Blog

9 insider secrets to a ‘headache-proof’ copywriting career

After my son’s first day of school a few years ago, he came home with some exciting news to share.

Guess what, Mummy!’ he said. ‘My teacher told me that mistakes are GREAT!’

Coming from a little boy who would fall to pieces at a failed dot-to-dot or Lego assembly, I was delighted to hear of his new-found enthusiasm for mistake-making.

Even though mistakes are the best way to learn (at any age), we don’t always have to learn the hard way.

With a 14+ year freelance copywriting career behind me, I’ve certainly made some doozies over the years. So it’s now time to share the lessons learnt, hoping I might save you some headaches down the track.

So put that Panadol away – and read on.

1. Insist on a clear brief

Some clients know how to deliver a brief. After a quick phone conversation, email – or shock horror, a real-life briefing document – I’m fully across the project. I know my client’s communication objective, target audience and key messages. Boom. Let’s go!

But with other clients, trying to extract a clear brief can feel like torture.

Sadly, the latter scenario is far more typical. So it’s not feasible to simply eliminate these disorganised clients from your working week. Instead, you have to learn how to draw relevant information out of them. And you have to stop yourself from starting the work until you have.

So how do you extract a brief from a confused client?

Send them a template to complete. Educate them on how to formulate a brief. Skype them. Meet them for a coffee. Or phone them (and phone again) until you have the answers you need.

2. Connect with other copywriters

When you work in an office environment, collaborating is easy. You’re surrounded by like-minded professionals who you can turn to for feedback and ideas at a moment’s notice.

But as a freelancer, you don’t have that luxury.

From day one of my copywriting career, I’ve been fortunate to have a mentor – a very experienced copywriter who supported me in those early days. Today, 13 years on, I still seek his counsel regularly. And these days, he seeks mine too.

Relationships with other copywriters are invaluable. You understand each other’s worlds. You can offer different perspectives and solutions to sticky situations. And you can even help each other out when overloaded with work.

3. Ask for a payment upfront

Embarrassingly, up until a few years ago, I invoiced my clients after I completed their work. And typically they paid and we all lived happily ever after.

But the fairy tale didn’t always end blissfully.

And when it didn’t, I found myself out of pocket – feeling foolish and bitter.

It took two bad experiences (yes, I didn’t learn the first time), for me to change my policies and invoice all new clients 100% upfront. And not once since, has a client complained or questioned it.

Securing deposits off new customers makes good business sense. It shows that you’re a professional operator. And it shows that your client is committed to the project. It’s also a great opportunity to highlight your impressive portfolio.

4. Create a network of relevant experts

Graphic designers, web developers, social media strategists, SEO experts, marketing consultants, videographers, photographers, printers.

You need a strong relationship with at least one top-notch professional in all related industries.

Why? Because inevitably, your clients will ask you if you know a good designer/developer/photographer/printer/marketer etc. And you want to be able to recommend someone you truly trust.

It shows you are well networked and that you know how to secure and maintain good professional partnerships.

And as a bonus, you’ll feel good inside for referring business to deserving people.

A word of warning: Be sure you have complete confidence in someone’s abilities before you vouch for them. Who you refer reflects directly on your own credibility.

5. Thank your referrers. Properly.

When I refer business to deserving professionals, I don’t do it to be thanked or praised. I do it because I believe both parties can benefit from the introduction.

But let’s face it. It is nice to be acknowledged, isn’t it?

Most of my new business comes from recommendations by existing clients or colleagues in related industries. These advocates are the life-blood of my business. And that’s why I never take referrals for granted.

You don’t have to go overboard with theatre tickets or pony rides. But do make a point of thanking your referrer with a phone call. At least.

Sure, you can send a quick email or slip in a casual thankyou when you next see or speak to them. But a dedicated phone call (which costs you nothing) is a more personal and heartfelt way to express your gratitude. What’s more, you never know what other opportunities might come up in conversation.

6. Gather clients testimonials. Immediately.

Social proof is critical in business. Before we engage anyone, we need evidence of their credibility and integrity. And the best form of social proof is genuine endorsements from real business professionals.

If you don’t have testimonials from satisfied clients, it’s never too late to start collecting them. But it will be painstaking.

You’re much better off asking for endorsements as soon as you’ve completed a client’s project because you’re top of mind – and they’re still feeling all warm and fuzzy about you.

Some clients find it hard to write testimonials (and having to write for a professional writer can feel particularly intimidating). So you may be a lot better off asking some specific questions – or sending a quick online survey like mine.

You can also ask permission to use a glowing email they’ve already sent, or to transcribe their sentiments from a phone call you’ve just had.

Gathering client testimonials should be part of your process. Just like sending the invoice.

7. Don’t lower your fee – just because you’re asked to

In the early days, I would sometimes agree to reduce my fee at the request of a prospective client. When you don’t know where the next piece of work is coming from, it’s understandable.

However, when you charge less than what you believe is fair, it’s easy to become resentful. And it’s easy for clients to place less value on your work.

Now that I am established with a solid client base, my quoted fee is non-negotiable – because it’s fair and value-driven.

Smart business owners and marketers understand and appreciate the value of quality copywriting. Of course, it’s always possible to find cheaper providers in any industry. But we all know the result is rarely comparable.

By sticking to your guns on fees, you’re showing that you know the value of your work. It engenders respect and confidence in your ability to deliver.

8. Don’t do mates’ rates

I now classify some of my long-time clients as friends. We catch up for coffees even if there’s no brief to discuss. And we exchange regular emails if we know that something big is going on in either of our personal lives.

But because our relationship began in a professional context, there are no grey areas when it comes to charging for my copywriting services.

However, when existing friends or family members wanted to engage me, I used to find it difficult knowing how much to charge – or even if I should charge.

After some uncomfortable experiences on both sides of the fence, my view is now firm. Mates’ rates are not a good idea.

9. Trust your instincts

Looking back at the small number of negative client experiences I’ve had over the years, I can now see that in every case, the red flag was waving.

I’m talking about….

Clients with gravely poor listening skills
Clients who struggle to articulate a brief no matter how much guidance and patience you offer
Clients without a basic knowledge of marketing and communication principles
Clients who are obsessively focused on the dollars – at the expense of all else.

I recall one new prospect calling me with this opening line:

I’m the kind of businessman you can trust and I always pay my invoices.

Red flag. Right there. And you guessed it. Despite the gnawing churn at the pit of my stomach, I went ahead and completed the project – only to never get paid for it.

He was one of only two clients to never pay for my work in 14 years.

As a small business owner, it never feels natural to turn your back on opportunities. But some clients are just not worth the blood, sweat and tears you will waste on them.

Try not to fall victim to the 80/20 rule (20% of your clients will take up 80% of your time). It doesn’t have to apply to you.

What insider secrets do you have to share with other copywriters? Or what have you learnt ‘not to do’ over the years?