It's not unusual for clients to say they're perfectionists.
This means they take more time, spend more effort and they sound like the ideal client on your course. But as perfectionists know fully well, they're often jeopardising their own success, because all the extra work isn't dramatically improving their work.
How, then should you make them pay attention to what's important? How can you help them gain the confidence and the skill? If you want your clients to be really skilled, here are three concrete steps to get them away from circling and into results.
What causes diligent clients to slow down their learning?
Back in 2014 or so, I ran into a comment by a client that made me sit up and gasp.
The client was part of a course—an online course—and she mentioned she had been putting in three hours of work every day. I want you to think about what “three hours” means for a small business.
Usually, any business owner is going to put in a long day that goes anywhere between 8-12 hours. And this client was taking three hours to complete her assignment. While that description sounds like a model student, it ends up backfiring and slowing down the progress considerably. And here's why.
Let's take an example of an assignment in article writing
Let's say the client has taken an hour to write an article. To improve that article, she might spend another hour tweaking things. All of this extra work is driven by the desire to make the piece look better. Which effectively means she's spent 100% more time on the project. Does this improve the project by 100%? Or 50%? Or 37.6%.
The answer is, it barely improves the article by 5%
If that student, learning a craft struggles to figure out what she has to do. Trying to improve or edit what she's done is a fruitless exercise because the fixes are based on her subjective assessment of what needs to be fixed. But something quite insidious is occurring as well. Instead of spending one hour on the assignment, she's spent two.
That leads to more exhaustion, and often to greater frustration, simply because the client can't tell if the changes were worth it or not. The next day, that client will turn up tired and a little reluctant. This reluctance snowballs into further exhaustion and a feeling of dread. The way out of this sorry story is to make the client get rid of that perfectionist behaviour.
Well, easier said than done, right?
That's what I thought so too when I conducted courses. I wondered why some clients would be dragging their heels when it came to assignments. A little digging into their day to day behaviour and I discovered this quest for perfection. But perfection is only possible if the assignment has no time limit.
Which is why the first thing we did was to put time limits on everything.
Whether it was the cartooning course, the sales letter or the article writing, the assignments were time-bound. And for good measure, the clients had to submit their assignment every day with a quick report about how much time they spent on it.
And clients would respect the time constraint unless they saw themselves as perfectionists. Then our first technique—the timer—was blithely ignored. Stronger measures had to be taken.
It's time for tactic No: 2: Praise needed to be withheld.
If there's anything a perfectionist loves dearly, it's praise. If the client kept to the assignment timings, they were praised. Not all the time, and not always over the top. But the one point that asserted itself was: you kept to the time limit, and that's an excellent strategy. As the perfectionists watch this praise being doled out, the message seeps through. They realise that their additional hours of work aren't being condemned.
But they're also being starved of specific praise when it comes to the “sticking to time”. In short, they realise that while there's a decent amount of praise being heaped on the work, the person who gets the most praise is the one who stays within the time boundary—even if the work is incomplete. Without any specific instruction, a sort of behaviour modification seems to set in.
However, it's not enough to merely avoid praise, because a perfectionist still wants to tick the boxes.
In which case, you use the third tactic. You give them boxes to tick.
Below what you'd see are the benchmarks. As they do the assignments, you set benchmarks that they need to meet. Those are your benchmarks—teacher, not student benchmarks. And the perfectionist looks at the benchmarks and invariably decides they want to tick the boxes. Here's an example from the Article Writing Course.
What are the benchmarks so far? And how do you fare?
The story, well paced and crisp (about two paragraphs or so): Yes
The reconnect (not too brisk, enough time to savour the jump): Yes
Three point listing at the top: Yes
Every point expanded: Yes
Every section connected to the next section: Yes
And so on.
As the client goes through each of these benchmarks, they get a virtual shot of adrenaline
If something isn't quite right, you can stop to explain what went wrong, and they can come back to fix it. But at all times they have a benchmark system they can follow. It's not some vague “let me make this perfect” and instead they have a trail where they can see what makes the perfect article, or complete sales letter—or whatever it is you're teaching.
Instead of them flailing in the dark trying to find their benchmarks, you anchor them to what will get them the skill. And because we're already keen on them sticking to the time, they eventually manage to get consistent work done on time.
But doesn't this method seem constrained and stifle creativity?
What we seem to call “creativity” is found when the person has relative fluency over the subject matter. If you're learning to ride a bicycle, certain elements need to be in place, so you don't fall over. Once that core fluency is already in motion, creativity can show up quite confidently. You can do wheelies, or leave the handlebar, or stand on the bike if you need to.
At the stage of learning a craft, the structure is far more productive
But productivity aside, the core factor is confidence. When the client sees themselves hitting goal after goal and meeting every benchmark, she or he is more likely to be eager to show up for the same reward on the next day, and the day after and for the remainder of the course.
The clients start to get better, growing from strength to strength. What's cooler to watch is how they stop calling themselves perfectionists and aim instead to make the benchmarks.
Every area of learning has clients who claim to be perfectionists
And perfection is not only frustrating and exhausting, but it leads to greater dropout. There aren't many good stories when it comes to perfectionist behaviour. Which is why we need to take these three tools and use them when teaching clients.
1- The timer: Every task needs to be done based on a specific time. When the timer goes off, the assignment stops.
2- Praise for the timer: Those that keep to the timer report in, and are praised—even if the work is incomplete.
3- Benchmarks: Clients don't know what to aim for unless you specify what's needed. When you lay out the benchmarks, every client is eager to get that green tick. Which in turn gives them a great of satisfaction.
Perfectionism is a hard habit to break. However, if you use the three points above. you'll find that clients quickly do what's good for them, instead of aiming for a perfectionism that's detrimental to their results. Try it for yourself. In fact, don't just try it on clients.
Try it ON yourself to.