How to Translate Unhelpful Client Feedback: What 11 Phrases Really Mean

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Karla Hesterberg
Karla Hesterberg



You've probably wished at some point that you had a pocket translator that could give you the real meaning behind a client's vague, inoperative feedback. It shouldn't feel like a high-stakes guessing game, right?

So while these tips won't turn you into a mind reader (sorry!), they will help you uncover the actionable feedback behind your client's most confusing comments.

The Guide to Translating Unhelpful Client Feedback

1) "I like it, but we were really hoping for something completely different."

You're probably thinking: How is it possible that the client likes your work, but also wants you to change everything about it? This kind of gear-shifting feedback indicates that somewhere along the way, you and your client stopped being on the same page. Maybe the project began on a shaky foundation without any solid directives, or maybe the client's goals shifted, and they didn't keep you in the loop. To prevent the project from going down in flames, you should schedule some time with the client to realign on the underlying goals of the project.

Ask the client to clearly explain which components of the project seem off base to them and why. Extract as much specific information as possible, and don't be afraid to press your client for more details.

2) "I'm not really sure what I want, but I'll know it when I see it."

This type of feedback can seem frustratingly vague, but take it as an opportunity to dig deeper. When a client fails to provide specifics about their goals for a project, it most likely means that they don't know exactly how to express their vision to you, or they don't fully realize that they need to tell you what they want. Talking about design concepts may be second nature to you, but try to remember that it can be challenging for most people to turn a fuzzy idea into a specific request.

Help your client find some clarity by asking questions that get at the core of their project's objectives, and force them to identify some tangible design preferences. For example, have them point out a few specific things they like about their current marketing materials and a few things they don't like. Show them some examples of your past work, and ask them if anything in particular catches their eye.

To get to the bottom of what they want, try starting a discussion about what they don't want. Are there any particular colors that turn their stomachs? Any fonts that cause headaches?

This might seem uncomfortable at first, but it's a conversation you need to have before moving forward.

3) "I don't think our target audience is going to like it."

It's safe to assume that your client knows their target audience better than you do, but it can be frustrating to receive unspecific feedback that doesn't explain why they feel a project is off-brand. If a client seems concerned that a project won't truly resonate with the right people, ask them to give you some more background on who they're trying to connect with.

How old is their target demographic? What is their income bracket? Nail down the basics and then dive into specifics: Where does their target demographic like to shop? What do they do for fun? Where do they hang out online? If your client's business has created buyer personas for their business, ask to discuss them. Buyer personas can be a valuable treasure trove of information about who a company's intended audience is and what kind of content they will respond to.

4) "Can you make it feel more playful and bubbly?"

Abstract concepts without solid examples and clear instructions are the bane of any agency professional's existence, and they're also a sign your project could be headed for disaster. Wishy-washy language simply isn't capable of holding up the entire weight of your project. It can lead to a problematic lack of alignment on where the project is headed and cause frustration for everyone involved. Your interpretation of "bubbly" could potentially be disastrously different from what the client thinks "bubbly" should be.

When a client starts throwing around a laundry list of adjectives, it's up to you to find the substance underneath the fluff. Request an example of a design the client thinks is "playful" and "bubbly," and ask what individual characteristics convey the desired feeling. The client obviously has a specific vision in mind, and it's your job to figure it out. 

5) "Our CEO came up with a color scheme that we want you to use instead."

Feedback like this can be a red flag that the client doesn't quite trust your expertise yet, but don't let your ego suffer. If a client blindsides you with an abrupt change, it usually means that they've been holding it in for a while. Don't hesitate to ask the client where the change is coming from, and try to keep an open mind about their motivations. It's possible that they haven't been happy with the direction of the project and didn't know how to break it to you.

Respect the suggestion, but don't be afraid to push back and state the case for your own work, especially if it seems like the client might be headed towards catastrophe without you. If the CEO's proposed color scheme is puke green and highlighter yellow, explain why that might not be the best choice. Never shut down a client's suggestion without explaining why you don't think it would work and most importantly, presenting a better alternative.

6) "It doesn't look quite finished. It just needs something else to make it really pop."

The client feels that the current project doesn't fully match up with the vision in their head, but they don't have any real idea how to describe it. No matter how many questions you ask, you can never seem to get any specifics from the client. If you're not careful, you'll soon find yourself caught in a messy web of tweaks and revisions.

A perpetually dissatisfied client needs some clear expectations set, so remind them of the project's original plan. Gently explain to them that you're happy to make changes within the scope of the project, but you need actionable requests.

7) "The project has to capture everything about our brand's identity -- our history, our future, and what we stand for as a company."

When a client starts asking you to cram every idea under the sun into a single project, it's a sign that they're getting overambitious and might be in need of a reality check.

To be successful, a project needs a singular, attainable goal. Projects that try to accomplish too much tend to suffer, since they'll never fully live up to the client's inflated expectations. Tame expectations by bringing the client's focus back to a single, over-arching goal. Use questions that lead the client toward a distilled version of their vision: If this project could accomplish one thing, what would it be? What will be the one indicator that this project was successful?

8) "Can you just change the color quickly? It shouldn't take any time."

A client who frequently asks for "quick" favors on a project might be trying to squeeze some free hours out of you, or they may not completely realize that what you do takes time and energy -- it can't be rushed along. 

It's best to be firm when a client starts to ask for little requests and changes outside the original scope of the project. If you give into one seemingly simple request, you can bet that another will follow. It's perfectly acceptable to remind the client of your contract's original terms and point out that the new request falls outside of scope. If they continue to insist that the change is small and won't take you a long time, provide them with a time/price estimate for the work, and break it down into the steps it will take you to get it done. This will help them see that your work isn't as simple as they think, and they'll hopefully start to value your time more. 

9) "Just do whatever you want."

Contrary to popular belief, designers are not mind readers, nor are they magically capable of spinning up the perfect project without guidance. At first this feedback can seem like an exciting invitation to experiment, but make no mistake: Starting a project without solid expectations and objectives will only lead to pain down the line for both you and the client.

Even if they don't seem open at first, convince your client to sit down and discuss the project in depth. The client might think they don't need to be involved at all in the creation process and that they hired a designer to avoid making any executive decisions. Make it clear that you need guidelines to proceed.

10) "I like it."

Hearing that a client likes your work can feel awesome, but is it helpful? No. Does it give you any guidance on how to move forward with the project? No. 

Even though it's validating, vague and opinion-based feedback like this doesn't actually advance the project. For starters, you don't have any idea what exactly the client likes about the current version. "I like it" doesn't necessarily mean, "I like each individual element." You could move forward thinking that the client is infatuated with the bright red color scheme you used, but it turns out that they were actually more excited about the font.

Don't proceed blindly. When a client says, "I like it," you need to pinpoint what specific elements they like about it. This will allow you to proceed with the project with a better understanding of their precise preferences. 

11) *silence*

The absolute worst feedback a client can give you is no feedback at all. Silence is not an invitation to keep going on the current path. It's an indicator you're dealing with a big communication problem that needs to be addressed.

If a client stops offering comments or communicating regularly, reach out and make it clear that you need feedback to work. Some clients might not understand right away that their feedback is needed on more than just the final proof, so explain that they need to be more involved throughout the process.


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