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When Clients Don’t Really Know What They Want

listenHave you ever had a client say something like:

  • “I want my book to be for everyone.”
  • “All my friends say I should write a book.”
  • “I want all (car dealers, plumbers, lawyers) to come to my site because of this article.”

So often clients have only the vaguest idea what they want from the writing they’re talking to us about. You know what I mean:

  • If you write for everyone you write from no one – I’ve forgotten where I read this first, but it’s so true.
  • The motivation for writing a book has to come from inside – it just won’t get done otherwise.
  • No single article or blog post will do all of the marketing you want – a series is a start, but only a start.

In other words, clients don’t really know what they want

Part of your job and mine is to help clients understand what writing can do and help them dig deep enough to discover what they really want and need. We really can’t expect them to know unless they’ve had a lot of experience working with writers. Even then they may need some help.

The way to do this is to put the client needs before your own. If you’re thinking about how to be of service rather than how much you can earn you’ll be able to listen deeply and ask questions that will reveal the clients needs. And deep listening is what’s needed.

Jonathan Fields posted an article called Sales Fail: Moron Tours. Ostensibly it’s about why we hate getting canned gym tours, but as he talks about the way it should be done he exemplifies service based questioning. I particularly like the way he lists the types of questions that should be asked, than adds:

Ask, don’t talk. Listen. Reflect answers. See if there’s more. These are just primers, the deeper you go, the better.

Anyone wanting to work with clients can make use of this. When you reflect, you usually get a clarification. There’s almost always more and you won’t hear it if you’re doing the talking.

As you listen and come to understand the results your client wants from what you’ll be writing you’ll be able to provide the information that will lead them to having a better understanding of what they actually want. Once you both understand what’s really needed your job becomes much easier and client satisfaction almost always assured.

How do you help clients know what they really want?

Write well and often,




Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Anne, that one point stands out for me – if you write for everyone, you write for no one. It’s true. You cannot please a crowd unless the crowd is trying to please the same person. And there’s the key – find out who that person is and do likewise. 🙂

    When I start working with a new client, I expect them to be new to the process only because assuming they’re old hat at it creates more work in the long run. My questions help them focus on what it is they really want – even if they think they’re certain. 🙂
    Lori recently posted..Faith- Begorrah- and AnniversariesMy Profile

  • A while back I wrote a post called Write With Your Ears. Cliche, I know, but listening is an art. It’s one I continue to work at.

    I second the comments here that asking questions is perhaps the most effective tool because often the client doesn’t know or has a hard time expressing what they want. I agree,writing a book for them is a bigger challenge, especially if they are vague about the topic and the audience.

    I would think nailing down the topic first is the key.

    Q-So, your friends think you should write a book. Why do they say that? What is it they think you should write about?
    A-They think I’ve had an interesting life.
    Q-Give me an example of a story you told them they found interesting.

    Sometimes with my business writing, it can be like pulling teeth, but I find if I get them to give me an example or a success story, a theme develops and we can move from there. If you could get one person to read about your product, who would that be? What position do they hold?

    It’s finding a key word or phrase they tell you and drilling down to the specifics.
    Cathy Miller recently posted..Friday Lite ReviewMy Profile

    • Anne

      Actually writing with your ears isn’t as much of a cliche as maybe it should be. But now go this way:

      Oh, you’re friends say you should write a book – how do you feel about that? I want clients who are internally motivated, not externally.

  • “If you write for everyone you write for no one – I’ve forgotten where I read this first, but it’s so true.”

    It was from John Steinbeck (always a good writing role model). He said, “The reason I write to Alicia [then the editor of a New York newspaper], is that it gives me a focal point, a person to address. I can’t write to everybody. You end up writing to nobody.”

    And yes, you have to ask a lot of questions, listen even more, and get clients to focus. Otherwise, they’re just “spraying and praying”, hoping to hit something.
    Jodi Kaplan recently posted..Five Books I Can’t Live WithoutMy Profile

    • Anne

      Yes, Steinbeck is a good model, glad to know I’m in such company 😉

  • I agree with Carol. It’s crucial that the client get clarity on what’s needed, and as writers, we need to help the client do that.

    The one time I had a major problem with a client was the time the client wasn’t sure what he wanted, and he kept changing as we went along.
    John Soares recently posted..How to Hold Highly Effective MeetingsMy Profile

  • I work with so many companies where managers don’t really know what to say…I find you need to help them discover it. I ask a lot of questions about their customers and what motivates them, what their biggest problems are…and we come up with a topic. But I’m not trying to write books with them usually — agreed that really has to come from a burning drive within.

    And yeah, I wish one article would change everything. But it’s more a question of being out there consistently with thought leadership.
    Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing recently posted..Why Vagueness Causes Headlines to FailMy Profile

    • Anne

      Yeah, I wish one article would suffice for marketing too… but I’ve hard that from clients… I sent one away to think about what he really wanted. May never hear from him again which is okay… I’m not trapped in his confusion. I did send him away with a series of questions to answer which, if he does, will result in some clarity.

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