Monday, June 21, 2010

In Freelancing, Can You Trust Anyone?

Once, when I had been in business for only a little over a year, I had a client I had worked with several times hire me for a small writing assignment. “No need for a contract,” the client said before we started, “I’ll just send over a check right now.”

Ordinarily, I’d never work with anyone without a contract. But this client was someone I knew—she had been referred to me by a friend. And we’d worked together several times before without a hitch.

So I did the project, the client was happy, and I hadn’t gotten my check yet. No big deal—sometimes the mail can take a little while. But weeks went by, and my emails to the client went unanswered. I didn’t have a contract—so I had nothing to fall back on to get the person to pay.

The bottom line? You never really know anyone—and you can’t leave your business decisions up to trust, even if you’ve worked with the person before. You never know what kind of financial pressure someone is under these days—pressure that could lead them to stiff you when they never would have before. Who knows? Get a contract. Just in case.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Reasons Why You Lost The Project—That Have Everything To Do With You.

On Wednesday I wrote about reasons why you might not hear back about a quote or proposal you’ve submitted to a possible client—reasons that aren’t your fault. But there are reasons you might not hear back that do have to do with you—and might be fixable.

You’re too expensive. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about this. Your prices are professional but fair, and the prospect is just not used to professional prices. But if you get this feedback all the time—and from prospects you’d think could afford you—it might be time to take another look at your prices.

If you’re on the high end, it doesn’t mean you necessarily have to reduce prices. It does mean you need to be aware of that—and sell your expertise more aggressively to prospects to get them over the price objection. Are you charging a lot more than other writers in your field? And are you failing to sell yourself as worth every penny even if you’re way past the high end? Check your resources—your freelance writer buddies, the latest copy of Writer’s Market--to see where you are in the industry price-wise and if maybe you should think about reducing your prices—or doing a better job of selling them.

You didn’t listen. To give an accurate quote, you need to understand exactly what the client needs. Sometimes they really aren’t sure what they need—and the process of questioning to get at an accurate quote can help them define that. But misunderstandings are possible. Did you quote them a flat rate on ten pages of website copy when what they really wanted was an open-ended price structure to allow for a more flexible project? Even if this is easily fixed, the prospect may question your ability to understand their needs if you get it wrong the first time.

Your experience doesn’t fit the project. Maybe they were expecting a lower price from you because you’re not strongly experienced—or you don’t have a lot of samples in their industry. Or maybe, after weighing your proposal against others’, they chose to go with a writer who has expertise that fits the project better. This could mean you really do have to reduce rates to break into a particular industry—if you’re a beginner—or that your efforts would be more profitable if focused on a different industry altogether.

If you don’t hear back about a proposal after a month or so, it couldn’t hurt to ask why. The prospect’s feedback may help you identify areas where you can improve—and help you spot trends in the reasons why people say no. This could help you plug the leaks in your sales process—and ultimately land more projects.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reasons You Never Heard Back About That Proposal--That Have Nothing To Do With You

t happens to all of us. You get really excited about a lead for a new project. You talk to the client at length, get to know their needs, spend all day crafting a proposal. Then you send it over and…nothing. For days. Weeks, even. Maybe you never hear back.

It can be easy to take it personally when you don’t hear back about a proposal. But there are plenty of reasons why that have nothing to do with you personally. Here are a few common reasons.

You’re too expensive. Yes, a lot of the time people never respond because you quote more than they were expecting to pay. That doesn’t mean that you’re charging too much. It could mean the prospect is inexperienced—they’re used to working with low-priced, inexperienced writers (or hiring summer interns or newbies to work for free in exchange for “exposure.”) Then they find you on the Internet or through a referral and fall in love with your portfolio and writing style. Having only worked with really cheap writing talent before, your realistic, professional price shocks them to the core—and you never hear from them again. OR, you hear from them months later—when they finally have the budget.

They’re trying to use your quote as leverage. Sometimes a prospect has no intention of hiring you when they ask for a quote. They’re planning to hire someone else. But they want to get a sense of whether that person’s price is realistic in the marketplace—so they gather a few quotes from other writers as well. If those quotes are lower than their preferred writer’s price, they might use your quote as leverage to try to talk him or her down.

They’re not ready. The process of gathering information for a quote can force a client to get really specific about what they want—sometimes before they’re ready. When you deliver a quote that’s based on, say, ten pages of web copy and two recurring blogs, they could see your price and decide they can only afford half that much work. Or, they could just not be ready to commit to that number of pages—just because they haven’t quite decided yet what shape the website will take. Sometimes a prospect asks you for a quote too early in the process.

A key person leaves. The person in charge of hiring freelancers on your prospects team might love your work and want to hire you. But if they leave the team suddenly, the person who comes in to take their place may have never heard of you. Or maybe they want to have the company handle the copy in-house. Or maybe they’re bringing their own stable of freelancers on board.

If you don’t hear back about a proposal within a week, it’s always a good idea to follow up with an email. You never know—a timely reminder that you’re still passionate about the project may just land you the job.

Monday, June 14, 2010

When The Price is Too High: How to Get The Job Anyway

“We’d love to hire you, but your price is too high.” It’s not an uncommon response from prospective clients. And I’ve let many exchanges end at that—even though I could have ultimately landed the job, if I’d known what to say next.

When someone says your price is too high, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t work with them. You will have to adjust your price down—but you can do it without compromising your overall rate. Here are a few things to try when a prospect tells you you’re too expensive.

Defend your prices. Before you offer any kind of cut rate for any reason, defend your prices. Explain that they’re not just getting “writing.” (Even though it’s a valuable skill, many clients see writing as something anyone can do—some of them are used to passing off marketing copy to their unpaid summer intern.) They’re getting your marketing expertise, research skills, years in the industry, sales experience—emphasize any value-added skills and experience you bring to the table that can raise the prospect’s perception of your value.

Offer a reduced rate for editing. It might cost too much to have you do the whole thing from scratch. But in some cases, it might be possible for you to reduce your rates if all you have to do is edit copy they already have. Be sure there’s a solid differential between your process for writing—which includes research and phone interviews—and editing, which includes nothing but re-wording the existing concepts themselves. If you feel that in this case the changes needed are so drastic that you can’t do a good job of rewriting copy if you can’t interview a client in detail and research competitive marketing tactics, for example, this type of compromise may not be the best idea for you. The idea is to reduce your amount of work along with your price.

Offer a reduced rate for reduced work. Maybe they don’t need as many pages as they thought. Maybe you can get away with interviewing two sources instead of five. If there’s room to reduce the amount of work done in a way that’s acceptable to the client, make the suggestion.

Ask about their budget. If they keep telling you what you’re offering is too expensive, ask them flat out—how much were you expecting to pay for this? Once you have that number, you can tell them flat out what you can do for them for that price.

Avoid cutting your hourly rate. All of the above tactics are designed to help you get the job without having to reduce your actual hourly or per-word rate. It’s never a good idea to start price negotiations with an offer to reduce that rate—always try to reduce the workload first. In general, I don’t offer to reduce my rate at all without reducing the workload.

It can be tempting to offer a reduced flat rate (which translates into a reduced hourly or per-word rate for you) in exchange for ongoing future work or large volumes of work. This is to be avoided at all costs. It sets up the expectation with the client that your quoted price is only a starting point that can be talked down. And it sets you up to get into an ongoing situation where you’re getting paid less than you want to be for a large volume of work. Which can lead to taking up time that could be more lucratively devoted to higher-paying clients.

Friday, June 11, 2010

On the Intersection Between Business Writing...and Poetry

This week I went to a poetry slam competition in New York City…and I won. Not exactly a professional success, but a writing-related one—and a lot of fun. I struck up a conversation with someone in the crowd before the event and told her about the business writing I do as a day job—and she kind of rolled her eyes. As if to say “it can’t possibly be good if it’s commercial.”

I disagree with that. I think commercial writing can be genius. I think there’s a lot of non-commercial writing out there that sucks. And I also think poetry and marketing copy have more in common than you’d realize. Here are a few intersections.

Every punctuation mark counts. I used to get annoyed with teachers who described poetry as an area in writing “where perfect grammar doesn’t matter.” Because it matters even more than usual. Poetry is a concise, meaning-dense form and if you’re going to break grammatical rules, you’d better be a grammar master who understands exactly the effect you’re creating when breaking those rules.

The same is often said of marketing writing. I hear a lot of “Oh, you don’t have to be a great writer. Your grammar doesn’t even have to be good.” I disagree. I think, as with poetry, if you’re going to make mistakes—like a sentence fragment, say—you’d better know exactly what effect that mistake will have on the piece. How it will affect the rhythm. And how it will help or hurt the tone you’re creating.

Every word should pull its weight. In poetry, you don’t have room to throw in words that aren’t weight-bearing. Same with marketing copy. After I write a first draft, I usually go through and eliminate every word that doesn’t add to the meaning. If the sentence still means the same thing without that word, it goes. This isn’t about whether long-form or short-form copy works better—this is about efficiency in all your writing, long and short. People don’t have time to wade through wasted words to get at the meaning.

A successful piece makes you think about things in a new way. A fantastic poem makes me see a subject—love, human kindness, loss, what have you—in a new light. It uses metaphor to create strong imagery that’s both original and resonating. Great marketing copy does the same thing. It makes me see a product or a company differently by using original expression to rephrase and re-present themes that the company’s audience identifies with. That’s the kind of writing that gets people excited about a company.

Poetry and marketing writing is an unlikely pairing. And I’m sure there will be plenty of poets—and maybe a few copywriters—who will disagree. But as a writer in both worlds, I see the similarities—and hopefully can make them work for me.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Would a Virtual Sex Change Help Your Career?

I think I was about as surprised as everyone else when I read that James Chartrand is actually a woman--and started using a male pseudonym to get freelance writing work. There's a tradition of this in writing--witness George Elliot--women pretending to be men so their writing will get the respect it deserves--and they'll get the pay they're entitled to. And it's led me to think about how I present myself.

I've occasionally had clients question my rates. Not often, and I usually take it as a sign I don't want to work with them. But I've had plenty of clients try to talk me down during the negotiating stage or tell me I'm too expensive--and I lose the job. I've had plenty of slowball clients. Overall, I wouldn't say I get a lot of revisions back on what I write--I hardly ever get to two rounds, and round-one revisions are most often minor.

But, I've started to wonder whether having a male pseudonym would open doors to bigger, better-paying clients. Would it be easier to break into big advertising and marketing firms if I were a guy? Would it be easier to quote higher rates? James's story suggests it would be.

The problem is that I'd have to speak to these clients on the phone at some point--if only to interview for projects. It's pretty clear from my voice that I'm a woman--and I sound much younger than I am. This could work against me, and I'm aware how important perception is.

Has anyone out there tried using a pseudonym--either different from your actual sex or not? How did it go? Why did you choose to do it? I would love to hear more of these stories.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Setting Business Boundaries

I saw a post on Words on the Page the other day about setting work boundaries. The post covers the line freelancers have to draw in the sand when they decide which projects to take and which to skip. I’ve been thinking of another sort of boundary lately—the kind you need to draw with existing clients.

Some clients need a little more hand-holding and “nurturing” than others. Sometimes you need to set boundaries clearly on what you will be happy to do, as long as you’re getting paid, and what you won’t do—for any amount of money.

For example—a graphic designer friend of mine once told me she used to have her address on her business cards…and of course, she worked from home. She’s since taken her address off. The reason is that once she had a client show up at her house, on a Sunday, while she was still in pajamas drinking coffee, and insist on going over some aspect of their project in person. Those are the kinds of boundaries I’m talking about. Here are mine.

Working on weekends. If I take on a project that I know will have me working weekends to make the deadline, I get that out up front—and I charge more for it. I don’t usually take client calls on weekends or respond to emails then. I just don’t want to set up the expectation that I’m constantly available. Plus, I need a break.

Web cam tracking. I’ve seen postings on job boards advertising hourly wages and requiring the writers turn on their web cams so the employer can watch them at work—and verify they’re working the whole time. Um, no. This is why I’m a freelancer and not an office worker—Big Brother makes me uncomfortable.

Constant availability online. I cannot be productive if I have to constantly leave up Skype, Facebook Chat, Google Chat, AIM or any other kind of chat program so a client can “check in” whenever s/he feels like it. I need to be able to get away from the chatter.

Come to think of it…constant availability, period. I don’t like to set up the expectation that I can be constantly available for phone calls. The reason is that, if a client mentions he’ll “call me tomorrow” about a project, I then have to center my day around that. And the problem with that is that I’m not an office worker and I don’t always keep super-conventional 9-to-5 hours. If I have to sit around and wait for a phone call, I can’t leave the office. Sometimes this can mess up my day. It’s much better for me to set a time for people to call—that way I know when to expect them and can plan my day accordingly.

What are the boundaries you draw?

Friday, June 4, 2010

On the "Theatre" of Freelance Writing

I had a long phone conversation with a client the other day. We were discussing our approach for an upcoming project and some revisions from a previous project. At the end of the conversation, the client said something that made me think.

He owned his own business and had clients of his own. He said the conversation we were having was priming him to love the writing I sent—it was the same way he operated with his own clients. And we had an interesting discussion about the “theatre” of freelancing. And this made me think…how much of my client interaction process is for my own benefit, and how much is to reassure or “prime” the client?

If everything were done just for my benefit alone, I would do pretty much everything via email for some projects--and keep it to a single phone interview for others. I wouldn’t need to have long talks in most cases. Everything I didn’t need would be trimmed in the interest of time.

But that’s not really providing the most effective service possible. In my resume writing practice, for example, I interview clients by phone. It would be much more efficient for me to have everyone fill out a questionnaire and send it over. If I ask the questions the right way, stress in the beginning how important it is to be thorough, and ask for corroborating documents such as old resumes, I get all the info I need. But the client wants to feel like they’re getting a document that reflects “them.” And some people won’t feel that way if they don’t have a chat. I’ve learned that most clients will be much happier with the final product if they feel like you’ve gotten to know them—and they’ve become invested in the process.

What’s your feeling on the theatre of freelance writing? What do you do in your process that’s more for your clients’ benefit than your own?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Is There Such Thing as Too Much Expansion?

I’ve written about this before—about the way most businesspeople want to expand, and I don’t. Oh, sure, I’d love to earn more. But I’m not wild about working 80-hour weeks—and when it comes right down to it, really what I’d like is to keep doing what I’m doing.

I occasionally get offers and ideas from others who feel they know what’s best for my business—and what I should want as a businessowner. Usually, they don’t work for what I’m trying to do. Here are a few ways I have no intention of expanding.

Hiring other writers. I remember writing here a while ago about a guy who owns an outsourcing firm in India. He was trying to sell me on the idea of outsourcing my entire writing business. Obviously that wouldn’t be a great decision for me, but I’m really not interested in taking on help in any capacity except when absolutely necessary because of serious time constraints. I don’t want to have regular employees.

Going beyond the writing. Every so often I get an inquiry from someone who thinks I also do SEO or web design or business consulting. I could have expanded into those areas, but really I would prefer not to. They don’t excite me as much as writing does—and since I can design my own business, I get to pick and choose what I want to do. IT’s a pretty nice life—and I keep my business focused on writing.

Being a “guru.” Sometimes I get ads from various places and individuals trying to sell me on becoming some sort of copywriting guru—you know, the guy who teaches all the other pros how it’s done, who writes the acclaimed how-to manuals and who’s hired to train employees at global companies. I’m not really into that. I’m perfectly fine not being famous for copywriting—as long as my business keeps humming along.

What expansion ideas are right out for you?