Help! I Bungled a Writing-Client Meeting — Mailbag

I flubbed a freelance client meeting - now what? Makealivingwriting.comToday, I’m reaching into my freelance-writer mailbag and answering a question I got from a participant in my recent 40 Ways to Market Your Writing webinar. Oscar emailed me after the session and told me he’d recently plunged into freelance writing after being laid off.

He got referred to a possible writing client by someone he met at an in-person networking event. Oscar’s new contact thought this CEO might need a writer. The client call didn’t go so well, though, Oscar reports:

“We spoke for 90 minutes, during which time I asked a lot of questions about her business and its problems and needs.

I agreed to a followup call in nine days. [Then] looked closely at the company web site and realized:

a. The CEO has no marketing plan and no marketing strategy. They’ve done one press release in four years.

b. She wanted me to devise a strategy to get her company leads. I told her that’s a marketing function, not a writing function. She suggested a win/win: I produce a YouTube video that goes viral and bingo-bango, we both benefit.

c. She had a limited budget.

d. She had me sign a nondisclosure agreement.

So, now I have a CEO who was referred to me by her trusted ally. I backed out.
He looks like an idiot and she still needs her problem solved.
And, I’m still working on finding my first portfolio items.
Did I mess this up?”

To answer that last question first: Maybe. It depends. But I think you bungled it less than you think.

First off, I try to keep initial discussions with prospects to half an hour, or an hour at most, especially if I haven’t had a chance to size them up. Try to get them to move quickly from initial pleasantries and blathering about their company’s greatness to defining the writing project they want to assign.

To your points:

a. Put on the blinders. Ah yes, the company without a plan. There are herds of these ungainly beasts roaming the business world. They often want to hire freelance writers in a desperate stab at doing something about their marketing problem.

In this situation, you’ve got two choices. You can point out the obvious: Writing this one thing will not change the underlying lack-of-marketing problem. Or you can look at this initial writing offer as an opportunity for the company to begin solving their marketing problem — and for you to get an ongoing series of assignments.

They haven’t done a press release in four years? What an opportunity for a freelance writer.

Propose a plan to write 12 in the next year, or even six, to start getting their name out there again. Charge even $300 apiece for them — I shoot for $500 personally — and that’s a sweet $1,800-$3,600 gig that pays you a bit each month. You get in, you write a little, you slay them with your amazing wordcraft wizardry, and make yourself indispensable.

Then, you might help them see the need to create a media kit, new Web content, new product descriptions, a regular weekly blog post, ghosted guest-blogs on industry sites, a Facebook fan page, a monthly e-newsletter, a white-paper series. Soon, they’ve got enough puzzle pieces to do some real marketing.

When you’re starting out freelancing, every writing assignment may not be a big success for the client, because these first-rung sort of clients are often too dysfunctional. But in the meanwhile, you got paid and got a clip. If you need work bad, you just take what they offer and hope to build the relationship from there.

b. Time for a referral. If you don’t feel qualified to advise on marketing strategy, the best option is to refer the CEO to a marketer from your network. That way she gets needed advice, and the grateful marketing strategist keeps you on the team for writing.

If her idea is “make a YouTube video” but you don’t do that sort of thing, you simply say so. Then, refer them to a digital video specialist, where you’d write the script and they’d execute it. (And then there’d also be someone else to point the finger at if her video doesn’t “go viral.”)

c. No budget: Dealbreaker. You don’t really define how limited of a budget you’re talking about, but it’s possible the game ended here. If she doesn’t have the money to hire a freelance writer to do even an initial small project such as a few press releases, then she can keep dreaming about more sales. Some CEOs are dumb this way. Don’t expend energy trying to convince them of your value. They don’t get it.

However, if her “limited budget” is $10,000, or even $1,500, there’s room in there for some writing fees. I say, do what you can with the resources they got.

d. NDAs…a non-issue. Not sure why the nondisclosure agreement matters. I’ve signed NDAs, reviewed proposals, and then passed. Just don’t tell the world their finances or trade secrets, and you’re good.

Planning a graceful dismount. Finally, you seem like you’re covered in shame because you declined to work for this woman. I think you can hold your head up, as long as you conducted yourself professionally.

When you say you “backed out” — did you promise this woman something? Sign a contract? String her along for months?

If not, then you were referred to a possible writing job you investigated, and then declined. I get referred for weird stuff on a regular basis that I pass on. You’re under no obligation to take every gig you get told about.

Also, you had known the person who referred you for 10 minutes. It’s pretty minor collateral damage there. He doesn’t really look like an idiot. He merely suggested you two might be able to meet each others’ needs. Didn’t turn out that way. No biggie. Happens all the time.

Be sure to send your referrer a thank-you note or email for thinking of you. You can let him know she didn’t really have a budget, or it wasn’t a fit for you. And you’re still looking for writing gigs. Be a pro about it, and they’ll refer you again.

Finally, send the CEO a thank-you for considering you. If you do this artfully enough, they might call you back some day when they’ve got more budget and a better idea what they want to do with marketing.

Have you had writing-client referrals that didn’t pan out? If so, leave us some tips on how you handled the situation.

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10 comments on “Help! I Bungled a Writing-Client Meeting — Mailbag
  1. TiceWrites says:

    Question to the group — what do you think about the cartoon icon? I just love it, but now that I'm a finalist in this contest, I wonder if people think it seems too goofy or unprofessional. There is a real picture of me on my About page…would be interested in reactions. Thinking about switching my gravatar back…

  2. TiceWrites says:

    Hi Oscar —

    It sounds like it was all such a rush right after you decided to get into freelancing that you were a little boggled. But we all have these client contacts that just don't end up working.

    I had one a few months back that's tops for hilarity. A prospect cold-called me late-ish on a Friday afternoon, which isn't a good time for me because I always leave the office early to prepare for my Sabbath, and I must be off before sundown. I let him know my time was short, but that I'd be interested to hear what he had going.

    He said, "Oh, maybe we should talk another time then," and I said, "No, we're still fine, now's an OK time to talk!" But he got all weirded out and kept saying, "Well, I feel uncomfortable now," and I kept saying, 'No, really! It's fine!"

    And finally he hung up. I later figured out my phone had probably cut out (thanks Comcast!), and he couldn't hear me saying that…he thought I was stonewalling him or deeply offended or something! I tried to follow up but was never able to get in touch again.

    Sometimes, it's just a bit of a botch, and we've gotta get up and try again tomorrow.

    I think probably the big learning for you out of this is — have that initial meet, and then put it in the client's court. That's why I like handing them the questionnaire — I say fill this out and get back to me and we'll talk. Then if they're a flake, I'm done. If they aren't, they go off and spend some time defining their project, and then we can come back and have a productive conversation and I can get started on writing.

    Also, as I've learned as a parent, when we don't know the answer, it's best to simply say, "I'm just going to think about what I want to do next" rather than popping off with an off-the-top of the head answer I might immediately regret.

    Thanks for providing an interesting case study — I wanted to write on it because I thought it had a lot of elements that frequently pose problems for freelancers who're new to negotiating and client meetings. Hope the readers got some good learnings.

    And you discovered one of the big missing pieces in your answer above — when you don't know, ask your network! This blog, or go on LinkedIn Editors & Writers and pose your situation. Gather data — really useful.

    Now, like Dory says in Finding Nemo, "Just keep swimming…"

  3. Carol, congratulations on Make a Living Blogging being a finalist for the Top Ten Blogs for Writers on the Write to Done site.
    My recent post Friday- December 9- 1960

  4. Chelsea says:

    Oscar is understandably concerned about the referral relationship, because so many excellent leads come down the pipeline through referrals! But it sounds like he handled it OK, and if he sends that follow-up thank-you to the referrer, he'll keep them coming.

    Carol, I'd love to take a look at the questionnaire you use, but the link above seems to lead back to this page. I'll keep looking for it.

    Thanks,
    Chelsea

    • TiceWrites says:

      Hi Chelsea —

      Sorry about that — supposed to lead to a post I did a while back on The Lowdown on Copywriting Rate Sheets — you could search on that for background. But I don't share my questionnaire — did a one-week giveaway where subscribers got it once, but otherwise have kept it to myself.

      Just think of the type of clients you get and all the questions you typically ask them, and turn it into a sheet. Keep adding questions as you hit new snags in client relations that would have been prevented if only you'd asked a question up-front…mine keeps evolving.

  5. pricewrite says:

    Hi Carol,

    Your suggestions for the "graceful dismount" are very helpful. I have accepted gigs that have turned into unprofitable time-wasters. But they taught me what types of work I don't want, and that is a blessing.

    Even if you are new to paid writing, you need a certain mindset. You are the writing expert, not the client. You can assert a leadership role in the interview and drive the process. If the client tries to drive the process, you can insist on clarity and specificity. That may force the client to admit that they need your help. If not, it may be time to look for that graceful dismount.

    Jack
    My recent post Can We Really Trust Wonder Woman

    • TiceWrites says:

      There's no shame in deciding a gig isn't for you, I believe.

      But you hit a really good point, Jack — even as a newbie, remember that you know writing, and they don't. When I first got into copywriting, I was surprised by how much expertise I could offer people right off the bat, just from knowing article writing, and how to tell a good story.

      What I find a challenge is getting companies to focus and tell you EXACTLY what they need written. They often don't really know, and you have to help them crystallize what their needs are. That's why I put together a written questionnaire I have them fill out. It's a huge help. Clients love it — I've had them sit down with a printout of it for a first client meeting and go over it with me point by point. Getting that clarity on what they need done helps both you and the client.

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