At the same time, women are often conditioned to communicate passively. I’ve found myself doing this at times — I apologize when I don’t have to (a practice lampooned in an awesome Amy Schumer sketch), or I use hedging language like “I think” when I’m actually sure of my opinion. The result? I’m less likely to get my needs heard in negotiations, all while feeling guilt-ridden in the process. But underpinning my weaker language is a worry that if I say what I really think, I’ll offend someone. Maybe I’ll come across as too “abrasive” or “shrill” or some other term people use about women people they want to be quiet.
As businesspeople, both men and women need to be able to communicate effectively with their clients. Writing and speaking assertively means choosing language that sets us up for successful interactions with others.
Isn’t the customer always right?
Of course you want to provide your clients with quality work and excellent service. Happy customers mean word-of-mouth referrals, repeat business and good relationships, not to mention the satisfaction of a job well done. But there is a limit to what your customers can reasonably ask of you. Clients have a right to be “right” only within the parameters of what you are willing to offer. They should not be allowed to dictate the details of your business or manipulate your boundaries. If a potential buyer doesn’t like your price points, he can find another vendor. If you’ve clearly stated beforehand that you do not offer returns on custom listings, it’s wrong for your client to assume that you’ll make an exception just for her.
In many cases, you can set the stage for a good business relationship in how you first choose to communicate. Publish clear store policies in plain sight: even though an aggressive client might still challenge you, it’s easier to hold firm when you’ve made your terms clear from the beginning. If you’ll be doing custom work, ask your client to sign a contract before you begin. Contracts don’t suggest distrust; they simply protect each of you from any gray areas or problems that might arise. (True story: in the course of writing this article for CIA, I pitched an idea to Abby. Her response? “Great! Let me send you a contract.” Simple as that!)
Assertive isn’t aggressive
Sometimes it’s necessary to let a client know that you have reached the limit of what you are willing to do. Setting boundaries is not an aggressive or negative act; in fact, aggressive communicators actually violate the boundaries of others. They make accusatory, incendiary statements (“you’re being unreasonable,” “you need to do this for me or else,” etc.) to bend others to their will and get what they want. Assertive communicators use self-advocating language, but also work toward a solution that benefits both parties. The goal of the aggressive communicator is victory; the goal of the assertive communicator is agreement.
The good news is that assertive communication skills can help you cope with pushy, aggressive clients. Know you need to set some boundaries, but not quite sure how? Here are some pointers:
- Clearly state your needs (or your desired outcome) up front. Be specific. Use “I” statements with decisive verbs, such as “I need” or “I want.”
- On the flip side, avoid using language that conveys weakness or indecisiveness. “I think” or “I guess” or “maybe” or any language that can be interpreted as uncertain can potentially be manipulated or argued.
- Passive aggression isn’t a feasible strategy. This includes avoiding returning e-mails, pretending you didn’t understand the client’s request, or being difficult on purpose to urge a client elsewhere. Half the time your customer won’t pick up on it, and the rest of the time it’s just read as rudeness.
- Rather than assigning blame or judgment, try stating facts, e.g., “I didn’t receive your payment yesterday.”
- Don’t downplay your professionalism or your abilities. If you apologize unnecessarily or choose self-deprecating humor, it conveys that you don’t really believe in the quality of your work.
Putting theory into practice
As I was beginning my writing business, I received a custom request from a client interested in a product listing for her shop. I write listings in batches of five or 10, mostly because of the time and effort it takes to research SEO keywords. The custom request was for one listing, as the buyer said, “to see how one description works before purchasing multiples.”
It was tempting. I’d just started my business and didn’t feel that I was in a position to turn down a sale. But at the same time, the effort involved in creating just one listing would be too great to justify a markedly lower price.
I decided not to cave. I carefully worded this message to her:
And it succeeded. I received a message back almost immediately, thanking me for the explanation and saying that she would get back to me about a package later on. I did not hear from her again, but I felt at peace with my decision. In the end, writing this short message cost me less time and anguish than accepting her request would have.
In the craft industry as in all others, we are ultimately our own best advocates. Since I’ve started choosing my language more carefully, I’ve found that my conversations with clients have taken on a better tone. I’ve had fewer conflicts and much less stress, and I’ve eventually come to realize that there is nothing wrong with politely yet firmly stating what I am and am not willing to do. In the end, language has power in that it teaches others how to treat us. When we communicate assertively, we encourage respect for our boundaries by respecting them first ourselves.