No one likes to be rejected or criticized, but if you choose the freelancing path, you’d better get used to it.
Whether you’re pitching for new business, presenting deliverables to clients or dealing with feedback on your work, you are exposed to rejection and criticism on a daily basis.
This is true of many professions, but there are two things that make it particularly challenging for freelancers:
1. Many clients lack your professional knowledge, so they struggle to articulate their criticisms clearly and constructively.
2. You’re on your own. You don’t have colleagues to prepare and encourage you before you present your work or to debrief and support you afterward. If a meeting has gone badly, it’s just you and your thoughts on the lonely ride home.
Having coached hundreds of freelancers over the years, I know that rejection and criticism can be spirit crushers as well as business killers. It’s hard to motivate yourself for the next project — or to redo the same one — when a piece has just been shredded by a client who doesn’t understand your work or care about your feelings.
So what can you do about it?
Don’t Take It Personally
One of the things I’ve noticed from working with freelancers is how many of us take rejection and criticism personally.
Over and over, I hear coaching clients asking what’s wrong with them and their work, when from the outside it looks like their clients were actually the ones at fault or the jobs just weren’t the right fit.
This is partly because, as self-motivated creative people, we take pride in our work and put our heart and soul into it. So when we submit a piece of work, it feels like it's us in the firing line. No wonder rejection and criticism are so painful!
And when you’re dwelling on the situation alone, it’s very easy to blow things out of proportion.
The bad news is that as long as you take pride in your work, rejection and criticism are going to sting. But it does get less sharp with time and repeated exposure. And it makes a big difference when you realize that rejection and criticism are just occupational hazards of freelancing. And they're not to be taken as blanket judgments on you as a person or as a professional.
In fact, if you’re not being rejected or criticized, you’re probably not putting yourself out there enough. In which case, you’re unlikely to achieve something remarkable.
How to Handle Rejection
Feel the pain and do it anyway
The football (soccer) coach Martin O’Neill once said in an interview that he allows his teams 48 hours to recover from a defeat (and the same to celebrate a victory). During that time, he wants to see them feeling sorry for themselves, because it shows they care.
After that it’s back to training as usual.
Don’t pretend it doesn’t hurt. Give yourself a day or two to roll with the punch and recover, and then get back to work.
Don’t overthink why you got rejected
If you get useful feedback, make the most of it. But a lot of the time you're not told the reason (or the real reason) for the rejection — and it’s easy to torture yourself by wondering and worrying why.
But you’ll never know for sure. So stop thinking about it and start focusing on the next opportunity.
Keep filling your opportunity funnel
The more opportunities you put yourself out there for, the better your odds of success. And the more relaxed, engaging and persuasive you will be when talking to prospective clients about any one opportunity.
So keep networking, marketing, pitching, and listening to your existing clients, so that no single situation ever feels like a "make or break" thing.
One acceptance makes up for a lot of rejections
Savor success when it arrives — remember O’Neill’s 48-hour rule. And remind yourself of it during the tough times.
What to Do With Criticism
Educate your clients
Recognize that part of your job is to educate your clients in the language of your craft. They don’t have your skills or expertise, so it’s up to you to help them understand why you have taken a particular approach to a project and how to articulate their responses to your work.
This can be difficult, but it's a great investment in the working relationship. If a client learns to critique your work constructively, you will deliver better results and everyone will be happier.
Don’t get defensive or aggressive
It’s easy to snap back when someone gives you stinging criticism. But that usually makes things worse for you. So pause and take a deep breath before you respond.
Find out what they mean (even if they’re not sure themselves)
Before you decide what to do about criticism, it’s essential to find out exactly what your client is unhappy about.
If the criticism is vague, ask questions to find out what specifically is the issue. That gives you the best shot at a solution. It should also earn you respect for dealing with the criticism in a professional manner.
Ask solution-focused questions
Once you understand the concerns, ask questions that invite the client to buy into a workable solution. For example:
“If I can fix this part, will you be happy to sign off?”
“What do I need to change for this to meet the brief?”
“What would the ideal solution look like to you?”
Know when to draw the line
I always advocate being positive and collaborative at first. But it takes two to tango. If a client doesn’t respond with respect and reasonable flexibility, ask yourself whether it’s worth it — or whether you’re better off walking away.
The Long-Term Solution: Establish Yourself as an Expert
When I started out, I spent a lot of time on the phone, hustling for business. After enduring plenty of rejections I pulled in plenty of business, but I realized this approach wasn’t fun or sustainable in the long term.
So I started a business blog, and after a few months I was pleasantly surprised to find potential clients — the kind of people who wouldn’t have returned my calls before — phoning and emailing me.
When I went in for sales meetings, they complimented me on the blog, as if I were a published author. Instead of having to sell to them, they asked me what I would advise.
Seven years later, my blogs, newsletter, ebooks and book mean that I reach thousands of readers every day, which means the phone rings and the email pings a lot more than they did before. And I’m attracting the kind of clients who are a blast to work with.
When people come to you, they are more respectful. It makes rejection irrelevant. You are interviewing them as much as the other way around. You will always get criticism, but if there’s a foundation of mutual respect in the relationship, it’s much easier to work with it.
So if you really want to take the sting out of rejection and criticism, make it your mission to establish yourself as an expert.
There are lots of ways to do it:
- Start a blog, newsletter or podcast
- Write a book
- Speak at conferences
- Host a networking event
- Launch a successful product
These kinds of projects will act as an opportunity magnets, establishing you as an authority and attracting new clients and opportunities.
Not only that, it's tremendously satisfying to work on a big project of your own, improving and developing it over time. Even if you’re having a bad day with a client, spending an hour writing a blog post or book chapter, preparing a presentation, or sending out invitations to your next event, can help you maintain a sense of control and momentum.
How About YOU?
How do you handle rejection and criticism?
Which ideas from this article resonate most strongly with you?
Seasoned pros: any tips for those who are new to this?
Mark McGuinness is a creative business coach based at LateralAction.com and the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.