45

As a professional service provider, our company provides a customized IT enterprise solution to a customer. One of our deliverables is a design document, which describes the components at a high level.

The project manager of the customer's company reviewed my document, and made some grammatical changes that I do not agree with. He told one of my colleagues (who is in charge of communications and has no technical background) in a phone conversation that one "should never trust the English from an IT person".

While I admit that an average local IT person here does not have a good command of English, my past experience is very different than that of other locals. Long story short, I am fairly confident that my English ability is superior to his.

How should I approach this customer's project manager, if this English issue comes up again in the future? What should my game plan be? How can I respond professionally? The current project is already underway, and my boss may arrange future projects with this customer, so a good relationship would certainly benefit everyone.

  • @DavidK My colleague believes me, since I'm better in English than him. – mandy Apr 23 '15 at 13:47
  • 6
    Is the change something that would cause misunderstanding, or is it akin to a debate about whether we should spell the property color or colour in the design document – Brandin Apr 23 '15 at 14:17
  • 68
    @kevin BTW, the title to this question is superb ("incorrects my English"). It does show a certain level of mastery of a language when you can start playing with the words like that! – Kent A. Apr 23 '15 at 14:20
  • 6
    Can you give actual examples? – Pieter B Apr 24 '15 at 11:46
  • 9
    @Zaibis "incorrect" can be used as an adjective but not as a verb. But that's the point: You need a certain level of skill before you know when you can break the rules for a particular effect (now if you're just parroting a phrase you heard this doesn't apply - benefit of the doubt). E.g. I'm fairly confident that I can do so in German or English, but I'd never try in French, because that would just lead to horrible confusion. – Voo Apr 24 '15 at 18:38
74

How to act professionally?

Does it even matter, other than an issue of personal pride?

It sounds like your client wanted to tweak something and make himself feel important. Some people just have to micromanage to feel useful and tweaking grammar/language is the easiest way to do that. These people generally respond very poorly to "stop it" types of approaches too.

If it ultimately doesn't affect you or your company it doesn't really matter. If you do want to take some action on this, talk with your communication manager first and get their feedback. Ask them, "hey, Client X seemed to have some changes for my document, what do you think we can do to avoid this going forward?" Odds are that person will laugh and say something like "yeah, crazy going to be crazy" (paraphrased).

Generally you want to avoid openly confronting a client on otherwise trivial issues. This does not end well.


As pointed out in the comments, this assumes these changes are primarily cosmetic. If changes are affecting the meaning of your material it is considerably more important and something you should escalate to your boss.

  • 4
    "Don't bite the hand that feeds you" – Dale M Apr 24 '15 at 3:09
  • 21
    It's safest to escalate to the management even if the changes look trivial. For example, the difference between "should" and "shall" had always been trivial to me until one of the principals of the firm explained the difference in a legal context: "shall" means that you ARE going to deliver come hell or high water. Another example is that it's very easy to miss a comma that would change the meaning of an entire sentence. – Vietnhi Phuvan Apr 24 '15 at 5:32
  • 2
    Micromanaging to feel useful - kinda like the "duck" (point 5 in that link). – Angew Apr 24 '15 at 11:43
  • 2
    @VietnhiPhuvan The difference between a probable and a definitive clause should not and cannot be overstated. – Zibbobz Apr 24 '15 at 18:55
  • @VietnhiPhuvan If a client is making changes to a contract or license agreement or other legal document, that's not something you or your boss should deal with, that should go to the company lawyer. Otherwise, if we're talking about software documentation, I really doubt that things like changing "should" to "shall" would impose any legal obligations -- courts don't expect software documentation to use "legalese". Not to say that they might not change the meaning of a sentence to make it incorrect. – Jay Jan 23 '16 at 6:15
22

Keep your original copies in case anyone ever tries to get you to explain a bit of grammar-changing that this person did.

While it doesn't really matter if he wants to make a few changes to make himself feel better about his role in the company (see @enderland and his beautiful answer) you should keep your originals backed up, both as common practice and in case anyone ever asks you to clarify something he added later on.

Keeping backups for past versions allows you to track changes, which is important when legal liability comes into play. A small change here or there for pure aesthetics is no big deal, but a substantial change that changes the meaning of the document is something you want to catch and correct right away, and making backups aids in that process. You'll want to keep track of the changes that are made, depending on the nature of the project and how sensitive those changes can be.

  • If the client makes undiscussed changes to the document which affects possible interpretations of the work to be done, then I'd agree that keeping originals are important (but bringing the issue to light right away would probably be more important in that case). If we're just talking about minor spelling and grammar changes, I can't see how that's important - I can't imagine a reasonable scenario where OP gets asked why he misspelt some words or to provide proof of anyone else doing so. Although keeping in-depth track of changes with justification is generally a good thing. – Dukeling Apr 23 '15 at 18:05
  • @Dukeling Keeping track of changes is more the purpose of keeping the original copies - but it serves the double purpose that if any changes the client makes do contradict the original, that they can be corrected as soon as possible. – Zibbobz Apr 23 '15 at 18:10
  • "Keep your original copies" -- surely any IT person techie enough to "not be trusted with English", can be trusted to version-control documents? ;-) In which case the solution might be to check in the changes with a comment that very carefully avoids going quite so far as to be passive-aggressive. "Grammar/style changes requested by customer X" should do it (provided it's OK to mention customers), and if it's ever decided that customer X was systematically wrong you can search for all such changes. – Steve Jessop Apr 23 '15 at 21:41
  • +1 for addressing liability; it is everything in my "real job" (civil eng) – Jon Apr 24 '15 at 4:58
  • 3
    I'd go one step further: If you don't have your documentation checked into revision control you're doing it wrong. Even independent of anything as important as legal liability - it's just incredibly useful to be able to see how a section changed over time and see who made what changes. – Voo Apr 24 '15 at 18:45
10

Instead of worrying about whether you agree with his grammatical constructions, look for changes to meaning. Those are the critical ones to fix.

Instead of approaching it as a mistake on his part (especially since this is a client), you can then approach it as: Perhaps your orginal wasn't clear enough and he misinterpeted what you meant when he did the revisions. Then offer a third verson of the wording. This saves face for him and, more importantly, is more likely to get your revision of his revision accepted and the correct meaning restored.

  • I don't entirely disagree, but many ###hole bosses would/could interpret this as second-guessing their superior judgement; they have a degree, so "Who do you think you are, you peon?" – Jon Apr 24 '15 at 4:46
  • The critical point here seems to be that the document is a deliverable, delivered to the person who's making changes, or at least their employer. Given that, it seems to me that the OP has to keep 'ownership' of the document, and this answer seems the way to do so, although Vietnhi Phuvan's answer makes a good point too. – Gwyn Evans Apr 25 '15 at 8:21
  • Excellent point. If the client changed, say, "Enter your user ID" to "Type your user ID", I'd say, okay, I don't see the difference, but if you like it better that way, fine. But if he changed, "Enter your user ID" to "Enter your email address", then assuming you do not require user IDs to always be the person's email address, you will need to (politely) challenge this. – Jay Jan 23 '16 at 6:20
6

"The project manager of the customer's company reviewed my document, and made some grammatical changes which I do not agree with."

So, the customer made changes to the document. Run those changes by your management as a matter of due diligence. You don't want the customer to make unilateral changes that could cause harm to your employer's interests.

It doesn't look like you can do much of anything to cure the customer's bias. All you can do at this point is to make sure that any changes the customer makes - you want those changes to have no future adverse impact to your employer.

  • +1 for almost addressing liability. Third-party changes to documents produced by a licensed professional or firm is a huge "no no" in any field and puts the third-party at risk of becoming legally responsible for any resulting damages. This can kill a project if the litigation is long and drawn-out. – Jon Apr 24 '15 at 4:54
3

I think that customers sometimes need to feel like they have a saying, that they are listened to. That the company they are paying thinks the customer is important enough to bow a little.

This might cause some inner conflict in proud people, but if grammar corrections are all the changes the customer wants, then you are doing a good technical job, which is what you are paid for.

The only context in which I would do something about this is in case you can, casually and without giving the hint that you actually care so much, tell him personally that "by the way, I am not sure about your corrections regarding X and Y in my document, did you actually check it out in internet? :)"

Try to imagine for a second that you are the customer, you make some changes in a technical document regarding grammar and tell it to your contact, and days after the technical guy gets in touch with you to say "you are wrong". While you might be right, it won't feel good!

  • 2
    I'm not sure if I'd go to "did you actually check it out on the internet". That sounds like a direct conflict: I'm challenging him. – mandy Apr 23 '15 at 15:03
  • That's why I suggested to do so if you could tell him personally, with the :) meaning that you should use this approach in a friendly manner. After all you are not some evil guy trying to mock him, if your body language says that you are friendly he won't take it as a challenge. – Mr Me Apr 24 '15 at 13:01
2

Will you be dealing with this person again?

As others have commented, it sounds like they feel the need to make some changes. Next time you could slip a few deliberate mistakes into your document, so they've got something to change.

Otherwise I would take this as a compliment. A true pedant has reviewed your document, and the only things they could suggest actually made it worse.

  • Yes, I will be dealing with him often at least in the next two or three months. – mandy Apr 25 '15 at 4:37
1

If this is happening often, you should request a style guide from the client, or work with them to make one. Such a style guide might include things specific to the project (e.g. always include a serial comma on this website) but fall back on a standard guide (e.g. unless specified, follow the Chicago Manual of Style).

Once that's established, you'll have something to point to so it's not just your opinion vs. theirs. Agreeing on a style guide is good practice regardless so you have a consistent approach to grammar throughout.

If a style guide seems like overkill for the amount of text you're actually producing, or the sort of changes you're talking about are subjective and too hard to articulate in a style guide, then I'd agree with the other answers on here. Ultimately it's up to them and it probably doesn't matter that much.

In general, you shouldn't take writing edits personally, but that might not stop your client from taking them personally. Ideally you should look at one of their edits, check it against your style guide, and if it conflicts, mark it as "will not change" or whatever, and that's the end of it. Realistically, your client might get upset at that, but at least you'll be able to have a professional conversation about the previously agreed-upon grammar rules before ultimately deferring to whatever they want.

-4

BOTTOM LINE: unless the client expects you to advise on the document's language, then let it be.

DETAILS: First, you've heard this before: The customer is always right. Therefore, never, ever, correct a customer / client (please read below).

This phrase, by course, depends on how one defines who or what is her prospective or current customer / client. If you're offering language lessons then correcting a client's English grammar may be par for the course. Same applies to financial advisors when counseling clients against taking out-of-bounds financial risks. Similarly, if you're a professional comedian then heckling your customer may be part of your act.

Second, one of the beauties of the English language is its fluidity. Considering that many respected mass-market news organizations publish articles with lexicon current of today's technology communications (e.g. when they quote SMS / text messages), English words, phrases and spelling continue to evolve. Further correcting an understood point comes across as pedantic, which is toxic for retaining clients (I hope this doesn't come across same).

Last, many service employees sometimes forget that they are in the service business and their mission and occupational purpose is to ultimately serve clients. If this isn't so, then they may need to redefine whom or what their client is and / or what service they are offering.

  • 5
    If the document represents a statement of work obligating the company to deliver X, I don't care how "pedantic" someone may think me if I insist that being "understood" is not sufficient to protect us from what the customer might "understand" at some point in the future, let alone what a judge or jury might "understand" (although if you get that far, it's already a loss). A technical document requires precision of language far beyond casual language. – Monty Harder Apr 23 '15 at 19:21
  • Good point. The questioner noted that this is a "design document, which describes the components at a high level" and that the client "made some grammatical changes". Though high level documents and grammatical changes can shift obligations and expectations, the question as posed suggests these are not at risk. Other factors such as his and his client's cultural differences and expectations are not addressed either. The question, this response and others are simplifications as necessary. Your point and cultural differences are good points to account for. – P.D. Apr 23 '15 at 20:01
  • -1 I don't care how many times you say that the customer is always right, the customer is NOT entitled to change the meaning of agreements unilaterally. – Vietnhi Phuvan Apr 24 '15 at 9:06
  • @VietnhiPhuvan What you've described is not a customer. If you're selling widgets and someone wants zagets, he is not a customer. If you're selling under certain terms and someone wants different terms, that is not a customer. As stated, the customer being right "depends on how one defines who or what is her prospective or current customer / client." Someone who doesn't want what you offer, including its terms of sale, is not a customer. The last sentence above adds further clarity and room to redefine the customer. – P.D. Apr 24 '15 at 15:03
  • 1
    The customer is not always right. The customer is always the one with the money. Do your best to help the customer be right, but if you can't do so you need to choose between being right and being paid. It is possible to fire a customer, but that should be your last resort after establishing clearly that there is no reasonable compromise possible. – keshlam Apr 25 '15 at 4:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.