I went to a networking function recently, and struck up a conversation with a middle-aged gentleman who’d recently moved to Atlanta from Minneapolis. He offered event-production services including light/sound design, DJ’ing, and more.
Since his business often involved subcontracting—especially his DJ business—we got to talking about his experiences hiring people in Atlanta versus the upper Midwest. He said he found those he hired in Atlanta to be less professional and reliable than those back home (something I’ve heard many times before). At my prompting, he shared an example…
He’d hired a guy to handle one of his DJ gigs (a wedding reception) since he had several going on one night. At the initial meeting with his client, she was clear that while she was open to all kinds of danceable popular music, she wanted no rap music with vulgar lyrics. He spelled this out to his sub and figured that was that. Well.
After the event, he got a call from the client explaining that, while generally speaking, the evening had gone well, exactly what she didn’t want to happen, happened: his sub had “gone rogue” and played a few offensive songs. When he confronted the guy—with whom he been crystal clear—the sub had no good excuse beyond a lame, “I didn’t think it was a big deal.” Huh?
But it was what he did about it that spoke volumes about who he was. After his client explained what happened, he apologized profusely and told her he was immediately, and with no questions asked, refunding her entire fee for the service (which she hadn’t asked him to do).
When he spoke to the sub, he told him that because of his actions, he’d returned the client’s money in full, adding that he’d never be hiring the sub again, but that he was going to pay him in full, just so that he couldn’t say—to anyone who’d listen—that he’d been cheated.
His telling of the story was delivered in a steady, low-key, matter-of-fact tone—free of theatrics and with little emotion. Just the way it was. In the wake of it, I found myself racking my brain to try and think of ways to hire this guy for something—anything—or to steer work his way.
We’d actually gotten into very little detail about the services he offered, but it didn’t matter. Something told me—as I’d wager it would tell anyone—that if this was an example of his business ethics, his actual services would be top-notch as well.
In revealing how he conducted business, he made an infinitely more compelling case for hiring him than a pitch about his services would ever have accomplished. Which, of course, got me thinking about how this maps onto our world of commercial freelancing—or that of any other free agent out there.
Yes, any prospective commercial copywriting client needs to know what you do, how good your copywriting skills are and how you work, and those things by themselves have been enough to land many gigs for many commercial freelancers.
Yet, seeking opportunities to share who you are and how you conduct yourself as a businessperson—in that same low-key, matter-of-fact way he exhibited, as opposed to grandstanding—can quickly move a future client from pondering taking the next step to putting you to work as soon as possible. It’s in the details about you, your life, what you believe, etc., that people get the chance to “take your measure.”
Arguably, this is another example of features versus benefits. Explaining what you do, how you work and even how strong your skills are, is all about you: features. But, sharing who you are and how you conduct business is benefits: it shows the client exactly what they’ll be getting—someone in whom they can trust and have confidence. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
This can be tricky to pull off, of course. He’d never have shared what he did—and thereby reveal his immense strength of character—had I not prompted him with my questions. But realizing what a powerful reaction I had to it, had me think of ways to harness this idea.
In many ways it’s nothing more than just being and sharing yourself, but given our natural human tendency to compartmentalize—business here, personal there—it can be challenging. But, I say it’s worth exploring.
1) Have you had similar experiences, where you were able to share yourself with a commercial freelancing prospect and have that seal the deal?
2) OR, through a similar character-revealing experience, were you able to take the relationship with an existing copywriting client to a much deeper level of trust, confidence and more business?
3) What are some ways to pull this off in a genuine way, so it doesn’t look like it’s being done for affect?
4) Any other thoughts ideas or comments?
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This is all becoming less and less theoretical and more real. Which is eerie. It seems I’m beginning to live in your make-believe world!
Too funny. I swear, it’s as if, until people experience these things for themselves, they imagine I’m making all this stuff up about how the commercial copywriting business-building process unfolds. I promise, it’s far easier to share my real-world commercial freelancing experiences than to fabricate a bunch of them out of whole cloth.
But it was what she said after that that had my “Blog-Topic-Alert” meter going off. She wrote:
I’m also beginning to see how differently potential clients with money vs. those with little, behave. They’re like different species.
One simple statement with so many ramifications. For starters, it’s so true. The difference in the respective experiences of working with clients who have little money vs. those with plenty is so vast as to be almost vertiginous.
In a great blog post I recently commented on (and in which I was mentioned – yay!), freelancer Kathy Shaidle says:
The cheaper the client, the more demanding they are. My $75/hour clients tend to approve the very first version of everything I send them, thank me profusely, pay me immediately, and hire me again. Clients I’ve taken on for far less (because I’ve felt desperate — or sorry for them) ALWAYS want more changes, more words, more pages, more of my time on the phone, more everything. Eventually, I (politely) fire clients like that. Inevitably, they are replaced almost immediately by more professional ones with larger budgets (and brains).
And in our world, $75 an hour isn’t even that much; but her point is sound.
If you spend your time hanging out with low-ball writing clients, and in turn, being run ragged by them, it will very likely have you question your career decision.
But find the good clients, and your sense of the overall viability of freelancing will undergo nothing less than a radical transformation. It becomes a whole different word. Less hassle, more creative fulfillment, and, of course, more money.
Better-paying clients are almost always easier to work with than the low-ballers, as my coaching client above noticed. She observed:
The one who wants to get things moving knows the value of what a writer can offer. The one who said he was interested in having me work for him, but then took a long time getting information to me, and was antsy about pricing, didn’t seem to fully accept the cost of doing business. Or he just doesn’t have as much of a budget set aside for marketing. The folks who are hardest to negotiate with are the ones with the smallest budgets.
To her comments, I’d add that, for the kinds of clients we want to work with, money is never (within reason) the main issue. Rather, it’s a predictable superior outcome they’re seeking. And that motivation always trumps money.
But know this: if you’re in the early days of building your commercial writing business, lower-paying clients are the ones most likely to be willing to work with you when you have little to recommend you other than a few unimpressive samples and an abundance of enthusiasm.
As such, they serve a wonderful purpose: to help you build your confidence, as well as both your intangible “experience portfolio” and your real physical one.
But realize that you need to compartmentalize those early experiences with that class of client, as being a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
I say this because those coming from “writing ghettos” (i.e., the content mills, where $5 for a 500-word article is de rigeur) may feel that working with clients who actually pay $25 an hour (wow!), even if they are pains to deal with, is “died-and-gone-to-heaven” territory.
But if you indeed have writing skills far beyond the typical content-mill writer, and are eager and willing to plant and nurture those skills in greener writing pastures, then $25 an hour is only the beginning. No, it’s not easy to get to that $75-to-$125-an-hour copywriting level, and don’t believe anyone who says it is. But, it’s doable, and I hear daily from people who’ve done it.
And if you’re sadly still playing in that copywriting bargain basement, and complaining about the low-ballers who just won’t pay you what your skills are worth, then you don’t understand the dynamic at work there.
For most of you regular visitors to this blog, you “got” this a long time ago, but if you’re still wrestling with it, check it out. It all comes down to having copywriting skills not shared by thousands of others, and when you can stand out, you’ll start seeing firsthand, as discussed earlier, the HUGE difference between client classes.
What other differences have you seen/experienced between the clients with money and those without?
If you’re now operating in solid, higher-rate commercial writing territory, but didn’t used to, what/when was your “light bulb moment”?
And if you indeed went from low writing wages to the higher ones in our world, did you immediately notice the stark difference in client quality?
Have you moved out of the “$5-an-article” writing world, only to get stuck in the next (and still-low) level?
Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.
Got this email from a relatively new commercial freelancer recently:
My fledgling commercial writing business, launched in 2007, is alive after fits and starts. Upon reflection, I realize I haven’t had much repeat writing business from clients. In addition to commercial freelance writing, I also do marketing and magazine articles. The magazine keeps re-hiring me, and so does one company that retains me for marketing events. But, as far as clients hiring me over and over for commercial copywriting projects, no. This means I work hard at getting new clients all the time.
Is this common? Should I take it personally? I am confident in my copywriting abilities, so I wonder if I could do a better job at following up to increase the likelihood that clients return. Do you have tips for increasing repeat business?
Hmmm…. This one can be a challenge. When starting your copywriting business, you may be working with smaller clients who simply don’t have as many ongoing writing needs. Hence, they may be great for getting some income in the door and building your writing portfolio, but at some point you have to set your sights higher.
And even when you DO find a steady client, I’ve learned that, well, nothing is forever. Things change, personnel changes, your contact person leaves, and their replacement has their favorite writer, and you’re gone (or any number of other similar scenarios).
But, let’s separate those things we can control (i.e., the kinds of copywriting clients we’re approaching with an eye toward repeat business) from the things we can’t (i.e., what happens in a company over time).
If you’re a generalist (as I am), I’ve found that several client profiles can be good bets for repeat writing business:
1) Small- to mid-sized (50-200+ employees) companies. Often, they’re slammed, everyone’s wearing many hats, and they usually don’t have on-staff creative resources, so they’ll look to talented freelancers to help them with a variety of projects. And you have to have a healthy range of copywriting skills to be able to come through on a variety of project types.
2) Solo consultants who work with different companies needing a real mix of work. These can be creative folk (like graphic designers) or marketing people. Not always easy to find, but if you do, and can demonstrably enhance their offering through your skills (both writing and marketing), that can predictably lead to loyal clients. When you find a great plumber, hairdresser, financial consultant, tax preparer, etc, don’t you stay loyal?
If you’re a project specialist (i.e., white papers, case studies, etc), by definition, you’ve limited yourself, so you’ll have to pursue larger companies who have ongoing needs. If you’re an industry specialist (i.e., high-tech, healthcare, financial services, etc), it can be similar to the generalist scenario, in that, small- to mid-sized companies can provide ongoing freelance copywriting work across the project spectrum.
Regardless of how you’ve structured your offering, one thing is a given: to get repeat business, you have to be good. Really good. You need to be a solid writer with a strong grasp of that company’s audience, value proposition, messaging, etc. Plus, you need to be reliable, dependable and easy to work with. And in the case of a generalist, you need to be able to move easily between brochures, ads, direct mail, web content, articles, case studies, etc.
Just as importantly, you need to always have your radar up for additional opportunities. Don’t just be reactive – only responding to your client’s requests. Learn as much about their business as you can, so you’re in a position to make suggestions that can fill gaps in their marketing they may not see or may not have had time to execute themselves.
What attributes have your long-term, repeat clients had in common?
What’s worked for you in landing and retaining repeat copywriting clients?
What long-term client of yours stands out, and how did the relationship unfold and mature over time?
If you wrestled with this same issue when starting out, what would you do differently if you were launching your business today?