Professional Rejection and How to Deal With It

View Comments by Bianca Board on 19 March 2014

As an entrepreneur and as a designer, nothing gives me a bigger kick than when I successfully deliver something to a client and they love it. 

What can I say? I love praise! It’s why I decided to take the plunge into running my own business.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that pursuing that gratitude is what drives me when it comes to becoming an entrepreneur. I just love helping people. 

Now.. that all sounds ‘nice’, but unfortunately, there is a flipside to this professional ‘love in’.

I have to deal with rejection. And it hurts.

If you’ve ever worked in digital (or any business that has demanding clients) you’ll know that for every great client, there is always a client ready to rain on your parade.

I remember the first time I was hit with professional rejection... and boy I took it hard!

It all started when I started freelancing as a designer about 12 years ago. I had just had two really positive experiences with my first two major clients. Apparently this is rare within the design world, but due to my naivety, I genuinely believed that this positive streak was going to continue forever.

So here he comes... client number 3.

I did a new design for his website, and delivered it to him well before the deadline. Trust me... this design was amazing! It not only satisfied the brief, but it was beautiful, bold and user-friendly to boot. In fact I’d go and say that at that point of my career, it was my best work ever.

Unfortunately the client disagreed. And he wasn’t very nice about it.

Thankfully now I have a support team to handle such difficult clients, but at the time it utterly rocked me. And the reason it rocked me so hard is quite simple; we all have a fear about our inability to cut it as an entrepreneur, especially when we start out.

So what are the types of professional rejection?

In my time as a design entrepreneur, these are the types of professional rejection I tend to come across:

  • Didn’t get the job: On its own this isn’t so bad, but when a designer gets a massive string of job rejections it can hurt both your pride and your wallet.

  • Client didn’t like your work: I’ve had a range of clients. Some of them are flexible and others have a very fixed mind as to what they want. And boy can they be vocal about it.

  • Negative comments and reviews: In this day an age of social media and review sites, your customers have an amazing ability to tell others about you. Sadly there will be negative reviews coming your way, fair or not. Unfortunately, you just can’t please everyone.

So you get the idea by what I mean by ‘professional rejection’ right? Well the good news is there are things you can do about it before hand, and I’ll also lay down some ideas on how to handle it when it does go down.

What to do to pre-empt the rejection.

  1. Specialise yourself: Ever hear the phrase ‘a jack of all trades and a master of none?’ This can be very true to us designers, and very true for business owners everywhere. 

    Even if you are a master of everything, perception is King.  Personally I like to focus on supplying web solutions to small business owners. They respond to this and trust me to deliver their perfect small business website as a result. 

    By positioning yourself as an expert in a certain area, your chances of being accepted for a job will increase. 
  2. Keep tabs on current trends: This is more of a case for designers, but I’m pretty sure there are parallels regardless of the business you’re in. 

    Ultimately you don’t stay up to date with the latest trends, then you’re finished work is going to appear dated compared to what the client is anticipating.  

    Nothing leads to rude feedback quicker in the design world than a client who’s expecting his or her website to look like a modern competitor of theirs. 
  3. Temper your client’s expectations early: A mistake that many designers use is to promise the world to help them secure the job. In fact, I knew one designer who actually said to me “the trick is to promise everything and worry about it later.” 

    To me that’s insane! You’re just leading yourself and your client down the garden path to disappointment and misery. 

     By managing your client’s expectations early on as to what’s realistic for their budget, you can actually supply the exact same end result and have a far happier client by the end of it.  
  4. Use a planner to get an early heads up: When I enter into a working relationship with a new client, I make sure to send them a planner. It’s basically a document full of all the questions I really really wish I asked my previous disgruntled clients before I started their jobs! 
    - What are you expecting? 
    - Are there any competing designs you like? 
    - What colours schemes do you like / hate? 
    - What type of fonts do you like? 
    - What do you want your website to accomplish? 

    Etc. I wish I had my design planner when I started! It would of saved me a huge amount of heart break.
  5. Show prelim work in the form of wireframes: I only do this with larger jobs, but I find it’s always a good idea to detail key stages for design work for the client to sign off on. That way they can’t complain about the direction of a website when the job goes too far into the development of the work. 

    Also... make sure you get the right person signing off on your work! Having an assistant approving your work means NOTHING if the big boss hates what you’re doing.
Now even if you are doing all of the above, rejection is still going to happen. So... 

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How do you react when the bad times do come along

  1. Look on the bright side: Every cloud has a silver lining, so focus on that as it’ll help you stay out of the negative fog that can ruin your day. Maybe that client who didn’t accept your proposal would be too difficult to work with anyway?

    I have to admit, there have been times when I’ve thought “thank you God” when a particular difficult prospect comes back with a “no thank you.”
  2. Get feedback: Every “no” is an opportunity to learn. If your proposal was rejected, ask “why?” You’ll typically learn a lot about what you could of done differently so that next time you can do better a better job.

    You may even get a future job from that company just because you showed you cared. In fact it should also improve your mood, because often it’s not because your proposal was “rubbish”, but rather your competitor had an advantage beyond your control, like geographical location.
  3. Be critical about yourself: Whether you get feedback or not, have a serious sit down and say to yourself “what can you learn from this? What are clients expecting?”

    Small businesses can often be in danger of becoming stagnant because they never change with the times.

    Always challenge yourself to change, grow and improve... and not only will it give you a positive target to constantly strive for, but also help reduce rejection as a result. 
  4. Respond with unfaltering kindness: Yeah... angry clients will send you emails, or even worse, say something about you online or on Facebook about how terrible you are.

    Regardless of whether it’s true or not (and if it is true, do be honest about it) I find a polite and helpful response not only diffuses the situation in most cases, but also makes you look like the “good guy” in the situation.

    And THAT can help win your more business in the future from other’s who see your response.
  5. Don’t take it so personally: When I started out I had a bit of a hair trigger when it came to negative responses. But as I’ve grown as an entrepreneur, I’ve learnt that often the tone of people’s feedback can come across much worse that how they really feel, especially when you’re getting feedback on your design.

    So take everything in your stride. If they don’t like a colour scheme you’ve used, they probably aren’t criticising your abilities, but rather they just want to have a hand in helping you deliver something to 100% satisfaction.    

Do you have any stories on professional rejection?

How did you handle it? I’d love to hear some of your stories... just so I know I’m not alone in all this!  

What do you think? Share your comments below.


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