Working With An Agency: The Art of Giving Constructive Feedback

By Raka October 13, 2023

Here’s an axiom of human nature: The only thing most of us are worse at than gracefully receiving feedback is giving useful feedback. Given that you more or less have to give feedback constantly in any business relationship, much less a client-agency inbound marketing relationship, things can get fraught real quick.

Why? Unlike with employees in-house, you can’t just walk over to someone’s desk to tell them what you’re looking for, defuse any tension, and get things done. Typically, your agency partner is off-site, and you’ll communicate with them primarily via phone, email, or project management software. Knowing how to manage feedback in both directions is key to maintaining a healthy relationship.

Here are a few guidelines to giving constructive feedback that’s actually actionable, and to ensure your friendly neighborhood digital agency stays friendly–and productive.

Be concise and clear

“There’s just something about this that isn’t working for me. Maybe if you tried something more like SnootFlurm is doing with their emails.”

The feedback above could not be less useful, no matter who you’re giving it to, and we’ve all been guilty of handing something this convoluted back to a designer or developer before. First off, what you don’t like about the email in question is unclear from this feedback. That will lead to a designer freewheeling in a desperate attempt to please you or asking a series of follow-up questions that you don’t have time to answer. The end result is that either everybody’s in a worse mood, or you don’t get the result you’re looking for, which kicks off a whole cascade of new problems.

Before you hit send on feedback, be sure to take a critical look and see if you’re throwing around phrases like “something just isn’t working.” If you are, delete the whole thing and provide a bulleted list of specific items you think aren’t working. You’ll be amazed how much this can streamline the process and improve the end result.

Consult guides and resources

I really don’t think we should use commas in this blog post. Remove all commas and replace them with semicolons, please.” 

The example above is absurd on its face, but it also illustrates what can happen when no one uses a style guide. While some clients have strong writing experience and can quickly proof or edit copy we’ve written, personal proclivities for editing approaches can create copy that deviates from agreed-to rules for your brand’s copy. Before you edit text or give feedback, scan your copy of your company’s style guide or blogging strategy to make sure your desire for different punctuation or turns of phrase doesn’t contradict set style standards.

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Trust the process

“I read an article last week on Inbound Smarts 4 U that says we should be focusing on short keywords. Can we change our content strategy to reflect that?”

Let me level with you: Nothing sets off alarm bells for inbound agency types more than a client message that starts off with “I read/saw in an article/video.” Don’t get us wrong, we love it when our clients are engaged enough to read up on a topic and open a discussion. But too often, that phrase is followed by a charge to make extreme changes to an article, campaign, or even an entire strategy on the basis of a single piece of content that someone found on the internet. Your results invariably suffer for it.

Remember: You (or your company) hired an inbound agency for their expertise. You may not love the way they’ve chosen to write or design something, and you should be vocal and direct about that. Just remember there may be a good reason for their decisions. Have a broader discussion about the article you’ve read if it seems to contradict what your agency is up to and understand that every good agency designs their approach with an eye on saving money and utilizing time effectively for you. 

Deliver feedback with respect

Why would you think it was okay to use purple there? Was I not clear that we need to use orange in the logo for BoompleSplork?! Please confirm receipt of this message.” 

This is a classic case of needing to step back and ask yourself how you’d feel if you received a message oozing with derision and outright disrespect. We’ve all worked with someone who seems to delight in ferreting out mistakes and blasting you for them, and none of us enjoys it. Messages like this are much more likely to breed ill feelings that will persist once the moment passes.

We always suggest taking a deep breath, re-reading your feedback, and softening it if it reads harsh to you. Remember: It’s a lot easier to maintain a good relationship with your agency than it is to rebuild it.

Condense feedback into a small number of messages

“Scott here, I’d like you to take a second look at the way this page renders on mobile.”
Hey guys it’s Betty, this picture is a little weird. Could you replace it with a higher-res version?”
“Just Steve checking in, did we ever add in the Dingdango colors to the hamburger menu?
“Scott here again, never mind the mobile thing, but I’m noticing some alignment issues on the Resources page.”

Most agencies will have a handful of staff dedicated to working on your account. If you tie them up with a million small requests that come in at different times, you’ll slow progress and cause confusion about your priorities. Deliver one document with all of your team’s feedback, or combine all that feedback into one actionable list, and things will go more smoothly.

It’s smart to follow the process your agency gives you (or that you’ve hammered out together) for editing, design, and UX feedback. You’ll use your budget more effectively, you’ll avoid the kind of piecemeal changes that create confusion, and you’ll avoid tacking on work long after work was supposed to be wrapped up.

General tips

Remember the following tips and you’ll have more success delivering feedback.

  • Stick to actions. Writing “replace the hero image with this image we’ve provided because it better fits our brand” is specific and immediately actionable. That means it should get done quickly.
  • Avoid general language. Don’t say “something” or “this” or “all of those” when “the copy in the fourth paragraph doesn’t fit our brand message, which I’ve linked to here” will be much more effective.
  • If you can’t express what you want in text, get on a call. It’s better to have a conversation where you might be able to more clearly explain your issues than to start an Email Chain of Death that swallows both you and your agency whole. You can always recap a phone conversation in an email (or ask your agency to) as a way of documenting decisions and communication.

Ensure you use these approaches together and you’ll find your feedback is streamlined, well-received, and gets the results you’re looking for much more consistently. Happy marketing!

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