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?
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Had a chat recently with a commercial freelancer with whom I had a long-term mentoring relationship last year. Our goal was to give his business-building efforts some serious structure and discipline (i.e., regular cold calling and ongoing follow-up), as he ramped up a former part-time commercial copywriting practice to full-time and operational.
As of late fall of 2010, he was landing some solid copywriting gigs. He shared with me his process when working with new commercial writing clients, and I was so impressed, I asked if he’d write it up for me, which he did below. Really good stuff:
Peter, I recently landed a new client, and as part of my value proposition, I do a thorough business analysis – all part of the package they invest in. I spend approximately three hours reviewing my client’s web site and marketing materials, as well as the web sites of their major competitors – all with an eye toward understanding their respective businesses and how they’re positioning themselves in the marketplace.
Once I finish my research, I’ve learned a good deal about their business – and, what I want to know more about. In fact, I’ll typically end up with a list of 20 to 25 follow-up questions. Next, I set up a face-to-face meeting (which could be done by phone in the case of remote clients) with the client, during which time we discuss my findings and I ask my questions to fill in any blanks.
I tape the conversation and have the tape transcribed – providing the client with a copy of the transcript as well as giving me a verbatim record of our discussion for future reference.
The end result of all this is a deep understanding of my client’s business and industry, from which I can make knowledgeable recommendations for effective marketing initiatives (and the accompanying written materials) moving forward.
More importantly, it serves as a true market differentiator for me. Few commercial writers delve into a client’s world as deeply as I’m doing (though none of what I do is particularly difficult), and that sets me apart. My clients are typically delighted at my approach, which, in many cases, actually leaves me more knowledgeable about their industry than even they may be.
As a result, I quickly go from being a copywriter to something far more than that: someone who’s made it his business to intimately learn their business, and who can then apply strong writing skills more effectively and strategically. This in turn fosters a longer-term mentality on both our parts, which is, of course, my goal: clients with whom I can work closely for many years to come.
While most commercial freelancers I know – myself included – will study a client’s site and materials, in my experience, few of us – again, myself included – are taking that research to as deep a level as this writer is. In a tough economy, shouldn’t we be grabbing every potential edge we can? Especially, as he points out, when it’s a relatively easy way to set ourselves apart from the pack?
One of the things I like most about the approach, as he notes, is the groundwork you’re laying to build a long-term, loyal partnership. When you start out interacting with a client on such a deep level, you powerfully transform the traditional client-vendor relationship into something much more solid and interconnected.
Put another way, when you can tell a new client things they didn’t realize about their business and industry, based on your research (vs. just following their instructions as to what they want written), you’ll earn a whole new level of respect, and will be viewed radically differently from the writer who didn’t do all that.
Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do as he does. Most of us don’t, and most of us have built good businesses. Just think of it as a tantalizing “what-if” scenario.
No, this approach isn’t always appropriate with every client (if you’re contracted, say, by a Fortune 500 client to just develop a brochure, they may not agree to pay for a full analytics package as well…). But, for many smaller- to mid-sized entities (50-200+ employees – arguably, THE “sweet spot” for freelance commercial writers – it would absolutely fly.
If you don’t conduct such analyses with new clients, what is your process?
Might something like this give you an edge over your competition?
If you are doing something on this level, can you share your process?
How have clients reacted to your process?
Have you always followed this process, or did it evolve over the years?
Got an interesting though somewhat disturbing email a few days ago from a commercial freelancer. She wrote:
I wanted to get in touch because I have a concern that’s starting to affect my commercial writing business, and others will likely be coming up against this more frequently as well. In the past six weeks, I have been asked to sign contracts with three corporations. One company wanted me to obtain a General Liability policy in the amount of $1 million (has absolutely no relevance to freelance writing); the other two companies are insisting I obtain Errors & Omissions insurance, which also is irrelevant.
Errors & Omissions insurance is professional liability insurance for mistakes or negligence. One financial Web site said: “It protects a company against claims for financial injury that allege a product failed or the company failed to perform services, causing a loss of use of tangible or intangible property to others.”
I sent the following reply to my contact at one of the companies:
“Here’s the problem: If I/we as freelance writers are writing about a company’s products, the information provided to us comes from the company or company sources. The company is responsible for the accuracy of this information and having their legal departments sign off on the final document. With words, you could never gauge how someone would be making a purchasing decision and how your choice of language influenced that. The only thing you can gauge is whether the facts are correct or not—statistics and so on. And it is the company’s responsibility to check their facts and give a final okay.
“Also, the company always touches the piece last, and unlike an actual product such as a computer, medical device, electric fan or something else that could have flaws due to its manufacture, words can be changed and altered by the client right up to the last moment–or continuously, if the words are in an electronic format. Therefore, the final copy or ‘product’ is never static and the product the original writer produces can and often is very different from the final product the public sees.”
Her reply was that she completely agreed, but her hands were tied. Either I obtain the insurance or I cannot work for that particular company. This is a company I do quite a bit of work for, so I am probably going to cave in and purchase this insurance; she thought it could cost up to $1,000 per year.
I feel like this is a big issue that’s only going to get bigger, and this change is happening fast. I feel like we need to educate corporations about the fact these types of insurance have no relevance to what we do. I thought this might be helpful for other freelancers to know that this is happening and perhaps we can work together to find ways to deal with this (or get around it).
Other actions I’ve been asked to take within the past year (by only large corporations, not smaller businesses) that I have never been asked to do in the 12 years prior:
1. Change from a sole proprietorship to an LLC
2. Obtain a Dun and Bradstreet number
3. Take steps towards becoming a registered woman-owned business
4. Provide information about my personal health insurance coverage and homeowner’s insurance
Companies are trying to cover themselves, but need to be educated about what we do. Any advice freelancers can share with each other regarding this would help us all.
PB: Okay, so all of this is just bizarre to me, but if this person’s encountered it multiple times from different companies, something’s going on. I’ve never gotten hit with any of these demands in 15 years, though in the past 4-5, I haven’t been working (by choice) with many large companies. And in 15+ years in the business, I’ve never ever heard of any copywriter being hit with a lawsuit over copy they wrote, nor even heard of someone who knew a copywriter in that situation. We’re talking about Powerball lottery odds here.
Given the fundamental irrelevance of this concern on the part of these companies to what freelance commercial writers do, and the ensuing demands being made of this particular copywriter (and others, presumably), in my humble opinion, it has all the earmarks of corporate legal departments working overtime to come up with anything that could possibly go wrong. Pretty much the raison d’etre of the legal profession anyway.
But why now all of a sudden? Any thoughts?
Have any of you come across any of these demands from your bigger clients?
If so, how did they explain their thinking on it?
And if so, how did you deal with it?
Any other input based on specific knowledge of industry trends?