15 little secrets your freelance clients won’t tell you

March 1, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Freelancing 

freelance client secretsDo you remember that episode of Gilligan’s Island when Gilligan discovered a bush on the island with seeds that make it possible to read minds?

No? Well, I do. And it was a disaster.

At first, it was an amusing trick. But pretty soon, when everyone knew what everyone else was really thinking about them, it got nasty. Even Mary Ann got pissed off.

Well, I think it’s for the best that we can’t read minds. Too much truth isn’t good for anyone.

But it would be nice if you could swallow just one little mind reading seed to get a taste of what some of your clients might be thinking about you.

Would you like to give that a try? Here we go …

Stop being a diva. You’re not that great. Confidence is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t get out of control. You’re doing good work. You’re being paid well. You’re riding high and loving the life of a copywriter. But keep the ego in check. You don’t know it all. You’re not always right. And no, you don’t need someone to remove all the brown M&Ms. Get over yourself.

When you miss your deadlines, I miss my deadlines. Most clients are pretty accommodating. Some will even let you slide now and then on the schedule. It’s easy to start taking advantage of this and deliver work late repeatedly, but that’s a bad idea. They’re saying, “That’s fine” on the phone, but in their head they’re saying, “I gotta find another copywriter.”

I don’t care if the dog ate your copy. If you intend to earn a full-time living from copywriting, there are no excuses for making excuses. Stuff happens, sure. But when you start blaming problems on your dog, kids, wife, family, weather, car, health, or personal problems, you’re just acting like a child. Grow up.

Dude! Too much information! It’s important to make a personal connection with your clients. That means getting face-to-face if you can. Maybe picking up the phone now and then and just saying “hi.” You’ll end up sharing bits and pieces of your personal life. But what you don’t do is share really intimate bits and pieces of your personal life. Keep graphic details about that stomach virus, your rowdy sex life, or messy family disputes to yourself. Don’t talk about religion or politics. Don’t dish dirt about anyone. No one needs to know how drunk you were last night or why the doctor gave you that salve.

Why are you badmouthing your other clients? It’s natural to think you can bond with someone by talking trash about your difficult clients. After all, that shows how well you think of the client you’re talking to, right? “Oh, you are so much easier to work with than Joe Smith at World Wide Widgets. He’s such an idiot.” No. No. No. All you’re doing by badmouthing clients is demonstrating that you’re unprofessional and can’t be trusted. Clients will wonder what you’re saying about them behind their back.

I really do know more about my product that you do. Seriously. No one knows more about a product than the business owner who’s been selling the product for 20 years. They know who their clients are. They know what the best prices are. They know what their customers like and don’t like. What turns them on and turns them off. Listen. Closely. Take lots of notes. Your client may not be the expert on copywriting, but he or she is certainly the expert on what the company sells.

I don’t want poetry. Write copy. What sort of people are attracted to copywriting? Writers. What do most writers like to do? Write. What is the secret desire of every writer on the planet? To have their words praised as magical, lyrical, and wondrous. What can that tempt you to do? Write beautiful drivel. Look, your job is not to write. Your job is to sell stuff, and it just so happens that you’ll use words to do that. Your clients don’t want words. They want sales. You’re a salesman with a computer. If you want to write a sonnet or the great American novel, fine. Do it on your own time.

Stop dissing my designer. This is not as common now as it used to be. Back in the day, copywriters thought that copy was the only thing that was important. Designers were only people who made the copy look nice. One of my clients used to call designers “wrists.” But it was untrue then and it’s untrue now. Design is important. Really important. It’s what brings your copy to life and makes it sing. Don’t you dare diss designers. They’re the final link in the chain for creating printed or online messages and can make or break the whole project. Get to know the designers you work with and treat them like the professionals they are.

Answer my calls and emails, dammit! Okay, you’ve been taking some courses on productivity and now you’re doing the 43 folder thing, breaking your work into 20-minute chunks, and generally being an anal-retentive control freak. Fine. If that works, go for it. But don’t think for a minute that you can get away with only checking your email or phone messages once in the morning and once in the evening. Your clients expect you to be responsive. So respond. There are few things more annoying than calling or emailing someone and having to wait for a day or two before they reply.

Spell check. Use it. That about says it. You have a spell checker. Use it. Print out your copy. Check it again. No one expects you to be perfect. A few typos can easily slip through on big projects. But those should be few. It can really shake a client’s confidence if you deliver sloppy copy. Remember a few moments ago when I said you’re more of a salesman than a writer? Well, forget that. When you’re proofing what you’ve written, be a writer. Get the spelling, punctuation, grammar, and style right. And get it right the first time. I like to deliver solid copy that needs little if any editing. It impresses clients.

Keep regular business hours. One of the big benefits of freelancing is that you can set your own hours. Flexibility is wonderful and can dramatically de-stress your life. But if you’re always out, if clients always get your voice mail, if people can only reach you in the evening or at random times, you’re going to fall out of the loop. The business world works anywhere from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. You need to be available during these hours and doing work at the same time as everyone else. You can work at other times too, but there’s no getting away from regular business hours.

Get to the point. I’m busy. Being chatty is like having bad breath. No one will ever tell you. They’ll just try to avoid talking to you. Sure, you can socialize for a minute or two. But most clients are in an office with a pile of work on their desk and just can’t shoot the breeze with you all day. When you’re on the phone or in a meeting, know what you have to say and say it. You don’t have to tell a long story about it, just SAY IT. People don’t need every fact preceded by the history of Western civilization, for pity’s sake.

Stop bitching about your fee. If you think you deserve to earn more, then start charging more for your work. If you can’t get more for your work, maybe you need to polish up your skills and your reputation a little. The point is, once you agree on a fee, shut up about it. Do the work. Accept the fee. Move on. If you let a client negotiate you down from your normal fee, there was a reason you let that happen. You needed the work or you wanted to work with that particular client or whatever. You accepted the deal. Live with it. No one likes a cry baby.

It’s annoying when you send your invoice with your copy. Asking for your money the very moment you finish writing sends clients up the walls. It’s almost as if you’re saying, “Here’s your copy. Now PAY me!” It’s just too forward. It gives the impression that the money is more important than the client’s needs. Besides, your client may have a few changes. You’re not that great, remember? Wait until you’re sure the client is satisfied and the project is finished before sending your invoice.

Don’t call me every week asking for work. Clients don’t like it. Prospects don’t like it. No one likes it. Be aggressive in tracking down work, but don’t be a jerk. No one owes you a paycheck. There’s a big difference between being persistent and being a pest. For a pending project, you might call a couple times. But if you’re just fishing for new work, every three months is plenty. And you don’t have to always use the phone. Send a link to an article. Ask for advice. Comment on your client’s advertising. Just staying in touch is all that’s necessary. They know you want work and a light reminder that you’re still around is sufficient.

Had enough? That seed should be wearing off now, but I want you to remember this little experiment. Maybe it will help you make an extra effort to act like a professional. When you do, your clients will think a lot of really nice things, such as “I love your copy” and “it’s a pleasure to work with you.”

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Smart Comments

10 Comments on 15 little secrets your freelance clients won’t tell you

  1. CS on Mar 1st, 2010 10:36 am
  2. “Stop dissing my designer.” I actually remember the days when “copy was king”…so I’ve been around for a while! In today’s age of flash design, you-tube and the “no one reads anymore” mantra, I find the reverse true more often. I wish designers and clients would follow this advice re: respecting what a strong sales writer can bring to the table.

    At least 2-3 times a week I see ads from employers/agencies in my area seeking graphic designers or website developers with a long list of required software/tech skills, followed by the last bullet point as an afterthought: “write all the direct mail, web and other copy.”

    Or designers who see copy as an annoying distraction that ruins their design…which usually translates to lots of teeny, reversed-out body copy that fails to sell the product.

    It’s a real challenge to stay diplomatic sometimes… :)

  3. Dean Rieck on Mar 1st, 2010 10:55 am
  4. CS:
    You have a point. But I think “copy is king” should be revised to “communication is king.” Copy and design have to work together. I only discovered this after suffering years of designers disemboweling my copy then teaching myself design and discovering that good design can dramatically boost response. I suppose I could write another article on what copywriters are thinking about designers, but I only had that one seed from the island. :)

  5. Chrystal @ Happy Mothering on Mar 1st, 2010 4:37 pm
  6. I have been lucky to work with a lot of talented designers. I find that the collaboration between design and copy is key to delivering the ideal communications piece. I actually prefer to talk to the designer BEFORE I start writing to see if they have a vision for the look and feel. I find that it helps me shape the messaging.
    .-= Chrystal @ Happy Mothering’s last blog … Raising a Child with Dairy Allergies =-.

  7. Joshua Guffey on Mar 3rd, 2010 1:10 am
  8. You make some pretty damn good points here Dean! I’ve been guilty of a couple of those things in the past. Best you can do is learn and move on, right?

    -@JoshuaGuffey
    .-= Joshua Guffey’s last blog … Commented on “Mashable – The Social Media Guide” =-.

  9. Andrew B on Mar 3rd, 2010 9:49 am
  10. I think you forgot one: “I’d like you to do all the writing and heavy lifting — the outline, the research, the fact-checking. Then I’ll take your well-written copy and edit it myself.”

    In 20+ years in the business, I’ve had this happen countless times.

    More often than not, it’s motivated by nothing more than ego. I generally don’t have a problem with that, as the offender is usually the one paying the bills. I get it.

    But when a semi-literate executive or business owner hacks it to pieces, messes with flow and rhythm, changes the meaning, or introduces spelling or grammatical errors, I’m ready to go on a three-state killing spree.

    [...] 15 Little Secrets Your Freelance Writing Clients Won’t Tell YOu at ProCopyTips [...]

  11. P.S. Jones on Mar 5th, 2010 10:11 am
  12. I’m am often guilty of not answering calls because I hate talking on the phone! But it’s rude to ignore someone who’s hired me and so I’ve had to make an effort to make/answer calls whenever the client wants it.

  13. Brian on Mar 5th, 2010 12:39 pm
  14. If I don’t send the invoice with the copy, I’m going to forget about it (for non-long-term contracts, those get billed monthly). Sorry you’re just going to have to deal with it; I always include a nice note to let me know if you need any changes.

  15. Dean Rieck on Mar 5th, 2010 12:49 pm
  16. Brian:
    Start a spreadsheet or get QuickBooks to track your projects.

  17. Merryl Rosenthal on Apr 9th, 2010 4:26 am
  18. Your post was spot on AND laugh-out-loud funny.
    Thanks for that.

    (By the way: being female, I prefer to say
    “copy rules” and “sales rep”–I’m a big fan of
    writing that’s gender neutral.)

    Cheers. :)