If you are or want to be a freelance writer, you are in business. One of the quickest ways to go out of business is to start thinking of yourself as an artist, living a sort of interesting but highly flexible, self-focused life, and stop thinking about yourself as a business person. Writers start to succeed when they realize writing is a business.
Business is all about adding value. You sell something of value–everyone in business does, whether it’s a plate of Mexican food or fiber optic cables or, in our case, specialized writing services. But your business has to be more than that. You have to all sell things that your customers want associated with what they’re buying. For instance, if you sell Mexican food, you should probably invest in plates. You should have a pleasant place for people to come and sit down to eat their food. You should hire some folks to serve people and make sure that service is prompt and polite. The local Mexican restaurant in my town recently installed a soft-serve ice cream machine on the way out — and invites patrons who have had a meal to have an ice cream cone for dessert at no charge. These are ways to add value.
As writers in business, we need to add value to our writing services. This is not as hard as you think. Here are 10 ways you can add value to your writing services (and get clients to value your services):
- Maintain office hours and make them similar to normal business hours in your community. Better yet, extend them a bit. A writing business should be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays because that is when people who buy writing services are at work. Work all night if you want to, but maintain an office presence during normal hours.
- Invest in a land-line phone that gets answered during business hours. Now I am not against cell phones, but they sound different and if you take your cell phone around as you pick your kids up from day care or go to the grocery store or the Little League game, people know. Plus cell phones can be finicky about providing good clear voice service. If your client calls you at 10 a.m. on Monday and can tell from background noise that you’re at the mall–and the phone goes in and out–you come across as a flake. Serious business people are about serious business at 10 a.m. on Monday–if you’re the kind of person who is not at work then, maybe you’re not really in business (that’s what your client will think!)
- Check your email at least twice a day and respond to all emails within one business day, even if your response is simply, “I will look into this and get back to you later today.” Hyper-responsiveness is a way to make yourself more valuable. Business clients and media outlets who hire writers are worried about their own deadlines. They can’t wait for a day or two for you to get around to replying to an email. I once had a very fine freelancer want to work with me, but she admitted she only looked at her email every three or four days, so could I just call if I had work for her? I know the freelance mindset so I did not write her off–but most of your business and media clients will drop you quickly if you say something like that.
- Resist the urge to tell your clients how busy you are or are not or anything about other clients. If you freelance, your clients know you have other clients. But it’s like having two boyfriends at the same time–even if they know about each other, they don’t want to hear about each other. Your clients are not there to be your therapist. You are there to serve them. Listen to them talk about how busy they are, but only share the briefest, most cheerful information you can about yourself.
- No matter how frazzled you are or how exasperating a client is, be cheerful and polite. Be professional. You can always fire a client but never fire anybody, especially a client, in the heat of battle. You need to be relaxed, well-rested, and absolutely dispassionate when you fire a client. As long as you’re working on a project, be upbeat.
- Do not disappear without telling your clients in advance. I once had a major project in the hands of a freelancer whom I knew very well; we had worked together for years. I was on the corporate side in this scenario and I had given him a big project on a tight deadline. I did not hear from him for a while and every time I called him, there was no answer. Same thing with email. No response. Three long weeks passed. We had not passed my deadline but I was literally in the process of hiring a new freelancer when I got a call from the original guy. He actually did the work and completed it by our deadline. But why did he go “radio silent” for three weeks? He told me, “I went fishing. I had a chance to go out of town and spend some time with some buddies, so I took it. I figured, why not?” Here’s why not: you left a good client stranded. Even though the work was done properly and by the deadline, for three weeks I had no clue what was going on. Always tell your clients if you are going to be out of the office even if you are not working on any active jobs. And if you do have an active job, absolutely tell the client twice, once in writing (email is fine) and once in person or by phone. This event so traumatized me that I never used this freelancer again, although he did super work.
- Never call a client at home or at odd hours. I remember spending one Sunday afternoon on the phone with a hyper-caffeinated freelance writer who was talking to me about a project that was due Monday morning. She had the project for over a week, but as she told me at great length, she had taken her kids to gymnastics and made a cake for a bridal shower, plus she went shopping for her mom’s birthday, and she was finally getting to my work and needed a lot of input. After regaling me with her adventures for the week (which sounded good to me–I spent that week behind a desk) she then demanded that I spend the next hour or so explaining concepts to her and helping her meet her Monday morning deadline. When I told her that it was not fair for her to deprive me of my weekend, she snapped back, “Do you want your project done or not?” I didn’t think her service was very valuable at that moment.
- Do some marketing. You don’t have to break the bank, but it’s nice to have a simple website, real stationery, and maybe a logo. You should also have a business name. If you don’t have that stuff, you’re just another would-be writer working from the kitchen table. Nobody in business with a big project wants to trust his work to somebody who isn’t serious about her work.
- Rent an office or make it absolutely impossible for others to determine that you are not in an office. I know lots of people like to work at home. Lots of people like to sleep till noon and watch TV all day, too, that does not mean I want to work with them. If you can afford to rent an office, even a small one, do it. It gives you a business office and it totally resets your attitude when you step into your real office. A virtual office usually turns into an extension of your home; most stay-at-home writers I know do the laundry and cook dinner as they work and eventually their business fails. (What a surprise.) If you cannot afford this, you must make sure that if a client calls you, the TV or radio is not on and you must make sure a toddler never answers the phone. Also make sure that anyone who answers your phone answers it with your business name and knows you’re in business. I once called a translator when I was the client and talked to a very nice man who assured me that his daughter was not a translator and not in business. It turns out she was–but it wasted my time because I had to wait till the next day to call her back. Her reply was to laugh it off. People lose clients over this kind of thing. Never let anyone near your business phone who cannot field the client’s question for you. What if the call that came in was not me but a business person looking for a translator for a $100,000 project? That guy would hang up and never call back. Are you ready to risk that?
- Always do more and better than expected. Sometimes this is hard to measure but I say as a writer that we should always do our best. Proof that article one more time. Look up that word. Double-check those footnotes. Deliver work on time or sooner. This is the most value you can add to your services and it is what will get you referrals.