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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.

Why Aren’t You Still Working with that Client from 2008 (or Earlier)?

I recently heard from an old commercial writing client for whom I hadn’t worked in probably five or six years. She had a small copywriting project, along with a vague “and we’ve got a few other things cooking we might need your help with.” Always a nice treat when old clients surface, but there’s always a bit of a nagging voice that comes with it…

“How come you stopped working with them in the first place?”

The easy answer? Well, the project you were working on for them ended, you both got busy, and the old “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” thing took over. Never sounds very satisfying, because it points to laziness on my part in the follow-up department. It’s like the natural order of things is that YOU should be contacting them and discovering they have a job for you. NOT them having to reach out to you.

The latter seems to imply that there might very well have been many other commercial freelancing jobs, big and small, you could have done for them in the ensuing years, but you missed out because you weren’t top-of-mind when those gigs came along. And not being top-of-mind also means missing out on possible referrals as well. Sigh.

As confirmation (the self-flagellation now begins in earnest…), she said she was reaching out because the copywriter she’d been using just wasn’t getting it done. Sheesh. And it gets worse. She says, “I need a writer who can write like only you can.”

You know, like he did on that flurry of work five years back, all of which they loved, and after which, he just vanished. What was I thinking? That that would be all they’d ever need? Turn that knife.

I have a dear friend—and fellow commercial freelancer—here in Atlanta who’s been working with one client steadily for about five years. Seems, every time we talk, their name surfaces as part of the “what’s-on-my-plate-now” conversation. They’ve made her multiple offers over the years to come onboard full-time. But, she’s resisted. Hey, why buy the cow, etc., etc.

She gets constant work from them because she knows their business inside and out, is a great writer, incredibly thorough, knows PowerPoint like the back of her hand (along with several other programs; no, you don’t have to be so technically inclined to succeed as a commercial freelancer, but it doesn’t hurt). In short, she’s incredibly capable and versatile.

So, when the workload with a client is steady and ongoing, as it is with hers, it’s easy to not lose touch. But clients like that (i.e., providing a virtually unbroken streak of work) are most definitely the exception, not the rule, in this commercial copywriting business of ours.

Now, I’ve been pretty good at keeping in touch with most of my clients over the years, but if I’m going to be honest here—and Exhibit A above makes it hard to come to any other conclusion—there are a handful of clients who would have been turning to me far more often over the past years had I done a better job of keeping in touch.

Recently, thanks to that blast-from-the-past client call, I reached out to a bunch of those “fell-through-the-crackers.” While nothing’s come of it yet, I’m back on their radar, with an OK to check back in on X date, so that’s all good.

Yes, as we all know, there are a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with us, why we might stop working with a client: company goes out of business; our contact leaves for another company, and the new one has their favorite writer; company hires an in-house writer (or just dumps the writing off on that overworked admin), etc.

But, that’s not the whole story, and we all know it. As the marketing truism reminds (uncomfortably, perhaps?), “It’s far easier to get more work from an existing client than to land a new one.”

Have you had an old client get back in touch after several years, making you realize you’d done a sorry job of regular follow-up?

How do you ensure good clients, even those without steady, ongoing work, keep you “top of mind” for when they do need a writer?

Have you had a steady client that’s hired you for at least 3 years? If so, what do you do (besides write really well) that keeps them coming back?

Have you just thought of a few clients you lost touch with? And what are you going to do about it? 😉

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