Sometimes we forget that doctors, accountants, veterinary services, private hospitals, engineers and tyre shops are all businesses. They all live or die by selling stuff. Sometimes what they sell is a product, or their time, or the use of their facilities, such as when you use their wheel balancer or x-ray machine.

These local businesses rely on the skills of freelance writers to create newspaper articles, editorial features and newsletters. But they all share the same problems.   

  • They are too busy ‘doing it’ to write about what they do.
  • Most of them don’t have proper writing skills anyway.
  • Most don’t know they need to ‘sell themselves as experts’.

There’s one small problem for you:  most small businesses in your community will not admit to hiring writers. Which means, when you go looking for work as a paid writer, their automatic answer is “No. We have no need for you.” So how do freelance writers get steady, repeat work from local businesses?

The answer is simple. You don’t attempt to sell your services. You get work by asking questions! Here’s how you can get all the work you can handle as a writer for local businesses. And earn an income as an expert yourself.

Secret #1: Don’t ask for freelance work directly. Instead, ask questions.

One common mistake novice writers make is to ask small businesses if there’s freelance writing work available. Or if they have use for a freelance copywriter.  This will only get you a “no”. According to Paul Murray, who writes for small businesses in his area, “…most small and home-based businesses don’t actively seek freelance  writers. They never have freelance work to hand out.” According to Murray, the remedy is simple. “Asking for freelance writing work doesn’t work — instead, you must create a need for what you do in the customer’s mind.”

Secret #2: The best selling strategy to use.

Major companies, manufacturers and associations usually go straight to their ad agencies when they want freelance writing work done. They know exactly what they need. They recognise that something needs explaining, describing, selling.

But when you try to sell your writing skills to small businesses, the technique has to be different. Clients will never knock at your door asking you to do freelance writing work. No matter how good you are. Instead, you must knock at their door and tell them WHAT THEY NEED. Most small businesses rely on someone in the office to produce their newsletters and brochures and advertorials.  Or worse, the owner of the business writes the copy himself – to save money. This usually has devastatingly bad results. Their print materials contain embarrassing spelling or grammatical errors. Worse, boring copy that projects a negative image. This can kill a business.

Before you approach a local business, do your homework. You need to create a NEED for your services.

The best way to create a need for freelance work,” says Murray, “is to look for missing print materials many businesses have but this particular business doesn’t have.” For instance, Murray discovered (by asking for one!) that his local veterinary hospital didn’t have a regular client newsletter. Why not? Because the owner didn’t understand how his vet hospital could benefit from having one. “It wasn’t because the owner couldn’t afford a freelance writer,” says Murray, “it was because he didn’t know how a newsletter could positively contribute to his business. He’d never thought about it.”

Murray’s selling strategy was simple: he showed the owner some interesting sample newsletters he’d collected. He explained how hiring him to write and produce a monthly newsletter would convert initial customers into being repeat clients, bring in more referrals, sell more products such as flea control and sprays through customer education, and enhance the hospital’s image in the community.

The bottom line, says Murray, “is the newsletter can boost the hospital’s sales … and that’s what the owner really wants to hear.”

Once the owner realised he needed to hire a freelance journalist / writer to write and produce a regular newsletter (and many other types of promotional and  educational material), Murray got the job. Most companies want someone to do this work, once they think through the benefits!

Remember, you have a huge advantage as a writer seeking freelance work in your local community: you’re familiar with the businesses around you. Because you are not buried in their nitty gritty work, you have a clear sense of their logical needs. Often they don’t. Once you explain the business’s needs, you can create a strategy to satisfy them. … which can lead to regular work.

Secret #3: Never sell your services — always sell solutions.

“I know how to boost your sales” is the magic phrase all small business owners want to hear when you speak one-to-one with the owner, or read in your sales letter. They don’t care whether you write better copy than another writer. They don’t care whether you have an impressive client list. If you can help them boost THEIR sales, they’ll hire you.

A common mistake among novices is to pitch yourself as a freelance writer offering journalism or copywriting services. According to Murray, “This is the reason why small businesses don’t hire freelance copywriters. They don’t just want someone who can write fancy words. They want a writer who can write copy that increases sales. End of story.”

If you write a client’s newsletter, you must create content which will help boost your client’s sales – with measurable numbers. You must learn how writing a client’s newsletter can benefit the client’s business in other ways. Eg, can what you write make the telephone ring, increase referrals, turn first-time customers into repeat clients, increase particular products’ sales etc?

Tip: Avoid promising wishy-washy improvements like “This newsletter / brochure / report etc will improve your image in the community.” How can you prove that, unless there is measuring research in place?

When Murray’s local veterinary hospital didn’t have a newsletter, he saw this as a potential problem the owner did not fully realise. OK, what was the problem? Murray asked ten logical / potential customers and seven didn’t know about the vet hospital. So without a newsletter, the hospital was losing sales!

Murray offered his solution:  he could produce an interesting newsletter as a tangible way to raise awareness, thus boost sales, project a positive image, invite referrals and, through client education, sell more products. Murray then offered himself as a writer with the full package solution.

Tip: This raises something all freelance writers must learn: you are in business to sell solutions to other people’s problems — not your writing services. Clients hire writers if they think they can solve their problems, whatever they are.

This one is not rocket science: sales, whether low or high, are always a problem — since sales can always be increased. Clients who run small businesses are all the same: they rely on sales as a major emotional concern. When sales go up, they’re happy. When sales go down, they get dejected and start looking for a solution. Maybe you are the solution? Actually, they want you to be their saviour. That’s a good start.

Secret #4: You must become part of their business budget.

Small businesses have annual budgets they abide by. Murray says, “Their budgets are often small and unyielding … and their current budget doesn’t include you — the freelance writer.”

Do you (yet) have the skills to convince a prospective client to find money in their budget for what you offer? This is an essential skill. Step one is identifying their problem/s, drafting a logical strategy, then presenting yourself as the person who can implement the solution/s. This means showing the decision-maker what you’ll do to achieve this happy outcome. Step by step. Explain how what you write will have an impact. That ‘this’ input produces ‘that’ output.

Stress that you’re a writer who knows how to boost their sales with your kind of informative, educational newsletters. You don’t just write pretty words.

Secret #5: Educate your client so you eliminate future money arguments.

Many small businesses are unfamiliar with how freelance writers work. They need to be schooled in some of the particulars. Believe me, clients hate surprises which cost more than they expected.

Tip: Take the initiative. Educate these small business owners about how you work, what they will get by hiring you, what you will deliver, what you charge and when you want payment.

Educating them eliminates any ambiguity about why the prospect hired you. And what they expect to pay. When an owner understands what you do and what role you play in helping his business flourish and grow, he’ll be more inclined to hire you, one project after another. That’s as far forward as you can reasonably expect to forecast.

Tip: Give serious thought to how you can create an educational element in your client’s newsletter or direct mail letter or promotional materials. Eg: you could include a Q&A section that will eliminate ambiguity as to how your client’s machine works. What amazing technology stands behind it. What is the key ‘WOW! factor’. Give readers something to tell their mates: “Hey, did you know that …” We call this added value.

Secret #6: Charge a project fee — not hourly rates.

If you tell small business owners that you charge $100 an hour, they’ll balk, shout, or simply look at you in disbelief. Yes, their lawyer charges a lot more than that, but he’s a lawyer, or dentist. They expect to pay their hourly rate. But not you. All you do is write words.

They’ll try to persuade you to charge considerably less — but every professional knows dropping your hourly rate to accommodate flea-market clients is bad business practice. They demand twice as much for half as much. Trust me.

Owners of small businesses are usually not familiar with standard pay rates for freelance writers and commercial copywriters. Instead, they will lump you in with typist rates. Ask them the hard question: “Do you want a writer who knows how to sell your products and services — or someone who just writes fancy words” says Murray. Your first job is to convince the owner you’re worth it.

Tip: My best advice is to skip over your hourly pay rate. Concentrate on what your role is. What you do.  Emphasize the fact that you’re a writer who knows how to help them boost sales.

To avoid having business owners gape skeptically at the hourly pay rate you want to earn is to charge project rates, instead of hourly rates. Small business owners are more accepting of a fixed project proposal. The reason is simple but paradoxical: hourly rates create a negative feeling because the client knows he will be paying you more if you work slowly on his newsletter. Whereas a fixed project fee assures the client he will be paying you a set amount and nothing more. He can write that into his budget. He can answer the question from colleagues “What’ll it cost?” with precision and finality.

Over the long term, charging project fees will be vastly more profitable than quoting an hourly rate. And then getting turned down.

Secret #7: Be responsible from concept to completion.

“Small business owners don’t want a writer who just writes a bunch of words,” says Murray. You’re not just a writer of newsletters, brochures, reports etc. You’ll be a creative business owner who knows how to produce newsletters, press releases, Powerpoint presentations, speeches etc from concept to completion.  This means you deliver the finished product.

Small business owners don’t have the time or knowledge to coordinate these projects themselves, and nor should they,” says Murray. “They’d rather have a single, reliable, capable person do everything and send them one invoice. Which they’ve already seen and agreed to pay. So there are no surprises.”

Think about this a moment: why approach a business looking for a few hours of freelance writing work, when you can deliver a complete, finished product, not a piece of the product. And you make a profit on all the other ingredients which make up that finished project.

Tip: Pairing off people with complementary skills is becoming commonplace. Freelancers are now teaming up with one another to deliver a more polished finished product for their clients.

Learning how to be a project coordinator (ie: a writer who manages projects from concept to completion) means you may spend more time on coordinating the total project, bringing all the parts together and less time on writing it. When you learn how to work swiftly, with a sure touch – and you will absolutely amaze yourself – you’ll never have to worry about being short of money ever again.

Tip: Start you own complementary skills file in which you keep a list of other freelancers, such as illustrators, graphic designers, photographers, printers, web site makers etc. When a small business client asks you to produce a newsletter, web site, catalogue, annual report or whatever, you can tap into your own database and begin to work with the freelancers most relevant for your current project. And whatever they charge, you add 15% as your margin.

Secret #8: Always meet the most senior person at the prospect company. Preferably the owner.

Writing and producing printed items for small businesses in your local community gives you an advantage downtown advertising agencies don’t have: you’re local. You’re quick. You can make your own decisions, right on the spot. You don’t have to ask a manager.

“Your marketing efforts,” advises Murray, “should be focused on establishing an initial meeting with one prospective new client each week to discuss how you can play a major role in boosting their sales. That much prospecting will keep you as busy as you want to be.” And if you want more money, you know exactly how to get it.

When Murray set up that first meeting with the owner of the veterinary hospital, his aim was to alert the owner to a “potential problem — the hospital didn’t have a newsletter which could effectively tell their story, generate referrals, turn first time customers into repeat clients, enhance the hospital’s image, and increase vet product sales by describing what protection animals need at this time. Murray sold himself as the writer who had a clear picture of the problem, the opportunity it represented and he knew how to deliver the solution. He got the job. He made a good profit.

“Always use the first meeting as a questioning session,” says Murray. “Your aim should be to find out the prospect’s most pressing needs, problems or opportunities (‘I need more sales’). Probing questions will uncover any secondary problems, or opportunities which no one is doing anything about.”

Tip: Even if you know the solution, don’t blurt it out at the first meeting. Firstly, it looks like you haven’t given their problem/s enough thought. Secondly, you need time to draft a proposal, and cost it. Bring your proposal back same time next day. 

By actively listening and asking questions, Murray discovered several hidden events developing at the vet hospital. For example, the hospital was about to add a new ICU (intensive care unit) but no one had told the local community. Secondly, a new echocardiogram room was being built. Thirdly, a new Web site was being produced. Once again, no one had thought to promote any of these new extensions.

Without an initial meeting with the owner, Murray never would have been aware of these events. Of course, Murray saw the opportunity to provide future writing and PR services to boost awareness of these exciting events. Plus some speech notes for the opening ceremony. Plus invitation letters. Plus ‘simple English’ explanations of what each facility offered. Plus …

The initial meeting has the greatest potential for establishing rapport and building a relationship with the prospective client. This increases your chances of getting more work in the future. Discover the client’s long term goals for the business.

These key points will make your initial meeting with a prospect more effective:

  1. Discuss how your writing can, essentially, boost his sales. Show the prospect how his business can benefit from a regular newsletter, new catalogue, better factory operations manuals etc. Explain any other services you’re equipped to provide, such as creating a web site. Also explain the disadvantages of not having these things.
  2. “Creating mental pictures is essential,” says Murray. “You want the prospect to know how much you share his vision … and what your contribution can be. You want him to want you to be an active participant in fulfilling his dreams, because you have ideas.”
  3. Show some examples of your work and explain what results you achieved for your other satisfied clients. Have these neatly presented in a tidy Portfolio.
  4. Have examples of what the prospect’s competitors are using. “I brought some newsletters other vet hospitals are using and I told the owner, ‘This is what your competitors are doing’,” says Murray. “When I alerted the owner about what his competitors were doing – and he wasn’t – I’d created a worrying picture in his mind that he wasn’t keeping up with his competition. He could see exactly where he was lagging behind.”

*Never give a quote. Always make a Proposal.

When you give a quote it is incumbent upon any prudent manager to … get a couple of opposition quotes to compare with yours. Then you get judged on price, and lowest price usually wins – regardless of quality and other intangibles. But when a girl gets proposed to, she either accepts, or not. There are no other players in the game. Keep it that way.

Secret #9: Proposals are your master tool. Use them to multiply your income.

All businesses, large and small, need them — but few managers ever ask for one because they don’t know how to.

If you can craft an effective proposal, “seven times out of ten you will get the work … including repeat projects from the same client,” says Murray. A proposal sets out the scope of a project, including what it will cost. If the benefits are well explained, somehow the money will be found to do it. Sometimes the money will come from a different budget fund. Do you mind where it comes from? No.

Murray began using proposals towards the end of his first year in business, once he realised why so many business owners were declining his ‘freelance writing service’ offers. “The prospects couldn’t see where I fitted in. Or what benefits I could bring to their businesses. Even at meetings, my words went in one ear and out the other. But once I started submitting well-crafted, written proposals I started getting the work.”

A proposal is a simple blueprint which describes what you will do to help that business:

  • tell their target audience what they are doing,
  • explain what their products or services offer,
  • increase their sales through customer education, or whatever.

Your proposal elucidates how you fit in as the ideas developer, words writer, photographer, web site designer, or whatever. The proposal lists exactly what you will provide, the benefits of your services, delivery dates and the fixed total cost.

Because Murray writes newsletters for various veterinary and dental practices, he now has his own ‘Newsletter Proposal’ template which he uses to get more newsletter projects. His newsletter proposal specifically outlines what his role is, the benefits of using a newsletter the way he writes them, and explains how hiring him to produce a monthly or quarterly newsletter can increase the client’s sales.

Consider this: proposals are a tangible business document that allows prospects to see, touch, and feel your creative thoughts and suggested ideas. “They continue to sell your ideas after the meeting. For instance, when my proposal is submitted to a finance committee to ratify the expenditure,” says Murray, “They are my words being discussed. Not someone’s lukewarm interpretation of what they think I said.”

Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to leave your proposal with the prospect so he can read and re-read it at his leisure. Don’t rush the slow deciders.

 “However,” Murray warns, “Don’t give away your secrets. Your proposal should explain which products will be explained to the public through magazine articles, press releases, brochures etc. Or by how much you’re aiming to increase sales. But don’t show how it’s going to be done. Don’t give the finely-detailed solutions and written copy in your proposal. Keep something back for after the wedding.”

When Murray discovered the opportunities developing at the veterinary hospital, he created and submitted his proposal. Essentially, it laid out in detail his plan for increasing the hospital’s sales by publicising the new ICU, echocardiogram room, and Web site. He described various forms of informational, educational and promotional materials he could produce, plus PR event and photo-op strategies.

“My proposal convinced the owner that increasing his budget so he could hire me to write and produce various educational, promotional materials would, before too long, increase his sales,” says Murray. That seemed to be the clincher.

Remember, the primary function of a proposal is to convince the business owner that he has nothing to lose by hiring you, and everything to gain.

Secret #10: Always deliver more than you promised.

Deliver it a day earlier than you promised. And come in a few dollars under the promised budget. Do this and you’ll stand out from the crowd. 

Report inspired by Brian Konradt. Reproduced for Educational Purposes.