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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!

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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.”

Ouch.

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.

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Successful Copywriters (Or ANY Craftspeople) Don’t Focus on Success; They Focus on This…

The “APPETIZER” Series: The original version of this piece first appeared as an Appetizer course in The Well-Fed E-PUB in February 2017, and was one I wanted to run as a blog post (with minor alterations) in order to get input from many voices.

A friend of mine recently sent around a pithy quote (source unknown) to a larger group of our friends. It struck me as a truism that gets at the heart of what we as commercial writers should aspire to, but don’t always. It said…

“The goal is not to be successful. The goal is to be valuable. Once you’re valuable, you don’t chase success, you attract it.”

I love its clarity. If you say, “I want to be successful,” not only is success an exceptionally nebulous concept that means different things to different people, but, just as importantly, how you get there isn’t at all clear.

It’s this vague state of being, akin, in many ways, to saying, “I want to be happy”—also a vague state, with vague path to completion. But say, “I want to be valuable,” and well, that’s a LOT clearer, no?

And if you know you want to be valuable as a commercial freelancer, then it’s just a matter of figuring out which skills and expertise you need to gather and develop in order to be valuable—to be someone that high-caliber, well-paying clients want and need to hire.

Once you’ve developed those skills—skills that make you more valuable than the average writer—assuming you do a decent job of letting the world know about you and your above-average abilities, you’ll indeed attract success.

Again, it’s like happiness. Trying to figure out what you should do in order to “be happy” can be a frustrating and circular process.

Come to think of it, becoming a useful, and yes, a valuable person—in many arenas of life—might just have you attracting happiness as well as success.

I can tell you this from plenty of firsthand experience: Being valuable is a LOT more fun than fighting it out with a bunch of other writers, when all of you have equal (low) value.

Forgive an Editorial Aside…
I think this little saying is particularly form-fitted to our times: With all the talk today of finding one’s passion and “finding one’s self” (especially for young people starting out), it’s good to be reminded that none of us is owed a life of passion or fulfillment.

We get there by working our butts off for a long time and for little money or recognition, until we eventually develop a skill or talent for something we enjoy and for which others will gladly pay.

If your copywriting practice is going well, what skills did you develop to make yourself valuable to your clients?

If your practice isn’t where you want it to be (or you’ve struggled in the past), was it because you focused on being “successful”?

Have you found that focusing on being valuable has, by any chance, boosted your happiness along the way? 😉

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Becoming valuable to my clients has been about a lot of things, but mostly, it’s been about honing my marketing-writing chops across a broad array of commercial writing projects so I can step into virtually any copywriting situation, and quickly know what to and how to do it.

If that sounds like the kind of “valuable” you’d like to offer your clients, I invite you to check out Well-Fed Craft, my new, self-paced course that delivers just that. Click the course name above for full details, testimonials AND a free 10-minute sample.

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

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Are You Seeing this “Client Expectation” in Your Market?

Got this email from a budding commercial freelancer in New Jersey, who wrote:

I am in Central New Jersey, and I am seeing people who were previously “writers” now resurfacing as “marketing experts.” I’ve had a couple of them tell me that it’s not enough just to be a writer anymore, that you need to provide analytics and in-bound marketing plans through platforms like Hubspot. Are you seeing this in Atlanta or other markets?

My reply?

I’m definitely not seeing this. That said, being able to offer things like that can only help a given commercial writer’s marketability, but no, certainly isn’t something I’m noticing more and more of. Over time, you may choose to expand your offerings beyond just copywriting, but I wouldn’t feel the overwhelming need to do so right out of the gate.

I am seeing more and more, the important of SEO (Search-Engine Optimization) to an overall marketing plan, BUT that skill is coming from other people. While a commercial copywriter who has some of those skills can definitely be an asset to a client, in the projects I’m working on, no one expected me to have those skills, and it was just assumed that there’d be another person (i.e., someone who ONLY does that) handling that piece.

And that was being driven by the fact that Google keeps changing rules to the point where an SEO layman just isn’t going to be able to keep up.

Also, don’t get all caught up with “trends.” Sure, anything you can add to your services can potentially make you more marketable, but you only need a teeny bit of the business out there to make a good living, and you can get that in any number of ways. And, in my experience, plenty of clients JUST need writers.

Are you seeing this trend where you are?

Has your business suffered because you were “only a writer”?

Are you doing fine even though you ARE “only a writer”?

Are there certain services clients are expecting you to deliver that they didn’t used to?


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

What Do You Say to a Prospect Who Asks for This?

I recently got an email from one of my sidecar-coaching clients—and a budding commercial writer. He’d made contact with an interested prospect who then sent him the following email:

I’d like to get a quote for a first project with you – to try you out. If the first one goes well, we feel there’d be ongoing work (multiple projects). As such, I’d like to get a quote for _______ as well as a________. Can you share your pricing terms, while understanding that we’d like to get an introductory price for these projects? And can you give me a price for the projects separately as well as together? Thanks!

He was asking me how he should respond to it. Obviously, it’d be easy-breezy for me to tell the guy, flat out, that I don’t offer “introductory pricing” (after all, I’m not at all desperate for work). But, if you’re a new commercial freelancer, you want to craft a way of doing business that sets your terms—in all senses of the word—without turning off a client.

My reply back to him :

Had to smile when I saw this. One of two client types. First, he’s the kind that thinks he’s being SO original in his pitch: “Hey, gotta lotta work coming up, so give me a really good price for the first one.” And maybe there’ll be more, and maybe there won’t be.

Or the second type: He’s honest about considering future work, but acting as if introductory pricing was a given. Would he ask for introductory pricing from an attorney? Doctor? Accountant? Folks like him need to get that we’re professional service providers, deserving of competitive market rates. And if you want the work because you’re starting out, then do it in a way that doesn’t seem subservient.

Anyway, all that said, while it’d be easy for me to reject such a pitch since I don’t need the work (or the aggravation of dealing with a client that thinks like that), it’s not my place to tell someone starting out what they should or shouldn’t do.

And that said, if you want to give it a shot, I might say something like, “I’d love to work with you, but I don’t really offer introductory pricing.” OR, “If there is indeed additional work coming—and I’d love to establish an ongoing relationship with your company—then how I work it when people approach me with such an offer is to charge my normal rate for the first one, and if you indeed hire me again, I’ll extend a discount to you on the second project.” Or some variation of that.

This can be a tricky call. On the one hand, by giving in to a prospect’s terms, you can set a precedent as being a doormat, and he might keep working you. By the same token, most commercial writing-buyers I’ve crossed paths with in my 21 years in the business aren’t connivers; overwhelmingly, they’re hard-working, honest people who just need to get their work done, and see the possibility of us helping them.

But, even good people can take advantage of you if you let them, so it’s still important to set and stick to your terms upfront—whatever they are—so clients don’t think they can get whatever they want, whenever they want.

Bottom line, he landed the gig (~$5K). He shared the email log with me, emphasizing to me the importance of continued follow-up when you’re negotiating. And indeed, there were several times in the process where he had to send a second email to get the client to reply. So, if you don’t hear something, email them again to keep things moving.

After he wrote me, he felt he needed to reply soon, so my reply came after he sent his initial response. He started out asking for 100% upfront payment and use of the final pieces in his portfolio (seems like a given, but clients sometimes refuse such requests just because they can; a good case for never asking in the first place) in return for an introductory price.

In the end, he settled for (and received) 25% upfront. While he wasn’t crazy about it, he wanted the gig, so he stayed flexible.

And that’s a key point here: It’s easy to suggest playing hard-ass, demanding this and that, but if you’re starting out and want to get some traction, you need to be flexible, and a little trusting.

Remember: As a rule, clients in the commercial copywriting field pay well and reliably. The last thing a growing company needs is a PR nightmare because they hosed their vendors and one of those “hosees” posted something on social media. We don’t have anywhere near the payment hassles experienced by many “freelance writers.”

How do you handle clients who ask for “introductory pricing” or some kind of special deal? How did you respond?

Have you given in to such requests in the past, only to regret it later (i.e., the client vanished after one discounted job, or was a pill to work with)?

Ever had a prospect try to “work” you, but who changed their tune and had new respect for you based on how you replied back to them?

If you’re more established and can afford to take a harder line towards prospects like these, what advice would you give to new writers who need to be more flexible as they get established?

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