Is It possible to treat your copywriting client ‘too well’?


Decades ago, in the far distant ’80s when I started my career in direct response, I remember reading an article by a grizzled old print salesman (yes, it was a salesman) to the effect that you can over service a client. At the time, I was inclined to think he was wrong (youth vs. experience you know).

His example was giving a particular client super speedy service and a super good price because his print house had some unused capacity (read: they were slow). So they went the extra 20 yards and ran circles around the job, producing it flawlessly, at incredible speed, for a very favorable price.

Good show, right? I mean, doesn’t every self-employed/solopreneur/freelancer want to sparkle like a Tiffany diamond for our clients?

The answer is neither yes or no. The answer is: it depends on the client.

You see, the client this grizzled old print guy did the bang-up job for didn’t appreciate the extra-fast service. Or the excellent price. The client expected the same speed, quality, and price every single time. They started calling the grizzled old print salesman later and later and later to do the job. Until it was truly, impossible.

The end of this story may surprise you. After trying to reset expectations to a more realistic benchmark, the grizzled old print salesman let this client go. He had to. They had quickly gone from being a good client to one with ridiculous demands.

Now there are two things about this story: First, and the grizzled old salesman admitted this, he actually trained the client to expect the ridiculous. That was the first mistake, and the core point of his article.

The second thing, of course, is that the client started taking advantage of the print shop’s desire to give a fantastic level of service. Fantastic wasn’t good enough. They wanted more. And more. And more.

I have run into clients like this periodically throughout my 35 year career. I wish I could say that my Uh-Oh Pain-o-Meter has developed sufficiently to avoid these clients, but alas. I still fall into this trap every so often, most recently in a job for one of the largest users of freelance copy in the industry.

I’d love to name names, but I signed a non-disclosure and I take those things seriously, even for clients I would not work for again for any price, under any circumstances. Like the one I’m writing about now.

It was a long copy job at a decent 5-figure fee. Frankly, it seemed like it would be a snap (which is a relative statement when long copy is involved).

That was back in May, 2015.

Instead of the required one concept, I submitted three, because they were all good. And, hey, I was showing off. Well, gosh, they said they were all great, but they wanted two developed. Of course, they didn’t want to pay for the second. Their position was that developing the second was really only a matter of rewriting the lead. I disagreed, but in the spirit of cooperation, I said I’d do that (rewrite the lead), which would give them 2 concepts to test and me 2 shots at busting the control.

I won’t bore you with all of the ins and outs, but the product manager for this client pushed for more and more changes (customer service)—of course, at no additional fee. Since it was a 5-figure fee, I was willing to go the extra mile.

Big mistake. Readers of Chris Marlow’s blogs, and students of the Marlow Method™, will remember that every single time the scope of work changes, the contract needs to be updated by addendum. And more money needs to be negotiated.

Well, I didn’t do that. I wanted to give good service, you see.

By now it was August, and they’d figured out what I’d told them in the beginning — that the second concept was really an entirely different creative, not a revised lead, that would require entirely different research and copy.

The first concept was done save for approval from the legal department.

Or so I thought.

Right around then, the original product manager was booted upstairs or downstairs or sideways, but  was no longer involved with the creative development.

Which means the replacement had to get up to speed.

The copy, by this time, was in legal. It had been there, I think, since July. Where it sat. And sat. And SAT. I politely asked, “what’s the holdup.” I was politely informed that a bunch of new projects had hit legal all at once, and golly gosh, they were backed up.

I forgot to say, “That’s a YP (your problem) not an MP (my problem).” In fact it WAS my problem — and my fault (more on that in a minute).

By now, I just wanted the last payment (the fee was paid in 3 installments, the third to be paid upon legal approval) and to never, ever, ever look at the copy — or talk to that client  — again. I mean, for heaven’s sake, I could have written a credible sequel to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in the time this was taking. (The client’s foot-dragging was a crime, and I was getting the punishment.)

Of course I had plenty of other work on my plate, but I have to tell you, especially if you’re a high volume copywriter, projects that linger (rather like a decaying fish) are a special kind of agony.

As of this writing, the project is STILL not finished, because legal is not finished with it. And it has taken every bone in my body not to tell the client to just shove it and keep that final payment. Mainly because this client would still have the right to finish my work, mail it, and if successful, I won’t see a dime in royalties.

OK, so here are the takeaways: Like the grizzled old print salesman, I was too loose and too willing to provide too much to the client. And they took advantage.

First, never, ever, ever, EVER let any client tell you that all you have to do is rewrite the lead to create a second mailing from a second concept. Good concepts are unique unto themselves. It’s like telling Beyonce that all she has to do is put on Madonna’s clothes and sing. I’ve known this truth for about 30 out of my 35-year career. I lost my mind. My bad. And I paid for it.

Second, every time the job changes, change the contract and get more money for more work. Just that simple. If the client is not willing to agree to that as part of the rules of the game, dump that client (politely) and run as fast as you can.

Third, make sure your contract specifies how much time the client has to get back to you with revisions and, especially, legal approval. Some clients need deadlines, too. I can honestly say that this is the longest it has ever taken me to get paid in full.

I personally think it is inexcusable for any client to hold up payment because of a delay in legal. With every other job I’ve written that required legal, my client has paid me upon submission to the legal department, and if revisions were needed, I gladly made them. Clients — especially those who buy millions of dollars of copy — should not predicate their cash flow on holding up a freelancer’s payment. From my perspective, it tells me this is a bad client to work for.

In the end, however, all of the problems with this job (the copy was fine, by the way) and delays were because I didn’t do my job of setting expectations, getting agreement on a set of rules to live by, and then enforcing them.

I have been lucky. This is the worst case of what I’ll call “crummy client syndrome” I’ve dealt with in 35 years. Well over 95% of my clients and client experiences have been nothing less than stellar.

But I learned long ago that, from my side of the relationship, delivering exceptional customer service can be tricky. It’s better, I think, to deliver consistently excellent (as opposed to exceptional, which you cannot guarantee on every job) service for a fee the client feels is fair. In the end, it is consistency and results that produce repeat customers.

So write down your “must have” rules — I did, again, because of this experience. Keep your contracted services updated. Don’t rely on verbal agreements. If you do more work, charge for it.

And last but not least, if a client is too demanding, let them go. The world is full of terrific clients who will make you want to get up every day, just to have the pleasure of working with them.

© 2016 Lea Pierce, All Rights Reserved

P.S. — For the past three years Lea has been a First Mate in the S.S. Treasure Hunt, answering questions and offering support for the new and aspiring copywriters who have chosen the straight path to success in copywriting.

About Chris Marlow

The original copywriter's coach, Chris Marlow has worked with copywriters since 2003. Her acclaimed Marlow Marketing Method™ Client Acquisition Course has produced hundreds of successful copywriters. Chris' S.S. Treasure Hunt membership site not only houses this course but four more on the subjects of Copywriting, Advanced Copywriting, Productivity, and Closing Clients. The S.S. Treasure Hunt also contains the world's only statistical pricing database for about 100 copywriting jobs. Chris has put together this resource to give copywriters everything they need to succeed — and nothing they don't. Chris is committed to helping copywriters focus on what's important, saving them from the time- and money-wasting Bright Shiny Object Syndrome so prevalent on the Internet.

6 Responses to Is It possible to treat your copywriting client ‘too well’?

  1. Carol January 19, 2016 at 3:44 am #

    I had a similar experience just this month with a new potential client who is in ‘marketing’ and was looking for a copywriter to help write articles for his newsletter. The average fee they paid for each article was pitiful. A previous colleague, who worked for them, approached me on the basis that there was future potential. I was asked to send examples of my writing and copies of my published books (which I supplied).

    I queried the average article fee, asking if it could be negotiable for a slightly higher (but still preferable) rate explaining that time may be needed to research the subject matter beforehand and as there was no guarantee of additional (better paid??) work. The reply I got was ‘perhaps we’d better not work together’.

    Maybe that was a blessing in disguise??

    • Chris January 19, 2016 at 8:17 am #

      A total blessing… they did not value your work. It could only get worse from there. Articles and newsletters seem to hold low value for clients… especially newsletters. My experience is that it’s painful for them to spend much on newsletters because they don’t see them as income generators. Every time I’ve done a newsletter the client gave up on it after a few months. That’s why I always position myself for leads or sales. Harder for them to cheap out when you have the argument that you’re going to make them more than you cost!

  2. Nan Devlin January 18, 2016 at 9:05 pm #

    The sentence that rang so true here for me “he actually trained the client to expect the ridiculous.” I’ve done the same thing, time and again, and it does nothing but bite you in the butt. After working miracles for a well-known tech company for 3 years, a project manager sent me a recording of an interview with a British client to turn into a case study. The recording quality was so bad, and the client’s accent so strong and his language so full of jargon, it was impossible to decipher. I let the manager know I couldn’t make out a single word and did he have a better recording – not only did I never get a response, I never heard from anyone at the company again. I was actually relieved. Often I turned white papers around in less than 8 hours, write press releases with 10 mins notice, etc. I trained them to work with me like that. Finally that experience made me change that impulse to perform miracles on a regular basis.

    • Chris January 18, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

      I have not had that experience with a client but when I worked for Rosen/Brown it didn’t matter how hard or how fast I worked, they wanted more. My Creative Director even went so far as to show me a spreadsheet that I was working less overtime than anyone else. First of all, I don’t believe in overtime. Second, it was a lie… a ruse. Turned out that I was 95% billable. Everyone else was working late because they were 60% billable and weren’t getting their work done during the day! I confronted my CD… he knew that. It was just pure greed. This is honestly one of the reasons I will never work for anyone again.

  3. Nida Sea January 18, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

    Wow! Excellent story with amazing lessons! I’ve been contacted by clients who want the moon, but only want to pay so little and would ‘never’ consider paying ‘outrages’ fees for simple changes. Yeah, good bye! I’m never falling into that pit again. Wonderful post!!

    • Chris January 18, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

      Thanks Nida… it seems endless what kinds of “traps” copywriters can fall into. We need to all help each other by sharing the missteps!!

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