Recently, a client asked me to write an article about sales for one of their clients. They already had an excellent process in place, I just had to follow it:
- Interview and record someone from their client company
- Come up with an outline based on the interview and get it approved
- Once the outline was approved, watch to the video to flesh out the outline
- Write and submit the draft
There’s more nuance to how they wanted the article written, but that’s the process in a nutshell. I submit the first draft based on this process, and it was decent. For the second draft, my client asked me to add more specific details from the interview.
Easy enough, right?
The problem was, I didn’t know squat about sales pipeline management and I don’t like writing about things I don’t know anything about (even though I have to get used to this as a B2B content writer).
Long story short, I went down rabbit holes of content on sales pipeline management, completely overhauled the draft… and ended up with a second draft that was even farther off from what my client wanted.
It was a disaster. I’m currently on precarious ground with this client because I had insisted on making things hard for myself.
Looking back, this wasn’t the first time this happened. In fact, all the projects I’ve lost had that one thing in common: I was trying to go above and beyond for the client… and in the process, went too far beyond.
Whenever I just freakin’ did what the client asked, they were incredibly happy with the results.
From failures like this, I learned three important — but counterintuitive — lessons about working with clients:
- Clients don’t want clever work
- Clients don’t want ground-breaking work
- Clients don’t want better work
In this article, I want to share the difference between what I thought clients wanted versus what they actually wanted. I’ll also cover three ways you can blow clients away, without making more work for yourself.
Here we go.
Lesson 1: Clients Don’t Want Clever Work
Clients aren’t looking for clever. They’re looking for good and fast.
Another content marketing agency I wanted to write for rejected my work. They wanted me to outline and write an article based on a podcast episode their CEO recorded. I failed because, after listening to the podcast episode, I insisted on redoing the structure and adding outside research.
You know those New York Times articles that take quotes from different parts of one interview, re-order them into a story, and pa-pow you at the end with a killer conclusion? That’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to be too freakin’ clever.
I should have just transcribed the entire podcast on Otter.AI, then fleshed out an outline based strictly on the podcast. And honestly, that would’ve been easier than all the research and re-structuring I did.
The client wasn’t looking for a brand-new, cleverly-written, story-based article. In fact, they might have been offended because I didn’t trust their outline of their own work and felt the need to overhaul their thing.
I really wanted to work with them. But I lost them because I was, ironically, trying to do too much.
Which brings us to…
Lesson 2: Clients Don’t Want Ground-Breaking Work
Unless your client is NASA or Apple, they’re not looking for you to deliver cutting edge, ground-breaking work. They just want what they’ve already seen from you.
Here’s how I balance creative risk-taking with reliability:
- If my livelihood hangs in the balance, keep things safe.
- If it doesn’t, then sure, get creative and uncomfortable.
For a creative envelope-pushing, I have this blog. This is my sandbox for experiments. Here, I give myself permission to write articles that I’m not certain anyone will ever want to pay me for.
And this means zero-to-little risk-taking with client work. I’ve decided that when I write for clients, I’m just doing what I’m already good at: writing clearly and simply with my 7th grade vocabulary, taking lots of screenshots, and making sure the reading flows. That’s it.
Lesson 3: Clients Don’t Want Better Work
Clients don’t hire you for your work now. They hire you for work you did in the past (a.k.a. your portfolio). Clients want someone reliable, steady, and trust-worthy. They don’t want “new”, “better”, or “latest”. They want “consistent”, “to-spec”, and “as-is”.
(In fact, most of my current clients hired me based on my portfolio from a year ago.)
On the surface, this may seem bit sad. You’re someone who loves your craft and works hard to perfect it. You try to get better at each project you do. You work to get more creative and top yourself with each project.
But think about how much pressure this takes off you. You don’t have to top yourself on each client article. You can try and top yourself when you write articles for your blog, publish episodes for your podcast, or upload videos on YouTube. But clients just want what’s there, what they’ve already seen you do. All you have to do is deliver stuff you already know you can hit out of the ballpark (and charge accordingly).
How to Blow Your Clients’ Minds (Without Going Above and Beyond)
This is what clients want: good-enough work, on-time delivery, and someone easy to work with.
OK, now that you’ve learned why you shouldn’t try to go above and beyond for clients, how do you differentiate yourself from other freelancers?
How can you delight a client while still giving them exactly what they want?
Simple: give them more of what they want.
What Clients Want #1: Someone Who Delivers Their Definition of Good Work
This is table stakes.
Like I mentioned above in Lessons 2 and 3, good work means the work you did in the past. Predictable pieces that that the client pointed to and said, “I really like what you did there.”
If you don’t know what the client defines as “good”, ask them to send you stuff that they already like — blogs, articles, videos, photos, or designs — and use those as samples to guide your work.
Sure, you can flex your writing muscles and learn to write like a New York Times journalist on your personal blog. But for client work, play it safe. Give them what they want.
What Clients Want #2: Someone Who Delivers Good Work on Time
There are two parts to delivering good work on time. The first part is simple: make deadlines. Don’t procrastinate until the last minute. Work every day. Deliver work earlier if you can. If you can’t make a deadline, let your client know as early as possible and give them an alternate deadline that you can make.
The second part is subtler, but it helps with making deadlines: be more efficient. You don’t get paid for the number of hours you put into each piece. You get paid for the piece and for the amount of new business that article brings. In fact, getting paid the same amount (or more!) for less time is a reward for being efficient with your processes and for higher skill.
Here’s what most people won’t tell you about freelancing of any kind: If you focus on giving clients what they want, then you should be exerting less and less effort for each project you deliver. The quality isn’t going down, but as you get better at the writing process for each client, you should naturally take less time to do each article.
What Clients Want #3: Someone Who Is Easy to Work With
This revolves around communicating more than necessary. Run things by the client often. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback on the outline, the pain points, and especially the solutions their product or service offers. They know their customer and their niche better than you ever can and if you want the article to do really well, you need to mine them for all that knowledge.
A writer’s (or most any other freelancer’s!) job isn’t to teach, or to do research, or to come up with innovative solutions to their clients’ customers’ problems. Your job is to work with the client and turn what they already know into informational, search-worthy pieces that get found, read, and shared.
Here’s how writer and podcaster David Perell goes about writing his (excellent) articles:
Many writers wait until they publish a blog post to share an idea with somebody. I do the opposite. I share my ideas as much as I can and run them through numerous filters. I move from conversations, to tweets, to emails, to blog posts. Each medium provides a different layer of feedback. By the time I’ve published a blog post, I’ve run the ideas through 3-5 filters, and each time I receive feedback, I keep more of what resonates and less of what doesn’t… My best ideas don’t come from flashes of insight. Instead, they emerge from conversations, tweets, observations, feedback, and other forms of low cost, high-speed trial and error.
If writing — a historically solitary process — has turned collaborative thanks to the internet, then so has design, filmmaking, photography, and any other creative service you can provide.
Communicate and collaborate to your clients. Treat them as partners.
Don’t Go Above and Beyond for Clients (Just Give Them What They Want)
This is what clients want: good-enough work, on-time delivery, and someone easy to work with.
That’s it. They don’t want creative work that lives up to our standards as creative professionals. They have a different set of standards. And it’s our job as business professionals — not just creatives — to meet those standards.
I'm not saying you shouldn't do your best for your clients. But I am saying that you should give your best, relative to the work they want done.
Working with clients is a partnership, not an employer-employee relationship. We have to respect that partnership by not risking our client’s time and money on projects and by delivering work that is exactly what they want, no less… And no more.