Where Do You Draw Your “Line in the Sand” with Copywriting Clients?

In the last post, erstwhile copywriter/now graphic designer, Mike Klassen, on whom I can always depend for wisdom, shared this comment:

When I started out, I hated the thought of losing any potential copywriting client. Now, I do little things to weed out the potential problem clients.

One thing I will no longer do is quote a price or a price range without talking to the prospect on the phone and asking questions. I lost all hope of landing a new client a few weeks ago when I got a short email out of the blue asking how much I charge for a certain project. Well, that type of project can have quite a range, so I suggested we schedule a get-to-know-each-other call so I could get some details.

Nope… no call… just wanted a range. When I said I don’t do that because all projects are different (I even have a blog post to point people to that explains things in more detail), he asked what I had charged for the pieces he saw as samples on my site. Had to say sorry, but what I charge other clients is between me and them. I again suggested a free call, or that he should swing by eLance to consider other options. Never heard back from him, and it didn’t make me sad.

If someone can’t be bothered to do a quick chat on the phone, they’re not the client for me. Those questions that PB mentions are crucial. I can’t accurately quote a project until I learn more about the project. But just as important is the personality of the person I’d be working for. You can learn a lot about them on a 15-minute call.

Good stuff, particularly the idea of how much you can pick up about someone on the phone. Not something we spend much time thinking about, but perhaps we should.

Few things top the satisfied feeling you get when you tell a commercial writing client that what they’re suggesting doesn’t work for you. Not in a thumb-your-nose kind of way. But rather, as part of the dawning realization that the client/provider relationship is a one of peers, not lord over servant. Sure, when starting out as a commercial freelancer, you need to be more accommodating, but the sooner you get to that point of realizing, “I have a say in how this goes,” the better.

I recently had a little “line-in-the-sand” moment of my own. I’d given a quote to a new client (a freelance designer for whom I’d done one small project) to brainstorm 3-4 brochure concepts for his not-for-profit client (yes, an unusual project). I offered a pretty reasonable price based on a phone meeting (vs. a face-to-face).

He emailed me to ask if I’d be open to doing a face-to-face instead. With no hesitation, and with supremely untroubled mind, I told him that it really wouldn’t work. All we have as freelancers is our time, and a face-to-face meeting (two hours minimum) would significantly reduce my hourly rate on an already mighty reasonable flat fee.

I think back to how I might have reacted many years back, how I’d have no doubt said, “Sure, of course, be happy to,” or how many writers, living out of “I’m just happy to be here,” would have also quickly signed on. Again, as noted, in the beginning, you DO have to go the extra mile—you do have to prove yourself and be accommodating. But as you get a sense of your value, it’s time to start saying, No.”

And get this: when I told, by phone, that I couldn’t do it, his immediate response was, “Absolutely no problem. I totally get it. I feel exactly the same way. I just wanted to feel out the situation with you.”

He went on to say that he’ll just tell the client that we’re trying to keep things as economical as possible for them, and as such, etc., etc. And it occurred to me, given his reaction, and his immediate understanding of, and commiseration with (after all, he’s a freelancer as well), that had I agreed to the in-person meeting, chances are excellent, I’d have lost some respect in his eyes.

Maybe not a lot, maybe not even consciously to him, but it would have sent the message that I was a bit of a doormat. So, realize that being “agreeable” doesn’t always equate to building credibility in someone’s eyes.

Yes (and as we discussed in an earlier post), you need to balance this new-found power with a generous spirit, but you’ll know which situation calls for which response.

Your drawing-your-line-in-the-sand stories?

How did they unfold, and how to did you feel about it when you stood up for yourself?

Ever not drawn that line when you should have, and regretted it?

Any other thoughts on the subject?

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23 replies
  1. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    Hi Peter: My immediate reaction when I saw your headline prompted a slightly different line in the sand moment. Mine is a product or service that goes against my personal values. I have a health care niche so you can imagine the kind of products/service I’m talking about.

    I am not sitting in judgement or disrespecting their beliefs, but I know I cannot do the professional work they are seeking if what they sell goes against my own personal set of values. I make a point of respecting their beliefs and keeping my response professional.

    I know if my gut is nagging at me, I had better pay attention. There simply isn’t enough money for me to go against certain line in the sand projects.

  2. Katherine Andes
    Katherine Andes says:

    A few years back, when I was still hungry, I had a CEO complain about me to a mutual friend because I wouldn’t attend a consult without a fee. His website is still doo-doo. Now I usually tell folks I’d love to have a face-to-face, but that I can’t do it without charging them. And then I assure them that there really is no need for them to incur the extra expense. That usually satisfies them.

  3. Susan Landry
    Susan Landry says:

    Great post, Peter. I appreciate your emphasis on the fact that the client/copywriter relationship should be a partnership, not a master/servant arrangement. I think any copywriter – veteran or novice – needs to project that “take no bull” confidence right out of the gate. I’ll share my story: I had an agency client that I’d been working with for several years – the work was interesting and the pay was great. Several months ago they landed a new client – no one I’d ever heard of, but apparently a big score in their neck of the woods. Suddenly under pressure from their new client, my contact started asking me to take on projects with very unreasonable turnaround times. They would email me at 5pm and ask if I could join a conference call at 9am the next morning (which had been scheduled entirely without my input). They became irritated when I couldn’t make these last-minute accommodations, and the relationship went sour pretty quickly. And honestly, at that point, I was ok with letting the client go. Lack of respect for my time is my personal line in the sand.

  4. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks, ladies – great comments.

    Cathi – that IS another type of “line in the sand” and just as important in its own way, so thanks for weighing in on that (and others with similar situations, please chime in!).

    And Kathi, good for you for standing your ground before you were really firmly established. It’s a great habit to get into early. Not always easy to do, but it makes it that much easier to do it later.

    Excellent, Susan! Yeah, there’s an arrogance that can take over companies when they’ve hired you – the idea that you should be thrilled to be working for them, and as such, should be more than willing to bend over backwards to please them at any time. So, good for you for stepping back. Life is too short!

    More stories?? 😉


  5. Katherine Swarts
    Katherine Swarts says:

    There are an awful lot of “my way or the highway” attitudes out there, and I won’t claim total innocence on that score myself (I may have drawn as many lines when I should have been accommodating, as the reverse). But the writing field seems to attract a disproportionate number of the most arrogant examples on both sides:

    Freelance writer to blog publisher: “I know you don’t officially accept guest posts longer than 200 words, but I’m sure you’ll find my 500-word piece worth making an exception for.”

    Website manager to writer who complained about his article being copied without his permission or knowledge: “Well, *most* writers appreciate the publicity we offer them.”

    The shocking part is not that such examples exist, but that it’s virtually impossible to find a writing-oriented social networking group where someone doesn’t offer such an example two or three times a week.

  6. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    A prospect who only wants a quote is probably completely price-driven, and unless you’re the cheapest freelancer on the planet Earth, you won’t get his business even if you do play along. In fact, I reply to these inquiries by emailing them my per-project rate card. This weeds out the “bottom feeders” while also allowing me to take control of the money conversation — “Here’s what I charge. Your move,” instead of “What kind of a deal are you willing to give me?”

    As for in-person meetings, I simply don’t offer them anymore. I can’t burn up all that time on potentially fruitless little commutes around town — and why should I, when there’s this marvelous new invention called the telephone? My out-of-state clients have no trouble communicating with me via phone and email, so why should my local clients?

  7. Amanda Brandon
    Amanda Brandon says:

    What a great topic! I had to draw a line in the sand with a couple of clients recently – to the point that I let one go. Another was contacting me via text asking me to work on a project that day – please. And he asks for in-person meeting all the time.

    I’m one of the at-home mom FCLWs and my kids (a girl and a baby boy on the way) are my priority.

    I left a company that is taking ALL of the employees on a trip to Disney to celebrate their 10-year anniversary to be a mom and a writer who works on my terms. And I’m not at all sad about missing that trip. This journey is much more exciting and fruitful.

    When the client who got “let go” started treating me as an employee, I did a little mission of the business inventory and realized they weren’t meeting my definition of a client that I wanted to work with. I did raise the concern, but they kept up the time-wasting Word doc comment war, so I severed ties with them.

    The other guy who texts is still around, but he received his quarterly email that I work on set terms and that payments had been rather delayed. So, in that case, I’m not urgently completing projects.

    When you start drawing lines in the sand, you command respect as a professional. You figure out who is worth your time and who is not.

    It’s like the guy on Holmes on Homes (for all you HGTV) fans said recently – “A good contractor is not going to start tomorrow. He’s too busy.”

    We writers should give ourselves the same treatment. It’s nothing personal, but your time is your livelihood, especially when you’re working around art projects and diapers.

    Thanks for raising this issue, Peter.

  8. Erica
    Erica says:

    Hi Peter.

    (First-time commenter here)

    I love this post. I was a corporate copywriter for several years and went freelance in June 2012. Before recently discovering your book , I learned about professional dignity the hard way (always fun).

    Without going too deep into their back stories, here are my lines in the sand:
    • I expect to be paid fairly, in full and on time.
    • Paying 50% now and 50% when you “become profitable” does not work for me.
    • I will guard my work/life balance carefully.
    • I am not available 24/7 to come running when you crook your finger.
    • I will not drive to Narnia just so they can see what I look like and make sure I don’t smell.
    • I will not tolerate my time being willfully wasted.
    I was be kept waiting for 45 minutes past the scheduled meeting time. The anger only deepened when the prospect worked on someone else’s presentation for the 15 minutes she could spare for the rest of the meeting.
    • I will not take a typing test, especially one that requires me to pay $25 for parking.
    Please don’t judge. It was my first week freelancing, and I didn’t know it was on the agenda. On the bright side, I was clocked at 72 wpm. (I was curious.)
    • No, I do not offer janitorial services with my writing services. (I wish I was kidding.)
    • Third parties do not, under any condition on this good earth, get access to my laptop.
    • I am not a “temp.”
    • If a client is discourteous, I will stay calm and professional. But I reserve the right to not work with that client again when we are done.
    • I am not there to be someone’s employee and will not listen to that “if we like you, we might hire you” garbage.

    There’s been surprise when I’ve stood up for myself but maximum pride and minimal backlash. I’m still learning to say “no” and still accommodating when I shouldn’t. But, I’m getting better and keeping a roof over my head.

    I’m now on Chapter 2 of your book. And thanks to you, I’m looking forward to a much shorter learning curve. 🙂

  9. Star
    Star says:

    On products I don’t approve of–I once turned down a naming project for a cigarette.

    I can get stubborn on projects if there is a “tone.” I once had someone try to sub to me–and he said, “Just so you know, you will be married to this client until they are happy.” Won’t, either! Turned it down.

    Also–on ads for writing gigs–if they don’t list a fee or range and ask me for a ton of materials (this takes time), then I think, “Gee, this is kind of one-sided.” Some ads, also, have a bossy edge–“If you do not include clips, you will be deleted.” Wah…deleted? That’s mean.

  10. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great stuff! Thanks Katherine – yes, examples abound of clients AND writers behaving badly. Good reminder to not be too rigid ourselves.

    And I’m with you, William: never play the price game – you will only lose, because there will always be someone willing to do it for less.

    Welcome, Erica – and great stuff. We should all make a copy of your list and paste it on the wall to remind us always.

    And thanks Star – good for you. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall when you told the guy, “I’m out!” 😉

    One thing that all the above had me realize is that, while there are definitely some a—-ole clients out there with crazy demands/expectations, chances are excellent they got that way after being trained by any number of “doormat” writers who did whatever they wanted. So, that established in their minds, “how to treat writers” (or vendors in general).

    As such, it becomes our responsibility to re-educate them in the “way the world works” when dealing with professionals. And they’ll also find that, while they can’t treat a professional the same way they did an amateur, they will get a higher-quality experience from that pro. And they’ll soon come to realize why that professional charges what they do and why they expect to be treated differently.

    Course, if they don’t want to be re-educated, they’ll lose out on the good stuff that’d come their way working with pros. And, sorry to say, they’ll eventually find other doormats to wipe their feet on. But, that’s life. And frankly, those who do draw their lines as we’re discussing here (assuming they have the chops to back up the mindset), will always be in a small minority, and will always rise to the top.


  11. Lori
    Lori says:

    Great post, Peter.

    Where do I start? I’m so used to drawing lines in the sand I feel I have my own customized stick for the job. 😉 The obvious times are when someone asks for a free sample (that’s not just a red flag, but several waving at once), or when a new client instantly tries to lower my rate. A more recent one is when my client decided she was going to “check into” my invoice and let me know her “decision.” Meaning she wasn’t paying what was billed. And it was five months later. I gave her a courtesy and let her know I was about to contact collections, but wanted to give her that one last chance to pay up.

    This was a new client and the contract was crystal clear — you pay $XXX for each Y I provide. So I reminded her that by contract, she owed me the full amount, not just for what she’d used to date.

    Her reaction was one I almost expected – she argued, then dragged her in-house attorney into the conversation (copied her on it — I never spoke to her). I was then instructed to send all communication to this attorney. And then she paid me all but $125 of what she owed me.

    I ignored her requests to include this attorney. The facts were simple — per our contract, she owed me the full amount. My choice: forget the small amount or press her for it.

    Because I have the same payment process with every client, I pressed it. I’ve placed her into collection, and I intend to follow through just as if she owed me $12,500 instead of the $125 she owes. Why? Because I have to maintain precedent. If by chance I get a client someday who doesn’t pay a larger bill, and I have to take it to court, I want to be able to show I’m sticking by my own rules.

    I feel like a business person making a tough decision, to be honest. It doesn’t feel wrong or necessarily right, but appropriate given the situation.

    Early in my career, there were plenty of times I didn’t draw that line, and boy, did I regret it. A six-month book project that went on for a year and a half (and with no additional pay). A project presented as straightforward, six weeks of work that went on for eight months (again, no additional pay). A seemingly lucrative writing job that turned into a lesson in how tightly one person can pinch a penny (including allotting me two hours to interview three people and write an article). While they were frustrating situations, they were lessons I learned that help me draw that line sooner now.

    I think that’s how we learn to draw lines, assert boundaries, and conduct business as business people — by facing down tough situations and putting our needs ahead of the needs of clients, which is as it should be when it comes to compensation and the working conditions.

  12. Katherine Swarts
    Katherine Swarts says:

    I’ve heard that one before too, Lori–the client who agrees to something and even signs off on it, then tries to get away with saying, “Well, THIS is more reasonable.” Several of my social networking circle are book doctors in the religious genre, and more than one of them has complained about clients who signed a contract and later said, “We were praying God would move you to *donate* your time.” (Some people just don’t “get” that there’s such a thing as a “No” answer to prayer!)

    And something else I bumped against recently: an “interested prospect” offered to pay me $10-35/article (starving-writer content-mill rates to begin with) and then added that the exact rate would be determined on the basis of how much THEY had to edit whatever I gave them! As politely as I could, I told them that writers of my experience level are priced out of their range–and refrained from adding a few words on what an insult it is to tell a professional in any field that you don’t trust them to get it right without your help.

  13. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great stuff, Lori! (not surprisingly, of course),

    My first inclination is to say, “Good for you!” But, as you point out accurately, you just make a sensible business decision taking her to collections, even for the smaller amount. It IS about setting the bad precedent, not only for future clients, but more importantly, for yourself. You start giving up a little here and there, and you can convince yourself you’re just being “reasonable” when in fact, you’re letting yourself get walked over.

    The takeaway here for me, is that in these cases, the client truly feels (out of whatever convoluted thought process) that their interests somehow trump yours, that it’s okay to take advantage of you, that if they do, there are unlikely to be any consequences (“What are they gonna do, sue us? Heh-heh-heh…”). And by your actions, you let them know that, guess what, it doesn’t work that way. If only all writers had that sense of self!

    And Katherine, I must confess, I laughed out loud at your story of clients praying that “God would move you to donate your time.” Amazing.

    I mean, hey, nothing wrong with praying for that, as long as, once you realize that that prayer wasn’t answered, you pay that bill. It’s when they feel they obviously didn’t pray hard enough, and that another round is in order, juuuuuust to give God some more time to instill that spirit of generosity in you, that we have a problem… 😉

    And your second story was another jaw-dropper. The funny things clients do…;)


  14. Katherine Andes
    Katherine Andes says:

    This isn’t pertinent to the topic, but is another funny religious story. I was once editing a religious piece with a writer (not professional) and he didn’t like a change, so he said, “But, Kathy, the Holy Spirit told me to write it that way.” I replied, “The Holy Spirit told me to change it.”

  15. Katherine Swarts
    Katherine Swarts says:

    Every editor at every major religious publishing house has heard that “God gave this to me word for word” argument, to the point that any phrase resembling “divine inspiration” is a red flag. Your rejoinder is one of the best I’ve heard.

  16. Star
    Star says:

    I used to have a cartoon up until it literally crumbled off the wall. Two cavemen, one chipping into a stone tablet, the other watching. The caption was: “Hi, I am the first writer.” “Hi, I am the first critic.”

  17. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Funny stuff! Two can play the divine trump card, apparently…;)

    And great stuff, Amanda (sorry for the delay in approving your comment – got buried in the piles of spam!). And you’re right – the moment you draw your line, you’ll start getting treated like professional. It’s a real-world manifestation of that old sales adage, “He (or She) Who Cares Least Wins.” How true.

    Being prepared to walk away and not look back puts you in the ideal bargaining position. And drawing that line is nothing more than getting very clear with someone that you need them far less than they thought you did.


  18. Joe Mullich
    Joe Mullich says:

    I probably would have handled the face-to-face meeting request a little differently.
    I would have written the client and said, “Hi, Bob. Looking forward to doing the project with you. The quote I gave you was based on a phone meeting. I am fine about meeting face-to-face. However, that will require me to travel four hours back and forth, and I would need to charge an additional X for the time. I think we can do this just as well over the phone, and since you are a non-profit I know that you try to keey budgets as low as possible. But if you think it’s worth the extra cost to do this face to face, I’m certainly happy to accommodate you.”
    That way you lay out things openly and honestly. You let the client understand the value of your time in a non-confrontational way, and let him decide if he wants to pay more for additional services.
    The issue that a lot of writers run into, especially when we starting out, is we can be emotional about things like this. We let ourselves get beaten up and then resent it. But once you get past that, and certainly deal with clients in a pleasant, businesslike (and non-desperate way), you find they tend to be very reasonable and understanding of a reasonable business position.

  19. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Hey Joe,

    Thanks for weighing in! Good points, AND, with this client, because of the rapport we’d already established, there was no need to get that formal in our communications. And in fact (and I should have included this point in the story above), we did talk briefly about, “I’m happy to have a meeting, but I’d have to charge more.”

    And remember, he was my client, but he was the middleman. HIS clients were wanting a face-to-face. And it was enough to make my feelings known to him (and, as it turns out, he was on the same page), and he’d pass that on to his client. It was nothing they were demanding, so my demurral was enough to have them back off. As a fellow creative professional, he knew where I was coming from, and was simply passing on the request. Yes, given that, maybe he should have fielded that request with the client on my behalf, but that’s the way it unfolded.

    And four hours additional? 😉 Not sure I’d add four hours to a quote for a meeting – I was thinking two (30 minutes each way travel plus an hour meeting). No offense, and to each his own, but four might strike a client as so excessive as to be off-putting (unless you simply meant a client who in fact was 2 hours away, not the case here).

    And you’re absolutely right about copywriters (especially new ones) going along with client requests when they don’t want to, and then resenting it. Always better, as you say, to be upfront, polite and firm, and most clients will get it. As I’ve found out countless times—and no doubt many of you have as well—often clients (especially ones with little experience dealing with freelancers), don’t know how the world works in our world, but will take your lead if you diplomatically explain it.

    Yes, we could argue that any businessperson should know that asking someone to do a face-to-face meeting instead of one over the phone would entail an extra fee, but whether it’s ignorance or someone indeed trying to “work” you, having that friendly “come-to-Jesus” is often all it takes to get things back on the right track, AND, yes, earn their respect in the process.

    Thanks again!


  20. Katherine Andes
    Katherine Andes says:

    I think some of the prospects who don’t understand are those who, themselves, have to do bids and proposals and meetings in order to get jobs. Their thinking is “I have to do it, why can’t she.”

  21. Deb Joli
    Deb Joli says:

    Great post, Peter! In my newbie years when I was hungry for work, I discovered that clients who were given discounted rates were actually the most difficult to work with. If I charged my going rate — no small fee, for that matter — my clients were more respectful of the work that I did.

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