Four Client-Repelling Mistakes, & What I Learned to Do Instead (Guest Post)

Great guest post from Matt Seidholz, a freelance healthcare content writer in Omaha, Nebraska. Hats off to Matt for having the courage to admit some of these classics, but I’m certain each of us have our own “Really??” stories from our early days that we’re not too proud of. But, we learn, correct and move on. Thanks, Matt!


When I started commercial freelancing, I was so desperate to leave my day-job. I hated it, and thought copywriting could be my way out. Can you relate?

That desperation was wonderful fuel for my fire. It’s what got me on the phone, every day, trying to drum up commercial-writing clients.

But it also pushed me to do some very, very dumb things—things that pushed away potential clients, and hampered my copywriting business for months. I still cringe at the memory.

Here are the four dumb things in all their client-repelling glory, and what I wish I’d done instead.

1. Over-Eagerness
This one started with a cold-call to a marketing manager for a large medical manufacturer. Big fish for a new guy!

Imagine my delight when he said he might—just might—need some help. “Check back on the first of the month,” he said.

Oh, I wouldn’t miss it.

The first came around, and I called. No answer. Waited an hour. Called again. Voice mail. 15 minutes later, tried again. Nothing.

So I called again. And again. And again. And again. All told, I called this guy thirteen times in one day.

Clearly, I’d put way too much stock in this guy’s “maybe.” Of course, he never called back.

LESSON: Show restraint, not desperation, when selling yourself!

2) “Look at how smart I am!”

Another textbook foul-up.

I was browsing a company’s sales brochures, trying to get a feel for their work. Good idea, right?

But as I read their material, all I could think was: “I can do so much better!” I attacked their brochures with a red pen, hacking, slashing, underlining away. Then I wrote a new one, with “improved” copy.

Unsolicited, I mailed the edited version and my new work—with business card—to the company’s marketing manager. I was so proud of myself.

Cringing yet?

A week later, the manager emailed me himself, saying, essentially, Thanks for your edits on my copy. But we’re happy with what we’ve got.

Oof. Only then did it dawn on me how insulting I’d been.

LESSON: Check your ego, and offer help, not insults.

3) It’s a Man’s World – Isn’t It?

Yet another unforced error.

On another cold-call, a marketing associate at a hospital asked me to send her my information. “That way I can send it up to the VP of Marketing.”

Should have been an easy win, but I blew it.

I wrote back: “Thanks for the connection. Please relay my info to your boss. If he likes what he sees, we should chat on the phone!”

A subtle, but obvious mistake. The associate sure caught it, and less than half an hour later, emailed me back: “Our marketing VP is a she.”

That’s it. No signature, no “call us back,” no nothing. And I never heard from them again.

LESSON: No matter your gender, race, creed – stay professional, and be careful about the biases you communicate.

4) Jumping the Gun

This mistake actually happened after I landed a gig. Or, at least, after I thought I had.

I was speaking with a marketing director at a surgical center. She mentioned that she wanted to publish an article about a new device.

Oh boy, did I jump at that.

This was at the very beginning of my writing career. I was trying to build up my portfolio. Our conversation went like this:

“No problem, I’ll do it for free!”

“Uh, are you sure? It’s a lot of work.”

“Absolutely. I’ll turn it around for you in two weeks.”

“Alright…I guess.”

Elated, I was in a hurry to hang up and start writing.

Notice: No intelligent questions from me, and zero enthusiasm from her. I took her tentative yes for a “full-speed ahead.” Bad move.

I took to the project with rabid intensity. I read up on lymph-node biopsies, found technical manuals for the machine, and was just so darned excited to use words like “pneumothorax” and “endobrachial ultrasound.”

I liked what I wrote, and I was expecting effusive praise when I delivered it.

Instead, I got this: “This wasn’t what I had in mind. Please don’t spend any more of your time on this.”


LESSONS (two of them):

1) Never write for someone that doesn’t want you. Incredibly obvious, right? Sure, but a desperate novice will try anything for a quick win. Don’t. Get an enthusiastic “Yes!” before you ever pick up your pen.

2) Make sure you understand the job at hand. I dove into this project without knowing what this manager wanted to achieve. So how was I supposed to help her? Ask questions, so you can deliver something your clients can actually use.

3) (PB Addition): Don’t work for free! I understand pro bono work to build a portfolio, but if you’re going that route, keep your time commitment reasonable, and, of course, make sure you’re following Matt’s first two lessons above (including making sure the client knows you’re doing it to build your portfolio).

Wrapping Up

Yes, these were stupid, embarrassing mistakes. But things turned out okay for me.

These days I’m writing and thriving—plenty of money coming in, more business than I can handle, with new clients cold-calling me all the time.

My secret? Persistence. I chose to see my screw-ups as growing pains, and I got savvier with time.

It happened for me, and it can happen for you. After all, you can’t possibly screw up worse than I did!

(If you’re willing to admit it), what’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done in dealing with a commercial writing client?

How’d you recover? Did you try to pursue these clients again?

What do you think is the worst mistake a rookie can make when they’re starting out as a commercial freelancer?

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

2 Comments/by
2 replies
  1. Lori
    Lori says:

    I took on far too much work in one month — seven projects, most of them huge. The first one I tackled was a smallish one for a contact’s client (the big fish client). I wrote the piece based on my hasty research.

    The phone rang a few weeks later. It was my contact (who was with a marketing company I was trying to court). Their client hated it. The research I’d used, which I thought had been national statistics, was actually regional statistics. And it was not strong enough to support the article’s premise. And they didn’t like the approach I took. And I got one fact wrong.

    Three strikes in one at bat. Out.

    I recovered by slowing down on the other projects. I worked longer hours, but took breaks so I wouldn’t feel so drained. I moved a deadline. I managed to get through the larger projects with much better results, but that one stung. It was all on me.

    I never pursued them again. Oddly, they called me this year wanting to work together, but in the oddest of ways — they wanted me to write an article based on their input and revisions. Only they wanted the publication to pay me — they’d just be contributing their expertise (and driving me nuts with revisions, I suspect). I get that marketing people don’t often deal with journalistic ethical issues, but that was just so blatantly wrong. I had to tell them, nicely, why I couldn’t and why they shouldn’t be asking.

    The worst mistake a rookie can make starting out, aside from the obvious working-for-free blunder, is to accept everything a client says verbatim. Deadlines are moveable. Prices are negotiable. Revisions are not endless. And it’s okay to say no to a client and risk losing the work rather than taking on something you don’t want or aren’t compensated enough for.

  2. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great stuff, Lori – thanks! I think anyone who’s been at this a while has taken on too many projects at some point; it’s certainly a good way to learn what your limitations are!

    Of course, it’s easy to see why it happens: If you’ve worked hard to get established, you don’t want to say no to a new client (or even more so, to an existing, steady one!), and you think, “I can do this.” And maybe you can and do, but as you found out, not as well as could if you weren’t stretched so thin.

    Good—albeit, hard—lessons to learn, but hats off to you for owning your mistakes. Your story epitomizes that great expression: “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”

    And you’re so right; we have much more room to move with clients than we think we do (based on what they say). But too many writers are so eager to please, and so afraid of losing a client, that they’ll bend over backwards to please the client, when sometimes, they need to please themselves just as much!

    Thanks again!

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