Business skills that help you land content clients

So you’ve taken a boatload of AWAI courses and other copywriter training programs.

You’re a raving fan of Copyblogger and Copy Hackers.

You can spot an en-dash where an em-dash should be.

You can write a blog post. An e-book isn’t a completely daunting task. An infographic might be outside your comfort zone, but you’re open to trying it if you’ve got a willing client.

But you’re still not making a real living writing marketing content for clients.

You’re a great writer.

You’re probably just missing a few key business skills.

This is what it takes to achieve the outcome of having a successful career as a highly sought-after content writer: business skills.

In this post, I’m going to outline some of the most important business skills I’ve learned in my 15+ years as a copywriter and content writer.

These skills are absolutely critical to you being taken seriously as a content writer – respected and paid what you’re worth.

I had to learn these skills the hard way. No one sat me down and taught them to me. Which is such a shame, because they made more of a difference to my career than all of those writing classes combined.

Ready? Here they are. The most important business skills you need to be a successful freelance content writer:

Sales Skills

In my last post, I talked a lot about sales conversations. I warned you of the five mistakes most writers make during these dialogues, and gave you some pointers on how to avoid those mistakes.

I’m bringing this up again here because this is such a challenging topic for most freelancers. It deserves some extra attention.

First, take to heart my advice about listening. Really. Seriously. Your ears very well may be your best sales tools.

When you’re on the phone with a prospective client, let them talk. Then respond to what they say. Don’t be so focused on the next thing you want to say that you are just waiting for them to get done talking. Listen. Take notes. Let them finish talking. When they stop talking, count to 5 – I know this is hard, but just do it! – before you respond in any way.

That uncomfortable silence is SO hard.

It never gets easier. I’m sorry to tell you that.

But there is so much power in the silence.

You give the client the opportunity to share more insights with you.

And you maintain your authority.

Jumping into the gaps in conversation with one contrived comment or question (or even mm-hmm of agreement!) after another makes you come across as a desperate newbie.

Let the silence be. Just for five seconds.

Then respond to what the client just said. Don’t just jump to the next question on your list. Build on what the client is talking about to make it a two-way conversation.

You’ll be amazed at how the conversation changes from “client interviewing writer” to “writer getting to know client and assessing project to ascertain if it’s a good fit.”

My second piece of advice is to qualify the client before you get on the phone – and then again during your conversation.

You’ll get a lot of emails asking what you charge for X, Y or Z. Get comfortable lobbing that ball back into the client’s court. Ask for more details. Ask about the specifics of the project, and ask them what their budget is.

I know. Shocking!

Does that feel rude to you? It sure did to me when I first started doing it. But I had heard from my very successful copywriter friends that the budget question was an important one to ask – so I gave it a go.

It scared off a lot of people.

And some people wrote back with budgets that were … well … insane. Like $5/hour insane.

Do you know what the result of that was?

I stopped wasting time on the phone with clients who would never hire me in the first place – or clients who would be a terrible fit for me and cause me nothing but stress.

The people who answered the budget question easily, and who shared a reasonable budget number — they hired me more often than not, and were a pleasure to work with.

Cue the angels singing and the clouds parting. Ahhh!

If they push back and ask you for your rate again, you can respond with something like, “For projects like the one you’re describing, I have charged anywhere from $X on the low end to $Y on the high end. There are many factors involved in how I determine the rate for each project. If that rate range works with your budget, I’d love to get more information from you so I can give you a meaningful quote.”

And then if they don’t run for the hills, you get them on the phone and qualify them again.

Ask them the hard questions. Ask them if they’ve ever worked with a writer before, and if so, how that experience went. Ask them detailed questions about their project. Ask them again about their budget, if they haven’t shared that with you yet. Ask about their customers. Ask about their business goals.

Make sure you feel good about the project and the client before you ever offer to put together a proposal. If you’ve got a bad feeling, listen to your instincts and let them know you don’t think you’re a good fit for what they need. There’s no shame in that (and it’ll save you both a lot of frustration).

Finally, tell them what your process is for working with you, and what your payment policies are. Only after they’ve affirmed that your process and payment policies work for them (or you’ve found a compromise that works for you) do you offer to put together a proposal.

Strategy Skills

What’s working in content marketing today? What’s getting results for businesses? Is long-form content dead? (Hint: NO.) Does social media do anything for content promotion anymore? Should your client create an e-book or a blog? What topic should that content be about? What’s this “interactive content” thing?

There is so much more to content creation than writing.

If you want to while away your hours writing $25 blog posts, you can stop reading right now.

If you’d rather make a successful career and business out of writing content for clients, you’ve got to get a handle on the strategy side of things.

Learn the different mediums (a.k.a. content types), and understand when they work best and with what audiences.

Learn how to develop topics that the target audience will actually engage with.

And learn how to speak confidently on these subjects with your clients.

At the end of this post, you’ll find out exactly where to learn these things. So keep reading.

Coaching Skills

Your client hired you because you are an expert at writing content.

He didn’t hire you to write poetry. He hired you to write content that does a job. Content that brings in more sales, boosts the company’s credibility, grows trust with the target audience, or drives traffic to the website.

It’s critical that you step up as that expert if you plan to have a long and successful career as a freelance content writer.

It’s critical that you learn how to coach your client to make wise decisions about his content creation and marketing.

So do your due diligence. Keep up on marketing trends, tactics and strategies. Dig into what’s working and what’s not so you can wisely advise your client.

If you would rather someone tell you what to do – tell you what to write about, what medium to use, when to publish and how the content will be promoted – you might consider getting a regular ol’ job.

If you want to be a highly sought-after expert content writer, you’ve got to know content marketing beyond the writing skills involved, and coach your client to get the best results. He might not always take your advice – but bringing ideas to the table will increase your value a hundred fold, and you’ll have a much better chance of helping your client reach his business goals with the outstanding content you’re writing for him.

Research Skills

If you’re already writing content, you already know how important research skills are. You need to learn about every subject you’re writing on.

Research skills are important to the client relationship, too.

You’ll research your client’s business to deeply understand her target audience and her business goals.

You’ll research your client’s competitors to deeply understand where her business fits in the market – and where it stands out.

You’ll research your client’s customers – beyond what she tells you about them. You’ll dig into survey data, absorb buyer personas, and spend time where the target audience is hanging out online to “observe them in the wild.”

And something many copywriters don’t think about – which kills me – is researching original sources. When you find an outstanding statistic or exciting piece of data, your research skills come into play as you find the original source for those numbers. A highly sought-after content writer never uses data that can’t be attributed to an original source – because a highly sought-after content writer knows that the client’s credibility is on the line.

Project Management and Time Management Skills

I’m not going to talk about the Pomodoro technique, here, or why I’m so obsessed with Asana. Rather, I want to drive home the importance of managing project schedules.

A successful content writer is often juggling multiple projects at the same time. Being able to see each individual project through to completion while keeping all your current projects on schedule is not something that’s often taught in writing classes.

1. Managing your multi-project schedule.

Working on multiple projects in a single month or week requires quite a bit of balancing. Don’t just consider writing time when you’re planning out your project schedule, however. Build in time for:

  • Meetings (I strongly suggest using an online meeting scheduler like Calendly so you can specify which days/times you want to be open for meetings, and let people schedule their time with you without email back-and-forth)
  • Administrative activities such as checking your email and sending out invoices
  • Project research and editing
  • Social activities such as business groups and lunch dates with friends
  • Family time and vacations

Also, consider your own energy patterns. Are you most productive in the morning? Schedule your writing work for that time. Do you start to zone out around 4 pm? Handle mindless tasks such as clearing out your inbox at the end of your workday.

Personally, I know I can write a high-quality long-form blog post in one day if I really need/want to – but it’s extremely taxing to do so. It works better with my energy level and focus if I ease into my workday by answering email and catching up on my communities and social media first thing. Then I write feverishly until lunch, and once again ease back into my work after lunch by checking in on email and my communities before diving back into the heavy brain-work of researching and/or writing. Around 4 pm, my cognitive energy for writing is completely spent, so I reach a stopping point with my writing, and I move on to read my email newsletters and plan out my tasks for the next day.

I also know that I have a hard time focusing on client work on Mondays and Fridays, but those days work great for my own business activities (like writing blogs and marketing emails, updating the entries in my bookkeeping software, creating content for opt-in incentives, and writing sales pages for my upcoming programs).

I take all of that into account when I plan out my project schedule for the week and the month.

2. Managing an individual project schedule.

Managing an individual project is a different beast. When you’re working with your client, you need to consider all the moving pieces on his side as well as your own.

  • Will he be sending you any background material? When can you expect that?
  • Is there a designer and/or developer involved in the project? What do they need from you and when? (This is actually one of the reasons I love content writing over website copywriting, actually. I rarely have to wait on a designer or developer to do their part before I begin writing!)
  • Don’t forget to leave time for your client to review your work and send you feedback, and leave time for you to do the revisions as well.

Work out a project schedule with your client that includes milestones not just for deliverables, but for activities such as research and editing.

I benefited so much from being trained as a project manager at a small creative agency early in my career. If you don’t have project management expertise already, I strongly suggest you begin studying those practices. The Project Management Institute is a great place to start.

A Content Writing Career Involves So Much More Than Writing

As a content writer, your business skills (or lack thereof) tell a story to prospective clients – as much as your writing skills do.

Taking copywriting courses is a great start. But when it comes to landing clients, working through projects with them, and getting results for them, your business skills come into play in a big way.


PS — Have you signed up for the free Persuasive Portfolios email course yet?


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