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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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Are You Seeing this “Client Expectation” in Your Market?

Got this email from a budding commercial freelancer in New Jersey, who wrote:

I am in Central New Jersey, and I am seeing people who were previously “writers” now resurfacing as “marketing experts.” I’ve had a couple of them tell me that it’s not enough just to be a writer anymore, that you need to provide analytics and in-bound marketing plans through platforms like Hubspot. Are you seeing this in Atlanta or other markets?

My reply?

I’m definitely not seeing this. That said, being able to offer things like that can only help a given commercial writer’s marketability, but no, certainly isn’t something I’m noticing more and more of. Over time, you may choose to expand your offerings beyond just copywriting, but I wouldn’t feel the overwhelming need to do so right out of the gate.

I am seeing more and more, the important of SEO (Search-Engine Optimization) to an overall marketing plan, BUT that skill is coming from other people. While a commercial copywriter who has some of those skills can definitely be an asset to a client, in the projects I’m working on, no one expected me to have those skills, and it was just assumed that there’d be another person (i.e., someone who ONLY does that) handling that piece.

And that was being driven by the fact that Google keeps changing rules to the point where an SEO layman just isn’t going to be able to keep up.

Also, don’t get all caught up with “trends.” Sure, anything you can add to your services can potentially make you more marketable, but you only need a teeny bit of the business out there to make a good living, and you can get that in any number of ways. And, in my experience, plenty of clients JUST need writers.

Are you seeing this trend where you are?

Has your business suffered because you were “only a writer”?

Are you doing fine even though you ARE “only a writer”?

Are there certain services clients are expecting you to deliver that they didn’t used to?


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 Commercial Writers Earn More Than Regular “Freelance Writers”

When I first wrote the original piece noted below, it struck me as a subject on which I’d love to get some feedback from you guys. Look for other such posts (I know, recycling content, but all for a good cause…;)

In the November 2013 Well-Fed E-PUB, my Appetizer course shared a recent client experience that underscored for me why good commercial freelancers generally make a lot more money than regular “freelance writers.” Here’s that piece (adapted and slightly edited)…

Got an email from a client of mine a few weeks back, needing a little editing work on a project her designer was working on for her (i.e., combo brochure/direct mail piece she’d be giving away at trade shows as well as mailing out to prospects).

While I can’t make blanket statements, I’d wager good money that had she simply contacted a “freelance writer”—someone charging quite a bit less than I do—with the same request, she’d have likely gotten just what she’d asked for: edited copy.

However, I took a look at it, and gave her my thoughts: she didn’t need the thing edited. She needed to trash what she had, and start all over again both with the copy and design (and, while she was at it, replace her newbie, “moonlighting-college-student” designer with one of my trusted design partners).

While the existing design was quite creative—a main panel with all sorts of other panels that folded in on it—I looked at it through a far different lens. I listened to what she said she was going to do with it. I looked at what she was selling—a service that needed to have a “case built” for it, and in a logical, sequential fashion.

Her existing copy didn’t begin to build that case (and given the design, the requested editing wouldn’t have allowed me to expand it to do so), nor did the existing design framework even remotely facilitate the proper persuasive unfolding of that “story.”

Doing good copywriting work for her for years has her trust that I know what I’m doing. So when I suggested a totally different layout (still quite creative), new designer, expanded copy and a far higher fee than originally envisioned, she quickly gave the green light.

She’s the ideal client: someone who understands that the ultimate effectiveness of a marketing piece always trumps cost (within reason, of course). So, I’m being paid far more, largely because I’m providing a level of expertise that straight “freelance writers” wouldn’t.

If you know how to write, and even tell a good story, you’ll only be able to command a certain fee (given how many other writers have those same skills), but if you can, indeed, “build that case” for a product/service in a logical, creative way, and can think strategically about copy, and—when necessary, about physical layouts that facilitate that “case-building”—watch your writing income rise.

On this piece, I averaged roughly $120 an hour, not as much as I’d like, but not bad for fun work. And I made more than a regular “freelancer” because I know both how to write AND organize what I write to fit a certain layout (which in this case, I suggested, further increasing my value).

My goal with this post (and hopefully, the ensuing comments) is NOT to discourage non-commercial writers from our business. Anyone can learn, through experience and practice, the craft of good marketing copywriting and the strategic planning side of it. But, I did want to highlight that it IS a different set of skills, and for a businessperson, they’re worth more, and hence worth learning.

And, in all fairness, we commercial copywriters get paid a lot more than regular freelancers, in large part, because the business arena in which we’re operating pays higher rates than say, magazines, newspapers, or content mills.

So, it’s the setting as well as the good skills, but being in the “high-rent” district will only get you so far without the skills.

What do you feel good commercial freelancers bring to the party that regular writers don’t?

Can you share a specific moment/project when you realized you truly had far more marketable skills than the average writer?

Can you share a moment where a business client had an epiphany, as they realized how much more you were able to do for them than a regular writer did/could?

Can you share a moment when your ability to think strategically about copy or layout, set you apart from other writers?

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 Do You Deal with the Unimaginative Client?

Got the following note from a reader and fellow commercial freelancer:

I wrote a website recently in which I dropped the reader right into the environment of the business and took them on a tour of the facility, while describing their experience of the place. Nice flow, lots of mental imagery, etc., if I do say so myself. The client changed it all to “the purpose of,” “We do this,” We do that,” on and on. Read like a drill sergeant. Frustrating to say the least. Ever had a similar experience?

To which I replied:

Yes, we’ve all been in that frustrating place. Clients without vision and imagination are everywhere. All you can do is make your professional opinion known, but ultimately, they’re the boss, and they get what they want. I’m always prepared with an “I-did-it-this-way-and-here’s-why” rationale if they suggest changing it, and I will push my case strongly (and having been at it for as long as I have, I might push harder than someone newer to the biz). But, again, that’s all you can do.

Sometimes our job as commercial writers is just a job. You do your best, you put your best creative foot forward, hope for a client with an open mind—willing to embrace a bit of creativity—and make a strong case for your approach if they balk. But, in the end, if the client’s narrow perspective wins out, and you end up simply being paid well (even if you don’t end up with a copywriting sample worth showing), c’est la vie. There are worse things.

If they keep doing it, you need to make a decision: stay, hold your nose and collect your money; or let them know you can’t work with a client who won’t let you do your job. Guess what you’ll do depends on how much you need them…;)

It always amuses me (used to make me angry, but I’ve mellowed…) when clients hire me to do something they presumably don’t feel they have the skill to do, and then change what I’ve written to something of their own creation that isn’t nearly as effective. I could understand it better if I were being paid $25 an hour, in which case they’d consider me little more than a stenographer. But I’ve had clients who were paying me $125 an hour do it as well.

And in the example above, how our friend crafted the piece is a wonderfully effective way of doing it: making it real, letting the reader “test-drive” the experience of a product or service. Why clients can’t see that an approach like that is more engaging, and hence, more effective, is a real head-scratcher.

I suspect it’s more of a comfort-zone thing. They’re so used to thinking about business in black-and-white terms, and they’ve worked hard to carve out some market share, so they’re afraid of somehow alienating their customer base by communicating to that base in a “voice” that’s more colorful than their usual. Just a theory.

With bigger companies (smaller companies are typically far more willing to be creative), the fault can be laid at the feet of legal departments, which, trained as they are in imagining every possible worst-case scenario for every piece of material they disseminate publicly, will predictably nix anything out of the ordinary.

I talk in TWFW about a project I did many years back for that Big Soft-Drink Company here in Atlanta, working through a design firm. It was a promotion geared to their bottlers, and linking one of their products to a big golf tournament. I filled the piece with all sorts of fun, golf-related double-entendre-verbiage: “Drive for the Green!”; “An Opportunity that’s Dead Solid Perfect;” and more.

Some months later, I saw the final product. Every single one of my clever little bits of color had been sanitized out of the piece, replaced with bland, snoozer copy. Oh, well.

Why do you think many corporate copywriting clients resist more creative approaches? Have some shared their reasons?

Have you had client push back on a creative/interesting approach, and if so how did you handle their resistance?

If you were able to sway them to your point of view, what did the trick?

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