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Ever Had Freelance Moments Like This?

(Apologies for the LONG hiatus from the blog. Been up to my neck in selling my home of 26 years, shedding tons of stuff, packing, moving to a much smaller place (very liberating…), and getting settled in. So, to ease back in, I thought I’d keep it light…).

So, a few weeks back, a dear friend and fellow commercial writer out in the Midwest, shared a snapshot moment of “singledom” that was truly laugh-out-loud funny. She wrote:

Occasionally, I get a startling mental snapshot of my life as a single person as I go about my day. This morning, the one I took was of breakfast, at 12:15 p.m., consisting of coffee with last-resort powdered skim milk and farmer’s market croutons (big and hard!) dipped in foie gras mousse, followed by morning meds washed down with the wine left in the glass from last night.

Time to buy some real groceries…

I couldn’t help but think this hilarious account could just as easily have come from a freelancer, working out of their home, and living that more…unstructured existence that in my mind anyway, is one of the biggest pluses (and yes, one of the most formidable challenges) of the life of a freelance commercial writer.

Anyway, it got me thinking… We’ve all no doubt had those moments that epitomize the freelance life—moments that make us laugh or cause us to be grateful, or happy, or fulfilled, or serene, or giddy, or yes, frustrated.

For me, one of them is that transcendently contented feeling of waking up and hearing people outside get in their cars and drive to work, knowing it’s nothing I’ll ever have to make a habit of.

It’s the immensely gratifying feeling of being able to take good care of my health, through regular, non-rushed meals I make, and the time to exercise.

It’s knowing, workload permitting, that I make the decisions about when I take time off, and for how long.

What experiences have you had as a freelancer that spawn any of the reactions above?

What do you love most about this life?

If you’re not living the life yet, what do you most look forward to?

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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.

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.

This Fallacy Trips Up a Lot of Writers (and Limits Their Income…)

I got this email recently from a newly-minted commercial freelancer:

I recently quoted a tri-fold brochure and three cover letters for a local university. I gave a range of $650 to $735 for the project, but my proposal was turned down because of budget. Could you offer any advice about pricing writing jobs that fit with the going rates in a particular area (we’re a smaller market than Atlanta).

Okay, several points worth making here:

I don’t think she can come to any conclusions about the opportunity, try to imagine “what I could’ve done differently,” or alter her pricing strategy, based on ONE possible gig. If anything, $700-ish for that scope of work seems on the low side to me.

She (or anyone starting out) needs dozens of situations like this to gather any useful knowledge. One is meaningless, except as a single brick in your wall of experience as a commercial writer. One has to make a TON of contacts to get to critical mass and have things start happening.

But for today’s discussion, here’s the most important point…

There’s no such thing as some set copywriting pricing for all copywriting clients; that implies all clients are reading off some “standard price sheet,” and of course, they aren’t.

Yes, it’s good to have some idea of ballparks when quoting rates in a particular market, but know there are different tiers of freelance commercial writing clients, all with different fee thresholds. Our not-easy job is to find those willing to pay the good rates (and that’s more likely to be in business than academia).

The discussion of “going rates” in any given area is related to my last blog post, “There IS No Copywriting Industry.” I’d planned to include this with that post, but felt it deserved its own dedicated post.

I routinely get asked about “going rates” in the commercial writing field. If there’s a “Copywriting Industry,” then there’s some “going rates” for that industry, right? Sure, what a commercial writer can command in NYC is likely more than they’ll get in Peoria, but the longer I’m in the business, the more subjective I believe rates to be.

Add in a wired world that invites us to prospect anywhere, and it makes the idea of “going rates” even more irrelevant.

Most importantly (see the sidebar, “Debunking the Myth of “Standard” Writers Rates…” on p. 171 of The Well-Fed Writer for the fleshed-out version of this idea):

Following some “industry pricing guide” or the anecdotal advice of other commercial copywriters (even those in your area) will give you, at best, only a partial view of the rates-picture in your area.

Just because a copywriter or guide says you can “expect” to make $ ___ per hour—given a certain experience level or geographic are—while useful as a ballpark guide, does that mean that’s all a copywriter can hope to earn at those levels, and in that locale?

Absolutely not. ALL it means is that some copywriters are making those rates, and some clients are unwilling to pay more. Sure, many clients think $50 an hour is too much to pay even a pro, but there are also plenty who won’t flinch at $125 an hour. And I’m working for a bunch of them.

What’s sad is that tons of talented commercial freelancers (and yes, you need to have the chops to be able to consistently land high rates), are making pathetically low hourly rates for NO other reason than that’s what some guide told them they can expect to make at their experience level, and because they’re working for clients who pay no more than that. Just because it’s your world doesn’t mean it’s THE world.

Meanwhile, other writers who never got that memo (like me when I started out, and perhaps those who read my books), and don’t realize that they shouldn’t be able to command higher rates, are doing just that. All because they looked in different places, believed different people, and found those willing to pay more.

Heck, land a few entrepreneur-type clients with big budgets—which I’ve happily done quite a bit over the years—along with big egos that drive them to pay high rates for “the best,” and all discussions of “standard rates” go out the window. When people like that routinely pay, say, $400+ an hour for legal services, $125 an hour for a professional writer will make them downright giddy.

One caveat: Someone starting out with little experience and armed with the concept of “going rates” can end up deluding themselves into thinking they should be able to ask for and get the “standard rates,” when they’ll likely have to work up to them.

Sort of a “Duh,” but more commercial copywriting experience (in general) will boost what you can ask for, and more industry-specific writing experience will boost it even more (assuming you’re pursuing work in that industry).

Just know that the concept of rates is far more fluid than we’re often led to believe, and sticking to “conventional wisdom” can limit income potential significantly.

Have you ever used others’ guidelines to determine your copywriting rates, only to land a client that defied rates expectation? In other words…

Have you ever had an “Aha!” moment when you got far higher than you expected to, and henceforth rewired your thinking about what you could ask for?

Have you had a sense that you’re shortchanging yourself when it comes to rates?

Any other thoughts or ideas on the subject?

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

Why Estimating Copywriting Projects Is Like Learning to Play Tennis…

I got an email from a commercial writer recently voicing a common concern:

The one sticking point I keep running into is not knowing how many hours a project will take me to complete (and the obvious quoting struggle related to that). Do you know any resources where I can find that information? By trolling other writer’s sites, I can sometimes assume an average if they list their hourly fee along with project fees, but it’s not always consistent from writer to writer.

Project estimating. A common dilemma, no doubt. And a serviceable analogy is learning a sport like tennis. If you ever started taking tennis lessons when you knew very little about it to begin with, there seemed to be all these things you had to remember: foot placement, keeping your racket level, stepping into each shot, keeping your eye on the ball, following through completely, and about 10 more.

To a beginner, it all seemed overwhelming. How in the world am I supposed to remember all this, much less do them all well? But, if you stuck to it, it all became second nature, automatic.

Same thing here. You’re new at commercial writing. How can you expect to be an expert at it right out of the gate? It’s like a tennis novice wanting to know the “secret” to being to do all those things perfectly the first time he sets foot on the court. Just not realistic.

I DO touch on some nuts-n-bolts about this in The Well-Fed Writer (p. 173). Here’s the Cliff Notes version (and DO check out the passage for a more detailed version):

Break a job down into its component parts: research, background reading, travel, meetings, brainstorming (a.k.a. “concepting”), interviewing, writing, and editing (you won’t have all these in every job). Then assign a time figure (i.e., X hours) to each category. Then multiply the total number of hours calculated by your hourly rate to get a flat fee estimate (which can be a range that varies by 10 to 15 percent—e.g., $1,500–$1,700, $3,600–$4,100, etc.).

(NOTE: What should your hourly rate be? Arrive at that number based on your experience level, and by asking fellow writers in your market what they charge. Or by calling ad agencies and design firms, which routinely hire copywriters, and as such, will have a very current idea of what writers in their market charge. And while you’ve got these folks on the phone, ask what they look for in a writer they pay X$ an hour.)

Don’t know how much will be involved in each component part? ASK the client. You can’t know how many meetings until you ask (OR until you make your preference known for, ideally, one, which is all you should need). You can’t know how you’ll be gathering your source material until you ask. You can’t know if there will be any interviews, background reading, or research until you ask. No one expects you to be clairvoyant.

Furthermore, no two brochures, direct mail campaigns, newsletters, case studies or web sites (or any other project) are the same. Take a marketing brochure. How many pages? What format? How will you get your source material? Every one is different. And questions are the only way to get accurate parameters.

Bottom line, learning accurate estimating is a function of both asking questions and gaining experience. Questions will only take you so far. Sure, you can break down a project into its component parts, and figure out exactly what will be involved, but assigning an amount of time to those individual components takes practice.

Just know you’ll probably get it wrong in the beginning—shooting too high or low, and hence, losing a bid, or eating hours on a project you do land. But, in time, with more and more projects under your belt, you’ll get good at it.

And a note about posting rates or a price list on one’s site. Neither ever struck me as a particularly good idea (but that’s just me). Posting an hourly rate—especially if it’s reasonably high—can scare off clients, who don’t have a sense of how many hours a given project will take, and may imagine the worst-case scenario.

Sure, you want to run off the wrong kinds of clients (the ones who want that brochure for $150), but listing your hourly rates can give pause to legitimate prospects as well. And here’s the clincher: good clients don’t expect to see rates posted.

Ditto for price lists. The kinds of clients we want to work with know that every project is different so posting a list of prices for different project types isn’t necessary. And as I note in TWFW, because you know that every project is different, you’d have to provide such a wide range of prices (e.g., “Marketing brochures: $500-$2500”) as to render that list pretty meaningless. I suggest skipping it.

What estimating advice/tips can you offer to those starting out?

What’s the process you follow to accurately quote a project?

Are questions as crucial in your estimating process as they are in mine?

Do you include a price list or hourly rate on your site? If not, is your thinking similar to mine? If you do, how has it worked out?

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

Take a Customer Service Lesson from this Amazing Company…

So, check this out… I few months back, I finally got around to returning a pair of sweatpants to Lands’ End that I’d bought a few years back to exchange for a new pair. They’d lost their elasticity in the waist, which made them droopy and draggy. And hey, when you’re a work-at-home commercial writer, and every day’s Casual Friday, life’s too short for droopy sweats, right? Right.

So, Lands’ End has this killer money-back guarantee, which, if you’re a regular customer like I am, you can probably recite along with me: “If you’re not satisfied with any item, simply return it to us at any time for an exchange or refund of its purchase price. Whatever. Whenever. Always.”

So, I packed them up, sent ‘em in, and a few weeks later, as sure as the sunrise, I get back a brand-spanking-new pair delivered to my door, complete with fully-stretchy waistband. But, wait, there’s more…

What happened next is what separates the “Serious Customer Service” MEN of the world from the “Lip (Customer) Service” boys. And it’s no newsflash how precious few of the former, and how blasted many of the latter there are…

You ready for this? About a week later, in my mail is a letter from Lands’ End. I open it, and inside is a check for $7.35. Why $7.35? Because that’s exactly what it cost me in postage to send back the old pair of sweats.

Not only will they happily, cheerfully, and with absolutely NO questions EVER asked, let you return/replace anything, anytime, anywhere, for any reason. They’ll even reimburse you for your shipping cost when you do.

These guys are smart. And not just because they have a good guarantee and stand behind like few other companies in the world. But because they realize how little it costs to go WAY above and beyond even really good customer service. They realize how little it costs, in the big scheme of things, to do something so mind-blowingly impressive.

And they know that, when you do, people can’t wait to tell their friends this great, “check-this-out” story about what Lands’ End did (like I’m doing here…). Because LE knows darn well, how monumentally rare such behavior is in the business world, how low the customer-service bar is in people’s minds, and hence – and here’s the clincher – how incredibly easy is to stand out in the crowd.

As a commercial freelancer, I’ve learned how easy it is to set myself apart from the crowd through the service I deliver. I know that just doing what I said I was going to do, and by when I said I’d do it, and by delivering more than the client expects, I stand out. Nothing terribly difficult to do, but what a difference it makes.

As a self-publisher and bookseller, I’ve learned that if someone has a problem with a delivery or messed-up order, or a technical problem, a fast response that solves the problem and then makes it up to them (if it was my fault, and even sometimes when it wasn’t) turns people incredulous, and prone to gush on about how extraordinary – and extraordinarily rare – my service is.

And in most cases, it may have cost me, maybe five bucks (and often nothing, if I’ve sent them, say, an ebook bonus as a “make-it-right” gift) to make them pants-wettingly happy with me, and ready to tell the world.

People are so used to being treated like serfs, they’re downright starved for even halfway decent treatment by the companies they’re giving their money to. And when someone goes beyond that level, and actually seems to, let’s say it, cherish them, well, the word will spread, and by the most credible spokespeople of all – one’s own customers.

And again, those companies or individuals delivering this unusual level of service will be the first to tell you how little it costs them to stand apart. The difference between good and great really is often laughably small. But that small is big.

Which makes this the quintessential secret weapon for anyone, including freelance commercial writers, wanting to put themselves head and shoulders above the pack in the eyes of their customers.

What do you do to be a hero in the eyes of your clients?

What things have worked best to set you apart from the competition?

Would you agree that going that extra mile really doesn’t cost much more than not?

Any great customer services stories you’ve experienced?

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