Commercial-Writing Clients with Money vs. Ones Without: Like Night and Day…

I got an email from a recent Well-Fed Group Coaching participant that made me smile for a few reasons. She wrote:

This is all becoming less and less theoretical and more real. Which is eerie. It seems I’m beginning to live in your make-believe world!

Too funny. I swear, it’s as if, until people experience these things for themselves, they imagine I’m making all this stuff up about how the commercial copywriting business-building process unfolds. I promise, it’s far easier to share my real-world commercial freelancing experiences than to fabricate a bunch of them out of whole cloth.

But it was what she said after that that had my “Blog-Topic-Alert” meter going off. She wrote:

I’m also beginning to see how differently potential clients with money vs. those with little, behave. They’re like different species.

One simple statement with so many ramifications. For starters, it’s so true. The difference in the respective experiences of working with clients who have little money vs. those with plenty is so vast as to be almost vertiginous.

In a great blog post I recently commented on (and in which I was mentioned – yay!), freelancer Kathy Shaidle says:

The cheaper the client, the more demanding they are. My $75/hour clients tend to approve the very first version of everything I send them, thank me profusely, pay me immediately, and hire me again. Clients I’ve taken on for far less (because I’ve felt desperate — or sorry for them) ALWAYS want more changes, more words, more pages, more of my time on the phone, more everything. Eventually, I (politely) fire clients like that. Inevitably, they are replaced almost immediately by more professional ones with larger budgets (and brains).

And in our world, $75 an hour isn’t even that much; but her point is sound.

If you spend your time hanging out with low-ball writing clients, and in turn, being run ragged by them, it will very likely have you question your career decision.

But find the good clients, and your sense of the overall viability of freelancing will undergo nothing less than a radical transformation. It becomes a whole different word. Less hassle, more creative fulfillment, and, of course, more money.

Better-paying clients are almost always easier to work with than the low-ballers, as my coaching client above noticed. She observed:

The one who wants to get things moving knows the value of what a writer can offer. The one who said he was interested in having me work for him, but then took a long time getting information to me, and was antsy about pricing, didn’t seem to fully accept the cost of doing business. Or he just doesn’t have as much of a budget set aside for marketing. The folks who are hardest to negotiate with are the ones with the smallest budgets.

To her comments, I’d add that, for the kinds of clients we want to work with, money is never (within reason) the main issue. Rather, it’s a predictable superior outcome they’re seeking. And that motivation always trumps money.

But know this: if you’re in the early days of building your commercial writing business, lower-paying clients are the ones most likely to be willing to work with you when you have little to recommend you other than a few unimpressive samples and an abundance of enthusiasm.

As such, they serve a wonderful purpose: to help you build your confidence, as well as both your intangible “experience portfolio” and your real physical one.

But realize that you need to compartmentalize those early experiences with that class of client, as being a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

I say this because those coming from “writing ghettos” (i.e., the content mills, where $5 for a 500-word article is de rigeur) may feel that working with clients who actually pay $25 an hour (wow!), even if they are pains to deal with, is “died-and-gone-to-heaven” territory.

But if you indeed have writing skills far beyond the typical content-mill writer, and are eager and willing to plant and nurture those skills in greener writing pastures, then $25 an hour is only the beginning. No, it’s not easy to get to that $75-to-$125-an-hour copywriting level, and don’t believe anyone who says it is. But, it’s doable, and I hear daily from people who’ve done it.

And if you’re sadly still playing in that copywriting bargain basement, and complaining about the low-ballers who just won’t pay you what your skills are worth, then you don’t understand the dynamic at work there.

I think I did a decent job of attacking this victim mentality in a recent guest post I did (on Lori Widmer’s Words on the Page blog), entitled, “Why Writers Don’t ‘Deserve’ to Make More than $5 to $10 an Article.”

For most of you regular visitors to this blog, you “got” this a long time ago, but if you’re still wrestling with it, check it out. It all comes down to having copywriting skills not shared by thousands of others, and when you can stand out, you’ll start seeing firsthand, as discussed earlier, the HUGE difference between client classes.

What other differences have you seen/experienced between the clients with money and those without?

If you’re now operating in solid, higher-rate commercial writing territory, but didn’t used to, what/when was your “light bulb moment”?

And if you indeed went from low writing wages to the higher ones in our world, did you immediately notice the stark difference in client quality?

Have you moved out of the “$5-an-article” writing world, only to get stuck in the next (and still-low) level?

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

19 replies
  1. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    There’s also the fact that my clients are getting a lot more than just writing. They’re getting professional-quality writing, delivered when promised and with little or no need for revision. They’re also getting an experienced creative talent who can help them brainstorm ideas for their written content that they might never stumble on through their own trial and error. I may cost more than some, but I try to provide more value for that money.

  2. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    What I have seen with the with vs. withouts is the withouts are the ones who will pick your brain for all it’s worth as just conversation vs. consulting, they rarely have a budget, and they seldom have a clear idea on what they want.

    My light bulb moment occurred with a client who wanted to make her passion mine so I would see the bigger picture and “reap” the rewards later – much later – if at all.

    I absolutely noticed the difference when I quoted my fee and the higher-paying clients didn’t even blink – wow! Of course, my immediate reaction was, I should have priced it higher. 🙂 But, I learned that we can expect that as “normal” when you work with the right kind of clients.

  3. Mike
    Mike says:

    Hi everyone.

    Peter, thank you for your time and dedication to make this field feel more accessible for those, like me, who are entirely new to it. I have a couple questions regarding the client hierarchy. I’m trying to build a portfolio and looking into pro-bono work because I currently do not have any samples.

    Do the low budget clients pick your brain/try your patience only when it is paid work instead of pro-bono? Also, in today’s world, is it recommended to build up experience and samples with the “$5-an-article” route or can that be bypassed with a more efficient method?

  4. Melanie Jongsma
    Melanie Jongsma says:

    Peter, once again you are right on the money. I just recently finished working with a client who displayed all the warning signs you mention, and the experience was draining and probably unprofitable. I did get paid the agreed-upon price, but I spent WAY more hours on the project—and on the administration of the project—than I wanted to.

    I’d be interested in a follow-up blog on handling these clients once you’re stuck with them. I mean, once you realize your mistake, is your only professional option to see it through to the bitter end? Or is there a professional way to fire the client mid-project?

  5. Jacki
    Jacki says:

    My light bulb moment: I had a client whom I could not please. I bent over backward for her. She kept complaining even though I kept revising and doing exactly what she asked. Each time, she just kept changing her mind. Finally I listened to a friend and told her, “I can see I am not going to please you no matter what I do, so please feel free to hire someone else, so I can get on with work for people who are pleased with the results.” She realized she had pushed too far and then paid more for what I had offered her originally.

  6. Peter Wise
    Peter Wise says:

    Agree 100%. When I started out, I took the approach of accepting all work that was offered, assuming I had time to do it. It was good experience, and it was money. But it also gave me an insight into the different types of clients and mentalities. Now I happily turn down clients. It’s the low money ones who will be trouble in nearly all cases, and if I do ever take on the low money ones they often prove to be just that.

  7. Peter Wise
    Peter Wise says:

    Following up on Melanie’s point, it’s a difficult one. I think if you’ve accepted a project you have to see it through. Sometimes if you’ve demonstrably put in a lot more work, you might think about discussing extra money. If they’ve changed the brief, been much slower than agreed or asked for extra sets of amends, then definitely (it’s vital to have terms & conditions agreed up front). As for future projects from the same source, tell them you have to charge much more as you’ve upped your rates and/or the previous project took so long – that should do it.

  8. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great comments, all!

    William brings up a good point: that in order to earn (and deserve) higher rates, we’re delivering more than just writing services. And clients with money tend to realize that more than those without, who will tend to have a more narrow perception of what it is that we’re offering.

    Cathy’s right: clients with little money will try to get as much as they can for free, but most of the responsibility for not letting that happen falls to us. And it’s a tough call – we’ve wrestled with similar issues in earlier posts, here and here. You have to know where to draw the line.

    Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving clients a taste of what we can offer, without giving away the farm. But, yeah, when a client tries (as Cathy’s did) to sell you on investing now for a reward later, it’s time to pack up your things and exit stage right.

    And yes, love it when a client remains completely unfazed by your rates. If you’re new to the business, I promise it’ll be a big “Aha!” moment for you. One that make you giddy. Suddenly, you realize there’s this whole other parallel universe out there. The clients LOOK the same, but they’re a completely different species. And the mere act of finding one proves there are others.

    Welcome, Mike! Low-budget clients will try to pick your brains without paying. Heck, if they’re paying me for my time, I’m going to share as much as I can with them. As for pro bono, since you already know going in that you won’t be paid, by all means, let them pick your brains to establish your value, and most importantly, to build up that “experience portfolio” of real-world situations.

    As for the $5-an-article route to portfolio-building, nothing wrong with that to get some samples under your belt, but understand that the average $5 article is not typical of the type of projects you’d be hired by good clients to do (i.e., marketing brochures, direct mail, case studies, web content, white papers, newsletters, etc.). A portfolio of $5 “content” pieces isn’t going to impress most of the clients we want to work with, unless you’ll specifically be writing content for them. Check out this post for more on content marketing…

    Good to see your comments, Melanie… No rule says you have to stick it out to the bitter end if a client is a pill to deal with. As Peter points out, in the early days, you learn to swallow your pride a little in the name of portfolio-building, and info-gathering. If you ARE midway through a project, I’d see it through, and just realize what YOU did or didn’t do to end up in that situation (if applicable), so you know not to do it the next time.

    And speaking of learning, Jacki, sounds like you picked up some valuable lessons from your experience! And, I noticed a few things in your comments that raised a read flag or two for me. One thing I and most people who’ve been at this a while have come to realize is this: most clients will take their lead from you.

    As Peter points out, you have to set your terms and conditions upfront. If she kept changing her mind, that means she believed she could keep doing so at no penalty, because you didn’t limit the number of revisions in your contract/bid letter OR didn’t make it clear than changes in directions would incur additional charges.

    I could be wrong, but the fact that she felt bad afterwards leads me to believe that she’s fundamentally a good person who just didn’t understand the rules of the game. And if she’s new to hiring freelancers (or hired other freelancers who also weren’t clear on their T&C’s), then how would she know? It’s OUR responsibility to let them know what those terms are, in advance.

    Good stuff, everyone!


  9. Jacki
    Jacki says:

    Thanks, Peter. That was my first big job and your comments are exactly what I learned from this. I was so pleased to get the job that I undervalued myself and was willing to do whatever I could to make her happy. After this experience, I outlined exactly what they’d be getting and at what price. I set terms that included additional costs for more than one revision and for any changes in direction. When I was firm in these areas, I gained respect and better clients. And yes, she is a good person. We both learned from the experience.

  10. Beth Carter
    Beth Carter says:

    The first step to commanding respect is to create a perception that you deserve respect.

    True story: My friend’s aunt sells jewelry at renaissance fairs. One day there was a necklace that just wasn’t selling. My friend suggested they lower the price in order to move the merchandise. The aunt said no, we need to *raise* the price. Which she did, and the necklace sold within the hour.

    Same necklace, different price — which makes all the difference in the world. The higher price made the necklace seem more valuable and therefore more desirable.

    The same is true for our writing services. Once I decided to start charging prices that frankly made me a little nervous, I stopped getting those budget-conscious and highly demanding clients. My higher prices automatically created a perception of value and gave me an instant aura of deserving respect. I’ve heard it described of me, “She’s not the cheapest writer around … but she’s worth it.” Which I love! And even if a troublesome client does sneak up on me now (hey, it happens), I can deal with it since I’m at least being well paid for it.

  11. Melzetta "Mele" Williams
    Melzetta "Mele" Williams says:

    Check this out:
    Client #1 hired me to write a sales letter for a business she was building part-time. She worked full time in a job with an average salary. When I asked about her budget she responded: “When I want something, I find out what it will cost and I then sacrifice to get it. So just tell me your fee.”

    Client #2, retained my consulting services and later told me he paid my fee by borrowing on his 401(k). Talk about feeling guilty!Doesn’t every personal finance guru tell you to think twice before you borrow on your 401(k)?

    I learned from these two experiences that those who value quality (and recognize that you can give it to them) will find a way to pay for it — even if they appear to have little money to spend.

    So, I’ve prepared a speech for when I face those HARD-CORE “nickle and dime-ing” prospects:
    “A client really couldn’t afford my fee, but wanted the work done to a certain level, so decided to borrow on his 401(k) to pay me. While I didn’t and would never ASK a client do that, I do recognize his sacrifice. So, I feel I owe it to that person not to discount my fees below what I feel is reasonable in light of the work you need done. I hope you understand.”

    This has worked several times, especially with those that have money but just don’t want to spend it!

  12. LouAnne
    LouAnne says:

    As writers, we love our craft and come by it so naturally that we tend to underestimate how valuable our gift can be to clients who lack it. Once I realized this, I started commanding and receiving higher rates. A tip I learned from B2B writer, Steve Slaunwhite, is to make sure that your project quotes clearly state the value you offer. It’s a very rare project that consists strictly of copywriting. For example, my legal experience has saved many a client from potential lawsuits. A background in languages means I can coin product names that work in those languages. We all have talents, skills and experience in other areas of our lives that can make our copywriting so much more valuable to a client. Apart from that, just care. Deeply and sincerely. About your work, your client and his customer.

  13. Carl Thoren
    Carl Thoren says:

    Wow, some great stories here! I tend to look at us as like lawyers: our job is to make the best possible case for our client in the courtroom of the marketplace. I think this applies to our pricing, too. You wouldn’t trust a cheap lawyer, would you?

    There are issues of client ignorance and the perceived value of copywriting, of course, but it seems like if you charge below $50, you are seen as either not very good or just a beginner. Charging more “proves” that you are good by definition and the client is more likely to trust your work.

  14. Andrew Hindes
    Andrew Hindes says:

    Totally agree re: clients with and without money. Smaller clients who haggle over price are often more trouble in the long run than larger corporate clients. But as the owner of a small copywriting firm that charges in the upper range of fees, I’ve been noticing that even my more well-heeled clients are pushing back on fees that would have been a non-issue a few years ago.

  15. Sharon Brodin
    Sharon Brodin says:

    I’m adding to the mix here about 18 months after the initial blog post and conversation, because I just bought The Well-Fed Writer a few weeks ago. What’s so noticeable to me in reading all the comments here is the lack of typos, misspellings, wrong punctuation…all the things on other sites that drive me crazy! Of course everyone here is a writer, which is why. It’s such a refreshing change, I’m almost laughing to myself.
    I’ve gleaned so much good info from the book and now from reading here on the blog. Thanks to all for their participation and input.

  16. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Welcome Sharon,

    And yes, you’re right – as writers, we watch how we write! I hadn’t really thought about it too much, but a visit or two to rank-and-file blogs is all it takes to realize the breathtaking lack of good writing skills that exists out there (which ensures this is a viable career path!).

    Every now and then, I see a post here, or an email I receive from someone either supposedly in the business, or just starting out, with all manner of typos, incorrect/missing punctuation and various other linguistic transgressions, and I’ll offer them a piece of advice: start presenting flawless writing to the world.

    After all, if you’re going to portray yourself as a professional writer (which you have to do even if you’re just starting out), then play the part. That means you write like a professional writer in everything you write: from client work all the way down to emails to friends, and everything in between (including, yes, blog posts).

    Sure, we all have typos from time to time – it’s inevitable, but make it the exception, not the rule.

    Hope you’ll weigh in on future posts!


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