Chasing the Client Relationship

What’s on the iPod: Roadrunner by The Modern Lovers

Wow. Thursday, huh? Tuesday and Wednesday feel like a blur to me. I had a number of things going on at once and deadlines that are looming. Plus I knew that today and tomorrow would be truncated thanks to appointments and an annual lunch date with my aunt. So I worked until my eyes couldn’t take anymore. Then I exercised and gardened. Nothing brings you back into yourself like channeling the stress and digging in dirt.

I was interviewing a young professional for a profile article. What struck me was at his age — 28 — he’d already hit on the key to success. He’s a sought-after agent who’s boosting his career by putting his focus on one area — building relationships, not commissions.

Oh, writers. If we would just do the same thing.

There’s really no difference between what he does and what we do. Not really — we’re all in sales. Every one of us has to sell our services to new clients, and build the bridges to make it easy for them to come back. Yet, like my young interview subject, many freelance writers focus on the wrong thing.

The money.

That’s not to say money isn’t important, but money isn’t what your business is about. Your business is about providing writing services. The money is your compensation for your skills.

Let’s look at it another way. My dad spent his career welding. He’d perfected his skills to the point that even amid a hellish economy in the late seventies/early eighties, he was never out of work. He’d worked decades in one company until they went bankrupt due to bad management and no way to recover from a recession. Within hours, he was working at another machine shop. The owner knew his skills and hired him instantly. When that job dried up on a Friday afternoon, another guy who worked with the owner hired my dad. He was opening his shop on Monday and needed an expert welder. That’s where my dad retired from.

In none of these situations did the employers say “Well, he must be good because he’s making a ton of money.” Not only was that not true, it wasn’t relevant. His skills were what they sought. The money followed.

The same goes for you, freelance writer. Your skills are what warrant your price, not the other way around. So how do you switch the focus from looking for XXX dollars per hour to XX clients per year? Try one or more of these methods:

Invest in conversation. Clients don’t hire companies. They hire people. You personalize yourself by being there, asking questions, staying in touch, chatting, etc. Right now I have two upcoming client agreements that started with conversations — one began in 2005, the other in 2000. Staying in touch does matter. So does listening and being present.

Advocate for the client, not yourself. Get your head off the “me” in the equation and on to the “you”. Your clients care how you can help them, not how damn special you think you are. Can you suggest something that works for them? Are you willing to help them without any thought to your own financial gain? If so, you’re an advocate. And you’ll be remembered. Recently a long-time client lamented not being able to continue a project due to lack of interest from the audience. I expressed my sorrow, told him I’d still be here if needed, then sent him a helpful link that may change the way his project is received. He came back a week later to continue the project. Did I expect it? No. But that I could help him in any way was good.

Put the emphasis on the outcome. Show of hands — how many of you have started a new client conversation with “What’s your budget?” Probably a few of you, and in some cases, it may be warranted (and you’ll know those cases when they appear). If you do this regularly, you may want to think about starting with “What’s your intended outcome?” or “What message do you want to get out to your audience?” You should frame your questions so that your prospect can sense you’re on their side. Their enthusiasm for the project should be something you respond to, not overlook for the budget.

Lead with honesty. Don’t be afraid to say what the client needs to hear. It’s not hard to be tactful while telling them there are problems with their approach or that there are other, better ways to get to their goal. I’ve had clients thank me for noticing what was wrong with their current content (but only if they ask do I offer a critique). Tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. As long as your goal is to get the most impact with their investment, your honesty will make you a trusted partner.

Writers, in your career, have you chased dollars, relationships, or both?
What was most effective for you?

What methods do you use to build client relationships?

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  • Cathy Miller July 9, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    Such a simple concept, Lori, that we make so complex, huh? 😉 Like your analogy of the broker and your dad to writers, any business is about good relationships. It's that point that has frustrated the heck out of me about health care.

    I have often asked, how many businesses that need a partner to deliver their product to their customers go out of their way to battle and undermine that partner? Yet that's what we have with health providers and insurance companies and other payers. They need each other to deliver care in order to be successful. Providers with a sufficient patient pool to keep their practice/health systems going. And insurers/payers to sell their health plans.

    I love Invest in conversation, Lori. Spot on. 🙂

  • Lori Widmer July 9, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    We do, Cathy! Maybe we think it's too much work?

    The health care field could learn a lot from sales, couldn't they? I've seen it in the TPA world, which ironically is the one the insurers tend to trust and the one they shouldn't trust. The waste is sinful.

    Glad you liked that — it's true. The more you build the bridge, the more you'll see traffic coming toward you, as you well know. 🙂

  • Ashley July 9, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    Love this post, Lori. And you're exactly right about building relationships. It pays off, especially when there's a misunderstanding. Recently I mis-read an assignment from an editor I've been working with for a long time. I had to start again, almost from scratch, but the editor was understanding because we'd built a good working relationship over the past year or so. I'd already given him good work and had been receptive to past feedback, so it worked out fine, and I've already gotten more assignments from him. Had we not had a solid relationship already, it might have been the last time I worked with that editor.

    Another situation happened more recently. I didn't completely miss the mark, but I had to do some pretty heavy edits, and this was for a brand new client. But I welcomed the feedback and make sure I focused on getting the job done right, not the hours I was putting into the work. The editor was pleased with the outcome. I think we'll work together again. And that's the ultimate goal, isn't it? Focus on the client's needs, and they will come back. Focus on myself, and the clients will find someone else. It's that simple.

  • Lori Widmer July 10, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    That is exactly the goal, Ashley! Yes, mistakes happen. It's how we handle them that defines the relationship. You're fortunate, too. You have good editors who know how to behave like professionals.

    I remember writing a series of articles, all due within two weeks, for two sister publications. So when I wrote one article slanted toward the wrong magazine, I had to fix it fast. I worked the weekend and got it done right. The editor was happy, and I felt I'd done the right thing. It's about their satisfaction, isn't it?