How My Home Remodeler Helped Me Improve My Copywriting Business…

So, I’m in the midst of renovating my townhome in Atlanta. The kitchen is done, and the upstairs bedrooms and baths are next.

The guy I’m working with was incredibly hard to nail down. He first came by to discuss the kitchen in mid-November of last year, but it wasn’t till mid-March that he finally got started. He doesn’t always return calls promptly, and his smiling “don’t-worry-it’ll-all-be-okay” responses—in broken English—to requests for specificity on time and expense were, at the outset, borderline maddening.

And, there’s no one else I want working on my house.

I’ll happily deal with the delays, the occasional radio silence and the vague, happy-face answers. Why?

Well, for starters, he’s just done an amazing job so far. The quality of his work is outstanding. Moreover, he’s got a naturally creative mind—always coming up with great ideas for this or that space—and if there’s multiple ways of doing something, he’ll always suggest the least expensive one, yet still get great results. And all that wasn’t reason enough to love him, he’s amazingly reasonable, to boot.

(By the way, if you live in the Atlanta area, no, sorry, you can’t have his name. Not till I’m done with him, anyway… :-)

All the above is great, and definitely a “best-of-all-worlds” combination one virtually never finds, but it was something else that really cemented my attachment to him…

He’s committed to delivering a superior product—even if it means more work for him (understand: he worked on a fixed labor cost, not by the hour). An example…

I brought him two samples of backsplash subway tile—one a rustic travertine, one of tinted glass. I asked him which he thought would be best. He looked at them both, looked at me, and holding up the glass tile, said, “This one would be a lot easier for me, but this one (holding up the travertine) is the one you want to go. It’s harder to work with this material, but you’ll be much happier with the outcome.”

There were plenty of other similar little examples, where his desire to have me be happy—no, scratch that, thrilled—with the outcome, trumped any clock-watching on his part.

Bottom line, he’s spoiled me terribly, and even though, as I write this, the delays in getting started on Phase 2 are giving me déjà vu, it doesn’t matter. I’ll wait.

Of course, I try to never miss opportunities to map the experiences I have in one part of my life onto the others. This guy is a living example of how to build rabidly loyal clients.

What might it do for our commercial freelancing businesses if we shifted our focus from clock-watching and making sure we didn’t get taken advantage of by clients, to looking for ways to make sure our clients are thrilled with the work we do for them?

Sure, all we have is our time, and we can’t give away the farm, but assuming we’re earning a healthy wage, and have factored into our quotes some time for “hiccups,” what could cultivating a “service” mindset do for our practices?

In addition to ensuring our work plate always stayed full, and our fees stopped being questioned, what might it do for our spirits, our souls? Because, I’m telling, this guy is a happy man. Full of joy, goodwill and sunshine. Just the kind of person people love to work with.

Have you run across people—outside of our profession—similar to my friend above, who inspired you to raise the bar on your commercial writing offering?

Have you adopted a “service” attitude in your practice, and if so, can you share specific examples of its impact on your client relationships?

And if you have developed that mindset, how do you balance it against the need to earn a fair wage?

And if you haven’t adopted that mindset yet, has this piece given you some ideas, or affirmed some feelings you’ve already had about how to run your copywriting business?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

How Long Did It Take You to Become a Profitable Commercial Writer?

So, I recently got the following email – similar to many I’ve gotten over the years from what I affectionately refer to as “shortcut-hunters.” Can’t blame them – we all want the path of least resistance as we build our commercial writing practices. He wrote:

I have been working as a freelancer now for a couple of years, and during that time I have pretty lucky in being offered work with little or no marketing effort.

The work has been relatively low-paid, but enough to keep me afloat. I’ve been planning to follow your guidance now for some time, but I have always felt too busy with work and family to extend my reach.

Recently a long-term client told me he’d hired an in-house copywriter and that he’d be in touch if and when the company needed to outsource. This has left me in a serious bind as that work constituted a large part of my income. Today, I’ve been cold-calling per your instructions in TWFW, and called 23 marketing agencies.

I got the usual gatekeeper responses (even when calling between 4:30 and 5:30), and I have been given a lot of email addresses of those in charge of marketing to send along my resume, etc. I’ve emailed them, and given them my website address and resume in some cases, but it feels mostly like I’m wading through mud.

What you recommend should be the course of action for someone like me who is a decent copywriter, but needs work quickly?

My reply:

I wish I could give you some magic solution, but there really isn’t one. If there truly were a shortcut to landing high-paying commercial copywriting work faster than normal, everyone would have figured it out by now, and, on the heels of that, no one would be making any money anymore…

I’m afraid the commercial writing business doesn’t really lend itself to fast ramp-up times to profitability, unless you already have a pretty sizable pool of existing contacts that you can tap.

What you describe (calling 23 agencies and getting people asking for you to send info, but nothing right now) is VERY typical of how prospecting in our business goes. In most cases, one has to make many hundreds of contacts, and then nurture those contacts over time in order for things to ultimately pan out.

As I note in TWFW, any business that can pay the wages commercial freelancing can, is going to take a healthy amount of ramp-up time. You just can’t expect it to happen fast. The only fast jobs in writing are the ones that offer lousy pay.

AND, the more calls you make, the better your chance of finding that client who does need something NOW, but you can’t count on that.

While I felt for him (sorta), my evil, snarky twin wanted to say, “Where did you get the idea that this was an easy business? And hello? One client who makes up a BIG chunk of your work? That’s a crisis waiting to happen. AND (echoing a line from my note above), if it were really that easy to earn $50, $60, $80, $100 an hour, how long would that window last, before the low-ballers entered the ring, and crappy rates became the norm?”

As I’m fond of reminding people, the commercial freelancing field pays well precisely because it’s not easy. It’s a bona fide opportunity precisely because you’ve got to bust your butt, and often for a long period of time before you make decent money, and that there are precious few shortcuts.

It’s precisely because it can take a long time to get profitable, that when it does, it’s likely to be a more enduring profitability. And chances are excellent that’s the case because you got into the right habits early—habits that ultimately led you to healthy profitability. Amazing how that works.

In 1994, it took me four months to hit financial self-sufficiency as a commercial freelancer, which is fast. Though, in all fairness, I’d scaled down my expenses, and hit it very hard. Count on longer these days. Put another way…

Anyone who promises you fast riches as a writer is jerking your chain. Period.

With any luck, this piece and the soon-to-appear comments below will provide a good reality check to those starting out or early on in the business-building process.

How long did it take you to get to comfortable profitability?

What advantages/disadvantages did you feel you had compared to others starting out?

If you made it happen fast, what do you think the key was?

If it took you longer to become profitable, why do you think that was?

Any advice to give to someone starting out?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

From What Background Did You Come to Commercial Freelancing?

One of the things I love about this field of ours is that there are few backgrounds one can’t leverage into a freelance commercial writing career. Over the years, I’ve crossed paths with commercial writers who started out as doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, engineers, bankers, software salesman, PR people, undertakers, farmers, accountants, scientists, and many more that elude me right now.

It’s always interesting to me to see what fields someone can parlay into commercial copywriting career, and that they can parlay that field successfully.

Of course, it’s no surprise the commercial writing field is so accommodating to most any background. After all, every business needs a healthy volume of writing, and who better to deliver that writing than someone who hails from that field?

Obviously, as most of you know, I turned a 15-year sales/marketing career into a future as a commercial freelancer, and someone who understands sales and marketing is going to get the attention of many a prospect.

But I’d love to be able to share with readers of this blog who are considering a jump to our field, the various different paths that have led to it, to prove to them that, in fact, virtually any field one comes from can be a good starting point. With that in mind…

What was the background that you brought into commercial writing?

How did you leverage that background when you started out?

And if you did leverage it, what did that background mean to the people who hired you?

If you didn’t leverage it, was it harder to get started?

Any other comments?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Instead of Just Sharing “What You Do” with Clients, Share “Who You Are”…

I went to a networking function recently, and struck up a conversation with a middle-aged gentleman who’d recently moved to Atlanta from Minneapolis. He offered event-production services including light/sound design, DJ’ing, and more.

Since his business often involved subcontracting—especially his DJ business—we got to talking about his experiences hiring people in Atlanta versus the upper Midwest. He said he found those he hired in Atlanta to be less professional and reliable than those back home (something I’ve heard many times before). At my prompting, he shared an example…

He’d hired a guy to handle one of his DJ gigs (a wedding reception) since he had several going on one night. At the initial meeting with his client, she was clear that while she was open to all kinds of danceable popular music, she wanted no rap music with vulgar lyrics. He spelled this out to his sub and figured that was that. Well.

After the event, he got a call from the client explaining that, while generally speaking, the evening had gone well, exactly what she didn’t want to happen, happened: his sub had “gone rogue” and played a few offensive songs. When he confronted the guy—with whom he been crystal clear—the sub had no good excuse beyond a lame, “I didn’t think it was a big deal.” Huh?

But it was what he did about it that spoke volumes about who he was. After his client explained what happened, he apologized profusely and told her he was immediately, and with no questions asked, refunding her entire fee for the service (which she hadn’t asked him to do).

When he spoke to the sub, he told him that because of his actions, he’d returned the client’s money in full, adding that he’d never be hiring the sub again, but that he was going to pay him in full, just so that he couldn’t say—to anyone who’d listen—that he’d been cheated.

His telling of the story was delivered in a steady, low-key, matter-of-fact tone—free of theatrics and with little emotion. Just the way it was. In the wake of it, I found myself racking my brain to try and think of ways to hire this guy for something—anything—or to steer work his way.

We’d actually gotten into very little detail about the services he offered, but it didn’t matter. Something told me—as I’d wager it would tell anyone—that if this was an example of his business ethics, his actual services would be top-notch as well.

In revealing how he conducted business, he made an infinitely more compelling case for hiring him than a pitch about his services would ever have accomplished. Which, of course, got me thinking about how this maps onto our world of commercial freelancing—or that of any other free agent out there.

Yes, any prospective commercial copywriting client needs to know what you do, how good your copywriting skills are and how you work, and those things by themselves have been enough to land many gigs for many commercial freelancers.

Yet, seeking opportunities to share who you are and how you conduct yourself as a businessperson—in that same low-key, matter-of-fact way he exhibited, as opposed to grandstanding—can quickly move a future client from pondering taking the next step to putting you to work as soon as possible. It’s in the details about you, your life, what you believe, etc., that people get the chance to “take your measure.”

Arguably, this is another example of features versus benefits. Explaining what you do, how you work and even how strong your skills are, is all about you: features. But, sharing who you are and how you conduct business is benefits: it shows the client exactly what they’ll be getting—someone in whom they can trust and have confidence. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

This can be tricky to pull off, of course. He’d never have shared what he did—and thereby reveal his immense strength of character—had I not prompted him with my questions. But realizing what a powerful reaction I had to it, had me think of ways to harness this idea.

In many ways it’s nothing more than just being and sharing yourself, but given our natural human tendency to compartmentalize—business here, personal there—it can be challenging. But, I say it’s worth exploring.

1) Have you had similar experiences, where you were able to share yourself with a commercial freelancing prospect and have that seal the deal?

2) OR, through a similar character-revealing experience, were you able to take the relationship with an existing copywriting client to a much deeper level of trust, confidence and more business?

3) What are some ways to pull this off in a genuine way, so it doesn’t look like it’s being done for affect?

4) Any other thoughts ideas or comments?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Take a Customer Service Lesson from this Amazing Company…

So, check this out… I few months back, I finally got around to returning a pair of sweatpants to Lands’ End that I’d bought a few years back to exchange for a new pair. They’d lost their elasticity in the waist, which made them droopy and draggy. And hey, when you’re a work-at-home commercial writer, and every day’s Casual Friday, life’s too short for droopy sweats, right? Right.

So, Lands’ End has this killer money-back guarantee, which, if you’re a regular customer like I am, you can probably recite along with me: “If you’re not satisfied with any item, simply return it to us at any time for an exchange or refund of its purchase price. Whatever. Whenever. Always.”

So, I packed them up, sent ‘em in, and a few weeks later, as sure as the sunrise, I get back a brand-spanking-new pair delivered to my door, complete with fully-stretchy waistband. But, wait, there’s more…

What happened next is what separates the “Serious Customer Service” MEN of the world from the “Lip (Customer) Service” boys. And it’s no newsflash how precious few of the former, and how blasted many of the latter there are…

You ready for this? About a week later, in my mail is a letter from Lands’ End. I open it, and inside is a check for $7.35. Why $7.35? Because that’s exactly what it cost me in postage to send back the old pair of sweats.

Not only will they happily, cheerfully, and with absolutely NO questions EVER asked, let you return/replace anything, anytime, anywhere, for any reason. They’ll even reimburse you for your shipping cost when you do.

These guys are smart. And not just because they have a good guarantee and stand behind like few other companies in the world. But because they realize how little it costs to go WAY above and beyond even really good customer service. They realize how little it costs, in the big scheme of things, to do something so mind-blowingly impressive.

And they know that, when you do, people can’t wait to tell their friends this great, “check-this-out” story about what Lands’ End did (like I’m doing here…). Because LE knows darn well, how monumentally rare such behavior is in the business world, how low the customer-service bar is in people’s minds, and hence – and here’s the clincher – how incredibly easy is to stand out in the crowd.

As a commercial freelancer, I’ve learned how easy it is to set myself apart from the crowd through the service I deliver. I know that just doing what I said I was going to do, and by when I said I’d do it, and by delivering more than the client expects, I stand out. Nothing terribly difficult to do, but what a difference it makes.

As a self-publisher and bookseller, I’ve learned that if someone has a problem with a delivery or messed-up order, or a technical problem, a fast response that solves the problem and then makes it up to them (if it was my fault, and even sometimes when it wasn’t) turns people incredulous, and prone to gush on about how extraordinary – and extraordinarily rare – my service is.

And in most cases, it may have cost me, maybe five bucks (and often nothing, if I’ve sent them, say, an ebook bonus as a “make-it-right” gift) to make them pants-wettingly happy with me, and ready to tell the world.

People are so used to being treated like serfs, they’re downright starved for even halfway decent treatment by the companies they’re giving their money to. And when someone goes beyond that level, and actually seems to, let’s say it, cherish them, well, the word will spread, and by the most credible spokespeople of all – one’s own customers.

And again, those companies or individuals delivering this unusual level of service will be the first to tell you how little it costs them to stand apart. The difference between good and great really is often laughably small. But that small is big.

Which makes this the quintessential secret weapon for anyone, including freelance commercial writers, wanting to put themselves head and shoulders above the pack in the eyes of their customers.

What do you do to be a hero in the eyes of your clients?

What things have worked best to set you apart from the competition?

Would you agree that going that extra mile really doesn’t cost much more than not?

Any great customer services stories you’ve experienced?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.