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.

Stories Like This Prove Big Companies Don’t Always Have Their Act Together…

So, I went out for a lunch the other day to my local Jason’s Deli. Pretty big chain – good, thick Dagwood-style sandwiches, great salad bar, etc. And no, I’m not getting free coupons for plugging them here. Just giving credit where it’s due, since I’m about to do the opposite as well…

Anyway, so while they have all these specialty sandwiches listed on their boards and in their printed menus, at the heart of their offering is a “build-your-own-sandwich” feature. You pick your meat (~ a dozen) and your bread (ditto) and then choose from a bunch of trimmings and condiments.

That’s what I want, so I grab a menu to review my options. Just as I have done successfully every other time I’ve come here for a sandwich. I open the menu, and look, and look and look some more. I see all the specialty sandwiches, paninis, subs, salads, desserts, etc. I see the section for the Build Your Own Sandwich, which reads:

BUILD YOUR OWN SANDWICH
Served with: Chips or baked chips with a pickle.
Substitute fresh fruit for chips & pickle. 1.59
Pick your meat, name your bread, select your spreads and dress it up.
You also decide the size. whole/5.99 • half/4.99 • *slim/4.99
.60 extra: hot corned beef hot pastrami natural, grilled chicken breast
*slim = half-portion meat between two whole slices of bread

That’s it. Where’s the list of the meats and breads and trimmings and condiments you get to choose from? AWOL. They were always there before, but I don’t see them now. Am I missing something? They’ve even included the three meats that cost extra, but not the 12 that are offered as part of the regular sandwich price. What gives?

So, I walk up to the counter, menu in hand, and ask the guy, “Where’s the list of meats I can choose from? And breads? And trimmings and condiments?” And just so you know, they don’t have a big menu board mounted that provides all that info.

“They’re not in there?” he asks? Nope. “Let me take a look,” he says, and here’s the clincher: “These are brand-new menus we just got in.” He looks. And looks and looks some more. “Hunh. That’s strange.” Yeah, tell me about it.

So, get the big picture here. Here’s a national sandwich shop chain – 225 stores strong. Ranked #1 in annual sales in QSR Magazine’s Top Ten list of restaurant groups with under 300 locations. Just named “Best Restaurant in America” by Parents magazine.

And as an experienced commercial writer, I know how projects like these unfold and get produced, and know this menu revamp probably went through at least a ten sets of eyes (conservatively). Yet, somehow, some way, almost inconceivably, the menu got printed, minus, arguably, THE core, central menu information – one of their signature features.

And each location no doubt got a few hundred copies of the new menu, which means close to 50,000 printed in all. Truly amazing.

And until it’s replaced with a corrected one, it’s going to make the counter staff’s job a LOT more complicated. Not to mention far longer wait times at lunch time, as everyone who wants a custom sandwich is going to have to ask for all the choices, listen and try to remember all they heard, and THEN decide. As opposed to knowing exactly what they want by the time they get up to the counter (i.e., like it should work). A freakin’ nightmare. This is the proverbial Menu Designed by Committee.

Oh, and get this: the SAME meatless/breadless menu was loaded up on their web site, to boot! So, until they fix it (and I haven’t checked it since), when people call to order takeout, they’ll be putting the counter staff through the same ordeal! Or if they’re trying to order online, they’ll likely just say, the heck with it and go somewhere else.

Now, obviously, Jason’s has done a lot of things right or they wouldn’t be as successful as they are. And while this screw-up won’t really hurt them in the long run, it’s just one more example – and they’re all around us – of BIG companies who don’t have their act together. Now, don’t get the idea that all companies are full of morons – obviously not the case. And this screw-up doesn’t prove that Jason’s is a bush-league operation. Again, not so. But this stuff happens more than you might imagine.

So, as you build your freelance copywriting business, don’t canonize these corporate entities as all-knowing, all-intelligent, all-savvy, all-buttoned-up entities. Ain’t necessarily so…

So, how do you think stuff like this happens?

Can you share some similar stories of major screw-ups in a big company’s literature?

Or similar snafus that show the Big Boys aren’t so smart, and maybe human, just like the rest of us?

Have you made the mistake of thinking you don’t have what it takes to make a difference for a business, since, “they’re SO much smarter than me”?

Got a Guest Post for The Well-Fed Writer Blog? (Now Three Years Old!)

Okay, so I tried this waaaaaaay back when, shortly after the blog’s launch – asking for guest posts. Got a few submissions from my fellow commercial freelancers, but after a while, things sort of fizzled out. And yours truly had to load that big blog burden back on my shoulders. I know, get out your violins, right? 😉

But seriously, I’d like to revisit this idea. Why? Because over the past three years (almost to the day – we launched on 3/30/08), we’ve developed a pretty extraordinary commercial writing “master mind” here. I’m happy to say, this blog has made its mark in that time, and has enjoyed great participation, with an average of ~25 comments per post! Compared with typical copywriting blogs, that’s a smokin’ number. So, thanks to all of you!

I’ve kept the blog frequency low: about twice monthly (heck, it usually takes 7-10 days to work through the commentary on any given post). That said, I’d love to start posting weekly, and to do that, I really need your help.

After all, The Well-Fed Writer approach has always been collaborative. My books, ezine, knowledgebase, the new Partner Pantry, and yes the blog, wouldn’t have been possible without the countless stories, insights, inquiries and experiences from commercial writers across the country and the globe. I’m just one guy, with one limited set of commercial copywriting experiences. What could you share?

Perhaps a prospecting strategy that’s borne some serious fruit over the years?

An unusual market (if you’re willing to reveal it)?

A particularly great success story – with a lesson attached?

A fabulous tip that’s made you more efficient, better networked or more profitable?

An insight into the business that’s made a huge difference for you?

Anything else to share that can help commercial writers make more money, have greater professional fulfillment, or enjoy a higher quality of life?

And keep in mind, you don’t have to be a seasoned freelance copywriting veteran. Had an experience that taught you something and enhanced your career in some way – something that others would benefit from? I don’t care if you started your commercial freelancing career a few months ago; let’s hear it!

Guest posts should be 400-800 words. And you know our drill: real-world stories and experiences are best. And of course, please include questions at the end to turn it into a subject with “legs” – one that can spawn a rich discussion.

What’s in it for you? Besides the warm fuzzy feeling you’ll get from helping your fellow commercial freelancers? Not enough? How about raising your profile in the eyes of your peers? More? Geez, tough crowd… 😉

Seriously, if you’ve got a book, ebook, ezine, report, program, service, blog or web site you want to promote, I welcome your promo copy at the end of the piece.

The first three years have been fabulous – yielding a mighty impressive body of work covering subjects across the commercial writing spectrum. I’d love to see where we can take it during the next three years, and beyond.

Got a blog post idea? Post the particulars here, as a comment, or email me at peter at wellfedwriter dot com.

Might This Guy’s Process Win You More – and More Loyal – Clients?

Had a chat recently with a commercial freelancer with whom I had a long-term mentoring relationship last year. Our goal was to give his business-building efforts some serious structure and discipline (i.e., regular cold calling and ongoing follow-up), as he ramped up a former part-time commercial copywriting practice to full-time and operational.

As of late fall of 2010, he was landing some solid copywriting gigs. He shared with me his process when working with new commercial writing clients, and I was so impressed, I asked if he’d write it up for me, which he did below. Really good stuff:

Peter, I recently landed a new client, and as part of my value proposition, I do a thorough business analysis – all part of the package they invest in. I spend approximately three hours reviewing my client’s web site and marketing materials, as well as the web sites of their major competitors – all with an eye toward understanding their respective businesses and how they’re positioning themselves in the marketplace.

Once I finish my research, I’ve learned a good deal about their business – and, what I want to know more about. In fact, I’ll typically end up with a list of 20 to 25 follow-up questions. Next, I set up a face-to-face meeting (which could be done by phone in the case of remote clients) with the client, during which time we discuss my findings and I ask my questions to fill in any blanks.

I tape the conversation and have the tape transcribed – providing the client with a copy of the transcript as well as giving me a verbatim record of our discussion for future reference.

The end result of all this is a deep understanding of my client’s business and industry, from which I can make knowledgeable recommendations for effective marketing initiatives (and the accompanying written materials) moving forward.

More importantly, it serves as a true market differentiator for me. Few commercial writers delve into a client’s world as deeply as I’m doing (though none of what I do is particularly difficult), and that sets me apart. My clients are typically delighted at my approach, which, in many cases, actually leaves me more knowledgeable about their industry than even they may be.

As a result, I quickly go from being a copywriter to something far more than that: someone who’s made it his business to intimately learn their business, and who can then apply strong writing skills more effectively and strategically. This in turn fosters a longer-term mentality on both our parts, which is, of course, my goal: clients with whom I can work closely for many years to come.

While most commercial freelancers I know – myself included – will study a client’s site and materials, in my experience, few of us – again, myself included – are taking that research to as deep a level as this writer is. In a tough economy, shouldn’t we be grabbing every potential edge we can? Especially, as he points out, when it’s a relatively easy way to set ourselves apart from the pack?

One of the things I like most about the approach, as he notes, is the groundwork you’re laying to build a long-term, loyal partnership. When you start out interacting with a client on such a deep level, you powerfully transform the traditional client-vendor relationship into something much more solid and interconnected.

Put another way, when you can tell a new client things they didn’t realize about their business and industry, based on your research (vs. just following their instructions as to what they want written), you’ll earn a whole new level of respect, and will be viewed radically differently from the writer who didn’t do all that.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do as he does. Most of us don’t, and most of us have built good businesses. Just think of it as a tantalizing “what-if” scenario.

No, this approach isn’t always appropriate with every client (if you’re contracted, say, by a Fortune 500 client to just develop a brochure, they may not agree to pay for a full analytics package as well…). But, for many smaller- to mid-sized entities (50-200+ employees – arguably, THE “sweet spot” for freelance commercial writers – it would absolutely fly.

If you don’t conduct such analyses with new clients, what is your process?

Might something like this give you an edge over your competition?

If you are doing something on this level, can you share your process?

How have clients reacted to your process?

Have you always followed this process, or did it evolve over the years?