client is like that shade of blue doesn’t feel vibrant enough for my brand, the visual language of my brand, then I could be like okay, well, let’s try a brighter blue. I would pitch what the brighter blue is. They describe what the problem is as feedback, and then you pitch what the solution is.

I think it’s tricky to teach clients this, but I think it’s really the success of a project depends on it. Not to put the weight of the world on your shoulders, listeners, but the entire project depends on clients being able to give you really good feedback, or the project might go off the rails if they give you really bad feedback.

Kaleigh Moore:
I think that that dovetails really nicely into the third part of this, which if the client is able to look at what you’re telling them is prescriptive feedback versus descriptive, and they can learn from that, and then shape their comments based on this is what I need from you, this is what is not so helpful. If they can do that, that’s great. That means you can continue working together in the future, they’re a good match for your work, you guys are communicating well. If they’re not and they continue to deliver negative feedback or feedback that’s really nit picky or that is just downright mean, I’ve had that happen before too, those are people you don’t want to work with again. Maybe you finish the project and again you make a note in your spreadsheet or whatever you use that the feedback process was very difficult. If you have the option to chose between working with that client and working with a different client, you know that you’re going to want to try working with somebody else because the process was difficult, the communication wasn’t working well.

Paul Jarvis:
I like that. Do you keep track of how projects go, client to client, so you know that you can look back on those notes?

Kaleigh Moore:
I have just really, really brief notes. I have a spreadsheet that I started from three years ago when I took Creative Class the first time. It outlines what the project was, and what we worked on, and how it went. I enter the feedback that I collect at the end of the process too. It’s not just about did I like working with the person, did they like working with me.

You have to think about the feedback from both sides of the equation and make notes of that because you’re probably not going to get hired again if the client didn’t enjoy working with the type of feedback that you were asking for, there were communications problems, but having that document that you can refer to and really look back on how did that go, I think that that’s really helpful for when you’re looking at future projects and you’re looking at your mental band width or the space that you have for projects in the future, and being able to better pick who you want to work with because it’s really hard to just remember off the top of your head, especially if you’re working with a lot of people. It’s hard to always remember exactly how that went, so having a document like that is super helpful.

Paul Jarvis:
I’ve had this happen to me. If the client is a super nice person, but if they’re a the worst for feedback, you only remember they were super nice to work with. Then if you don’t have those notes and they get in touch again, you’re not likely to remember.

Kaleigh Moore:
Maybe they paid you a lot of money and you’re like, “Sure, I want to work with them.” Then you’re like, “Wait, wait, tap the brakes, that did not go well last time.”

Paul Jarvis:
“I remember that it seemed like a lot of money in the beginning and it ended up not actually being a lot of money when I break it down because of the amount of work that was involved in working with that client.” I think a lot of things with work and with doing projects, a lot of it comes down to how you communicate and how you interact with the client, probably as important, or maybe even more important, as the actual work that you’re doing.

Do you agree, disagree?

Kaleigh Moore:
I do.

It’s such a huge part of the process, and it’s really the core of the back and forth between what you’re working on as you’re in the project, when you’re really down in the work. That’s going to be a huge part of how the project turns out, of how you feel about the work that you’re doing, how the client feels about the work that you’re doing. It really just ties to all those things.

I think the big thing to remember—I personally really, really struggle with this—is that you are not your work. That’s really hard to remember sometimes because when you’re creating and you’re doing something that uses the creative skill that you have, it feels very personal. It’s just important to remember that, like we discussed before earlier in this episode, it’s usually not a personal attack. Feedback is not geared towards hurting your feelings. It’s about making the project better. It’s important to keep that at the very, very front of your mind and to not get so emotionally impacted by it, and to really try to think constructively and strategically in dealing with this type of information from clients.

Would you agree?

Paul Jarvis:
Totally, and I think that it’s sometimes okay to be wrong.

I think a lot of times we think like “Oh, this client hired me because they think I’m an expert, so if I admit that I was wrong with the choices I made, then they’re not going to think I’m an expert.”

I think what I’ve come to realize is that experts aren’t people who are always right. Experts are people who question whether or not they’re right and accept the times when they aren’t. I’ve had a bunch of times when a client has been like, “Based on what we talked about, this totally seems like the wrong direction.” I thought about it from the perspective of the goal, the business goal for the project, the end users. I’ve had to come to realize, “You know what? You’re right, and I was off the mark with this.” No time ever when that happened did a client say okay, you’re fired, like you’re not the expert I thought you were.  They’re like, “Okay, cool,” like, “Let’s try this again.” Just because you want to be treated like a pro freelancer or an expert, it’s still okay that you’re off the mark sometimes.

If you admit it and talk about where the communication failed, then the client’s never going to be mad about that or upset about that. If they are, they’re not good people to work with.

Kaleigh Moore:
Don’t work with them again. You don’t need them.

Paul Jarvis:
That’s the other thing that I just wanted to briefly mention is the type of feedback we’re talking about, even if it’s constructive or negative, is it like insults or personal stuff. If that happens, it’s not a good client to work with. You don’t have to think about if it’s you or your work. It’s them, 100% them, 100% of the time because it’s a business relationship. If people aren’t treating that relationship like a business relationship, like honesty’s obviously important, but if things get personal or outside the realm of business, then you got to just remove yourself from that situation. In that case having a contract is your best friend because then there’s going to be some easy way for there to be a kill or an end to the project that you can just get out of, walk away from, and move onto better and brighter work.

Kaleigh Moore:
I agree 100%.

I think this is a really, really important lesson. I’m still working on it myself, so don’t feel bad if you’re in the same boat as me. I think that that’s everything we need to talk about.

Paul Jarvis:
It’s constant work. I have to work at this as well. I don’t think this type of work ever ends—figuring out the best way to talk to clients about feedback and get feedback.

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