Career Advice

How to Become a Client Mindreader in 6 Steps

By Anne Miller September 26th, 2018

Ah, the dream—when a client or an editor becomes such a fan of your work that they hire you again and again. Contracts are signed, bills are paid, careers are established. Thing is, it takes a particular set of skills to keep your clients coming back for more. Anyone can sell a story once. How do you make yourself indispensable?

As a managing editor at Contently and long-time freelance writer, I’ve straddled both sides of the divide for years. I sold my first article at 19, for $50, and proceeded to sell another three to the same newspaper. Since then, I’ve learned to work one key element into every lasting professional relationship: empathy.

As a journalist you learn to mesh your own voice with the sensibilities of the publication. As a marketing writer, you take that one step further, thinking like your client, mastering their voice, and solving their problems. This behavior builds trust, which opens up opportunities for steady, long-term relationships.

Here’s how I give my client what they need, sometimes before they even know they need it.

1. Listen

Put yourself in the client’s shoes. Consider what it’s like to do their job and where problems might arise. Some of these problems you can solve. Maybe they want more content but don’t have a big budget. Maybe they want to do a print magazine but don’t know how. Or maybe they’re overworked and need someone to write bylines without a lot of oversight.

As a Contently editor, I’ll often tell clients, “I’m here for whatever you need.” It’s not about always being on call 24/7; it’s about doing what you can to create as much value as possible.

2. Ask questions

If you can’t find their pain points, ask. Ask about their dream projects, and what they look for in freelancers. Maybe they want someone who can write more technically. Maybe they want more someone who can take their brand in a new direction. Maybe they can’t articulate what they want. Point is, if you’re going solve their problems, you need to make sure the client understands what the problems are in the first place.

If you’re stuck here, a good place to start could be to clarify what the client doesn’t like. Reach out with content examples from comparable brands and publishers, and ask for your client’s opinion. I’ve never had a client tell me I ask too many intro questions. Most people will like that you’re trying to understand them in order to minimize future edits.

3. Don’t waste time

They don’t want to know about your dog park escapades. They don’t want an extra 200 words “just in case you want an alternate ending.” I’ve had writers do this to me. I’m paying you, the writer, for your expertise and judgment. I trust you. Don’t add to my plate. Once you start writing, avoid the steady drip of emails—is this source okay? Could this angle work? Where is the style guide again? Your goal is to be a problem-solver, not a problem.

4. Think beyond email

Nuance gets lost over the internet transom. It’s too easy to type too fast and hit send before thinking. Without the right inflection or tone, phrases can sound completely different than intended, and the forced pauses of an email exchange can lead to more problems.

As a managing editor, I’ll often facilitate calls between my clients and my writers so there’s time to ask plenty of questions. These calls usually clear up any misconceptions. As a result, clients appreciate the higher quality of pitches, and writers appreciate when more of their ideas get accepted. As a writer, if I notice more edits or fewer accepted pitches from a client, I would suggest a call to get us back on track.

5. Respect their budget

I had one client with a small budget but large aspirations. He set out to publish a lot of content, so after I took a look at the situation, I suggested that he focus on creating fewer posts that were each slightly longer than we originally planned. That way he could space them out. My client could even divvy up each article into two parts if he wanted. I always have an hourly rate in my mind, so as long as I can make sure the work pays, the scheduling can be flexible. Ultimately, the client appreciated how I solved his problem while respecting his budget.

Remember that content marketing is a business. If articles aren’t in some way speaking to a company’s objectives, assignments will dry up. Writers should absolutely advocate for themselves—don’t let anyone lowball your work. At the same time, be reasonable. A small business that offers $100 a blog post just doesn’t have $400 more to give you. But if you can help them accomplish what they need, they’ll take you along as they grow.

6. Be nice

Making someone feel good when talking to you doesn’t take much effort. Understand that suggestions and edits aren’t personal. As an editor, I respect a writer who tells me I’m wrong about a fact and backs up their assertions. I sometimes work with writers who have a much greater knowledge of the stock market than I do, so I depend on them to speak up.

In the marketing world, brands have specific styles, and legal departments have their own rules. A writer who constantly pushes against those parameters will eventually stop getting work. I won’t return to the writer who tells me that I’m wrong about voice choice, refuses to change a few words at the client’s request, and publicly complains about a client’s process (all of which I’ve seen).

Your reputation is about more than just talent. If you solve problems and come across as a respectful professional, clients will see you as a valuable and trusted partner—and maybe even a little bit of a mindreader.

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