How to tell a client they’re wrong

by Rheanna Chou
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When I worked as a copy editor for a healthcare marketing agency, there wasn’t a week that went by without a client request at proof that just made me go “huh?”

My saving grace is that I sat next to, and was trained by, a copy editor who possessed an abundance of patience and experience. Enough of both to understand that sometimes clients don’t care about grammar. And that’s OK. “As long as it doesn’t make them look stupid, let them have it. If it’s really bad, query,” she would often remind me.

Genius. (It still made me twitchy though.)

My job is to be an expert in grammar, style and punctuation. To rid the client’s content of error and even provide help with flow and clarity. But the client is the expert in their brand voice. And sometimes that demands a more casual approach to the written word.

It sounds straight forward, but when the request goes against a clients’ own style preferences, it’s difficult not to query, “You do know this is in your style guide right? You know, the one you provided us with? The very one you pointed to at last proof when we didn’t want to capitalize ‘department’ when it stood alone?” Yeah … true story.

But my coworker was right. It is less important to be correct according to a style guide than it is to give the client their say in their content. It is, after all, their content.

But! But! What if it’s an egregious error? Then it’s time for a bit of diplomacy. Sometimes it’s your job to tell the client they’re wrong enough that something needs to be done differently. And you have to be nice.

I had an interesting conversation with a bank manager whose friend was a book editor at one time. The bank manager told me a story about how his friend was asked to edit a book for someone whose writing needed quite a bit of help.

The editor friend tore the book apart, suggested changes and sent it back. The writer was offended. And the editor friend decided it was time to switch gears in his career. It wasn’t explicitly stated that the career change was entirely due to this writer’s hurt feelings, but I got the idea that this was something the editor friend came up against a lot.

“It’s too bad, too, my friend was a brilliant editor,” the bank manager told me.

And he probably was. I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter.

The thing is, people don’t like to be told they did something incorrectly. Even when they know it. There are a few ways to handle this however, in a way that moves the job — and the relationship — forward. The key here is to always offer a solution. Never tell someone they’re wrong without telling them how to fix it.

The simplest way to address a client-requested error is to rewrite the sentence or phrase, or offer multiple rewrites for the client to choose from. One of the go-to query phrases I picked up from past coworkers is, “I made some edits to this section for grammar and clarity. Please let me know if you would like to make any changes.”

This corrects the error and includes the client in the solution. It also lets them know that if they don’t like your fix, they can tweak it. Most clients won’t make further changes at this point, but if they do, the end result is still better than the original.

Another great way to address a client request that creates an error is to ask for clarification. “When you say this, do you mean to say this? I would like to clarify for the reader.” Again, this includes the client in the solution and helps keep their voice in mind. It also focuses the content on the target audience. And if you can tie your fix into a benefit for the client’s readers — money.  

And finally, if a client is adamant about something that just isn’t consistent with their style preferences (or the English language in general) ask them if they would like to add it to their style guide. As my college journalism professor would say, “be right or be wrong, but be consistent.”

Ultimately, when I’m editing something, it’s my job to make sure the content that’s put out is as error-free as possible. Every piece of content I work on reflects on me professionally. In a perfect world, a client would hire me and then let me loose to do my job. In reality, the world’s not perfect and clients want (not surprisingly) control over their content. The back and forth between clients and editors is really what makes the job interesting and contributes to engaging content. So I try to pick my battles and keep my clients’ voices in mind when I edit.

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