How to Score Points With a Potential Client by Criticizing What He’s Doing

In her book "The 7th Sense," Doris Wild Helmering makes a distinction between constructive criticism and "inappropriate" (petty and useless) criticism.

According to Helmering, constructive criticism has three components:

  1. There is a contract between the people involved. The person making the critical comment is involved with the project or product, has some authority, and has been invited to do so.

    (In marketing, this includes recommendations from an in-house creative team and from outside experts who have been retained as advisers.)

  2. The negative feedback addresses a specific issue. (Saying, for example, "This ad ignores the current slump in tech stocks" instead of "This ad stinks.")
  3. A recommendation is made for a change in direction. ("Instead of …, why don’t you talk about why this is a good time to choose promising stocks at bargain prices?")

Inappropriate criticism, on the other hand, has one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. It is uninvited.
  2. The feedback is broad-based.
  3. The commentary doesn’t offer any recommendations for how to make a change in direction.

A recent Dilbert comic strip gives a tongue-in-cheek illustration of inappropriate criticism:

Boss: "Everyone says our website is ugly."

Webmaster: "Really? Every person on Earth said that? Even Tibetan monks?"

Boss: "Maybe it was just one person."

Webmaster: "And you confused him with the entire planet?"

If you follow Helmering’s guidelines, you have a right to voice your opinion to a company about a product you purchased from them. You have a duty to criticize wrong thinking when a client has hired you for your marketing ideas, expertise, and track record.

But you do NOT have the right to do what the misguided Web designer I talked about last week did: voice an opinion about a service you’ve never used or a product you’ve never owned.

Even when you are entitled to criticize someone else’s product, service, or creative work, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

While I was an employee at Westinghouse, my boss Terry Smith taught the following method. I’ve used it since to give feedback to novice copywriters as well as when working as a member of a marketing team.

First say, "Here’s what I liked" and recap at least three positive points. (If you look hard enough, it’s impossible not to find at least three good things to say about almost anything.)

Then say, "Now, if it were mine to do …" and proceed with your list of specific recommendations. The phrase "if it were mine to do" implies that what you are saying is your opinion and not an accusation of incompetence or shoddy work.

When you’re a member of a marketing team or feel compelled to help someone by giving unsolicited advice about the way he is marketing his product or service, the two main guidelines to follow are these:

  1. The most-useful – and most-welcome – criticism you can make will be based on your knowledge of what’s working in your marketplace right now, based on recent test results.
  2. The second-most-useful criticism you can make will be based on your knowledge of what has worked in the past for this kind of offer – again, based on test results.

Follow these guidelines and your advice – solicited or unsolicited – is much more likely to be received positively. And a potential client will be more likely to view you as a potential resource for writing his copy.

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Published: August 22, 2005

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