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How Would You Deal With Such an Unpleasant Client?

Recently got an email from a new commercial writer up North. All you experienced folks, if you’re like me, you’ll be saying, “Oh, just let me at this guy…” She wrote:

I’m writing a web site for a logistics company, a family business run by a nice guy in his early twenties. It’s my first job as a freelancer commercial writer, although I have quite a bit of experience as a copywriter at an ad agency. Here’s the deal:

Sent the initial agreement outlining that three revisions are included; any over that amount, I charge for. Sent initial draft. Client says they’re happy with it; suggest few minor tweaks. “Awesome,” I think. Make changes; send second version. Client sends back a few more minor changes. “Easiest first client ever,” I muse.

Third version I send, emphasizing “Let’s look this over, make sure everything looks great, and I’ll proof for grammar, punctuation, etc., and we’ll call it a day.” Client responds, “Great. I’ll just send it along to our consultant and we’ll get back to you.”

(Sound of brakes screeching). “Um, okay…”

I wait nervously for a few days before emailing client. I’m told he and the consultant are still making lots of changes. Wait a few more days; told they’re still making changes. Finally, not knowing what’s left of my copy, I insist on having a phone conference with this mystery consultant, who turns out to be a very confrontational and opinionated attorney, who not very nicely attacks me for all manner of grammatical transgressions.

According to him, the lead’s been lost in a pile of blah-blah-blah. He wants everything stripped down to bare facts. In short, he is a writer’s nightmare. And I’m a new twenty-something commercial copywriter, eager to please my first client, and totally intimidated by gruff, fifty-year-old lawyers.

When I ask my client why the sudden change, his response is merely that his consultant pointed out a lot of things to him.

My question: We’re still technically on the third round of revisions, although the “revisions” are adding sections, removing sections and making very significant changes. The client doesn’t want to get back to me and give the OK on this last round because I think he believes as long as he’s within the three rounds of revisions, the sky’s the limit on making changes.

How do I diplomatically communicate the scale of changes permitted? How do I prevent this from happening in the future? How do I avoid both pissing off my first and only client and being a sucker who’s doing work for free?

Whew. Doesn’t that story just make you want to shine up your brass knuckles? Of course, she did make a few newbie copywriter errors. Like not determining up front all the folks who’d be approving copy. Honest mistake, and one of those “hindsight-is-20/20” things. Been through many projects where I didn’t think to ask that and it never turned out to be a problem, but had there been a hidden butcher with machete and red pen lurking in the shadows, I’d have been hosed.

And no question, when starting out (and young, too boot, and easily daunted; we’ve all been there), and have a great gig going with a first client, you really do want to please. All things considered, she got paid, learned some valuable lessons (far more than she’d have learned on a smooth-sailing gig), and will be that much more prepared next time.

One thing that’s a no-brainer is the whole idea of expanding scope of a project. Not sure whether they spelled out the project parameters on the original agreement. But, given how she agonized over saying anything once the thing began spreading in all directions, I’m guessing not. Big mistake.

If you make it clear upfront, in writing, that the project includes X components – X # of pages, for X fee, then as soon as things start expanding beyond those stated specs, then it’s a simple matter of saying, “Things have changed, and the fee needs to be renegotiated.” No need for hesitation or angst. The client agreed to a certain sized project for a certain fee, and it’s now grown beyond that. End of discussion.

Being completely matter-of-fact about that is crucial to preserving your status as a professional. And it should happen regardless of whether it’s your first client or your 1000th. If you had a plumber over to fix your sink and you asked him to fix that leaky toilet upstairs while he’s here, you’d never expect him to do it for nothing. So, why would you think for a nanosecond that clients are entitled to freebies? They’re not.

Another non-negotiable point for any professional is how you’re being treated. If someone starts with snide remarks, confrontational, belligerent tone, or insulting manner in any way, I’m going to say something. Anyone who does that honestly believes you’re little more than “The Help,” and as such, can be talked down to. I once told one such a client, who the hell he thought he was, talking to me that way. That went over well. I ended my participation at that moment, walked away, and got paid for my time.

Got this update from our beseiged copywriter:

“I wish I could say I’d come up with a brilliant way to resolve the situation, but it really amounted to a combination of contributing many more hours than I’d planned on (thus losing money) and finally, drawing the line and telling the client I’d have to adjust the quote before making any further changes.

“Trying my hardest to diplomatically plow through numerous revisions was what kept my relationship with the client from souring. (At the project’s completion, he enthusiastically volunteered to be a reference for me.) But whether the situation was resolved successfully is debatable. I succeeded in making the client happy, but lost money and watched some great copy turn into something I’m not as thrilled to put my name on. Live and learn.”

Ever found yourself dealing with a similarly unpleasant individual? If so, what did you do?

Any other suggestions to head off problems like these?

When you were starting out, how did you balance your desire to be accommodating and customer-oriented with the need to not become a doormat?

And if you didn’t manage that well (and many of us didn’t!), what did you learn from the experience?

“Start Making $300 an Hour as a Copywriter in Just Seven Days!”

Wow. That sure sounds like an opportunity tailor-made for me. I’m a pretty good writer (I mean, my Mom’s told me so, and that’s good enough for me!). And I’d sure love to turn that skill into “$300 an hour”! That’s what they promised in this copywriting program I saw on the Internet. And it has to be true if it’s on the Internet, right? I mean, they could get into BIG trouble if they told lies. But there it is, in black and white!

And the best part? According to the program, I can get started as a “commercial writer” in just seven days! And here’s what those seven days look like:

Day One: I’m going to learn the basics of the freelance commercial writing business. I mean, it’s just writing – how hard could it be?

Day Two: I’ll create my copywriting portfolio. They say it’s easy, and I believe them. Heck, I’ll probably be done by lunch!

Day Three: I’ll create and send out a press release to my local paper, letting them know about my new copywriting business. Wonder how long after I send it out till the phone starts ringing. Could I end up with too much business? It’s possible!

Day Four: I’ll explore making money in PR writing. Working around all the “movers and shakers,” yeah! Sounds like fun – and profitable, too!

Day Five: I get to figure out if I’m going to a generalist or specialist. Decisions, decisions. This is just too easy.

Day Six: I’m going to learn the “ultra-easy” way to market my new business so I can, according to the program, “stay booked up for months.” Like the sound of that. Heck, maybe I will go ahead and buy that Camaro I’ve had my eyes. I mean, obviously, I’m going to have the money to make the payments.

Day Seven: I’m going to learn all about writing for TV and radio. Bet you can make big bucks there, and get to be around all the cool actors. Life is looking up!

I wish the above was just a dramatization of some poor slob getting reeled in hook, line, and sinker by some fictionalized copywriting course, but alas, it’s based on a real one. THIS one. What a joke. I know, why am I surprised? I mean, I know stuff like this exists. It’s just that seeing flat-out fabrication up close still sets you back on your heels a bit.

Someone sent it to me, asking if I knew anything about it. A two-minute visit revealed all. I don’t know who you are, but your offer is a scam, and you know it. And people like you have buyers looking for legit information on copywriting lump the rest of us trying to do the right thing into the same scam-artist boat.

I mean, their “7-Days-to-Riches” timetable would be hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that countless unsuspecting folk are dropping $147 for nothing but a mirage. And $300 an hour? Have you no shame? Yeah, right. Silly me.

I can hear them now: “Well, if you read it carefully, I’m not actually promising people they’ll make $300 an hour inside of a week.” Ah, the old “have-‘em-connect-the-imaginary-dots-in-their-mind” strategy. So, you’re weasels on top of being scam artists. Quite an accomplishment. What an unbelievably fragrant and steaming pile of road apples this is.

Our mothers were right: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” As the experienced commercial writers on this blog know, our field can be a wonderful way to make a great living as a writer. But they also know it’s no cakewalk. As writing fields, go, it’s one of the most accessible, but it still take a lot of hard work to get established and work up to healthy hourly rates. And $300 an hour as a copywriter? In a week? I can hear the hysterical laughter echoing across the land. From sea to shining sea.

Did you ever fall prey to any offers like these before you got started?

What would you say to someone considering this fairy tale of an offer?

What truths would you want them to know about our field instead?

Any general comment for this shyster?

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”?

Don We Now Our…Mental Armor for 2010

So, I’m hanging out with family for a few days in that dead zone at the end of the year, feeling like I need to be a little introspective….meaningful… significant… Y’know, that “let’s-reflect-on-2009” backwards glance (I know, many of you would just as soon not) “and-look-forward-to-2010” optimism (better).

Actually, all I really want to do is veg out, sleep late, eat too many holiday treats, and be monumentally unproductive. And so far, for the most part, mission accomplished.

If that’s you, too, let’s rouse ourselves up for a few moments of lucidity, brush the cookie crumbs off our ratty sweats, switch off the TV (fret not; it’ll still be there when we’re done, ready to once again serve up all manner of inanity), pensively grasp our chins in hand, and ponder what’s been and what’s coming for us commercial freelancers. A few stream-of-consciousness musings…

The world has changed for most Americans this year. But if unemployment stands at 10 percent, that means…

Employment stands at 90 percent.

The overwhelming majority of companies still open their doors and answer their phones every Monday. They still have to market (even more so now), still have to sell, and still have to communicate with employees. And that means a lot of writing. Yes, some have pulled those tasks in-house, reducing many a freelancer’s rates and pipeline volumes, but at the same time, consider that…

Many companies have dropped pricey agencies or design firms, or jettisoned creative/communications staffs, but still need to get the work done.

Think they’d be receptive to a smart, creative, strategic commercial writer/designer team? I’d bet on it. Now’s the time to forge those alliances so you’re prepared to offer prospects end-to-end solutions, not writing services. In that vein…

Stop thinking of yourselves as freelance writers (that’s about us: features). We’re problem-solvers (that’s about them: benefits), and speaking to clients in those terms will resonate.

Many smaller companies have folded and many more will disappear before the pendulum swings back. But, chances are, the ones hanging tough are smart and savvy – just the kind to understand the value of good copywriting. Because, after all…

Writing is the engine of commerce, and don’t you ever forget it.

No product or service gets explained, promoted, marketed, publicized or purchased, and no one gets informed, educated, pitched or sold…without writing. And none of the preceding gets done well without good writing. Writing is the alpha and the omega of all business and is present at every stage of every business strategy, process, campaign and transaction. Nothing happens without words. So, what’s your writing gift?

Figure out what writing value you offer.

You won’t get hired by any company unless you deliver something of real value they can’t do themselves. If you’re able to deliver great copy AND dispense sage marketing advice to companies going through a rough patch, you’ll be in demand (of course, many who’ve shared with me of late how well things are going already know that).

Maybe you’re able to transform complex subjects into accessible copy. Perhaps you’re an expert on X subject or Y project type. Whatever it is…

Make sure your web site clearly showcases what you do, is easy to get around and assumes that prospects have no time whatsoever to hunt (the truth).

If even just writing well is your strong suit, remember:

Bad writing is everywhere. It’s epidemic.

There are plenty of firms that would hugely benefit from nothing more than clear, coherent marketing materials and web content. Regardless of your gift, how to find them? Well, if your usual watering holes have dried up, consider that…

It’s a numbers game, and the Law of Averages is ironclad.

Landing business may have become an uncertain proposition, but one absolute constant is the Law of Averages. Knock on enough doors and you’ll find the work. Guaranteed. So, dust off your phone prospecting skills. I know, yuck. But it works. Every time. And that’s powerful stuff.

These days, me-too pessimism is the easy path, so let’s be contrarian and upbeat, shall we? No glibness intended. No question, the tough times are real. AND, last I checked, we’re still the gatekeeper of our thoughts. Even if you don’t feel like it, play along anyway, and after you’re done, there are a few holiday cookies, the remote and a nap waiting for you.

Why are you bullish about 2010?

What are you going to do more of in 2010? Less of?

What negative habit are you going to jettison in 2010?

What trends do you think bode well for commercial freelancers?

Good Clients (Like this One) Understand a Good Writer’s Value (and Will Pay…)

I couldn’t have scripted it better myself. A little background….

Got a call from a prospect in early November. About 18 months earlier (May 2008), the local daily, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, did a “Why I Love My Job” feature on yours truly in the Sunday paper. Following a few live seminars I’d done in March 2008 on commercial writing and self-publishing, I’d been approached by one of the attendees who turned out to be the writer of the popular weekly piece.

“You seem like someone who really enjoys what you do,” he said. “Would you be interested in being featured in WILMJ?” “Is this a trick question?” I asked. Uh, yeah. Course I would.

We got it done, the piece came out, and my new prospect, a successful local entrepreneur, saw it, tore it out and said to himself, “I may just need this guy some day.” Well that day came last month. In a nutshell, he was angling for a strategic partnership with another company and wanted a professional writer to work on the proposal. Long story short, I ended up putting in roughly 30 hours – including two back-to-back 10-hour days – over a five-day period at a most healthy hourly rate.

As we were wrapping up the thing on the second marathon day, he stopped, looked up and said (you’re going to love this…):

“It’s a amazing what a difference a professional writer makes. I think of all the times over the last 10 years (as long as he’s had his business) that I really could have used one, but tried to do it myself. It’s great to know I have a resource like this now.”

Seeing the impact a professional writer could make and seeing a proposal turn into an eloquent statement was nothing short of an epiphany for him. THIS is what we need to be communicating to people. No, not everyone will get it, so don’t waste your time beating your head against the wall trying to convince those who don’t. Just find the ones who do.

There will always be people who think writing is something anyone can do, and they’re not worth wasting your time on. But there are plenty of folks out there who, a) understand the value of a good writer, b) know they’re not one, and 3) realize good talent doesn’t come cheap.

True, it took my new client a long time to come to that realization, but I say it’s because he simply didn’t know how to go about finding one or that copywriters like us even existed. Meaning, that in 10 years, chances are excellent not one single commercial freelancer ever made contact with him.

The first time he was exposed to someone of that description, the idea resonated enough with him to have him cut out an article and set it aside. Remember, he didn’t hunt for just the right copywriter; he flagged the first and only one who’d crossed his path. But had he known HOW much a difference a good writer could make, I’d wager he wouldn’t have waited 18 months. And there are TONS of people like him out there.

Update #1: The proposal is moving along nicely, and he shared that his main contact person at the target company, someone, who according to him, is not the complimenting type, told him, “This is very well-written proposal.” Yes, I was part of a larger team, but we writers still love to hear stuff like that.

Update #2: He called me last week to jump on a crisis situation that had just cropped up in a completely different area, and in less than a week, I’d logged roughly 20 more hours. And there are three more projects on tap. With each project, I more firmly establish myself as a valued member of his team – not just a vendor.

None of this is said to toot my horn, but simply to share what’s out there and possible – even in a down economy. I’m telling you, I’m not doing anything more monumental than writing good persuasive copy for letters and proposals. That said, do I think that any $10-an-article, content-mill writer could do what I do for him? Absolutely not. But any good, strategic-minded commercial freelancer well schooled in marketing? I’d bet on it.

Have you had any similar situations?

What sorts of things have you had delighted clients say to you?

Based on these experiences, how would you describe what a good freelance copywriter brings to the right kind of client? What skills are most crucial?

How hard/easy do you feel it is to deliver those things?