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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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Ever Been Asked to Do This? If So, How’d That Work Out for You? ;)

I got an email from a reader recently, spurred by one of my newsletter pieces (the “Appetizer” course of THIS issue). It’s a subject a bit different from the usual commercial freelancing fare on the blog, but thought it was worth running, given that it’s something any reasonably experienced commercial writer has no doubt encountered—whether a scenario like hers or one like mine.

She wrote:

Several years ago, a writing conference director sent an email inviting all to view the new conference website and let him know what we thought. I followed the link, and immediately saw a word had been left out of the first sentence. A few sentences below, the wrong verb tense had been used.

I emailed and suggested he might want to correct the mistakes. His reply? A glib comment about being in a hurry and no one else would catch the mistakes. Really? I had served on faculty for this conference a number of years so it wasn’t like I was unknown to the director. The next year, I was not asked back to teach at the conference and the director no longer speaks to me.

I had a similar experience with someone who was starting an editing service. He invited comments about his new website. In the first sentence on the site, he used the wrong verb tense. Another error, a wrong/mistaken use of a noun, was in the next paragraph. I emailed him, mentioning the errors.

His response: “Yeah, I asked my wife, and she said it supposed to be that way so I’m going with what she said.” Really? A startup editor is going with grammar errors on his editing site to please the wife? Needless to say, his editing business never got off the ground! He became the owner of a small press instead, which consistently publishes books with grammatical errors. No surprise there. And he ignores me when we happen to be at the same writing conferences.

What I’ve learned: Even when people invite critique, they really don’t want critique. They want validation for what they’ve done, whether correct or not, and view anything else as personal criticism. Folks are interesting!

In response, I shared a story of my own:

Reminds me of a lovely woman for whom I wrote a column many years ago, for her local monthly rag. A few years after I stopped writing for her, but while we still considered each other friends, she asked me to critique a novel she was working on. I said I would be happy to take a look, though quickly realized what a bind I had put myself in.

It wasn’t just bad, it was really, really bad. Incredibly clichéd, poorly written, poor character development, uninteresting, and most of it no better than a seventh grader’s essay. After getting her assurance that she really did want me to be honest, I was. I wasn’t brutal, but I made it clear I thought it needed a lot of work to get it to a viable stage.

She thanked me profusely for being honest, going on and on about how much she appreciated the input and feedback, and…I never heard from her ever again. Remember, we were far better than acquaintances, though perhaps less than good buddies, and we talked pretty regularly. But after that, we never talked again. So I hear you!

Ever been asked for feedback from a writer or friend?

How did you handle it?

If the writing wasn’t very good, and you were honest, how did they receive your feedback?

Any suggestions for dealing with situations like this?

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

Even After 22 Years as a Copywriter, I Still Wrestle with This One…

So, I’ve been dealing with several cases of “scope creep” of late: when a copywriting project goes beyond the agreed-upon (in writing) parameters. We’d like to think it’s pretty cut and dried: If the project scope goes beyond what you contracted, they pay more. Period.

And, sometimes it is easy, and the client “gets it,” and you get your extra money. But as I’ve discovered, it’s a heckuva lot easier to talk tough when you’re discussing the idea in the abstract vs. being in the middle of a real-world situation and about to have an uncomfortable conversation with a commercial writing client. Especially if it’s your first gig with them. You want to stand up for what you’re owed, but, sometimes, you have to give to get.

(NOTE: You see my “(in writing”) bit above? Do not even think of moving ahead with any commercial writing project without some sort of written agreement (even if it’s just the simple one-pager I discuss in TWFW). I can’t believe how many commercial freelancers have sent me “What do I do now?” emails over the years, because what they discussed (i.e., as opposed to put in writing) with their client as far as a scope has now expanded, and the client doesn’t want to pay them any more. And while I’m sorry they’re going through that, they only have themselves to blame. ‘Nuff said.)

So, I had one of those gray-area projects recently. I was working with a graphic design team on a commercial project for one of their clients. After meetings with the end client, we submitted a creative brief to the client, outlining our proposed direction. The client signed off on the direction, and I came up with a first draft.

My design client loved it, and felt it nailed what the client said they wanted. But, after we submitted it, the client said, “Now that I see this, I realize that that (i.e., the concept that the project was based around, and which they signed off on) just doesn’t really capture what we’re all about. We’re really about this.” Pretty straightforward, right? They changed direction, so we renegotiate, right? Well….

So, he wanted us to rework the copy with a new direction. And not having worked with a creative team before, he just doesn’t get that he can’t just change direction in mid-stream, and expect that there won’t be a change in fee. Plus, they’re a non-profit and with a tight budget. And, stickiest of all, he’s such a nice guy, and so sincere and earnest (and yes, clueless in his way), that it’s just really tough to say, “No can do.”

So, I discuss with my design clients, and while we both agree that it’s not right for the client to do this at no additional charge (and, this means more work for me, not them, since we’re not at the design stage yet), I make a decision. I say, “Listen, we’re right; they’re wrong. But, I’m happy to do another round if it makes them happy.”

And I arrived at that decision after a simple calculation, and after looking at the big picture: How much work this design firm has given me over the past 2-3 years, how they never haggle over my fees, how they look out for me, and how hard they work to make my job as hassle-free as possible.

Viewed through that lens, it’s a pretty easy decision. Sure, if I stood my ground, they’d have totally understood, but by taking the high road, I absolutely endear myself to them.

They’re delighted and relieved that I’m willing to “take one for the team,” and they agree with me unequivocally, that if the client pulls this again, they’re putting their foot down in no uncertain terms.

This commercial freelancing business of ours is so great largely because we get paid very well, and by clients, who, overwhelmingly, know how the world works, and don’t play games over fees. And for every deal like this, where you eat some hours, inevitably, there are those gigs where you quote $4K, the client says, “Let’s do it,” and the project takes, only, say, 21 hours.

So, it all evens out in the end. Not necessarily with the same client, but across your client base as a whole. As such, you’ll ensure your happy longevity in the business by taking that long view, and knowing that while you may have to give here, you’ll get it back over there. And if, in the process, you can make solid money, and enjoy your work on most days, and, on your lifestyle terms, life is pretty good.

What’s your philosophy on projects that go beyond scope?

Do you take them on a case-by-case basis or stick to a firm policy?

Have you had a similar situation to the above, and if so, how did you handle it?

Any other comments or insights to share?

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

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?

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