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?

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10 replies
  1. Peter Wise
    Peter Wise says:

    Yes, good article Peter, as ever.

    A few years back I wrote a lengthy brochure for a client having managed to overlook a document he had sent me with some relevant background material, which meant that what I wrote was on the thin side in parts. He needed the brochure quickly and decided to do the revision himself.

    Needless to say when I found out I was mortified. I’d never overlooked an important background document before (or since, I might add), and although I had put a lot of time into the brochure, most of which was still fine and usable, I immediately and without prompting waived my entire fee.

    I think many others would just have waived part of the fee (or even none of it, blustering about not being given a chance to make amends etc), or waited to see what the client thought he should pay, but I know that I was right to do what I did. Not just because it was the honest, professional thing to do, but because I ended up getting a lot more work off the client – even more, I’m sure, than I would have done had I not overlooked the document and got the brochure 100% right in the first place.

  2. Star
    Star says:

    I always try to give an idea of what it is like to work with me. I make it clear that I may have ideas or suggestions that I have seen work–or say why things they might want may not be the best idea. My website shows I am interesting to work with–and maybe not always deadly serious. My client list shows many big name places worked with me. But–and this is a big exception–I only give a suggestion once…if the client wants what he or she wants, so be it! I personally run into so many people who seem nice at first–professional–knowledgeable…then…things happen. Bad things. Recent example: I needed an eight foot section of fence repaired. I called several people off Craigs. Finally I selected one–he never showed. So I started calling again–got the owner of one company–sure, he could some over and give ‘er a look-see. He talked about his huge business, his flatbed trucks, how he could do it right then, he’d run to Home Depot. The bid was $200–he said 3 hrs. In half an hour, he said he was done–I am disabled and could not gimp way down there to see it. He said he guaranteed it for six mos. I had his name. So I paid. Then my kid came in and said, “You know that guy never put in a new post, don’t you? He left crap all over the place.” I called and called–no guarantee being kept, I guess. So don’t be that guy, is the lesson. The best motto of all: Under promise, over deliver.

  3. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    Another aspect of this philosophy involves being honest when you’re not the right person for the job. I turn down plenty of writing assignments, not because I don’t want to do them or don’t need the money, but because I don’t feel I’m the best fit for that particular project. In those cases, I always make an effort to point the client toward another writer who I know will deliver the goods. These folks typically respond by thanking me — and by coming back to me with future projects for which I AM the best choice!

  4. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great stuff, Peter, Star and William (and glad you liked the piece, Ann!),

    Wonderful example, Peter, and I must confess, I’d probably have been one of those who gave a partial refund or tried to make amends. But doing it as you did makes such a strong, unambiguous statement about the kind of person you are, and how you conduct business, that there’s no doubt as to WHO you are. And hats off to you for that.

    If I were that client, I’d have been stopped dead, saying, “Wow.” I”m not surprised that you got a ton more work, and I absolutely agree that it was probably more than you’d have gotten had you done it perfectly well the first time. It’s in the screw-ups and how we deal with them that a client gets to take our measure, and to a FAR greater extent than during smooth sailing.

    Good examples, Star, and good policies to live by. Show your value, offer up good advice when you can, but let it alone if they’re not going there. And yes, it IS hard to get good help these days. isn’t it? Times like that is when you need a good Guido or two, no? 😉

    And I agree 100% William: if I’m not a fit, I will say so, and try to find someone who is. Not only will that impress a client, and have them think positively of you, but it tells them that your commitment is to the best possible outcome for them, not just a few more bucks in your pocket. PLUS, by referring someone else, it puts some good energy/karma into circulation, and something WILL come back to you as a result.

    Any other good stories?


  5. Melzetta "Mele" Williams
    Melzetta "Mele" Williams says:

    I was explaining my revision policy to a prospect (I offer two revisions for the fee). I added, “My goal is to satisfy you, however, so I’m not going to nickel and dime you if the project calls for some extra work on my part (beyond two revisions).”

    They loved that I used the phrase “nickel and dime.” Seemed down-home to them. Of course, I made sure they understood that I may have to charge extra if they decided to change direction.

    Sounds risky, but I’ve never had any problems (knock on wood).

  6. Lori
    Lori says:

    I haven’t quite sealed the deal, but a client called to tell me I wasn’t the writer for their company. I said sorry, and asked her if she was attending an upcoming trade show. Within 15 minutes, she’d revealed her hands-tied status in her company, and mumbled to me under her breath what I needed to do in order for her to try selling my revisions to the big boss, something she wasn’t supposed to be offering. It happened because I made it easy for her to give me bad news — I accepted it with an apology for the fit being wrong and no hard feelings.

    It worked well enough that the big boss called, too. His notion was to tell me personally where I’d gone wrong (I wasn’t an expert, and he needed a technical expert). In 10 minutes he was saying “You’re a damn good writer. We’ll find a way to work with you on something!”

    You’re right to ask how it can be done without coming off as phony. I just remove the emotion from the equation — it’s business. It’s not personal. Even if they’d called shouting that they hated it (and me) I’d have said the same thing in much the same way — sorry it didn’t work out, and I’m glad for the chance to try.

    Rejection of your work isn’t rejection of you. There are times when you’re just not going to fit even if the resume suggests you’re perfect for the job. You can let it go easier if you know that you’re also letting go of the stress that would have been had you tried to please them and perform the impossible.

  7. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks, Mele,

    Good stuff. No one likes to be nickeled and dimed and if you tell them upfront that you won’t, it answers an objection that could come up later, but now won’t! 😉 So, good for you.

    And wonderful story, Lori! I think what you’re talking about here is so important for people to get. Writers can be a notoriously insecure bunch (and I don’t consider myself immune from that unflattering quality…), and to take all the emotion out of what amounts to a rejection takes experience (which you have lots of).

    I can do it as well, but I didn’t always have that same equanimity, believe me. But, you’re right; it IS business, so no need to take it personally (assuming it isn’t happening with 2 out of every 3 clients or something…). And when you DO respond as you did, it throws people off guard, and new doors can open. And clearly, in this situation, how you were “being” had the whole gig go down a brand-new track. I’ll be rooting for you…

  8. Lori
    Lori says:

    Peter, I’m with you on having to learn that time of equanamity! It took a few years, for sure, but I think we can learn that kind of detachment with practice, and with being at a financial point where it really is okay. It was kind of funny — the company folks were the ones having the emotional difficulty. 🙂 I hope they call at some point. If not, that’s okay, too. I’d much rather they tell me I’m not a good fit than create a huge pile of stress trying to make me fit into something that clearly isn’t going to fit.

  9. Samm
    Samm says:

    Peter, thank you for sharing – what a good thought!
    It’s truly pleasant to work with individuals who behave themselves this way in matters of business. In time, surely, their character will attract clients. Even if they struggle, they can sleep well at night having done some good work. In time, some work will arrive.

    I’ve found if you practice being helpful to strangers in your line of work, whether that’s web design or copywriting, you’ll find free work where you’ll have a chance to improve your skills – perhaps even fostering a relationship that is fruitful financially.

    –Even without compensation, your return is gratitude (and perhaps not!), or simply the affirmation that you have done your best as selflessly as you could, and not for recognition. It softens discouragement when you’re starting out. It also is extremely pleasing to see others succeed from even the littlest expertise you provide them. I’ve found that in forums where people are asking, is a good opportunity to improve and as your article suggests ‘show who you are’ rather than what you do.

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