Feedback is supposed to be descriptive, not prescriptive—listening to clients and customers is always right, but following their demands is mostly wrong.

Service providers receive a lot of client feedback: beta testing notes, mockup critiques, feature requests in custom development, etc. The “bespoke” part of providing custom services means that you’re tailoring a solution specifically to a client’s (and their customers’) needs.

With this is mind, knowing that there’ll be a lot of feedback from the client, here are some ways to teach them that these conversations are a two-way street.

“End Result” Feedback

Clients don’t always know what “good feedback” is. It’s not necessarily their fault, either—this could be their first project with someone that provides the service you provide. So it’s your job to not only provide a solution for them, but to also show them what type of feedback you need to do your job the best.

Mike Monteiro, of Mule Design Studio, says:

Ever hear a designer scream about a client giving them the wrong type of feedback? I have. At which point I ask them if they told the client what kind of feedback they were looking for and they just pull the panda hat over their head to hide their anger.

Whether it’s designing, developing, consulting, writing, or anything else, service providers and their clients want exactly the same outcome for the project they’re working on: a solution that helps that client do business better (and, typically, makes them more money).

With that in mind, make sure your client understands that if you disagree with a request they’ve got, it’s because you’re siding with their own customers and the best interests of the project. Sometimes you have to disagree with a client and their requests for their own good. That’s because any/all decisions made during a project should be filtered through the lens of, “Does this benefit the goal or intended end result?”

How to Get the Best Feedback

Here’s an example of being specific with the type of feedback you want to receive from a client. It’s what I use with clients of my web design services (but it can easily be extrapolated to work for any service), and it’s how I start every project with a new client:

Your input is important and totally necessary to guide my work. I may not get everything right on the first try. That’s not just okay; it’s part of the process. Our work together can (and probably will) be iterative.

Here’s how you can provide me with effective feedback, so I can really earn the money you’re paying me for your site. The magic happens when your hard-earned skills and expertise come together with mine.

Effective Feedback

Be honest. If you don’t like something, I need to know – now, not three weeks down the road.

Be specific. Point out what, exactly, is not working for you, and why it’s not working.

Ask why. If you aren’t sure what I was thinking, I’d love to explain my reasoning. Everything I’ve done for the project has a purpose.

Refer to your goals. Relate every piece of criticism back to your goals.

Relate to your audience. Your audience should be top of mind for every decision or critique that you provide. What do they need? What will they love?

Not So Effective Feedback

Involve everyone you know in the creative process. I work best when you alone serve as the expert on your company and its audience. Art made by committee is rarely successful.

Take things personally. If I missed the mark, we need to figure out why and move closer to our mutual target. If I disagree with you, it’s because I’m thinking about your goals and your audience. It’s not personal, it’s business.

Do my work for me. Please give me written or verbal instructions about what isn’t working; don’t redo my work to illustrate your point.

Prescribe fixes. You’re paying me to provide solutions. Explain the problem and I’ll pitch potential fixes to you, based on my research, experience and skills.

Feel free to use the above notes with your own clients (or download a PDF version of it here).

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith once received a call from the President at the time, Lyndon Johnson. When his housekeeper, Emily, answered the phone, she told the President he had said not to be disturbed. “Wake him up. I want to talk to him,” replied the president. Emily replied, “No, Mr. President. I work for him, not for you.” Later, when Galbraith returned Johnson’s call, the President told him that he wanted to hire Emily to come and work at the White House.

Telling a client “no” is scary—you run the risk of upsetting the client or making them think that you can’t perform the job you were hired to do. But the “no” is important, since you’re being paid for your expertise and knowledge. It comes down to how you tell a client “no”, as there’s a right and wrong way to do it.

How to Say “No” to a Client’s Request

Always focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t. If you propose a better/alternate solution to their request and then back it with research, expertise, and previous experience, your case will be much stronger. Make your no about facts and best practices, not about opinion or emotion.

Too often, a client’s request can be based on not understanding the problem that you’re solving or what the best practices are. Offer solid rationale to why it’s the wrong thing to do. Relate the reason to their customers and their business goals; you both want the same outcome: a successful solution that works for their business and, most importantly, their customers.

Empathize and be sincere. You don’t want to argue or disagree for the sake of it, but you do want to ensure they get the best end product. Ask questions, get curious—why did they ask for something? What’s the reason behind why they asked? If you disagree with what they’re asking for, don’t just clarify what they’re asking for; get to root of why they’re asking for it, as that tends to lead to better solutions.

Politely re-iterate that they are experts in their business and their audience and you’re an expert in what they’re paying you to do.

The magic happens when both sets of expertise are brought together.

Homer Simpson was once hired by his step-brother, Herb, to design his dream car. Homer (in true Homer fashion), disregarded the expert advice of marketing, engineering, and design departments at the car company and gave himself free reign to create his dream car. It was filled with bubble domes, shag carpeting, cost $82,000, and the engine was so loud it sounded like “the world was coming to an end.” Due to poor decisions from the client (Homer), it ultimately put Herb’s entire car company out of business.

Imagine, for a minute, if you blindly did every change request and implemented every single piece of client feedback. The logo would always be bigger. The content would always “pop” more. The software would always have every single feature under the sun. But none of these things typically benefit the end user or intended customer.

The only person who can stop bad, prescriptive feedback is you. This is properly done by teaching clients how to give feedback, since it’s not their job to know how to do that; it’s your job. Make sure you teach them how to give the best feedback right from the start of each project; the end result, for both you and them, will be better for it.

Paul Jarvis

About the author: Paul Jarvis is a best-selling author and web designer. He also writes for his newsletter, The Sunday Dispatches and teaches a course on freelancing.