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Might This Guy’s Process Win You More – and More Loyal – Clients?

Had a chat recently with a commercial freelancer with whom I had a long-term mentoring relationship last year. Our goal was to give his business-building efforts some serious structure and discipline (i.e., regular cold calling and ongoing follow-up), as he ramped up a former part-time commercial copywriting practice to full-time and operational.

As of late fall of 2010, he was landing some solid copywriting gigs. He shared with me his process when working with new commercial writing clients, and I was so impressed, I asked if he’d write it up for me, which he did below. Really good stuff:

Peter, I recently landed a new client, and as part of my value proposition, I do a thorough business analysis – all part of the package they invest in. I spend approximately three hours reviewing my client’s web site and marketing materials, as well as the web sites of their major competitors – all with an eye toward understanding their respective businesses and how they’re positioning themselves in the marketplace.

Once I finish my research, I’ve learned a good deal about their business – and, what I want to know more about. In fact, I’ll typically end up with a list of 20 to 25 follow-up questions. Next, I set up a face-to-face meeting (which could be done by phone in the case of remote clients) with the client, during which time we discuss my findings and I ask my questions to fill in any blanks.

I tape the conversation and have the tape transcribed – providing the client with a copy of the transcript as well as giving me a verbatim record of our discussion for future reference.

The end result of all this is a deep understanding of my client’s business and industry, from which I can make knowledgeable recommendations for effective marketing initiatives (and the accompanying written materials) moving forward.

More importantly, it serves as a true market differentiator for me. Few commercial writers delve into a client’s world as deeply as I’m doing (though none of what I do is particularly difficult), and that sets me apart. My clients are typically delighted at my approach, which, in many cases, actually leaves me more knowledgeable about their industry than even they may be.

As a result, I quickly go from being a copywriter to something far more than that: someone who’s made it his business to intimately learn their business, and who can then apply strong writing skills more effectively and strategically. This in turn fosters a longer-term mentality on both our parts, which is, of course, my goal: clients with whom I can work closely for many years to come.

While most commercial freelancers I know – myself included – will study a client’s site and materials, in my experience, few of us – again, myself included – are taking that research to as deep a level as this writer is. In a tough economy, shouldn’t we be grabbing every potential edge we can? Especially, as he points out, when it’s a relatively easy way to set ourselves apart from the pack?

One of the things I like most about the approach, as he notes, is the groundwork you’re laying to build a long-term, loyal partnership. When you start out interacting with a client on such a deep level, you powerfully transform the traditional client-vendor relationship into something much more solid and interconnected.

Put another way, when you can tell a new client things they didn’t realize about their business and industry, based on your research (vs. just following their instructions as to what they want written), you’ll earn a whole new level of respect, and will be viewed radically differently from the writer who didn’t do all that.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do as he does. Most of us don’t, and most of us have built good businesses. Just think of it as a tantalizing “what-if” scenario.

No, this approach isn’t always appropriate with every client (if you’re contracted, say, by a Fortune 500 client to just develop a brochure, they may not agree to pay for a full analytics package as well…). But, for many smaller- to mid-sized entities (50-200+ employees – arguably, THE “sweet spot” for freelance commercial writers – it would absolutely fly.

If you don’t conduct such analyses with new clients, what is your process?

Might something like this give you an edge over your competition?

If you are doing something on this level, can you share your process?

How have clients reacted to your process?

Have you always followed this process, or did it evolve over the years?

What Do You Think of “The Salad Dressing Rule”?

Got an email recently from a reader with a concern (and frustration…) we’ve all come up against at some point in our commercial writing careers. He wrote:

The challenge that’s just unnerving me is how to shift prospects’ minds from thinking they can do the writing themselves instead of paying a commercial freelancer $100+ an hour to do it. What would be the best way to create a brand that would neutralize this kind of thinking on the part of prospects?

Got a similar question posed to me by one of my group coaching participants:

What’s the best way to approach an industry that often relies on in-house engineers to write its copy? Should I try to convince them that a good writer is a better choice than an engineer, or could I instead offer editorial services in these cases?

Here’s an aggregate response to the both of them. There are two ways to approach this issue and both have merit.

#1: A question immediately comes to mind: Why are you wasting your time trying to convince people who don’t think they need a professional writer, to start using one, rather than finding those clients who understand the value of good copywriting and already use writers, or, at the very least, are open to hiring one?

In one of my books, I talk about The Salad Dressing Rule (explained by a fellow freelance commercial writer friend):

If you sell salad dressing, it’s far easier to convince someone who already eats salad to try your dressing than to convince someone who doesn’t eat salad at all that they should start doing so.

In both cases, these folks are finding people who “don’t eat salad.” So, using the prospecting strategies laid out in the book, start barking up some different trees.

Bottom line, you can’t convince those who are convinced otherwise, unless you get them to try you out and they see the difference a commercial copywriter can make. Which leads to the second approach…

#2: As many experienced copywriters have noticed in their travels, getting a prospect to understand what we do by trying us out will often make converts of them (assuming we’re good at what we do, and understand that particular client’s business). As such, in the case of the engineering firm (or ANY prospect who’s hesitant to hire you to execute a writing project from scratch), yes, maybe you offer editing as a door-opener.

If the client has an epiphany (and I’ve seen it happen plenty) based on the editing, maybe they’ll try you out right from the get-go the next time around. All you can do is offer. If the client isn’t receptive, move on. If you’ve had other clients start out as they did and become converts, make sure you’re getting testimonials from them and share those with the hesitant ones…

(NOTE: this is where building alliances with graphic designers can really help. Designers hate designing around crappy copy and ending up with a sample that looks great but reads like doo-doo. So if they have a client who’s written their own copy (and it shows), and you’ve built a partnership with that designer based on delivering superior copy that makes their design shine, they’ll often try to persuade the client to hire you, knowing the client will end up with a more effective piece, which can only reflect well on them. Not to mention they get a stronger piece for their book. In those cases, you’ve got a third-party doing the selling, which can be more compelling. Doesn’t always work, but when it does… There are few things sweeter than seeing an erstwhile skeptical client find religion after seeing professionally written copy that positively puts theirs to shame.)

All that notwithstanding, the “try-a-taste” approach is still going to be harder to pull off than finding those already inclined towards folks like us. If you’re in a smaller-market area, and trying to build your freelance copywriting business there, it might prove a necessary stepping-stone to cultivating serious clients. If, however, you’re in a major metro, you might not need to beat your head against the wall; there WILL be plenty of prospects who do “get” what we do. Not saying they’re easy to find, but likely easier than trying to get the others to “start eating salad.”

Do you only pursue prospects already sold on the value of professional writing?

Or do you try to do some converting along the way?

If so, how have you gone about getting them to try you out, and has it worked?

In a tough market, should we be investing more time in “educating the unsold” or do you feel it’s still largely a waste of time?

The Confidence Conundrum: How a Newbie Writer Builds Enough to Succeed…

In my first commercial freelancing group coaching series, one of the participants said: “I think my biggest problem is uncertainty. I prefer feeling confident about what I’m doing – to be able to do it with authority, and I just haven’t been able to reach that point so far. I’m always afraid I’ll do it ‘wrong.'” Welcome to the human race.

Not at all surprisingly, that statement resonated with all the other “coachees,” and the same issue has been brought up by many folks in every series since. When you’re starting out in a new field, and often, as one’s first foray into self-employment, to boot, it’s easy to get mighty wigged out by this Big Unknown (a.k.a. commercial writing).

Sure, I’d like to think that commercial copywriting resources like my book can demystify the business-building process quite a bit, and it no doubt does. But still, until someone takes those steps for themselves, everything they read about in my book (or any other) is still untried, unproven – to them – and hence, still theoretical.

So, how does one develop the confidence necessary to make it as a commercial freelancer? How do you know you’ve got what it takes to succeed? How do you get yourself to a place where you can boldly go where you’ve never gone before?

Well, the bad news is if you’re a newbie, chances are, you’ll have to deal with this. But, that’s also the good news: most commercial copywriters starting out deal with this. Sure, if you’ve left a corporate position, and carry experience, clients and work from that industry – or ex-employer – with you, you’ll likely have an easier transition. But, that’s not the norm.

I see the confidence-building game as three-fold. Arguably, a lack of confidence is driven by a lack of mental adjustment, a lack of experience and a lack of knowledge. The mental side? Get comfortable with the fact that you likely won’t be comfortable for a while (one reason this field pays so well…). Just the nature of the beast, and knowing that’s the case should make it easier to deal with.

The experiential side? Self-evident. You gain confidence by doing. Every new commercial writing experience you have, every copywriting project you work on and complete successfully, is a brick in your own personal Confidence Wall.

You learn a little more about the commercial freelancing process, you understand a little more about copywriting clients – what they expect, how they are to deal with, and how to make their lives easier (your goal, by the way…). Sure, all situations are a little different, but there are always some commonalities in every scenario.

String enough successful commercial writing projects together (translation: growing respect, competence, portfolio, testimonials, and bank account), and one day you’ll wake up and realize that this gig is for real, and so are you. That’s where confidence is born. But it takes time.

The knowledge side? Along the way, of course, you can hasten the process by reading books on copywriting, marketing, sales, etc. The more you know, the more tools you have at your command when talking with clients about their challenges. In addition, study the work of fellow commercial freelancers. Visit their sites, see how they position themselves, look at their samples (starting with mine) to get a sense of the required skill sets.

How did you build confidence in your abilities when you were starting out?

Was there one particular project that stands out as a big confidence booster for you?

Do you remember the moment when you realized you had what it took to make it in this business?

Ever Had to Sign a “Non-Compete” Agreement Like This One?

Got an interesting note from a commercial freelancer recently:

Recently (and perhaps because of the recession) I’ve been asked to sign non-compete agreements from agencies I work with. The first time I was asked, I said no—and lost the account. Now I’m being asked again, and it happens to be a fairly substantial client.

I have no problem signing a confidentiality agreement, but this non-compete states:

For two years after the date your relationship with (agency) ends, you may not solicit any contractor, independent contractor, or agent of (agency) to work for you or on behalf of any competing business; or solicit any client or customer of (agency) to purchase from you any product or service which competes with any product or service provided by (agency).

My client is obviously paranoid; I think he has been burned in the past. While my town is a reasonably major metro, we only have a handful of large household-name corporations. Essentially, if his clients are one or more of those big companies, then I wouldn’t be able to do any copywriting business with any department in those firms – even those the agency isn’t directly working with.

Some of these companies probably use six different agencies in town. If I sign this agreement, and get a call from one of those other agencies (quite possible), I’d have to turn down that work. Or, if one of the companies themselves wanted to hire me to write, say, internal communications (work outside the agency’s scope), I’d have to turn that down as well. Help!

PB: Maybe I’ve been lucky in my commercial writing career, but I’ve never been asked to sign anything so draconian as this, so in my experience, it’s not at all common. Non-competes are typically used for employees who leave a company and, understandably, that company is a bit hesitant to have them go to work for a competitor for at least a few years. But to require a contractor to not solicit work from their clients or even competing agencies that might work for those clients, for two years? That’s downright preposterous.

Now, I have encountered the wrath of a copywriting client who thought I was going around them to solicit work directly from the client – a BIG no-no, and I get that (talk about paranoid; they saw me swapping cards with an account exec from the client, and made the totally wild leap that I was soliciting work directly from them).

So, this is similar but exponentially more far-reaching, and in a much more locked-down form. I wouldn’t sign it unless you’re okay with being shut out from doing any commercial freelancing jobs for any of these other companies, which I kinda doubt you are. My first instinct is to tell them to go jump in the lake. After all, according to this agreement, you do one $250 job for them, after which they drop you, and you’re shut out from all this potential work for two years. That’s laughable.

But, there’s definitely something else going on here, and a little digging ought to unearth it. You need to craft some sort of win-win. Ferret out their real concern and get to some middle ground. In addition to the quite conceivable inanity of the “one-$250-job” scenario described above, explain that each of their clients might have dozens of people/departments who could potentially hire you, and to do work THEY (the agency) had zero interest in (like collateral, internal communications, etc).

As such, how fair is that they put this blanket rule on ALL business? That’s heavy-handed, greedy, and not at all acting in good faith (just an editorial aside; I probably wouldn’t say that to them, but then again, I just might…).

Why not say you’ll get permission from them before taking on any other work from any division of any of their clients? Or, as a last resort (and not a habit you should get in), if you really want to work with them, and feel the upside potential with them is great (a gamble, obviously), why not offer, say, a 10% “royalty” on any work gotten from within that company?

Assuming their main concern is that you might poach work from them that would be up their alley, if they KNOW they won’t be interested in X kind of work, under the royalty situation, they might actually be motivated to get you in those doors so they make their piece. Not an ideal situation, and if they don’t agree to either of those, I’d absolutely walk.

By the way, I got an update from the freelancer recently:

“My client has agreed to let me propose some changes to that part of the agreement. I have done that, and now I’m waiting for his reply. He is clearly fearful that I am going to solicit his clients, which I think is the result of some past experience he had that is totally unrelated to me. However, I think there is generally a growing paranoia as competition has escalated in the days since the recession hit. I’ll email you with a full update as soon as this is resolved.”

Have you ever run into this situation before?

How did you handle it?

What would you suggest she do?

If crazy-restrictive agreements like these are indeed becoming more common, why do you think that’s the case?

What Would You Do About a Client Like This One?

Got a note from a fellow commercial writer recently. She wrote:

I have a client who’ll give me two or three days to write something (when I really need a week), insisting such a tight deadline is necessary, and then take a week to review it, revealing the deadline wasn’t real after all. I know they’re not getting my best work because there’s no “dwell” time. I’ve pulled all-nighters to get projects done, and then hear nothing for days or even a week. When they do come back with comments, I might get a day or two to generate a second draft.

The last time this happened, I did ask for a rush fee and got it. But the extra money isn’t worth the extra stress. After all, reducing stress is one of the biggest reasons I became a commercial freelancer.

Yes, I’ve brought this up to them, but it’s come to nothing. They try to do better for a week or two and then the old habits return. Moreover, these conversations just seem to make our otherwise genial relationship tense. And other than this, they’re great clients: they’re fair on other matters, pay promptly and I’ve worked with them for seven years. A commercial copywriting client like this is a godsend in this crummy economy. Is this just the way it is? Or can you suggest some tricks I might be able to use to manipulate them into better behavior?

My reply:

Alas, no tricks, but you may have more leverage than you think. If you’ve worked with them for seven years, obviously you deliver a lot of value and they know it. That being the case, you should be able to make your sentiments known without them freaking out. Clearly, while they may appreciate what you do for them, they’re not showing you much respect. Though, I suspect there’s nothing malicious in their actions, but rather garden-variety cluelessness.

To repeatedly insist a job is a rush job and then repeatedly take a week to review it shows they believe, perhaps even unconsciously, that their time is more valuable than yours. If it were me, I’d draw a line in the sand. But obviously, you have to weigh the value of this otherwise good client vs. the stress this situation causes.

If you decide to have this talk, make sure you ARE prepared to walk. The old sales adage, “He (or she) who cares least, wins” was never truer than here. If you’re truly fine with losing their copywriting business (and it’s totally okay if you’re not), you’ll come across with conviction and confidence. Which, I suspect, might just impress the heck out of them and have them suddenly see you in a brand-new light.

Many commercial freelancers have “come-to-Jesus” chats with problem clients that turn out just fine. The client develops new respect for the writer, AND often, the writer has an epiphany along the way, suddenly “getting” their own value. After all, if their client changes an offensive behavior as a result of a talk, they realize it’s indeed a two-way street, and that the client didn’t want to lose them.

I’d thank them for their ongoing confidence in you, but I would NOT go overboard in thanking them for all the copywriting projects they’ve given you over the years. Remember, this is an uncoerced market transaction: if they weren’t getting as much, if not more value out of the relationship than you are, they wouldn’t keep hiring you. They’re not hiring you out of charity, so don’t go to them hat in hand.

Explain that, as a copywriting professional, your goal is to always deliver superior work, and these conditions make it impossible to give them your best effort. But, that you could even live with THAT if the constant tight deadlines were legitimate deadlines, but they’re obviously not.

I’d wager they don’t kick you to the curb after all these years. How long would it take them to train a new copywriter? And do they want to go through that, when they could simply start making deadline requests based in reality, not whim?

Bottom line, nothing IS going to change on their side unless you somehow interrupt their pattern of doing things as they always have by getting their attention in some way.

What would you suggest she do in this situation?

Do you agree with my take or would you do things differently?

Have you had such a conversation with a client and how did it turn out?

Where do you draw your line in the sand with a “problem client”?