At a recent marketing writing job for a major insurance company, also in the variable annuity business, I pointed to a marketing flyer in development that boasted the company’s new annuity product now being available in 49 states. Below it, in smaller print (not the fine print) it was pointed out that the product was not yet available in New York. Below that it was noted that the product was also not offered in Oregon. It did not take great math skills to realize that 51 states were included in this marketing copy. I was pretty sure that I knew the correct number of states and that the District of Columbia should not be counted as a state. Upon brining this up at a meeting, expecting to hear “good catch” or “we’ll have to change that, thank you,” I was greeted by “We’ll have to see what we did last time.” Thus, if the company screwed up on the number of U.S. states on previous marketing materials, then it was okay to be wrong again. This is the kind of convoluted logic that makes it tough to speak up when you know you are correct.
Writers are often put in a position in which being right has little to no consequence on the process, and in fact can even result in losing a job. A case in point comes from a book packager working with an author. The author hired a third-party cover designer and the results were horrible. The cover wasn’t even close to spec, the design was beyond awful, and the packager had to gently let the author know that her “designer” was not doing the job properly. Rather than acknowledge the packager’s professional experience, the author terminated her contract on the spot, saying, “My designer is my daughter!”
Yes, clients can present a myriad of situations in which you cannot necessarily win even if your logic is sound. A business leadership trainer once insisted that we include his detailed stories of biking across Europe in his leadership book proposal despite my constant warnings that agents would find these stories long and inconsequential to the book. Sure enough, agents responded negatively and, sure enough, I took the heat for not finding him a Literary Agent.
So, What Can You Do?
The first manner in which to deal with the client who thinks he or she is always right is to make sure you not only establish your credentials and present samples of your body of work, but also discuss how you have worked with clients in the past to arrive at the final product. Let them know how a back and forth relationship with two-way communication has worked and offer examples. Your objective is not to take control, but to be in a position in which the client respects your knowledge and lets you guide them, especially when it’s obvious that they are steering themselves, and you, down a doomed path.
Your manner of communication is also important. Pointing out that something is incorrect, without actually pointing out that it is incorrect, is a challenge, but can be accomplished by leaving out the obvious. For example; “While many people do think of District of Columbia as a state (untrue), it might look more precise (to anyone with a brain) if you put 48 states + District of Columbia instead of 49 states” as mentioned above. Just leave out the parts in parenthesis.
Of course, the old standard, lead with a compliment, can always help. In fact, you might even have a suggestion that appears to solve the problem. In hind sight, I should have suggested the leadership trainer save his marvelous (yet tediously boring) stories of biking around Europe for his “second book.”
The other key to being right is never to be right too often. Sometimes you can roll with some inadequacies, or do some minor edits without making a point that you are making corrections. I’ve even turned off the Track Changes on Microsoft Word and made some corrections so that they were not very obvious.
If I had let the boss at the major financial company know how many times she was wrong, I would not have kept the job for more than a week. Of course, had her boss not been taken in by her lovely smile, he would have caught on to how many mistakes she really made and fired her a long time ago, or promoted her…after all, that’s corporate America.
In the end, choose your battles with clients carefully and look for ways around letting them know they are wrong. Remember, showing up a client is ego deflating for them and usually results in you losing the contract, even if you are right. Therefore, being right isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
Rich Mintzer is a freelance author of non-fiction books on various topics. He has also written web articles for several business sites and marketing copy. And, he’s usually right.