I recently heard from an old commercial writing client for whom I hadn’t worked in probably five or six years. She had a small copywriting project, along with a vague “and we’ve got a few other things cooking we might need your help with.” Always a nice treat when old clients surface, but there’s always a bit of a nagging voice that comes with it…
“How come you stopped working with them in the first place?”
The easy answer? Well, the project you were working on for them ended, you both got busy, and the old “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” thing took over. Never sounds very satisfying, because it points to laziness on my part in the follow-up department. It’s like the natural order of things is that YOU should be contacting them and discovering they have a job for you. NOT them having to reach out to you.
The latter seems to imply that there might very well have been many other commercial freelancing jobs, big and small, you could have done for them in the ensuing years, but you missed out because you weren’t top-of-mind when those gigs came along. And not being top-of-mind also means missing out on possible referrals as well. Sigh.
As confirmation (the self-flagellation now begins in earnest…), she said she was reaching out because the copywriter she’d been using just wasn’t getting it done. Sheesh. And it gets worse. She says, “I need a writer who can write like only you can.”
You know, like he did on that flurry of work five years back, all of which they loved, and after which, he just vanished. What was I thinking? That that would be all they’d ever need? Turn that knife.
I have a dear friend—and fellow commercial freelancer—here in Atlanta who’s been working with one client steadily for about five years. Seems, every time we talk, their name surfaces as part of the “what’s-on-my-plate-now” conversation. They’ve made her multiple offers over the years to come onboard full-time. But, she’s resisted. Hey, why buy the cow, etc., etc.
She gets constant work from them because she knows their business inside and out, is a great writer, incredibly thorough, knows PowerPoint like the back of her hand (along with several other programs; no, you don’t have to be so technically inclined to succeed as a commercial freelancer, but it doesn’t hurt). In short, she’s incredibly capable and versatile.
So, when the workload with a client is steady and ongoing, as it is with hers, it’s easy to not lose touch. But clients like that (i.e., providing a virtually unbroken streak of work) are most definitely the exception, not the rule, in this commercial copywriting business of ours.
Now, I’ve been pretty good at keeping in touch with most of my clients over the years, but if I’m going to be honest here—and Exhibit A above makes it hard to come to any other conclusion—there are a handful of clients who would have been turning to me far more often over the past years had I done a better job of keeping in touch.
Recently, thanks to that blast-from-the-past client call, I reached out to a bunch of those “fell-through-the-crackers.” While nothing’s come of it yet, I’m back on their radar, with an OK to check back in on X date, so that’s all good.
Yes, as we all know, there are a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with us, why we might stop working with a client: company goes out of business; our contact leaves for another company, and the new one has their favorite writer; company hires an in-house writer (or just dumps the writing off on that overworked admin), etc.
But, that’s not the whole story, and we all know it. As the marketing truism reminds (uncomfortably, perhaps?), “It’s far easier to get more work from an existing client than to land a new one.”
Have you had an old client get back in touch after several years, making you realize you’d done a sorry job of regular follow-up?
How do you ensure good clients, even those without steady, ongoing work, keep you “top of mind” for when they do need a writer?
Have you had a steady client that’s hired you for at least 3 years? If so, what do you do (besides write really well) that keeps them coming back?
Have you just thought of a few clients you lost touch with? And what are you going to do about it? 😉
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I landed a new commercial writing client some time back – a graphic designer a few states away who’d found me via the web. His freelance copywriter had walked out the prior week and he was stuck with some looming deadlines – one just 24 hours away.
When I gave him a quote (with a 20% additional rush charge) for the hot job – two concepts for a direct mail postcard (front-side headline and reverse-side sub-head and body copy), it was obviously more than he’d hoped for.
He started thinking out loud on the phone, finally concluding that, with 24 hours till showtime, he was nervous about entrusting the project to an unproven (to him) commercial copywriter, and risking his deadline with a good client.
His solution: he’d concept the headline and I’d do the back cover copy. I’d start on my part and could adjust the tone to fit the concept he’d send me the following morning. Fair enough.
After we got off the phone, my mind just started working on the uncontracted headline portion. Not wise, but I couldn’t help myself. This kind of work is like a game to me – BIG fun. I spent no more than 30 minutes at it, but came up with a few pretty good ideas.
A few minutes later, he called about something else, and at the end of the call, I explained what I’d done, adding, “If you decide to use one of them, technically, you don’t owe me anything, but rather than be stingy, I’ll share and let the chips fall where they may.”
Well, turns out he loved one of them saying, “I know a good headline when I see one,” and then asking, “If I were to use it, what would you charge? I don’t believe in people working for free.” Do you love this guy or what?
My reply: “You already know what I’d normally get (important to establish your regular rates if you ARE going to take this approach), but in this case, if you want to throw me an extra $100-150, I’m happy.” Him: “I’ll absolutely pay you $150.”
Okay, so what that I didn’t get my usual commercial freelancing rate? I wasn’t going to anyway on this job. I got $150 extra for 30 minutes work and came up with a great headline that allowed him to spend his evening with his family, not holed up in his study, concepting headlines.
I made a great first impression, establishing myself as a talented and generous writer who thinks like he does, and can come through in the clutch.
Some may say, “Tsk. Tsk. You set a bad precedent.” I disagree. He acknowledged that a headline would normally be worth far more, and in the future, we’ll come to a number that’ll work for both of us, (or, I suppose, we won’t). Either way I’m not concerned.
I’m not suggesting you always play the “give-it-away-for-peanuts” game; in this case, it just made sense to do it. I AM suggesting that, as long as the client knows what your normal rates are, you come from a place of generosity and abundance.
And by coming through on no notice, he starts seeing why I charge what I do. I gave a little, got a fair return, ended up looking really good in his eyes, and nicely set the stage and his expectations (both work- and money-wise) for future work. Win-win.
As I see it, as commercial freelancers, we need to strike a balance between expecting to be paid well for our skills, and having a little elasticity in that policy. Certainly, if you could only be one way or the other, the former is clearly better than the latter.
Too much of the latter isn’t good for building respect on the part of your clients, nor cultivating the internal variety. But, if you do too much of the first, taking, say, a “I-don’t-pick-up-a-pen-for-less-than-$500” approach, being a commercial freelancer becomes largely a clinical and left-brain exercise.
Allow yourself to have your moments of spontaneous, unscripted generosity, minus the fee minimums and clock-watching. They’ll make doing this job of ours more fun and joyful, you’ll build stronger, more enduring relationships, and (as I was able to do here), they can clearly convey why you deserve to be well paid.
Have you had a similar scenario?
If so, how did it unfold and where did it lead?
Do you watch the clock closely or are you less manic about time?
Where have you drawn that line between running a serious business and having a little flexibility in your time policy?
(NOTE: I was serious about loving the short-copy stuff: taglines, company/product naming, headlines, book titles, etc. If you run across such work, and it’s not your thing, think of me (and I’m happy to pay a finder’s fee). Samples here, then “Naming/Taglines & Slogans…” And here for book titles…).
Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.
I went fulltime with my commercial writing business about three years ago. A scary move, as so many of you know, but within about six months, I was starting to build momentum. I was landing copywriting projects on a fairly regular basis, and some referrals were starting to come my way.
Then in late 2010, I got the dream offer: the opportunity to work on a long-term project for an organization located in Hawaii. I’d always wanted to live in Hawaii, so it was a fairly easy decision. It would be guaranteed income for 7-8 months, and I’d get to escape Colorado winter and walk on the beach every day after work. I mean, come on—it was a no-brainer! So, I packed up and headed to the islands.
My intentions were good at the start of the project. Of course I’d stick to my weekly marketing tasks. Yeah, the time zone difference might pose a bit of a challenge as far as cold calling, but I’d make it work. Right? Wrong.
What actually happened was…I went beachside and the marketing of my commercial freelancing business went by the wayside. And eight months later when the project was complete and my contract ended, the reality set in that I was going to be starting from scratch. And it was worse than I thought—I was literally back to square one.
I don’t regret accepting the opportunity, and not just because I got to spend eight months snorkeling and wearing flip-flops 24/7. It was an interesting project related to subject matter I’m passionate about. But truth be told, there’s a part of me that can’t help but wonder where my commercial copywriting business would be today if I hadn’t detoured and put all my eggs in one basket for almost a year. At the end of my contract, I found myself holding an empty basket and yelling, “Hey, where’d everybody go?”
If presented with the same opportunity again, I’d still take it. But I did learn some lessons about the long-term cost of working for just one client, and about the pitfalls of working on-site at the client’s location. For anyone who might be tempted to consider a similar opportunity, I’d offer the following food for thought:
1) Think carefully before accepting the project (yes, even in the case of tropical island locations). Ask yourself honestly how the decision will likely affect your business in the long run. Do you have the discipline needed to stick with your marketing efforts? Will it take a toll on your business, from a long-term perspective? If so, are you willing to start over when the contract ends?
2) If you do take on the project, insist on working from your own office. You can always attend meetings on-site when necessary. But working from your own location will help you look at the job as you would any other project, versus seeing yourself—and having them see you—as an employee.
3) If working on site is a requirement, maintain a professional, independent contractor attitude. Don’t let yourself get pulled into office politics, and beware of staff members who try to recruit you to their camp during in-house power struggles (and believe me, they will try). I’m not saying don’t ever socialize; just be sure and maintain the professional boundaries. If you get cornered in the coffee room by the company gossip king/queen, politely excuse yourself because of “that pressing deadline.”
4) Push for having only one point of contact, as far as submitting the work you do. This goes for any project, of course. We all know where the “road of multiple reviewers” leads. But it’s especially important when working on site. There’s nothing worse than having a steady stream of people stop by your desk to let you know how THEY think the article you’re writing should be revised.
5) Most importantly, maintain contact with your other current and previous clients—through a blog, newsletter, e-zine, etc. And make time each week for some regular marketing tasks (networking, cold calling, etc.). In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the importance of P-PC (Production-Production Capability) Balance. Failing to maintain your production capability in favor of focusing solely on your current production is akin to killing the golden goose (production capability) that’s producing your golden eggs.
Have you ever been offered a long-term, fulltime project with a single client? Did you accept the offer, or did the long-term cost seem too great?
How did you keep up your marketing strategies and maintain ties with your other clients?
Did you work onsite, or did you insist on maintaining your autonomy by working from your own office?
If you worked onsite, what strategies helped you maintain your independent status?
So, I got an email the other day from a reader in the Northeast whose note underscored an issue we commercial freelancers wrestle with all the time. While this particular case seems a bit more straightforward (see my reply below), variations on this scenario can present challenges to writers like us. As a result, I’d love to hear others’ strategies on this. She wrote:
It seems that, where I live anyway, people have no problem meeting with me, picking my brain for marketing ideas, and then not offering a paid writing job. Happens all the time. I’m starting to think it’s my fault.
In the case below, I competed for a full-time job with the company. Though I didn’t get the job, my contact called to say she’d like to stay in touch, as she wants to work with me in the future. Since then I have maintained a positive attitude and stayed in touch thinking that I could turn her into a paying commercial writing client.
This morning a message came in from her: “Would you be around to meet with me and a few other staff members (including the person who landed the job I competed for) on (X) date/time? We don’t have any projects ready to go at this point, but I’d like to toss around some ideas for down the line. That would include some help on things like _____ (i.e., a short list of writing projects).”
Should I go, and with the same positive attitude that they’ll become a paying client?
Given that these particular folks haven’t made a habit of doing this (i.e., calling you in to talk but not hire you), I’d go ahead and meet just to get in front of them. AND limit it to an hour, tops. AND not give them all sorts of ideas they could run with without having to hire you. Nothing wrong with giving them an idea or two that demonstrate you know what you’re doing as a copywriter, showcase your range of capabilities and underscore the value of working with you. That’s often what it takes for a prospects to quantify you as a resource and start developing a comfort level with you.
It’s a fine line, no question. But, as I see it, if someone wants to pick your brains for ideas that would be worthy of a consultation fee, then you don’t want to give it away for free. An example of where it can make sense to meet (without pay) is if you’ve taken a look at their business and seen possibilities for several writing initiatives (involving you doing the writing) that could move their business forward (i.e., a newsletter, direct mail campaign, case studies, white papers, etc).
Still no guarantee that you’ll get hired, but to a certain extent, it’s often the nature of the beast that you have to show your value before you get hired. And in the above case, giving them ideas of possible projects still means they have to do them, so the idea itself is only worth so much. Not sure whether your frequent experiences of this kind (prospects happy to milk you but not willing to hire you) points to the “nature of the beast” scenarios we ALL face, or whether there’s something else at play here.
One thing I might suggest asking and clarifying before meeting, in a casual, “in-passing” kind of way, is what sort of in-house resources they have to handle projects like these. As a way, of course, of determining if they could indeed just take your ideas and execute them on their own. Any whiff of that and you should be careful…
What advice would you give her?
What’s your policy? Where do you draw the line when it comes to initial (unpaid) meetings?
What red flags have you come to recognize as signs of a “Moocher”?
Have you come up with any sort of standard response to similar requests?
Got a note from a fellow commercial writer recently. She wrote:
I have a client who’ll give me two or three days to write something (when I really need a week), insisting such a tight deadline is necessary, and then take a week to review it, revealing the deadline wasn’t real after all. I know they’re not getting my best work because there’s no “dwell” time. I’ve pulled all-nighters to get projects done, and then hear nothing for days or even a week. When they do come back with comments, I might get a day or two to generate a second draft.
The last time this happened, I did ask for a rush fee and got it. But the extra money isn’t worth the extra stress. After all, reducing stress is one of the biggest reasons I became a commercial freelancer.
Yes, I’ve brought this up to them, but it’s come to nothing. They try to do better for a week or two and then the old habits return. Moreover, these conversations just seem to make our otherwise genial relationship tense. And other than this, they’re great clients: they’re fair on other matters, pay promptly and I’ve worked with them for seven years. A commercial copywriting client like this is a godsend in this crummy economy. Is this just the way it is? Or can you suggest some tricks I might be able to use to manipulate them into better behavior?
Alas, no tricks, but you may have more leverage than you think. If you’ve worked with them for seven years, obviously you deliver a lot of value and they know it. That being the case, you should be able to make your sentiments known without them freaking out. Clearly, while they may appreciate what you do for them, they’re not showing you much respect. Though, I suspect there’s nothing malicious in their actions, but rather garden-variety cluelessness.
To repeatedly insist a job is a rush job and then repeatedly take a week to review it shows they believe, perhaps even unconsciously, that their time is more valuable than yours. If it were me, I’d draw a line in the sand. But obviously, you have to weigh the value of this otherwise good client vs. the stress this situation causes.
If you decide to have this talk, make sure you ARE prepared to walk. The old sales adage, “He (or she) who cares least, wins” was never truer than here. If you’re truly fine with losing their copywriting business (and it’s totally okay if you’re not), you’ll come across with conviction and confidence. Which, I suspect, might just impress the heck out of them and have them suddenly see you in a brand-new light.
Many commercial freelancers have “come-to-Jesus” chats with problem clients that turn out just fine. The client develops new respect for the writer, AND often, the writer has an epiphany along the way, suddenly “getting” their own value. After all, if their client changes an offensive behavior as a result of a talk, they realize it’s indeed a two-way street, and that the client didn’t want to lose them.
I’d thank them for their ongoing confidence in you, but I would NOT go overboard in thanking them for all the copywriting projects they’ve given you over the years. Remember, this is an uncoerced market transaction: if they weren’t getting as much, if not more value out of the relationship than you are, they wouldn’t keep hiring you. They’re not hiring you out of charity, so don’t go to them hat in hand.
Explain that, as a copywriting professional, your goal is to always deliver superior work, and these conditions make it impossible to give them your best effort. But, that you could even live with THAT if the constant tight deadlines were legitimate deadlines, but they’re obviously not.
I’d wager they don’t kick you to the curb after all these years. How long would it take them to train a new copywriter? And do they want to go through that, when they could simply start making deadline requests based in reality, not whim?
Bottom line, nothing IS going to change on their side unless you somehow interrupt their pattern of doing things as they always have by getting their attention in some way.
What would you suggest she do in this situation?
Do you agree with my take or would you do things differently?
Have you had such a conversation with a client and how did it turn out?
Where do you draw your line in the sand with a “problem client”?