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Got a Difficult Copywriting Client? Bite Your Tongue and Get to Work

Lessons Learned as a Freelance Copywriter


difficult copywriting clients

Difficult clients are an occupational hazard. The trick is to stay professional and remind yourself, “It’s not you; it’s them.”

A copywriting colleague of mine recently wrote me about the following situation:

Hi Susan,

I just lost a client, and I feel terrible. I’m not sure what I did wrong. The client has a custom woodworking business. He wanted me to build a website for him. I gave him my price, which included both design and copywriting of the site’s content.

After reviewing my proposal, the client told me it was more than was prepared to spend. To keep the price down, he only wanted to pay for design. He felt he didn’t need any copy on his site beyond his contact information. I disagreed with him and tried to explain the importance of copy in terms of getting website traffic and converting visitors into leads and sales.

I told him I was hesitant to build him a website that I knew wouldn’t satisfy his objective of growing his business. So he ended the meeting, and I didn’t get the job.

I was only trying to recommend what was best for the client. What did I do wrong? What should I have done differently?

Linda

Here is my response to Linda:

First, don’t feel bad about losing Mr. Woodworker.

His budget was too small or he simply didn’t value your web design and copywriting services enough to pay your fees. Either way, he wasn’t a good client for you. There are plenty more fish in the sea. Don’t feel bad if you catch some that you need to throw back.

Second, remember that you’re not a non-profit organization.

Accept the fact that you will win some and lose some. And price is most often the reason when the client backs away. That’s okay. You don’t want copywriting clients who won’t pay your fees, which are reasonable.

You’re not operating a charity; you’re running a business. And you shouldn’t feel apologetic about it. A copywriter friend once told me that you should expect to lose 50% of the jobs you bid on or you’re bidding too low.

Third, sometimes you just have to give the client what he wants.

Some clients think they know it all, and you’re not going to be able to convince them that your way is better, despite your professional credentials. You put your recommendations out there. If the client chooses to ignore them, then give him exactly what he wants.

I’ve been there, too.

Let me share a true story on this point. About a year ago, I was contacted by a gentleman who owned a financial planning company and wanted me to help write his company’s brochure. He gave me text he’d already written and told me to edit it. He wanted me to make sure it had no grammatical mistakes or spelling errors.

He’d even come up with a theme based on a huge painting in his office of an elephant. Throughout the copy, he referenced how his company’s financial planners were like elephants because in ancient African folklore they’re thought to have wisdom and also, everyone knows they never forget anything. Are you laughing yet?

I read through the copy, and it was awful. It was way too long, about eight pages of text when only three would fit in the layout he’d designed. Every sentence was a lengthy paragraph. The copy rambled and went off on tangents from which it never returned. It was redundant, repeating each point in three or four different ways. Not only was it boring, it was nearly impossible to comprehend. And the ridiculous elephant theme reared its big, ugly trunk about every fifth line.

One wrong assumption, and I was off and running in the wrong direction.

I made the assumption that the client probably knew the copy wasn’t very good but had done the best he could. I decided to be a hero and rewrite all the copy from scratch, even though I’d quoted only editing. I’d even find a way to make the crazy elephant analogy work, “We help you think big…”

When done, I knew the copy I’d written was far more effective than the client’s original. I proudly sent him the new, improved draft, even though it was Friday and the copy wasn’t due until the following week. I’m an over-achiever, what can I say.

A few hours later, instead of the praise and appreciation I expected, I received a long, scathing email from the client. He told me he hated the copy. Not only was it all wrong, it was clear I didn’t get the elephant analogy. He went on to call me a “terrible writer” and ended the email with, “Keep the deposit. I don’t care. I just don’t want to work with you anymore.”

As you can imagine, I was upset, even though I knew the client was off-base and evidently also had an anger management problem. To top it off, this was Friday night so I had all weekend to stew about the situation.

Making It Right

On Monday I put on my big-girl pants and wrote the client a nice note saying that I was sorry he was disappointed. I said I realized that I shouldn’t have ignored his instructions, and I’d like the opportunity to make it right. I would redo the copy his way and then he could decide if he wanted it or a refund of his deposit. He agreed to let me try. (Gee, thanks.)

Later that day I submitted the new copy. All I did was clean up the grammar and spelling of his original draft. I kept the length and all the ridiculous, rambling prose about the elephant.

It was probably the single worst example of copywriting I’d ever had my name on. I certainly wouldn’t be including this brochure in my portfolio. And a part of me still believed that when the client read it, he would realize the error of his ways and choose the first draft I’d submitted as the one to publish.

Well, boy was I wrong. The client loved draft #2. He called and couldn’t thank me enough. He even apologized for his previous note. Said he’d just been having a bad day. He was now my biggest fan. No one was more surprised than me.

When the client brought the new draft to his designer/printer, he was told it was way too much copy, as I’d warned it would be. So he had the designer make the type small and add another four pages to the brochure. He didn’t want to cut a single word. And that’s exactly how it went to print!

The client gets to make the call.

What is the lesson from this little story? Don’t try to save the client from himself. Offer your recommendations. Then let him make the call. Because he’s writing the check, it’s his decision, even if the brochure or website as he envisions it is not likely to accomplish his goals.

Relating this back to Mr. Woodworker, Linda, you could have offered to do just the design as he requested. You made your point about text being a necessity. He chose to ignore it. So do the deal and give the client what he wants.

He’ll be happy and you get the job. He might even pass your name along to friends who need a designer or copywriter and hopefully, aren’t as stubborn as he is. And maybe down the road, he’ll come back to you, tail between his legs, asking you to add copy to his website. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for that day.

* * *

Susan Greene is a freelance copywriter based in Orlando, Florida. She works with clients in diverse industries to provide content for websites, brochures and related marketing materials. While those clients don’t always take Susan’s advice, they usually give it serious consideration. And that’s all she asks. 

Need help with copywriting for your website, brochure or other marketing materials? Contact Susan Greene to discuss your copywriting project.

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