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How Do You Respond to Prospects Who Make Requests Like These?

So, I got an email the other day from a reader in the Northeast whose note underscored an issue we commercial freelancers wrestle with all the time. While this particular case seems a bit more straightforward (see my reply below), variations on this scenario can present challenges to writers like us. As a result, I’d love to hear others’ strategies on this. She wrote:

It seems that, where I live anyway, people have no problem meeting with me, picking my brain for marketing ideas, and then not offering a paid writing job. Happens all the time. I’m starting to think it’s my fault.

In the case below, I competed for a full-time job with the company. Though I didn’t get the job, my contact called to say she’d like to stay in touch, as she wants to work with me in the future. Since then I have maintained a positive attitude and stayed in touch thinking that I could turn her into a paying commercial writing client.

This morning a message came in from her: “Would you be around to meet with me and a few other staff members (including the person who landed the job I competed for) on (X) date/time? We don’t have any projects ready to go at this point, but I’d like to toss around some ideas for down the line. That would include some help on things like _____ (i.e., a short list of writing projects).”

Should I go, and with the same positive attitude that they’ll become a paying client?

My response:

Given that these particular folks haven’t made a habit of doing this (i.e., calling you in to talk but not hire you), I’d go ahead and meet just to get in front of them. AND limit it to an hour, tops. AND not give them all sorts of ideas they could run with without having to hire you. Nothing wrong with giving them an idea or two that demonstrate you know what you’re doing as a copywriter, showcase your range of capabilities and underscore the value of working with you. That’s often what it takes for a prospects to quantify you as a resource and start developing a comfort level with you.

It’s a fine line, no question. But, as I see it, if someone wants to pick your brains for ideas that would be worthy of a consultation fee, then you don’t want to give it away for free. An example of where it can make sense to meet (without pay) is if you’ve taken a look at their business and seen possibilities for several writing initiatives (involving you doing the writing) that could move their business forward (i.e., a newsletter, direct mail campaign, case studies, white papers, etc).

Still no guarantee that you’ll get hired, but to a certain extent, it’s often the nature of the beast that you have to show your value before you get hired. And in the above case, giving them ideas of possible projects still means they have to do them, so the idea itself is only worth so much. Not sure whether your frequent experiences of this kind (prospects happy to milk you but not willing to hire you) points to the “nature of the beast” scenarios we ALL face, or whether there’s something else at play here.

One thing I might suggest asking and clarifying before meeting, in a casual, “in-passing” kind of way, is what sort of in-house resources they have to handle projects like these. As a way, of course, of determining if they could indeed just take your ideas and execute them on their own. Any whiff of that and you should be careful…

What advice would you give her?

What’s your policy? Where do you draw the line when it comes to initial (unpaid) meetings?

What red flags have you come to recognize as signs of a “Moocher”?

Have you come up with any sort of standard response to similar requests?

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?