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?

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9 replies
  1. Lori
    Lori says:

    What a great experience! You’ve found a true artist, Peter. I wouldn’t share him, either!

    Yes, I’ve come across exactly those kinds of professionals. We hired a company to paint our foyer. It’s one of those two-story, nosebleed situations that we weren’t attempting. They came in, did a great job and worked so quietly I thought they’d left when I wasn’t looking. When I noticed a few small spots they’d missed, the one young man came back and looked at it. Then he looked at the entire wall and said, “You know, I’m not happy with how this whole wall looks. Let me do it again.”

    Who does that? Smart people who understand happy customers are easy to make and even easier to lose.

    The same thing from our flooring people. It took forever and a week to get them to return a call, but when they did, they scheduled the job and had it done beautifully the first time.

    I’ve more or less always worked on a “service” attitude. I’m here to make their lives easier. If I can’t do that, then I’ve failed and need to make it right.

    I was about to lose a client back in July (their budget was hit hard by other, more pressing things). They were looking to retire the association newsletter because they couldn’t get the open rates they’d hoped for. I expressed my sadness at not being able to work with them on it, and attached links to a few articles on how to improve their open rate.

    They hired me a few days later. 🙂 I didn’t have to lower my rate, but rather I had to help them figure out a dilemma.

    The same goes for the article clients who get sidebars if I have additional info. I don’t care if I don’t bill that whopping $100 — it’s information they can use and it takes me minutes to put it on paper for them.

    When clients say they can’t afford to hire me or keep my services, I’ll offer to complete part of a project for them. It’s still within their budget and they’re either getting a jump-start on a project or getting a good polishing once they’ve done the draft.

  2. Robin Halcomb
    Robin Halcomb says:

    Great post, Peter! I’ve had a similar experience with clients and even wrote a prospecting follow up email that talks about discovering (through client comments) that what really sells them on me is that I’m genuinely interested in their results.

    Of course you’ve got to be able to deliver, but being enthusiastic can trump a lot of other factors when it comes to winning long-term clients. I’ve found that in business, as in any other relationship, you get back what you put in.

  3. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    What I love about this story, Peter, is how it illustrates the “big picture”. Most of us are control freaks to one degree or another. You could have gotten hung up on all the borderline madness and decided you did not want to pursue the business relationship. In our quest for control, we sometimes put barriers in the way of success.

    A couple of years ago, an organization wanted to reward longtime participants by paying their airfare to the annual event. Pretty awesome, right?

    I always go in a full week before the event to take some vacation time and meet up with clients in the area. For whatever reason, the event planners selected some arbitrary date before the event to fly in. It was about five days later than I planned.

    The initial response was I had to select their date. No one could explain why (e.g., the airline required it-whatever). Long story short, a coordinator stepped in and let me fly in on the date I had planned to. Happy me. 🙂

  4. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Love YOUR story, Lori… (I’m a poet, and know it…;) Both of them. Seriously, the one about the client you helped out. We wear many hats as commercial writers, and your story is a great example of being resourceful. I can picture a lot of writers just thinking, “Oh, well…” and just moving on.

    And I agree about the $100 un-billed sidebars. It’s so easy to build goodwill with clients, and things like that earn you more in good feeling and repeat business than what you could ever bill for it. If a client is a good one, look for opportunities to give freebies, whether it’s not charging for services, or offering resources (like you did on improving open rates) that have them see you as a partner, not just another vendor…

    I did that recently with a client who wanted some email blast copy done. I’d usually charge $400 or so, but they were over budget on the project (not because of me), and I offered to do it for $200. They were very appreciative. AND, I still probably made $125 an hour. Not to mention, another project I’d worked on for them was for $850, and it only took me about 3.5 hours to do, so it all works out. 😉

    SO true, Robin. The more involved you get in a client’s business, the more you learn, and the more you learn, the more potentially valuable you can be for them, and that means more money for you. That’s a cycle you want to be on…

    Cathy, hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. It’s easy to get caught up in the static, and let that drive your impression. And fact is, it can be irritating to deal with that kind of static, but the results are so uncommon and unusual, that they’re worth dealing with the inconvenience.

    And good story. Squeaky wheel and all that! Sounds like you “got” that the average worker bee in the organization wasn’t going to venture outside that small circle of “that’s our policy,” but there usually IS someone who can make those off-the-reservation decisions.

    Thanks to all! Anyone else?

  5. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    Sometimes you can even build customer loyalty by not doing the job at all. There have been times where I’ve had to say things like, “You know, I’m not really the best writer for this job. Let me give you a personal referral to someone else,” or “You know what? This project is still too early in the planning stages to bring a writer on board.” Clients never fail to be impressed by my willingness to decline the quick payday in favor of whatever is best for their long-term needs — and they remember it when the next opportunity comes around.

  6. Star Lawrence
    Star Lawrence says:

    Yes, I think we as vendors should not over-promise and under-deliver. And, of course, we throw in an additional revision for good clients. Or give them a good discount for a batch of projects. But I think returning calls, being where you say you will, and doing what you said you would, are part of being a good vendor. I would not say it’s okay to expect our clients to suck it up so long as we do a good job in the end. Maybe I am an outlier here, but that is how I feel. To continue the homeowner theme, I duke it out constantly with painters, landscapers, itinerant palm trimmers coming by in their trucks, pest control people. Answer the phone, show up, don’t try to upsell me, get the job done, clean up the mess, and bam, you’re coming back another time. And you will get huzzahs on Yelp.

  7. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Right you are, William – good story! When we give a client advice that appears to go against our self-interest (like you did in telling them you weren’t the right writer for the job), by definition, that kind of advice is more credible. And it’ll just make them that much more eager to look for ways to work with us. Given how starved most people are for honesty these days, when they run across it, they naturally gravitate to it.

    And yes, Star, I agree that not returning calls and generally being hard to reach doesn’t endear me to this guy; it’s just that the rest is so outstanding, I overlook the bad. But, we should strive to do all of it. But you spell it out: And nothing you list there is particularly hard to deliver, so it’s amazing how infrequently it does happen!

  8. Jake Poinier
    Jake Poinier says:

    I’m late to the party here, Peter, but my story is also about a home remodeler who taught me a lesson in pricing. Short version is that we got bids from three different contractors, two of whom gave hard estimates and very little detail; the third provided an estimated range and a significant amount of detail. They weren’t the cheapest, but I was impressed by their attention to the possible issues that might arise in an older house like ours. (Messy electrical and plumbing, etc.) Not only did they do a great job, they came in under the upper-end price.

    I immediately incorporated estimated ranges into my pricing strategy, as well as more granular detail. There are several advantages, as I see it:
    *It provides more comfort to the client to know that I’ve done my homework and understand their issues/goals.
    *It gives them an incentive to be easy to work with (i.e., fewer change orders) to keep their price down.
    *It gives me a negotiating advantage, because I have wiggle room at the upper end. I price the top figure conservatively to accommodate any worst-case scenario, then usually find that I can invoice for less–which means a happy client.

    This post is a good reminder that there are customer service lessons all around us, if we choose to see them!

  9. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Jake,

    Great story! And for most of my career, I’ve offered clients ranges, and for the reasons you give. One of the best is, as you say, that if you do come in under the top figure in the range, you’re a hero, and it makes the client feel that they’re paying you just the right of money, and no more. Which is how you want them to feel.

    These days, I work more on set fees, but this discussion might have me revisiting that!

    Great to catch up with you today on my Well-Fed Wednesday!

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