The following email conversation took place between a freelance copywriter just starting out, who I’ll call Nicole, and me, Susan Greene. I’ve been a professional copywriter for more than 20 years.
I’ve posted our back-and-forth emails below because the situation is a common one for copywriters. I hope others will find our conversation interesting and instructional.
— Susan Greene
Nicole: Hi Susan,
I need your advice on a situation. A week ago, I got a call from a woman out in California who has a technology business. It’s a start-up.
She wanted copy written for her website and mentioned she would soon need a lot of other copywriting too for sales letters, brochures and other promotional items. She even was thinking of creating her own trade show and would need all kinds of marketing materials for it. She asked me to keep that information in mind as I put together a quote for her.
Susan: Don’t let the promise of future work affect your quote or even your enthusiasm. Clients often use that carrot to negotiate better prices. If you set a precedent of low prices for your copywriting services, that’s what the client will always expect.
Also, more often than not, future copywriting work doesn’t come to fruition, especially when the company is a startup. The founders of every startup are optimistic about their future success. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t start the business in the first place. Often, once they realize the true costs of operating and also the challenges of generating cash flow in a new business, their marketing and copywriting budget gets cut way back and sometimes even eliminated completely.
My suggestion is to focus on the client’s first job as though it is the only job. Quote it, complete the work and then move on to the next project. One copywriting job at a time. Down the road, if the client comes through with lots of ongoing work, then you can consider a volume discount or monthly retainer fee arrangement.
Nicole: I told the client I would send a quote now for writing the first few web pages she needs to launch her website. Even though I didn’t offer to quote any other jobs at this time, I was excited about the potential for more work.
So I sent her my quote and haven’t heard anything from her. I did send her a follow-up email yesterday, just to be sure she received my quote. She responded that she did but that was it. Nothing further on whether she planned to proceed. Do you think I did anything wrong?
Susan: It’s only been a few days. Not everyone reacts immediately. And not everyone reacts at all. Could be she’s not ready to take action yet. Could be your prices are more than she wanted to spend. Her reason doesn’t matter. You provide your copywriting quote, follow up periodically, and in the meantime, pursue other opportunities. Don’t let her action or inaction slow you down. And don’t let it affect you personally.
Nicole: I remember you once said you get about 50% of the copywriting jobs you bid on. I was surprised at the time, but now I understand how that could be the case.
Susan: Yes, that’s still true. My hit rate is about 50%. Some of the jobs go to someone who’s bid less. Others, and this is more frequently the case, the client just isn’t ready to commit yet. He may not have the funds or is still getting his ducks in a row. Or maybe he suddenly remembers that his cousin Eggbert got an “A” in freshman English and owes him a favor.
Eventually you get to the point where you’re quoting enough jobs that even if only 50% come through, you’re still keeping very busy. And if you’re doing it right, the 50% that do come through are the ones who appreciate your work and are willing to pay a fair wage.
You don’t want clients choosing your copywriting services because you’ve discounted your rate. Build a business based on low prices and you’ll find yourself working too much for too little, and always at risk of being undercut by competitors. And remember, competitors aren’t just other copywriters in your city or state. These days you can find yourself competing with folks anywhere on the globe, and that includes people in Third World countries who are willing and able to work for ridiculously low wages. All they need is an internet connection to gain access to your clients.
Nicole: Sigh. Maybe this is just one of those clients I wasn’t supposed to have.
Susan: That sounds like fate, which I personally don’t believe in, but really the reason you haven’t gotten the job is unimportant. Quote the copywriting project. Follow up periodically. Move on.If the job comes through great. If not, foggedaboutit!
Nicole: I’m wondering if there is anything I can learn from this.
Susan: Learn not to take it personally when you don’t get a job or a client. Learn not to second-guess yourself. Learn not to dwell on the situation but instead to use it as motivation to work on finding your next opportunity.
Nicole: Maybe I shouldn’t have invested so much time in talking to this prospect and learning about her business before she was a client. How long do you talk to potential clients prior to them committing to work with you?
Susan: Hmm, usually too long. My husband would tell you I give away too much free advice. I would argue that the prospects I chat with, I usually win over. They begin to realize how knowledgeable I am about copywriting and marketing, and how much value I can provide to their business.
Another thing. It’s so hard to determine if a client is “for real” from a single phone call or email. I just had this discussion with my brother. We co-own a real estate company. He had a customer call up a couple days ago and say he wants to buy four condos over the course of the next year. My brother said his first thought was, “Ok, this guy’s a bull-shitter.” No one says they need four condos.
The guy asks to meet with my brother, and my brother agrees reluctantly, thinking this guy just wants him to chauffeur him around Miami, give him a tour of the city’s real estate and buy him lunch. The client probably won’t buy a thing.
My brother took the guy to the first condo development on their tour of Miami, and would you believe the guy signed a contract and bought a $550,000 condo? Just like that! Now my brother is scrambling to find him three more condos!
I could come up with similar stories regarding copywriting clients who I thought were losers and turned out to be great customers. And the converse too – clients I thought would be great and turned out to be unappreciative, impossible to please, time burners.
Even with my many years of experience as a professional copywriter, I still have difficulty getting a read on people from their initial phone call or email. A lot of people hold their cards close until they’ve established a relationship and feel they can trust you, especially if their only communication with you isn’t in person.
So what’s the solution? Be nice to everyone. Assume every prospect could be your next great client. Price your projects fairly but so you make a profit. That’s all you can do.
Nicole: Maybe I should have shared with her more about my copywriting work and what I felt I could do for her company.
Susan: Nicole, you are doing way too much self-analysis. Where’s your self-confidence? Most likely you did nothing wrong. She either isn’t ready to move on the project or your price was more than she wanted to spend. Either way, it’s not your fault. You can’t internalize every situation that doesn’t go the way you want it to. Really, it’s nothing you did wrong so stop analyzing every detail like a first date gone wrong. The client’s just not that into you.
Nicole: Okay, just a few more questions. With prospects, do you “feel them out” a bit to find out how much they are willing to pay? Should I have been more direct and asked her about her marketing budget before quoting?
Susan: It’s tough to know. I do try to feel out clients regarding budget but often they’re feeling me out trying to get a price without telling me much about themselves. We end up having a conversation that goes nowhere.
While every copywriting job is a custom project, you should have some established copywriting prices that you can quote to a client, such as how much you charge for copy on a standard-size website page (about 300-600 words), or how much you charge for a tri-fold brochure or a 600-word article.
You can say something like, “Generally speaking, I charge X (or a range from x to y) per web page, but I’d need to know more about your whole project before I can put together an accurate estimate.” At least you’ve thrown out a benchmark that will let the client decide whether your rates are in their ball park.
Another strategy is to offer two prices, one for a basic service and the other for a premium service that comes with additional bells and whistles. Just make sure you draw a clear-cut distinction between the two choices.
Nicole: I’m still wondering if I quoted too high. I thought my copywriting rates were reasonable. Am I off base on this?
Susan: Based on what you’ve told me, your copywriting rates are fine. They’re certainly competitive. Your client is a startup and a sole proprietor. She probably was looking for a bargain. If that’s the case, she’s not a good client for you. You’re a business, not a charity, so quote your rates with confidence. She’s not your cause and you needn’t feel obligated to help underwrite her startup costs by providing your services at a discount. Let me give you a quick analogy.
You go into a store and see a beautiful shirt you’d love to have. But it’s $100. Your budget for a shirt is usually $50. Do you go up to the store manager and ask him or her to lower the price to $50 because that’s all you were hoping to spend? The manager would laugh at you. The price is the price. The store loses the sale. The second you walk out the door, the manager doesn’t worry about the store’s prices or whether she said or did the wrong thing. You simply were not a good prospective customer for that store.
Nicole, your client may not have been a good prospective customer for your copywriting services. You’ll soon find other clients who are a better fit. So stop all the self-analysis and self-doubt and move on. Next!