If you’re a new or aspiring copywriter or marketing consultant (or any professional service provider, for that matter), here’s one important tip:
Don’t be cheap.
I know, sounds simple. But too many beginning copywriters and consultants believe that offering cheap rates will get them more business.
I’m not saying that it doesn’t. Of course, offering low rates and discounts is one way to increase your portfolio, but even then I don’t recommend it. There are other ways around this while offering competitive rates or even higher.
For one, focusing on a specialty or a niche is one way to differentiate yourself, and it gives you some leverage to price your services higher. If you’re a copywriter who specializes in, say, flooring companies, you will be able to command higher fees within that market — and get paid them, too.
But if you lowball your rates, you will not get as much business as you think you’ll get. It will hurt you in the long term, and then you will have to work magnitudes more, or the business you generate is the kind of business you don’t want.
Instead, remember this important rule…
Cheap copywriters attract cheap clients. And by cheap clients, we’re talking about three types:
- Clients who pay the least;
- Clients who demand the most;
- Clients who do both.
If you lowball your rates to attract clients, you are also putting yourself behind the eight ball. Because, typically, cheap clients will also be demanding ones. They will wonder what else can they get for free or cheap, and will demand heaven and earth for it. They will become pain-in-the-anatomy clients.
Remember Sanborn’s Maxim:
“The customers who are willing to pay you the least will always demand the most”.Mark Sanborn
Plus, dealing with exasperating clients is only the beginning. By lowering your rates, you also are sending signals out in the marketplace that you’re not in demand, that you don’t have confidence in what you offer, or that you’re perfect for other penny-pinching, attention-sucking vampires who can’t afford your even low fee.
Based on my personal experience, I would even go as far as to say that those clients who want cheap work will have money issues. I don’t mean they have an inability to pay or they’re broke (although, that’s possible). What I mean is that they have negative ethos around money, which will pervade every other aspect of your work. For example:
- They have scarcity mindsets, and therefore they won’t listen to you or value your work;
- They have created poor products or offer poor services, which might be difficult to market and sell for them;
- Or they have small budgets or are less willing to invest in implementing the work you deliver, which will lead them to conclude it’s your fault.
A word to the wise: if a client attempts to negotiate for lower rates, that’s fine. You can work around that and even avoid it if you play your cards right. The key is to ask for something in return, which adds quantifiable value equal to the discount — whether it’s payment in advance, removal of options, reduction in revisions, longer timeframe for delivery, etc.
But if they’re looking for “cheap copy” right away, before you priced the project, that should be a red flag right there. I’m not saying it’s true in all cases. There are some genuinely great clients out there who can’t afford the average fees some copywriters and consultants charge, let alone the outrageous ones those of a higher caliber charge.
If they do have a product that’s well-researched and in demand, and the product is still not selling for whatever reason, then likely it’s because they have either a poorly defined market or a poorly targeted one.
(If that’s the case, then you’ve just placed yourself at the mercy of a poor marketer who will require extra hand-holding, and their copy will demand critical marketing direction from you — beyond the work for which you were commissioned, and for the same low rate.)
But it’s a red flag nonetheless.
Red flags shouldn’t sway you from choosing to work with the client. But they should prompt you to dig a little deeper and become a little more discriminate. If you do a little digging, you may discover that they are demanding, excessively frugal, and fussy.
Therefore, chances are high that they will be problem clients, even abusive clients. Just the perfect kind of client you don’t want.
Beyond the extra work (for no extra pay) you will have on your plate, their persnicketiness might be a sign that they are prone to micro-management or self-sabotage, such as, among many examples, modifying your copy before testing it and then blaming you for the failure, even demanding a refund in some cases.
(It has happened to me more times than I care to count.)
Second, your discount will come at a greater cost. Not just the cost from the lower margins and loss in profits, and not just the exceeding demands and expectations or a lowball-seeking client, but also opportunity costs.
These vampires will be sucking precious time away from you — time you could have invested in working with other, higher-paying clients, or at least from marketing yourself to attract better clients who are both able and willing to pay your higher fee.
Let me be a bit more specific.
If you’re a new copywriter or marketing consultant, and you want to be cheap for fear of not getting any business, three major problems tend to crop up:
1) You attract poor clients.
By poor clients I mean both poor clients who can’t afford your work, as well as poor quality clients who are not a good fit for you, and they are going to be more demanding and troublesome than not.
2) You waste your resources.
Cheap clients are demanding clients. Even though they paid less, they will demand even more. They will cause you to waste time, energy, and money working for them when your time could have been better spent on marketing for, and projects by, other, better, more value-interested clients.
3) You reduce your value.
You will lower the perceived value in their services, even if the work you deliver is good. You will lose prospective clients who don’t want someone cheap — good clients who would have easily paid what your work’s worth.
Fees set too low will communicate that your deliverables are equally cheap — or, worse still, that they mustn’t be in demand and have trouble getting work. Low rates are red flags, but this time for potential “good” clients, too.
Now, after I originally published this article, someone riposted with the following negative albeit insightful comment:
Your concern about the effect on your reputation for accepting a low rate is silly. How are your clients going to know what you are being paid and who your other clients are unless you tell them?
Other than a high-priced copywriter who negotiates or discounts after the fact, tell me how many “cheap” copywriters keep their fees — and their portfolio of past clients — a secret? Their low fee is the main selling point in their marketing.
Not only that, but referrals and reputation are the lifeblood of many freelance professionals. By giving discounts or giving into concessions, the referrals and word-of-mouth advertising you generate will be primarily focused on, you guessed it, the fact that you offer discounts.
But I digress.
Let me clarify the point I made about reputation (more specifically, perceived value). If I told you I have a brand-new BMW for sale and it’s only $500, would you think something’s wrong with it? Of course, you would. In fact, you might even think it’s stolen or it’s a lemon.
Copywriters or consultants who underbid do get some traction, particularly inexperienced or less-than-skilled freelancers who cannot get work otherwise. That’s fine. If they lack a track record, have no reputation, and want to establish themselves in their market, it’s not a bad option.
But remember that it’s only one option, and there are many more and better options out there.
But in general, cheap copywriters are like that BMW for $500: to potential clients, either the copy is a lemon or it’s stolen. (You wouldn’t believe how many copywriters I have caught copying my salesletters, word for word, sadly.)
Does that mean cheap copywriters are all thieves and do shoddy work? Not at all. Like the $500 BMW, you just might stumble onto a heck of a deal. But that, I’m afraid, is exceedingly rare.
Setting fees a little higher gives you some negotiation leverage. For beginning and aspiring copywriters, start low if you have to. But to retain or heighten the perceived value in your services, it’s better to offer moderate fees and negotiate afterwards. The concession might be a cut in price, but it might be a lot smaller than originally anticipated.
Plus, by asking for something in exchange for making the concession, their fee is expressed in forms other than just money. Whether it’s in the form of a referral, a testimonial letter, a bartering arrangement, a chance to gain feedback they can tout in their promotions, etc, asking for something in exchange for lowering the price does three things:
- It retains or heightens the perceived value in the copywriter, even if they end up charging a lower fee. Because the client is still paying for it through other means.
- It stops the grinding away process. A concession has value. Rather than offering a low rate right off the bat, offering a discount after they asked for one but in exchange for some concession on the part of the client adds a price tag to each demand.
- It increases the perceived value in the service, too. Because clients don’t think they got a cheap copywriter writing cheap copy, they think they’re getting a deal from an otherwise expensive one.
Asking for a testimonial or referral after finishing the project is often too late. It will be harder to obtain because, in the mind of the client, the service is delivered and paid for, and now the copywriter is asking for a concession from the client without making one in return.
(If they agree, they will likely make you pay or work for it. They will ask for extras, negotiate any balances due, or expect a deeper discount on the next job. It creates a nasty precedent and undue expectations.)
If you’re still unsure, here’s a tip: start low but offer the most basic services. In other words, tell them you will write only plain-text copy. No layout suggestions, no formatting, no revisions, no consultations, no marketing direction. If they ask for more, put a price tag on each individual “extra,” and add it to your fee.
Eventually, as you get busier and more confident, you might include these previous extras as part of the main deliverable but charge more overall.
Another benefit of doing this is, if they try to negotiate afterwards, you have itemized your service into smaller segments, each with its own price tag, allowing you to remove bits and pieces as a means of lowering the rate. That way, you’re not discounting at all but rather selling a reduced package.
Discounts always devalue. But often, they do so indirectly. They might land a few quick sales, but the negative effects are longer lasting.
The moment you offer a discount, you have just informed your clients discounts are possible when buying from you. Either your market will start to expect it, or you will only attract clients looking for discounts and deals. They may not vocalize that they do expect it, but subconsciously they will pass on any offer in the hope of a future discount.
Which is why, after you offer a discount, sales typically flatten.
Clients will never buy from you again unless you offer another discount. Sure, they might send you referrals. But that’s even worse. Because, what do you think they will tell others? You guessed it. That you offer discounts.
Discounts will also create undue expectations.
If they pay full price in the future, they will demand more, expecting something in exchange for paying full price. Because, in their minds, you’re capable of selling for less. So they will expect that you should offer more. They will ask for other concessions, such as extras, scope creep, pro bono work, more guarantees, etc.
They will also micronanage your work either out of resentment for having to pay full price or out of fear they’re not getting “their money’s worth.”
But here’s the #1 drawback from offering discounts. It conveys the negative meta-message that you lack confidence. What you’re saying to your client is that you don’t believe what you’re trying to sell is worth the full price, or that you don’t stand behind it. In turn, the client will lose confidence in you, even if only subconsciously.
If you discount, you are only discounting yourself.
Ultimately, look at it this way: do you want 100 cheap clients who will demand all of your time? Or do you want 10 good clients, paying you the same income, and demanding only a fraction of your time?