Know your worth

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Women especially have a hard time with this. In the last decade, after tons of failures and much coaching by my now-ex-boyfriend, I finally learned how to negotiate my salary in any job I had, whether it was an entry-level position or a fairly high-ranking management job. It wasn’t easy, and I daresay it’s still a work in progress, but I also found that the more often I did it, the more confident I became, which can only help you as you negotiate for what you’re worth.

In the spirit of sisterhood, I’ve also coached more than a few friends informally as they prepared for their own negotiations, and every single one of them got what they wanted. I’d like to think that my encouragement and hard-earned wisdom helped them out, but I’m realistic enough to know that just the mere fact that these women asked for what they wanted (plus a couple of men I coached as well) was sometimes enough to get them their prize. What you don’t ask for, you never get, but the reality is that women rarely get to that point. Whether it’s socialization or fear or what, women typically lowball their asking salary or allow the other person in the negotiation process to dictate the terms. We want to be liked and seem like members of the team, but at the expense of our own needs. Plus, many women are conditioned from birth to avoid confrontation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but then we also equate negotiations with confrontation, when it’s really not.

I find that writers often have the same problem, whether they’re male or female. Whether seeking out a low-paying job despite a fat portfolio, or taking whatever fee a client offers, we’re so desperate for work that we don’t question whether or not the new assignment is worth our very valuable time. We don’t do a cost-benefit analysis and figure out if it adds value to our portfolio, or if it’s a good use of our expertise.

I made that mistake a few months ago when one of my clients referred me to a company wanting someone to revamp their advertorial copy. I wasn’t new at copywriting and had already done a couple dozen for a number of local businesses. While the particular client in question was in an industry I hadn’t worked in before, it was also one that nearly every person in America has had to deal with at one point or another in time as a customer. In other words, if this person was looking to attract more customers, then I was theoretically the ideal person to write his ad. After all, I’d used that particular service many times before as a customer, and I’ve written persuasive copy before. Win-win, right?

Well, the problem was that the original client who referred Client #2 is one of my very first copywriting clients, so I bill them far less than what I would bill new clients. Also, they throw work my way on a very regular basis, so I didn’t mind charging them less. Unfortunately, they shared with Client #2 what I charged them, so Client #2 wanted to hire me at that low rate.

No problem, right? If I were to follow my own advice, I would have politely notified Client #2 that I charge Client #1 a special rate because they’re longtime customers, but that my usual rate for the services he was asking for was such-and-such, or twice what I charge Client #1.

Well, that’s what I should have done. Instead, I anxiously checked my invoices and thought, Oh, what the hell, it’s just this one client. I could use the money.

Big mistake. Client #2 required two revisions and even then was not discreet about his dislike for my copy. He did pay me immediately, but I left that job with a bad taste in my mouth. First of all, I didn’t feel that he really valued or respected my work, and that he harbored the secret suspicion that he could’ve done it better himself. And secondly, I suspected that he wouldn’t use my copy at all.

Modesty aside, I sincerely doubt that Client #2 could have done it better himself, no matter what he believed. When I visited him in his office the first time, he handed me a draft of what he wanted the advertorial to sound like. Riddled with typos, spelling and grammar mistakes and run-on sentences, it actually came across as being very defensive of his company’s work, e.g., We do a great job, no matter what others may say about it. Seriously. I pointed that out to him several times, but he just didn’t get it.

As I mentioned before, I revised my copy twice, tweaking it each time to include customer testimonials he had provided and to emphasize the customized service that the company provides. He still didn’t like it and kept wanting to include the kind of defensive-sounding copy that I’d tried to excise in the first place. Finally, he gave up and just paid me my low fee and sent me on my way.

I learned later that he never did use any of my copy. He might in the future, but it’s been over a year since that happened and I’ve yet to hear otherwise. It did teach me a critical lesson about customer expectations, though, or at least the management thereof.

Since then I’ve never charged less than what I think the job is worth. My fees have increased since then, even for Client #1, and unless there’s something about an assignment that might convince me to lower my fees (e.g., higher volume of relatively easy work, long deadlines, etc.), I don’t budge in the negotiations. I refuse to treat my creative services like an expendable commodity and instead act and demand to be treated like a professional. People tend to treat writers as they do, say, wedding photographers, i.e., they think that because they can do it, it can’t be that hard, so why pay for it? The problem, of course, is that really good writing — like really good wedding photography — is hard and is a specialized skill that takes years to master. I’m certainly not at the point where I can charge six-figures, but I think I can hold my own against the best of the them, and I won’t take on a client who doesn’t recognize my value.

So before you enter into any relationship with a new client, ask yourself the following:

  • Is this assignment going to add value to my portfolio? In that experience with Client #2, the answer would have been yes had the client used my copy, as it would have demonstrated further to future business clients that I knew my way around an advertorial and could deliver high-quality, persuasive copy. Still, had I dozens of similar work in my portfolio, I might have turned it down, as I wouldn’t have needed any more low-paying gigs to boost my clip file.
  • Is this assignment worth my time? Consider how many revisions the client says he expects. If you offer two revisions, think about how long they’ll take. (Don’t forget to include additional phone calls and meetings in between revisions.) If you’re charging $200 for the project, and it ends up costing you six hours of your time, you’re looking at about $33/hour. That’s not bad for a beginning copywriter, but lousy for an experienced freelancer. Think about the higher-paying jobs you’re missing because you couldn’t pass this one up.
  • Is this assignment going to lead to more work? In the case of Client #2, that was a one-shot deal. In hindsight if I had walked away from it, I would have lost nothing but that single clip of copy. It was obvious that he wasn’t interested in hiring me for future work, and I had the sense that he wasn’t about to make any referrals, either. If the pay isn’t that great but you stand a good chance of getting lots more work in the future — either from the same client or through referrals — it might be worth the discount rate. Otherwise, you might not want to bother.
  • Is this person someone I want to work with? Client #2 was actually a decent guy, and I didn’t mind working with him if we were to just go with personality alone. However, I knew that he didn’t respect my work or the efforts I’d put into the assignment. I had a feeling that that was going to happen the moment I walked in the door for the first time, but I suppressed that intuition for the sake of just doing the job. If I had to do it again, though, I would have declined the assignment. My work and my skills are far too valuable to waste on someone who isn’t going to appreciate them. I can bring a lot to the table and can really help a businessperson transform their communication and marketing plans, but I need to know that I’m being brought in as a partner whose work will be seriously considered, not as a hack whose output isn’t worth the paper on which it’s written.
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