Good Question: My client isn’t getting “results” and she’s upset… with me. Now what?

Dear Alex,
Like you, I do a lot of ghostwriting for clients and a bit of consulting.
Most of the time, my clients get great results. My work and suggestions bring a lot of traffic and sales their way, but I have the occasional client who’s upset because it seems like my stuff isn’t “working.”
In reality, there are much larger issues at play — their site is poorly designed, they don’t promote their work on social media, their offerings are overpriced or unnecessarily complicated, they’re not networking to find clients, and so on.
Is there a way for me to politely and diplomatically tell them this?
–[Please don’t use my name]

Dear Nameless One,

My friend Nicole — a former couch potato who is currently training for her first ultra-marathon, and who writes prolifically about what it takes to achieve big, long-term goals — once said to me:

“Everyone wants to change their life… without actually having to change their life.”

This makes me chuckle, because ain’t that the truth?

We all want big results… without actually having to, you know, do hard things.

Most people are perfectly happy to throw some money at a gym membership, or a business consultant, or a pair of new yoga pants, or a new piece of software, or an e-course, and so on, thinking that “spending” is the same as “doing the difficult, uncomfortable, often tedious and repetitive things that are required in order to build lasting success.”

You & I both know: “spending” isn’t enough. That’s not how it works.

But explaining this to someone, tactfully, can be difficult.

You don’t want to sound accusatory (“You’re lazy and you’re not doing what you ought to be doing!”) or defensive (“Well, it’s not MY fault your life / business sucks!”).

This is a conversation where you’ll want to channel your Inner Mister Rogers and use your most encouraging teacher / mentor voice.

Here’s my advice:

When someone reaches out to you and says something like…

I want to hire you for writing project.
I’m hoping you can re-write my website so that I can start attracting more clients and customers.
I want to double my sales this year.

Your next move, as the writer / consultant / service provider, is to establish some healthy expectations right from the get-go.

This means having an “expectation-setting conversation” BEFORE you officially begin working together.

You could hold this conversation over a phone call, via email, or face to face.

You might say something like…

Hey, I wanted to thank you again for inquiring about hiring me for a writing project.
I love that you’ve got a clearly-defined goal — to double your sales — and you seem highly motivated to make it happen.
Here’s what I’ve found, after working with hundreds of clients over the past several years:
Having the right words on your website can definitely help you to impress potential clients, get more bookings, and hit your revenue goals — but “words” are just one piece of the pie.

After that, you’d go on to elaborate:

I’ve met some business owners who have this notion that after putting awesome new language on their website, everything is going to magically click into place. Boom! Instant sales. Oprah calling. Etc. I wish that were true, but that’s not the case.
You probably already know this, but I always like to remind my clients that “awesome words” are just one component of your overall business and marketing plan.
My most-successful clients — the kinds of people who hit, and even surpass, their goals — tend to be people who have clear, powerful language and who ALSO invest in a beautifully-designed website, promote their work on social media, encourage clients to send word of mouth referrals, seek out media and publicity opportunities, do a weekly newsletter to keep in touch with their business audience, and so on.

And then, good news!

You, oh Thoughtful Service Provider, have already created a helpful resource that’s going to support your client in taking the next few steps. For example, in your case, you might say:

Not long ago, I wrote a blog post called 10 things you can do to get more clients (… besides hire a professional writer to revamp your website). I will email that post to you. For best results, I’d recommend doing EVERYTHING on that list. Sound good?

Your client will (almost assuredly) say “Yes, that sounds good! Send me that blog post!” and you will say, “Perfect. Watch your inbox later today.”

You can close out your conversation by reinforcing that — Yes! — you are excited to collaborate and you can’t wait to be a “part of the team.”


As as, multiple players, pieces, and components.

This will reinforce, yet again, that your role — providing compelling language and advice — is just one piece of the pie, not the whole darn pastry.

OK. Summary-time!

To pin things down into a neat list:

– Hold an expectation-setting conversation with your client at the very beginning of your relationship. This is a MUST.

– Be upbeat and encouraging (“Yes! Your dream is doable”) but also completely honest and direct about what is going to be required (“And if that’s what you want, then this is what it’s going to take…”).

– Get things in writing. Send an email outlining ALL of your recommended action steps. That way, if you get any complaints from your client later down the line, you can say, “I’m sorry you’re frustrated. Let’s review the 10 recommendations I made back when we started working together. Which of those 10 have you tried so far?”

That is all.

If you do these things, most of your clients will be EVEN MORE excited about working with you, because you’ll be demonstrating that you’re a caring, professional, strategic person who really wants your client to succeed, and who isn’t going to “sugarcoat” the truth about what it takes to build success.

(Oh, and this advice goes for all industries — fitness training, life coaching, reiki healing, photography, home renovation, etc. — not just the writing / business consulting realm.)

“There are no shortcuts to victory.” –Richard Lugar

That’s the stone-cold truth.

No shortcuts to success in business, writing, fitness, or any kind of meaningful pursuit.

Just the work. Easy, at times. Grueling, at others. But always worth it.

Good Question is an advice column about writing, communication, creativity, and how to be a decent human being in a complicated world. Looking for past columns? Go here.