Ten years ago, I squeezed into a skimpy Mrs. Santa Clause dress and got cut in half in front of the Green Bay Packers.
It was my first day on the job as a magician’s assistant for the Marvelous Humbert Humbert (H.H. was not his real stage name, but I’ve changed it in honor of the fact that I had a five-page paper on Lolita due the next day).
I came across this odd opportunity when I saw a flyer on a bulletin board at my college campus. I was looking for something that paid more than my job scraping trays in the cafeteria basement and the flyer said the job paid $25 per hour.
By the time H.H. dropped me off at my dorm room that night, I figured he owed me $125.
You can imagine my disgust when he handed me two tens and a five.
I reminded him that he was going to pay me $25 per hour, which means that for every hour I spend flouncing around onstage or riding shotgun in his magical van, he should give me $25. He claimed that he only owed me $25 for the one hour it took me to get cut in half and make sure that the flop-eared rabbit was in the right place at the right time.
He thought I should be extremely grateful for the $25.
I wasn’t, and I quit.
In the past decade, I’ve worked for many different types of people and learned that if you are not perfectly clear about the terms of payment, you may end up with less than you expected. This is particularly important for freelancers. Rather than find yourself in the same uncomfortable situation I did, you can change your behavior in a few key ways so you can remain in control when navigating situations where payment terms seem up for debate.
#1. Be Clear with Yourself
It’s your writing business; you get to decide the terms.
If you haven’t already, create a template contract that lays out all the rules clients need to follow to work with you. The contract should cover all the areas that can hold you back with projects, such as how you handle revisions, payments, and retainer agreements.
Once you have your policies on paper, you know exactly what to expect … and so do your clients. You’ve decided how your business is run. Whenever you run into a problem, or see another writer handling a situation with grace, go back to your template to see if you can rewrite it to prevent similar problems from arising in the future or to improve your working relationships going forward.
Kelvin Parker has a contract that makes his working life easier. He has a “no cancellation for any reason” clause, that says if the client cancels, he keeps the fee (considered a “kill fee”). Parker said, “The ‘no cancellation’ is worded to also include, if you make major changes, that’s considered a NEW project. I keep the fee on the old, and we start a new project.”
Parker also has a clause (he borrowed the idea from Gary Bencivenga) that says that the client can’t change a word of his copy, unless there is a factual or legal reason to change it. It makes sense to have this clause. After all, he only wants clients who trust him completely.
Parker is currently experimenting with a new client acquisition strategy that will require new clients to pay a $500 consulting fee before they can speak to him on the phone. It will probably work: Parker has a long track record of making money for his clients; he has tangible proof that his ideas create money. Why not charge money to access those ideas?
These clauses have made Parker’s life much easier. He said, “Anytime you take control and tell them how it’s going to work, and don’t accept them as clients if they don’t agree — your life becomes infinitely easier.
#2. Charge Professional Fees
The fees you charge set expectations with your clients. Would you rather be treated like a $25-a-page writer or a $250-a-page writer? For every project, there’s a range of professional fees. Make sure you’re in that range. And consider pushing your comfort zone a little bit.
For a great resource on setting your fees, you can download How to Price and Land the Top 7 Web Copy Projects. It’s free to Platinum members.
#3. Raise Your Self-Worth
“Your pricing will be in line with your self-worth,” said Sean McCool, another successful copywriter. “Until you raise your self-worth, you’ll never ask for enough money. When I got started, I saved every email, every letter with a compliment, and even put my check stubs in a binder so that when I had a bad day, I could restore my sense of self-worth.”
Raising your self-worth is a continual process. Once you reach a financial goal, you might hit another ceiling. Often, how you feel about yourself is the key to breaking through to the next level.
#4. Track Your Output to See Which Clients are Profitable
In addition to keeping a success binder, you should keep a journal of daily output. When you understand what you produce every hour, and how much each client is paying, you can begin to track which clients pay the most per hour.
When McCool tracked his daily word count and compared it to his client fees, he learned something surprising. The clients who paid his highest flat fees weren’t his most profitable. When he analyzed how he spent his time, it was clear that his B2B clients paid more per hour. Knowing where you make your money is the first step to deciding where to focus your marketing efforts.
#5. Get the Name of the “Accounts Payable” Contact
Steve Slaunwhite gave this tip that will quickly smooth out any payment issues in his article, How to Make Sure You Get Paid.
“Ask your client who in the accounting department takes care of accounts payable,” said Slaunwhite. “This is the person responsible for vetting and paying invoices. As soon as your invoice is due — say, 31 days after you’ve sent it — call your client or the accounts payable contact. Ask about the status of the invoice and when you can expect to receive payment. Don’t settle for vague assurances like, ‘A check will be cut in a couple of weeks.’ Get an exact date.”
#6. Turn Work Away
Many writers might feel uncomfortable with the idea of turning work away. But if you don’t maintain your own standards, who will? If someone offers you a job that is priced below what you normally charge, or if someone doesn’t agree to the terms you’ve laid out in your contract, don’t work with them.
“Most people will hide behind email and quotes. That’s why you should never agree to a price or a project until you meet in person or on the phone. Try to disqualify the person by asking questions,” said McCool. “Find a reason not to take them on as a client.”
For example, if you’re on the phone with a potential newsletter client, you have to find out if they are committed to providing you with information and paying you on time every month for at least a year. If they aren’t able to do those things, the project will fail and it will be a waste of your time to take them on as a client.
Ask those tough questions before they turn into misunderstandings. Your clients will respect you for it.
Setting clear boundaries for how you are paid — both the amount and the terms — is key to smooth working relationships. You’ll be presenting yourself as a professional, which will bring more respect from your clients, and a more profitable freelance web-writing business for you.