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This experience taught me some important lessons about myself as a freelancer copywriter

A couple of years ago I was contacted by the communications manager of a high profile organisation. It was 3.05pm on a busy Wednesday afternoon.

It was the kind of phone call freelance copywriters only dream about.

Getting straight down to business, my hot new prospect asked if I could rewrite an important letter by COB that day. Yes, you read correctly. THAT DAY! The letter was to be sent out to their 2,500+ contact database the following morning.

After a quick mental calculation, I realised this would give me under two hours to complete the job.

Now, two hours may sound like plenty of time to write a letter. But you’d be surprised. Sometimes it can take two hours just to perfect one paragraph. (That’s one reason I don’t charge by the hour.)

Despite feelings of creeping anxiety, I calmly asked my dream client to email me the letter so I could assess what the job involved.

That’s when the panic officially set in. The letter was a mess. And without a clear content brief to go with it, I knew I’d need more than two hours to nail this job.

My dream client was slipping through my fingers. Fast. Although it was a small job, I knew it could give me a foot in the door – to future bigger jobs and a potential a long-term relationship.

Declining the job wasn’t an option. I needed a solution.

So I responded by saying yes, I could do the job – but not by 5pm that day. Instead, I promised a dazzling new letter in my client’s inbox by 9am the following morning. Without hesitation, she agreed.

Dream client now firmly in grasp once again.

This left only one issue to be resolved. The fee.

What my dream client had omitted in our earlier conversation, was that she had very little budget for this work. She had made the decision to outsource a copywriter only an hour before contacting me. There was no time to get this arrangement across the line if it was going to cost anything over $300.

I asked myself: am I prepared to do this for just $300? Fitting in the work would mean sending my children to after school care (not planned), cancelling my evening’s activities (firmly planned) and reshuffling my work schedule, potentially impacting other clients’ deadlines (never planned).

That firm grasp began to slip through my fingers once again.

After some deep soul searching (of about five minutes), I rang my prospect back. To decline the job.

I thanked her very much for the opportunity and explained that with such a fast turnaround, I could not reduce my fee.

My prospect was understanding and respectful and said that she would try and rewrite the letter herself. She had already suspected that to find a writer at such short notice was a long-shot anyway.

Dream client. Gone.

That’s when I realised this didn’t have to be over. I was not going to hand that fat lady her microphone. I decided I could still make a great first impression – without actually accepting the work.

I spent the next 30 minutes writing my prospect an email. The email outlined my assessment of the letter and problems with its focus, targeting, message clarity, layout and grammar. And then I explained how I would have tackled the job.

I received an instant, very grateful reply. My prospect said my advice was ‘invaluable’ and had given her the confidence to tackle the letter herself.

I was pleased with the outcome. Regardless of what might come of it, I knew I had done everything in my power to demonstrate my expertise and professionalism – without selling my soul.

And sure enough, less than six months later, that dream client called again. This time, under very different circumstances. I was invited in to her office to be briefed on a meaty new project – with realistic time-frames and a fair budget. Magic.

So what did I learn?

1. Never undersell yourself.

Of course I could have done the job for $300. But it’s a lot lower than what I would normally charge for an important job that demands such a fast turn-around. I know the value of my work and my clients respect me for that.

2. Time-frames can be negotiatedSometimes.

I am now more upfront with my clients if I believe that a time-frame is not achievable. Most of my clients are prepared to wait a little extra time in exchange for a reliable, quality service.

3. Always seize the opportunity to make a positive first impression.

I couldn’t do the work on that occasion, but I found another way to be remembered. And it worked. The free advice increased my credibility, demonstrated my skills – and gave me the second chance I’d hoped for. Even when I miss out on jobs for reasons I am not aware of, I always try to part ways on a positive and grateful note.

4. Aim to be responsive, but not at any cost.

For me, quality output is number one. I will never compromise on the quality of what I deliver – no matter what the cost. Important jobs demand time and attention. Period.

I’d like to conclude with a well-known business saying that my father shared with me after I told him this story:

“I can do a quick job. I can do a cheap job. And I can do a quality job. You get to pick two!”