As a freelance copywriter, you’re running a small business. And while writing itself may be the thing that gives you pleasure, you still have to contend with money issues, that is if you want to be successful.
Many copywriters struggle with quoting projects, invoicing for work completed and collecting from clients. Among the most common questions are:
With regard to how much to charge, that’s a subject worthy of its own article or perhaps even an entire book. Generally speaking, it depends on how big and complex the project is, how much experience you have, what the going market rate is for those types of projects, and finally, how much your client is willing and able to spend.
I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole on the pricing subject in this particular article. Instead, I’m going to focus on the other questions regarding quoting, billing and collections practices.
I recently corresponded with a new freelance copywriter on those topics. Below is that conversation, which might prove helpful to you if you’re also a freelance copywriter still learning the ropes of running your business.
I was hoping to get your advice on best practices for invoicing clients who are considering hiring you for a freelance copywriting assignment. The process typically begins with an initial query about price. Here’s how I usually handle it:
The copywriting assignment you’ve requested will cost $200. If you’d like to proceed, please let me know where to send the invoice.
Unfortunately, my approach doesn’t appear to be working because most of the time I get no response. Do you think that indicates my pricing for copy is too high? Or am I handling the query wrong?
It could be any number of reasons you’re not seeing success in closing deals. Perhaps your prices are out of line. Or maybe you’re attracting the wrong kinds of clients and need to target those with bigger budgets.
I don’t want to get into copywriting rates. So let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that your pricing is competitive, in line with market rates.
I think your short reply to the client seems too focused on sending your invoice. Telling clients who are hearing from you the first time and don’t yet know you — like those who find you via online search — that you’ll send an invoice is off-putting.
You haven’t established a rapport with those clients. They don’t feel a connection. They’re not ready to trust you and send money just on the basis of having found your name or website online. So you might want to rethink that process.
Quoting a price early on is fine, especially for clients who specifically ask for a price. But you need to also establish some sort of relationship with clients through some back-and-forth emails or a call before they’re going to reach for their wallet.
For that reason, rather than just giving a price, my responses to new business inquiries typically include four additional elements:
Here’s a quick sample reply to someone with a mattress company requesting a quote on web page copy:
It’s nice to meet you. I looked at the website for your mattress company. I’m impressed with how many mattress brands you carry!
Thank you for your inquiry about my copywriting services. Your project interests me because I’ve written for several mattress companies in the past and am familiar with the marketing challenges mattress companies face.
I’m attaching a sample of some copy I did for a high-end mattress company last year.
To write the three web pages you described, my fee is $___. Turnaround is three business days.
The next step is for us to chat briefly. I’d like to learn more about your business and, of course, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have about the copywriting process. I’m available Thursday or Friday at 9:00 a.m. Do either of those times work for you? If so, what phone number should I use?
Please see attached writing sample. And I look forward to chatting with you further about your copywriting project.
Of course, if your price is not within the client’s budget, then it doesn’t matter what you say; the client will likely seek out a less costly resource or go the DIY route. But I think you have a better chance of establishing a rapport with the client if you include more in your letter of introduction than just a price.
Notice too, that I try to take the emphasis off price by also mentioning turnaround time. The client may think, “Hmm, that’s expensive but if I can get the copy and be done with this project in just three days, yes, it’s worth it.”
I know it takes more time to compose a longer email with all of these details, but you can set up a template and then just customize it for the client. You can make the process efficient, and it’s likely to be more effective than your current approach.
Thanks, Susan, that’s helpful. Can you tell me your recommendations for billing practices? Do most freelance copywriters charge up front? What terms do they typically offer?
I can’t speak for other freelance copywriters but I typically request 50% up front as a deposit on a job, unless the project’s total cost is less than $200, in which case, I ask for the full fee up front.
On those writing assignments that are more than $200, I get the deposit and request the balance upon project completion. I also have the client sign a Project Agreement that states what the job entails, my fee and my payment requirements.
Once I’ve established a relationship with a client and they have ongoing copywriting work, I typically will extend terms, sending an invoice at the completion of the project. Some of my clients in that category pay immediately. Others, however, have company-wide accounting policies that require 30-day terms.
I even have one client, a large city hospital, that pays at 90 days. That’s just their policy for all vendors; take it or leave it. Other than the slow-pay process, they’re a great client, and I genuinely enjoy the work I do for them. I cut them some slack, but I also add a little extra to my quotes to make up for the delay. After all, I’m basically giving them a 90-day loan. I do try to be accommodating once I know the client is trustworthy.
Do you ever run into situations in which you’ve billed and been paid the 50% deposit, but the project is now complete and the client is dragging his feet paying the balance?
Yes, the problem you describe is common. I’ve faced it, and I know many other freelance copywriters do too. Clients are prompt to pay the deposit because they know you won’t start writing their copy until that deposit is made. But after you turn in the copy, getting the balance isn’t nearly as easy.
The best you can do is be politely persistent. Fortunately, most people are honorable and do eventually pay their bills.
Do you ever have an existing client not pay their bill? How do you keep from ruining the relationship while trying to get paid?
I recently had that situation occur with a long-time client. I completed three jobs — two press releases and one case study. I was waiting for client approval so I could send the invoice. I had not billed them anything upfront because they’d been a client for a few years.
Unfortunately, this time, the client wasn’t returning my calls or emails. I knew they were good for the money; they’re a substantial, reputable company based in New York City in business for 20+ years.
Most likely, the individuals I was dealing with were traveling or were extremely busy and didn’t want to take the time to read and approve my copy, even though they’re the ones who initiated the assignment. The items I had written didn’t have a real deadline, so putting off their approval to deal with other priorities was understandable, albeit frustrating to me.
At the 60-day mark, I sent the client an invoice with a nice note explaining that even though I was billing them, I was happy to do any revisions whenever they were ready, no charge. I wasn’t sure what reaction my invoice and note would elicit.
A week passed and I received an email requesting a few minor revisions to the write-ups. The client wrote, “Please make these few changes and then we’ll consider this job complete.”
In other words, the client would put the invoice through for payment as soon as those revisions were done. It certainly wasn’t the heartfelt apology I was due, but as long as I got paid, I was happy.
The question now is, how do I prevent this situation from occurring on future jobs? Make them pay up front? That might cause friction in the relationship. I haven’t had to decide yet as they’ve booked no further work, so I’m still thinking on it.
What form of payment do you typically request?
That’s a good question. Back when I started my business, roughly 100 years ago, the only option was a company check sent via U.S. mail. Today, we have many more options available.
I usually will find out what the client prefers. I still accept company checks through the mail. It’s a slow process but many larger, well-established companies still do business this way.
PayPal works well, but you get charged fees that are a percentage of the transaction amount. The payment is instant, but those fees can add up. And, if you’re working with international clients, you get hit with additional fees for foreign processing and money conversion.
Lately I’ve been trying to steer clients to Zelle. It’s a bank-to-bank transfer that happens immediately and has no fees associated with it. Fortunately, most banks participate, but the service is relatively new and many people are unfamiliar with it. Clients may not want the hassle of trying to figure it out. I think in time this will become a preferred payment type.
Similar to Zelle, you can use Venmo, a mobile payment service owned by PayPal. Venmo account holders can transfer funds to others via a mobile phone app. But both the sender and receiver have to live in the U.S. There are some other similar mobile apps you can research as well. I won’t get into all of them here.
I have a couple of clients for whom I do ongoing copywriting work. They do direct transfers from their bank to my account, almost like an employee who gets direct deposits from their employer.
For international payments, as I said, you can use PayPal. Other options include Payoneer, ACH Payments and Western Union. A quick Google search will turn up more services. Maybe one day, we’ll all be using cryptocurrency like Bitcoin.
What do you do if a client doesn’t pay his bill?
Let me first repeat what I said earlier; most people are honorable and pay their bills. Also, the reason you ask for at least a deposit up front is to help protect against deadbeat clients.
Nonetheless, at some point in your freelance copywriting career, you are destined to run into clients who don’t pay. Often they’ll come up with some excuse that helps them to justify to you and to themselves why they’re not paying.
For example, one client I had in the vitamin supplement industry claimed he didn’t want to pay for the copy because he’d found grammar errors. Multiple times, I asked him to point them out. When he finally did, they were a total of four sentences spread among five pages of otherwise excellent copy. They happened to be lengthy sentences that listed product ingredients and their descriptions.
The sentences were grammatically correct, but in terms of writing style, he evidently had a thing about long sentences. Who knew? Of course, I offered to rewrite those sentences. It would have taken me all of 10 minutes. But he just wanted an excuse to not pay. We ended up settling on a reduced amount.
Another challenging client I had was a startup company with a group of about 10 investors. The company was competing to get one of the few medical marijuana licenses soon to be awarded in their state.
They hired me to write their company presentation that would accompany their license application. For a variety of reasons, not worth explaining here, I neglected to get a deposit. My bad.
When I’d completed the work and it came time to pay up, my contacts at the company made promises they never kept. I soon realized that with multiple investors involved, no one in the company felt any personal obligation to me. The investors, some of whom were physicians and others who were respected business people, just went along with the group and didn’t seem to feel any personal responsibility to pay me.
I figured out as well that they were also probably dragging their feet until they learned if they’d won the license. If they didn’t get the license — a distinct possibility because there were numerous applicants and only a handful of licenses to be awarded — the group of investors would disband, and any money invested in having me write their presentation would have been a waste.
Recognizing the situation and the pending licensing decision, I stepped up my persistence and contacted them every few days. I left voicemails for my contacts and cc’d all of the investors on every email, always including a copy of the Project Agreement, which included the work agreed to and the price. I think my persistence would have worked eventually, but I got tired of waiting.
I decided to exert a little extra pressure. I sent a FINAL NOTICE warning them that my next email would be a letter explaining the situation to their state’s cannabis licensing board, the very people considering their company’s license request. Amazingly, the money showed up in my PayPal account just a few hours later. Ta-da!
Every situation is different. If you’re fortunate to have some sort of leverage, as I was with the cannabis client, you can resort to those types of measures. You can also threaten to expose bad clients in online reviews. But bear in mind, they may retaliate with reviews of you.
In most cases, the amount you’re owed isn’t enough to justify a lawsuit. The legal fees, not to mention the time and aggravation, aren’t worth it. Sometimes you’re best to just walk away. Consider it a cost of doing business and speak to your accountant about writing it off as a loss.
Thanks, Susan, for all the great information. I feel a bit more prepared now. It’s also reassuring to know that I’m not the only freelance copywriter who faces challenges in quoting, billing and collecting my fees.
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