Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Back in March

I'm going to be in London starting today (!!) and going until March 1. Have a lovely week, and I'll be back soon!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Prequalifying Prospects

Not everyone is the right fit for your business. It's important to make sure the people you're talking to--whether you're cold calling or networking or sending a postcard campaign--are the right people. Here are the questions I ask when trying to prequalify someone as a prospect.

Do they have the budget? None of us--if we've been in business for more than five minutes--wants to be the cheap option. Of course, not every business will be able to hire you--but you only want to work with the ones who have the budget to pay your fee without trying to nickel-and-dime you, complain about deposits, or slow-ball your final invoice. (Of course, even companies who have the budget do this anyway. But still.)

When vetting a possible partner or customer, check out their business. You may or may not be able to find out directly what their budget for freelancers is, but there are some good signs that they aren't a broke start-up. How long have they been in business? Does their website look professionally designed or like the owner threw it together himself? What kinds of business do they go after--and how much is each contract likely to be worth? Do they have an address in a swank part of town?

Are they the decision-maker? Maybe the person you're talking to loves your work--but they have no ability to get you hired. It's happened to me before. Generally, these enthusiastic people get your hopes up--and then let them down when their boss nixes it. If you can, figure out who's nixing their projects and see if you can talk to them directly.

Do they hire freelancers? If the company has never hired freelancers before, it's not necessarily a bad sign--but you may have more hitches in your process than usual. You may have to educate the client about how freelance arrangements work, the fact that your fees aren't higher than usual, and that an up front deposit is the norm. Be prepared for some hand-holding.

Do they regularly need work like yours? Really, not a lot of companies don't need some sort of written marketing materials. But does this company use the type of marketing you specialize in?

How do YOU prequalify your prospects?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lessons I Wished I'd Learned Sooner

I saw an interesting post on the Urban Muse about those lessons you wish you could have told your younger self, back when you were just starting out as a freelancer. I have a lot of things I wish I had known sooner--not just about freelancing, but about life. Here are a few.

Know the value of your work. This is so important. As a freelancer, I have marketable skills that others don't have. Marketing writing isn't something anyone can do--and it's not a job for your babysitter who's an English major or your summer intern. You need an expert. Charge like one.

You set the terms. You know what business terms work with your company. Even if a client gives you a contract, you can still modify it by introducing your terms into it and questioning points that don't work for you.

Preach to the converted. It is so much easier to sell your services to people who already know how to work with freelancers, understand the terms and expect your costs. Enough said.

It's OK to say no. You don't have to take every assignment. You don't even have to take every revision request--if what the client wants is wrong, it's OK to explain why you advise against that change. Most of the time, when I do this, clients listen.

What do YOU wish you knew sooner?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Should You Friend Your Clients on Facebook?

I have this come up every so often. Several of my clients use Facebook for business networking. Naturally, they want to network with me.

I use Facebook to keep up with my friends—so my Facebook profile is geared toward that. While there’s nothing on there that’s offensive or scandalous, I’m much more comfortable keeping my business and personal lives separate. On my Facebook profile, I like to be able to think I can be myself—post links to videos, update my profile, and post photos that show my goofy side, without worrying what someone who works with me would think.

In the past, I’ve allowed a few clients to connect with me on Facebook because I’ve felt it would be rude to refuse. With some clients, the relationship has transitioned easily to something more casual and I don’t worry about friending them. But with others, the relationship is much more formal—and it does feel a little strange to let them into my private life.

There are definitely times when I’ve thought twice about saying something on Facebook because of what clients and former clients might think. I’m of two minds about this, though. One side of me says I should be able to be myself on my Facebook page. Another side of me says that the things I put up on my profile will likely be up there for a long time—even if I delete my profile—and it’s good to have that check on what I post.

What’s your position on friending clients, your boss or others you know professionally but not personally?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Building Relationships, Building Business

So I was talking to a business consultant the other day, and he was talking about the importance of building a relationship BEFORE you ask for business. According to him, timing is everything--and in an ideal world, people would come to know and trust you and then offer you the business--without you having to ask. Of course, the world isn't perfect.

He had an interesting perspective. He told me that talking about business right away with some prospects is like talking about sex right away with a date. Instead of starting off with some basic conversation, getting to know each other and so on, it's like starting off with a "wanna go back to my place?" It's all a bit jarring--and it comes too soon, before you even know the person.

But building relationships does come with its problems. For one, sometimes you need the business now--not months down the road, after lots of coffee shop meetings and casual emails with interesting article links "just because." It seems like a good way to put yourself out there, but not the only way--and it takes the control out of your hands.

Also--and this problem isn't one everyone faces--but as a young single woman, sometimes the response I get when I try to "build relationships" isn't exactly the kind I had in mind. I think I'm asking a web designer out to coffee because I want to explore the idea of working together--but he thinks I have a more personal interest. This leads to awkward misunderstandings and situations sometimes.

Of course, you can build relationships in many ways. It's one thing social media marketing is supposed to do for you. I've done my best to do things for people without asking for anything back--I've passed on several referrals to people I'd like to work with, and I regularly pass on resumes of people I work with to my recruiter friends if there's a match and it's the right situation. Hopefully these good deeds will lead to business down the road, but you never know--and really, if you do this kind of thing just because you want something back, you're kind of missing the point.

Basically, I think relationship building is a good habit to get into--but it's tough to make it your primary business-building strategy. How do you build relationships--and what has it led to?

Monday, February 8, 2010

When It's Not About Them

I remember reading some reviews of resume writing services at one point as I got my own resume-writing business going. One person was describing their experiences with some resume writing firms something like this (and I'm completely paraphrasing here):

"I didn't like XYZ resume writing services because they didn't meet me in person. They didn't get to know me. And the resume they wrote just wasn't me."

This quote stayed with me--for how much it missed the point of what a resume is supposed to be. A resume, like a landing page or a long-form direct response letter, is a sales document. Its purpose isn't to encapsulate the essence of you. It's to get a hiring manager, recruiter or whoever to want to bring you in for an interview.

I see a lot of people adding gratuitous information to their resumes in the hopes that hiring managers, HR people, recruiters and others will think "gosh, this person sounds neat! I'd really love to meet them! Let's call them up for an interview!" So you see people highlighting their great massage skills, their volunteer time with the local soup kitchen, or the fact that they're married with two great kids--for positions that have nothing to do with these personal details.

But the thing is, those hiring managers, recruiters and so on are busy. They aren't looking to make friends with you. Most likely their job or paycheck depends on them finding the right person for the right job--and they're looking for what YOU can do for THEM. By which I mean, they're looking for resumes that highlight the exact skills the employer is looking for, so that they can be the hero by bringing in just the right professional for the job. Gratuitous personal details at best are unneeded--at worst they could make you look unprofessional, as well as the person bringing you in in some cases.

I don't usually meet with people in person to do a resume. I don't really need to talk to the person on the phone, as long as the questionnaire I send is thoroughly filled out and I have all the documentation I need. Usually when I do meet with someone in person, it's for them: it's reassuring to them, and it feeds their perception that I'm doing a thorough job. But it usually doesn't do more for me than a phone conversation and a questionnaire could.

Web copy is the same--many clients see the need to make it all about them, when it needs to be all about your customer--what they want, how they think, how you solve their problems. Business owners and jobseekers alike find more success when they stop making it about themselves--and start making it about their audience.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Freelancers vs. Salaried Employees

I've been getting a lot of inquiries lately from people who seem to expect the same thing from a freelance writer as they would from a salaried writer. While there are some similarities between me and the copywriter in the next cubicle over, there are also some key differences. Those differences show up in our contracts, the way we work, the sort of contact we have with our clients, and our fee structures. Here's an overview of why freelancers are different than salaried employees.

Freelancers have higher overhead--so you have to pay them more per hour. I've seen several ads for jobs lately at New York City marketing and ad agencies for temporary on-site freelance help--for as long as a few days to a few weeks. These are clearly freelance positions, but they're offering an hourly rate that's probably about the same as what they'd pay their salaried employees.

Here's why that doesn't work. As a freelancer, I'm paying all my own health insurance. I'm paying twice the Social Security taxes, plus other business taxes and fees. I'm paying for my own ongoing education, my own marketing, legal fees, collection fees, Internet fees, and so on. Our business has a lot more overhead than a salaried employee has. So, basically, I HAVE to charge about twice as much as you'd pay a salaried employee in hourly wages.

Freelancers can't be available 24/7. I've had requests before from clients who expect 24/7 availability and fast turnaround on projects. While I accommodate client needs as much as I can, I can't always be available--nor can I always offer near-immediate turnarounds. The reason is mainly because I'm running a business that has other clients as well, some of which were in line before you, and I have to treat everyone fairly. In addition, I sometimes have daytime classes to attend and client meetings to go to--so I'm not always in the office, and I prefer to have phone time scheduled so I'll know I'll be home.

Freelancers set their own prices and terms. I've seen a lot of clients offering work for $x per hour (and usually the "x" is lower than I'd prefer to charge). I've also sometimes used client contracts instead of my own. But in general, I set my prices and my terms--this is because I know how much I need to make every month to keep things going around here, and I know the kind of pitfalls my industry is prone to with clients--so I know how to protect myself. I accept client-picked prices when they jibe with my own, and I accept client contracts sometimes--but I make sure the terms that are non-negotiable to me are included.

Freelancers are cheaper in the long run. True, we have to charge more from an hourly perspective than a salaried employee. But you're also not paying our health insurance, sick days or vacation days, maternity leave, office space, and so on. When you can hire freelancers for as-needed help, you're saving your company a lot of money in the long run.

Freelancers are not necessarily desperate for work. Just because a freelancer isn't on a regular payroll doesn't mean we're hurting for work--and it doesn't mean we'll necessarily take any price you offer. I've definitely had encounters with people who don't understand how contract workers can live on the less certain prospect of freelance instead of salaried work--and try to enter into negotiations with the idea that we'll take anything.

Freelancers and salaried employees have different challenges, requirements and processes--and you'll work with them differently. Of course, there are pros and cons to working with each. But they're not the same type of worker--and clients do need to expect different business arrangements with each.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On Giving Unsolicited Advice

I recently was approached by a potential client who wanted a landing page for a website. Sounded straightforward--until I got to the end of his request. He planned to use the page on numerous websites that are optimized for different keywords. What he basically wanted was a series of paragraphs that could be rearranged indiscriminately to fit different keyword combinations. Oh--and he wanted the page to sell as well.

Here's where I had to stop and think. The thing is, a sales document requires you to identify with your customers' problems and position your company as the solution. There's an order to the information that's supposed to appear. Persuasion is like a thesis--you have to prove it in steps. Those paragraphs in hard-hitting sales letters aren't interchangeable. If they were, they wouldn't just be ineffective--they'd basically say nothing.

I told the prospect my concerns and explained how I would do it--using other tactics to optimize the page for numerous keywords and choosing the most relevant keywords to include naturally in the copy, with the possibility of writing entirely new sales documents for different markets and products. The response I got was the one I expected--that at this point their budget didn't account for it and they were hoping to get a sales letter with interchangeable parts as a cost saving measure. On my end, it looks like by trying to cut expenditures they are shooting themselves in the proverbial foot. But I gave my advice--and hopefully they'll take it.

What weird requests have you received for writing projects? And how do you deal with them?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Finding Your Ideal Partner

One of my goals for February is to broaden my network of partner companies--web designers, graphic designers, and other professionals who work with clients who need regular work. I've done this in the past and for the most part it's worked out well, but it's always a risk getting into a partnership with another company--suddenly you have to deal with someone else's way of working. It's always good to know which hills you should and shouldn't die on.

I've got a few more networking events coming up, and here are a few things I'm going to be looking for when talking to new people to partner up with.

The type of clients they work with. Is the graphic or web design firm going after the cut-rate market, or do they work with a higher caliber of client? Do they typically work with clients who have marketing departments, or smaller start-ups and one-person businesses? How marketing-savvy are their clients--and do they know what copywriting is and its value?

The way they bill, the way they work. Some web design firms ask for only a small deposit up front and charge for the rest of the bill when the project is done. Considering the design phase could last longer than the copywriting phase, this could put you waiting for your entire paycheck for a long time--if you're going to be expected to bill like they do. You may have to negotiate terms that require your own payment schedule with the web designer--but this could be a drawback for them in hiring you if they have to pay you before they get their own paycheck.

Their willingness to sell you as a value add. It's great to have a web designer who offers to send work your way if clients ever voice the interest. But a designer who actively sells you is invaluable. I'm looking for people who see the clear financial benefits of offering writing services in addition to design--and who's willing to actively differentiate themselves to clients that way.

Their marketing mindset. The ideal web design partner for me is one that sees the big picture of online marketing for clients. They don't think just about the right colors to use and usability features, but also ways clients can easily deliver ezines, add content, and keep in touch with customers. And, of course, that's where I come in.

Who do you partner with--and how do you prequalify the best partners?