The Key to Keeping Clients Happy, Even When Delivering Bad News

The Key to Keeping Clients Happy, Even When Delivering Bad News

“It’s not my job to tell my client he’s making a mistake. My job is writing the content he paid me to write.”

That’s the prevailing attitude of most freelancers today — and it has to stop.

You’ll have happier clients, better profits, more respect and ultimately a more successful business if you’re brave enough to be upfront and proactive with your clients… even if you lose them forever.

Think you have what it takes? Being honest with your clients takes guts and integrity, and not everyone has the confidence to pull it off.

But if you do, you should. Here’s why:

What your client doesn’t know

You know a lot. Your client doesn’t — at least, not about what you do.

After all, you’re the expert. People hire you because you’re a professional who knows way more than they do. That’s the way it should be.

But there’s a big difference between being a professional expert and being the one who doesn’t shout a warning when your client’s about to step in a hole.

Here’s an example, taken straight from my personal life. In the past four months, I hired a contractor to build my custom home. And I’d heard the warnings: everyone says that when you have a house built, you should expect the project to cost more than the initial quote.

How much more? Well, now. That’s a fun surprise you get to figure out on your own.

Now, I don’t have a problem with extra costs that the contractor can’t foresee. When we hit some unexpected bedrock during excavation, I paid the dynamiter’s bill with no fuss at all.

But some extra costs were the sort that the contractor definitely saw coming a mile away — because he’s experienced, and I’m not. Here’s my favorite example:

We knew we needed a well to provide water to the house. The contractor gave us a quote for digging the well. We agreed to the quote.

Once the well was dug, we expected we’d have water.

But then our contractor told us, “Now you’ll need a special pump to help maintain the right water pressure because your house is so far from the well. It’ll cost $300.”

“Oh, and there’s an extra charge because we had to dig past 300 feet. That’s another $2,500.”

Didn’t you know about these possibilities beforehand?

“Well, we didn’t know for sure, but it was pretty likely.”

So why didn’t you tell me?

“Well, we could’ve hit water sooner and found it wasn’t really necessary, and we were hoping maybe the pressure would be strong enough on its own… ”


What do you know that your client doesn’t?

Many people who get in touch with me want great web copy to improve their conversion rates.

Now, great web copy I can provide. But improved conversion rates? That depends on a huge number of factors that may or may not be related to the great copy.

Great conversion rates require that you have a certain number of visitors to begin with. That’s not copy, that’s traffic.

Great conversion rates require that you’re driving the right kind of visitors for the product or services you’re selling to your site. That’s not copy, that’s marketing strategy.

Great conversion rates require that your website looks credible and trustworthy. That’s not copy, that’s website design.

And so on.

I could do what my contractor did: just agree to provide what they’re asking for. I could say, “Sure, we can give you great web copy,” and take their money, even though I know full well that they have a particular intention for that copy.

I didn’t know that there was an extra step between digging the well and getting the water piped into my house — but my contractor did.

My client doesn’t know that there are extra steps between slapping up great copy and getting improved conversions — but I do.

So here’s the big question: do I tell him now, or do I tell him later?

Always tell him now

I’ve experimented with both strategies. I’ve been concerned that if I tell the client my great copy won’t magically solve all his problems, he’ll walk away. That’s a legitimate concern. Many do.

But here’s an even more legitimate concern: the client will hear me agree to solve his problem, and he’ll operate on the assumption that I’m handling the problem he presented to me:

Not getting enough conversions.

Since he thinks I agreed to solve that problem, not just provide him with excellent copy, he’s going to be pretty unhappy when it turns out that copy doesn’t automatically result in better conversions.

It doesn’t matter if I explain to him later that it’s obvious copy alone won’t solve the conversion problem. It doesn’t matter if this is a well-known fact among successful online entrepreneurs.

My client clearly wouldn’t know, if I didn’t tell him.

Which would make the resulting misunderstanding my fault, as far as the client’s concerned.

He’s not likely to be happy about paying me for my services, even though I provided exactly what it said on the contract. He’s not going to recommend me to others. In fact, he may even leave me bad reviews or tell people that I’m a dishonest service provider.

The almost-certain hit to my business is way worse than the possibility that the client might walk away when he realizes the solution he needs is more than he thought.

What to do when a client wants magic

When I have a client who thinks copy or design has magical properties that solve all his marketing woes, I stop and explain what he can and can’t expect from the work he’s asking me to do.

I can provide you with great copy, I’ll say, but your conversion rate will depend heavily on these other factors, and those are probably bigger priorities than copy right now. You may want to get in touch with a marketing consultant or a traffic strategist.

If the client doesn’t want to do that, it’s fine. I can still provide the copy.

But the client won’t be able to say that I promised him conversions. I didn’t. It’s clearly written down in black and white: great copy will solve one of your problems, but not these other ones, and you should look into them.

I often even make myself as useful as possible: I always try to suggest a few trusted people who might be able to provide the other elements of the required solution.

Being upfront with a client works

Let’s pretend my contractor had followed this plan. Let’s pretend that when we discussed the original quote about the well, he mentioned, “Just so you know, since your house is so far from where we’re planning to put the well, you may need to have a special pump to help with pressure.”

“How much will the pump cost?”

“$300. And you’ll want to prepare for the possibility that we may not hit water within 300 feet, so there might be extra charges if we have to go deeper.”

“Yeah, that makes sense. I hope it goes well! How much would it cost if you have to go deeper?”

“Could be about $2,500 extra.”

“Ouch! But what can you do, eh? Oh well. Thanks for letting us know; we’ll factor that into our budget just in case.”

The contractor still gets paid the same amount, whether he tells me now or tells me later.

The big difference is that I know in advance that I may have to spend this money, and I know why.

I also know that my contractor knows what he’s doing. I know that he understands my needs and is looking ahead to warn me about pitfalls that might get in the way.

In short, I know he’s got my back.

Which makes spending more money feel okay. I don’t feel cheated. I feel like I dodged a bullet. I can plan ahead with confidence. I feel like I successfully avoided hassle and headaches in the future. Good thing he told me about this!

It makes me feel good about handing over an extra $3,000.

Communicate as much as you can

Always assume that your client doesn’t know — even if it’s common knowledge, clearly obvious or plain fact. Take responsibility for your client’s well-being, and be proactive about as much as you can.

The worst that can happen is that your client says, “Oh, I already knew that, don’t worry.” No harm, no foul. You still look good for having communicated as much as possible ahead of time instead of after the fact.

And you’ll make your clients feel good about working with you. You’ll make them feel good about the money they’re spending. They’ll see you’re looking out for their best interest. They’ll feel like you’re going to shout “Watch out!” if they’re about to step on a snake.

Clients who know you’ve got their back are loyal clients. And those are the ones you want to keep.

Have you ever had to tell a client she was making a mistake? How did you explain the situation?

Filed Under: Freelancing


  • Nice article and useful insights from your private story with the home contractor, James.
    I always tell all the possible costs for the project to the clients upfront.

  • I believe that the client is always right, since it’s their business that’s at stake. However, like you, I also believe that I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t tell them how they could do things better/how they should pay more attention to the other factors that are involved in conversions.

    Some clients will listen, while some won’t and encounter these problems. It can be frustrating when you want to help your client, and they insist on doing something that can have a negative effect to their online business.

    Over the years, I’ve developed a zen mentality when this happens. I tell myself, ‘okay, they don’t want to listen now, but I told them ahead of time, and it will probably translate into more business and trust later on.

    Haha, I think if you a client doesn’t want to take your honest advice, it’s good news. It will mean more business later on, when they ask you to undo the work done, and do what you originally suggested.

    • Hmmm, that’s an interesting philosophy, though I have a very different take on things.

      I think ‘the customer is always right’ is a very dangerous trap – yes, they’re right in their belief that they’re right, but that doesn’t mean acquiescing to their every demand to make them happy. In fact, it’s a fast path to letting customers run your business, and that’s never going to have a happy ending.

      I also think that if a customer won’t take your advice and comes back to ask you to undo what you’ve done… well, perhaps the ethical option was to not do the work to begin with, knowing it would cost the customer more than it had to.

      I typically turn down doing work I know does a disservice to clients. “I’m really sorry – I’d love to take your money, but I just wouldn’t feel right doing so, knowing that it’ll be a waste AND cost you more to fix it.” That helps me sleep a lot better at night, knowing I’ve done right by the client.

  • Florian says:

    Love it ! So much true ! Especially in our case on adwords and online campaigns. Sometimes they just have non-realistic expectations making every single email a nightmare

    • Yeah, Adwords/online marketing campaigns are a beast for people to understand, especially for those not in the industry. (Actually, it’s very often a beast for those who ARE in the industry as well!)

      Might be worth developing an explanatory sheet to help save time and educate potential clients. “Before working with us, here’s what you should know about what we can – and can’t – do.”

  • Josh says:

    Recently explained and turned down a job because a client who was getting 2 book sales on Amazon wanted SEO to get 30 sales a day

    • Oof – that would’ve been a tall order to accomplish. There are so many other factors at play! Glad to hear that you explained the situation, and I’m sure the client appreciated learning what was involved in a project like that!

  • Stacy Conner says:

    I agree 100% with your assessment. I’m going to share this article with my whole customer service staff, because I believe you tell this story extremely well. Well done.

    • Awesome, Stacy! And to really drive it home with them, ask them this: “Think back and remember a time that you really got frustrated over a purchase because someone didn’t tell you something…” They’ll immediately conjure up images in their mind and be able to personally relate, which increases empathy in their own job when dealing with clients.

  • darlene says:

    Love the analogy. Well explained!

  • Anna says:


  • Ashley Nance says:

    In my experience, what you shared about telling your client about a weak spot helping to determine fit is spot on. Better end a relationship trying to be helpful than string along and get burned later. Thanks for your thoughts!

    • That’s quite true, Ashley, and in fact, I *have* ended relationships with clients when they wanted me to do something that I knew wasn’t good for their business. Integrity wins, every time!

  • Raspal Seni says:

    Hi James,

    I agree about being honest since the start. Just like your contractor’s story, this is done by technicians too. They won’t tell you the what all they will need and tell about this later. Certainly frustrating.

    If the contractor told you about all the possibilities and approximate costs beforehand, he’ll also be an honest guy in your heart. As you say, you’ll feel good about him.

    • Ha! Don’t even get me started on technicians (or web hosts, or site developers, or…)

      I don’t think anyone maliciously leaves out information that could cost people heartache later on. (Well, some DO, but that’s a whole ‘nother story about being ethical!) I think people simply forget that the world doesn’t know what we know, and that leads to forgetting to mention things that could be incredibly important.

      It’s a case of never too much information, I say!

      (PS: The contractor was an honest guy, and he admitted that he learned an awful lot about proactive communication himself from the experience!)

  • A great reminder for us all, James. Be honest and be up front. It’s better to have an awkward conversation now, then a much longer, possibly angry one later. Thanks.

    • What’s interesting is that very often, it’s not even an awkward conversation. We often think it will be, or fear it might be, but presented with, “I wanted to let you know about these possibilities now, so that you’re fully informed ahead of time,” no client can be upset!

  • Great article and reminder. I enjoyed your personal account with the contractor (but sorry you had to go through that!). It’s true (and sometime scary) that saying ‘no’ to a client is the best option. Or, as you pointed out, saying yes, but …

    Thanks for the good post and good luck with your course!

    • It actually ended up being a great experience in terms of learning how important communication can be, and how easy it is to miss those crucial details that save… well, in my case, several thousand dollars 😉

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