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When you’ve been a freelance copywriter for years, you become skilled at assessing prospective clients. In your initial interaction, you try to suss out if they’re a big company or small, the size of their budget and whether they’ll be easy or difficult to work with.
Of course, when all you have to go on is a brief email inquiry or phone call, you won’t always get it right, at least not to the degree you would if you were meeting face-to-face with a client at her office.
Over the years, I’ve definitely made some wrong calls – copywriting clients I thought would be wonderful who wrecked my self-confidence by being overly critical and clients I thought would be nightmares who turned out to be sweethearts, immediately approving everything I wrote, heaping abundant praise and paying my invoice instantly upon receipt.
Like most freelance copywriters, I’ve had my share of time wasters, cheapskates, sleazy business people and PITAs (Pains In The Ass) who are impossible to please. Key to avoiding some of those undesirables is getting a read on the type of person I’ll be working with before accepting a copywriting assignment.
This is a quick story about one time I didn’t trust my gut and should have. I’m sharing it because maybe you, fellow copywriter, can learn from my mistakes. I ended up wasting a lot of time and achieving a new personal best for level of aggravation.
John B. called and introduced himself as someone in the real estate industry. He insisted we meet to discuss his big copywriting project. I politely said, “No, how about you first tell me a little about what you need?”
John persisted, saying it’d be much easier to explain in person. He told me it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He even offered to meet me at the Starbucks just up the road from me and promised that our meeting would be super short. I said no. He persisted. I ended the conversation.
The truth was I had plenty of copywriting assignments on my plate at the time, and I was intentionally being selective about what new clients and projects I took on.
After hanging up the phone, I then proceeded to feel guilty. John had been nice although so persistent. Maybe he really did have a great project, an incredible opportunity, and I’d just blown it by acting like a primadonna. Was I so high and mighty I couldn’t give this guy a half hour of my time? So I emailed him the next day, apologized for my abruptness and reluctantly agreed to meet him at Starbucks early the next morning.
When I got to Starbucks, John was already there. Even though it was mid-February, he had commandeered a table outside (it’s a Florida thing) and he had a venti-sized coffee in hand. He insisted I sit down right away. He did not offer to buy me a coffee or let me go inside and get my own. He was too anxious to get started; no time for frills. I thought to myself, “Good thing we’re not on a date buddy because you just blew it.”
Immediately, John pulls out this encyclopedia-sized binder. It lands on the table with a thud. He starts walking me through his business plan page by page. I’m already groaning inside my head.
The business is some sort of vacation rental booking service he wants to build online, which just happens to be an area in which I do have copywriting and marketing experience.
John explains that he will compete with sites like TripAdvisor and Airbnb. I immediately think, “Yeah, right.”
The only difference is that those sites, and others like them, are HUGE with tons of content, inbound links and paid ads to drive traffic, not to mention millions of investment dollars supporting their growth.”
John’s got everything figured out as relates to how much money he’ll make. But he has no idea how to drive traffic to his website, which is a detail that is critical to his objective of persuading landlords to pay to list with him and getting customers to rent the vacation homes. He hasn’t considered marketing at all.
He, like so many would-be entrepreneurs, mistakenly thinks that if you build a website, you’re in business! The visitors will show up at your digital door credit card in hand.
I soon realize too, that John has no technical background, so developing a site with the functionality he described will involve hiring numerous coders, something he probably can’t afford.
After about 10 minutes of John taking me through his binder page by page and attempting to sell me on his idea so I’ll agree to write a few hundred pages of copy for him, I tell him his idea will fail. Amazingly, my bold statement bounces right off him, leaving no mark, and he again directs my attention to his binder.
At this point, I’m edging close to fight-or-flight mode. I start gathering my purse. John keeps trying to get me to look at his binder again. Like 5 times!
I refuse, telling him unless he has a strategy for getting traffic to his website, we’re done. He keeps saying, “Just look at my plan. It’s all right here, blah blah blah.”
As I get up to leave, Mr. Persistent finally realizes he isn’t going to win this battle. He says, “Fine, let me come up with a marketing plan and get back to you. Give me one week, just one. I’ll be in touch.” I can’t get out of there fast enough.
I go home and hate myself for having gotten suckered into that meeting when I could have told him his idea would fail over the phone. It was a total waste of time and energy. And I didn’t even get a Starbucks coffee out of the deal.
John calls me a few weeks later and tells me he now has a plan for generating traffic to his website. He’s ready for me to start writing copy. He wants to meet again. “Same Starbucks?” he says. No way! I tell him I’m too busy to take on his job, sorry. He persists. I refuse. And this time I don’t give in. That’s how it ends.
Maybe the dude will eventually be a success, but everything about him and his over-persistence made me feel icky, like I needed to go home and take a steaming shower.
So, what’s the moral of the story? It’s simple. I should have trusted my initial instincts. Even before I realized John was clueless, I knew I didn’t want to do business with this guy. And his won’t-take-no-for-an-answer persistence only made him that much more aggravating.
I’ve had other instances when I didn’t trust my gut or ignored red flags and wound up in situations that were equally unappealing. I’d like to think that with each passing day, I get a little smarter, a little more savvy at separating the good copywriting clients from the bad.
Reading people isn’t an exact science, but as a freelance copywriter whose time is her most important resource, that’s a skill I continue to hone, and you should too.
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