Whether you’re a marketer, an accountant, a lawyer or a florist, one thing’s for certain: you’ll experience customer feedback. And feedback is a funny thing. Depending on how it is delivered and how it is received, it can truly make or break business relationships. Having been Director of a social media practice now in its 14th year of service, it’s fair to say I’ve seen all kinds of feedback. As I’ve matured, I’ve learned to both deliver feedback and receive others’ feedback in healthy and manageable ways. But that’s me.
I have a team of talented digital strategists I have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace for, and thus thinking beyond my experience of feedback is critical to my business’ health. That’s why this year we’re presenting our client family with Guidelines to Feedback to offer a position on the kinds of feedback we’re looking for to make their projects exceptional, and the kinds of feedback we consider less useful to improving their work and building a collaborative relationship.
It’s a big ask to enjoy receiving feedback. For many people, feedback is a fancy codename for criticism. They receive ‘feedback’ and they are transported back to a place in time when someone made them feel wrong and less-than. They’re a naughty 6 year old all over again. Receiving feedback is the art of really hearing what is being said to you while distilling away useless aspects of that feedback (the clumsy words, the needless emotional content). It’s a feat of emotional regulation that can take some time to develop.
When I first began receiving feedback on my work, I took it quite personally. ‘What would they know?’ I’d grumble to myself. ‘Who’s the writer here, after all?!’ At some point, I realised that getting worked up about another person’s immoveable opinion on a piece of work wasn’t a great use of my time. Whilst I’m not an order-taker and I’m truly a consultant, at the close of the day I’m delivering a service to the client’s satisfaction. It’s not valuable to take their feedback personally; they simply want what they want. If their decision imperils them in some way, I can absolutely give them feedback about the risks of pursuing a course of action. But ultimately it’s their dime and my time. So I learned to make feedback less about me, and more about the client’s needs (which is eminently sensible!) I learned to look at the overall quality of a relationship with a client and focus on that. Are they getting what they want, and are we overall delivering great work for them? Do we enjoy working with the client, and do they feel grateful to have us as part of their team? That’s my real gauge of how a working relationship is faring; the overall quality of interactions and the outcomes achieved.
I think our ability to integrate the feedback (or perceived criticism) of the work as separate from criticism of our person is something service providers learn to do. It’s not innate and it takes time and a few bumps and bruises. These insults to our creations are easier to bear when you’ve an empathetic and supportive manager or boss, of course. If your boss always sides with the client and you’ve been dealt an unfair or inelegant piece of criticism, it can be really demoralising. However: the ‘feedback’ story does have a happy ending (of sorts) for creatives and service providers. I’ve observed colleagues who have felt perennially angry at feedback eventually becoming the most pragmatic of creatives who have a fairly impersonal take on their work’s edits. Ultimately, they want to get the work done to a high standard, to please their client, and to move on.
There are SO MANY WAYS TO GET THIS WRONG. Let me count them for you.
- Saying ‘No’ or ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘delete this’ is not useful feedback. It leaves us in the dark without any information except that you have rejected something. For feedback to be useful, we need to know what exactly is wrong with the material. This relationship building and refinement may cost a bit more time in the immediate, but it solidifies a working relationship and increases the accuracy of the work that is done for you.
- Tone is just as important in written form as it is in person. At Ruby Assembly, we hold courtesy as one of our most important workplace values. Whilst we usually have excellent rapport with clients, over the past 14 years there have been a few relationships that have become disrespectful. Feeling respected in the workplace is important. The way that a client delivers feedback – with courtesy – is at the core of being able to build a productive relationship.
- Don’t cc us into weird internal emails. There are certain things about the inner dynamics of your business, budgets or decision making processes we don’t need to be privy to. If the comms don’t relate to a person’s role or the work in question, consider whether you should be cc-ing everyone. It’s also not nice to see you’re being spoken about disparagingly in chain emails that are probably never meant to see the light of day. It can be pretty hard to come back from in a working relationship.
- Use documents with tracked changes judiciously. For two reasons: one, tracked changes with multiple authors can be a minefield to translate into a freshly edited document. Two, tracked changes have the pesky proclivity to exposure your author to inelegant or mean criticism from teams who may not realise their comments will be viewed by anyone other than their colleagues.
- Don’t use a committee to approve material. Having too many people who need to approve work is a nightmare. Both for the client and the agency! When there’s a veritable smorgasboard of people who need to ‘approve’ content in a Slack channel or in a tracked document, work usually comes to a standstill. Timelines get blown out. Focus gets blown off-course as attempting to please or include everyone begins to become a roadblock. Choose one or two people at a maximum to be ‘approvers’ of work. And then make one of those the person with a final say. It’s much clearer for the whole team this way.
Delegation is also a key to the successful delivery of feedback. Sometimes – quite often, in fact – the person charged with the task of approving material simply doesn’t have the time or attention to bring to the job. If the person approving material is at the very head of a business, this can lead to a lag in work completion which in turn heightens the likelihood of miscommunication. Choosing who will be the ‘approver’ of work in your business is a serious decision. So much of the success of your project will depend on timely, productive conversation between this person and the service provider.
As clients, we can find giving feedback difficult as sometimes we’re unsure of our role in the process; what is useful feedback, and what is superfluous or harmful to a relationship. I can’t recall there being guidelines for giving feedback readily available in any organisation I’ve worked with – which is why Ruby Assembly have decided to create a blueprint to help our clients and our team stay focused and harmonious in their collaborations.
If you feel like you could do better at giving feedback (or perhaps you’ve been guilty of inelegant or potentially offensive feedback to service providers in the past), it’s not all on you. When we know better, we do better!