How saying “No” — and meaning it — can get you the job in the end

January 21, 2010 •

Monique Choy and Angus Gordon are great copywriters. I often refer prospects to them. Like yesterday…

I got a call from a gentleman — let’s call him John — who wanted 6 pages of copy. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the ins and outs of the job, and I also offered some advice on things like usability and SEO. But in the end, my estimate ($3,690) was a little rich for him, and he asked me why so much? (I’m sure you already know the answers to this…)

I’m busy. If I offer a discount to win the job:

  1. I’ll simply end up turning away more lucrative work;
  2. John will probably undervalue my work; and
  3. John will assume there was no good reason for my rates to be high, in the first place.

Sure, I could offer a reduced price in return for a reduced scope, but in reality, there’s never much movement in scope on a copywriting project. John wants a certain number of pages written, and he wants them written well. I can’t negotiate on volume or quality, so what can I negotiate on?

As it happens, John has a good business head on his shoulders; he respected and accepted my explanation, and went on to ask if, perhaps, he should have the copy written by a less expensive copywriter.

I said yes — he SHOULD engage a less expensive copywriter. Simple as that. No umm-ing and arr-ing. No, “Well, you could, but you have to think of the real cost associated with those lower fees…” I simply said “yes, a less expensive copywriter is probably exactly what you need.” (As you writers know, low fees (within reason) are no more accurate an indication of poor quality than high fees are of good quality. There’s every chance John would get a good result from a ‘cheaper’ copywriter. Especially one I recommend.)


So I gave him the names and phone numbers of Monique and Angus, and we parted ways.

I didn’t give it a second thought until this morning, when I dragged my summer-cold-ridden backside into the office, and discovered an email from John in my inbox (sent last night). Here’s how he started it:

“Thanks for your time today. I have left a message with Monique Choy but after explaining our conversation to my wife, and showing her your website, she is now adamant that we should use you.”

Funnily enough, although this was unexpected, it wasn’t surprising. I’d say this sort of thing happens about once every couple of months.

Now before I continue, I need to make something important very clear: John didn’t come back to me after discovering he didn’t like Monique and Angus, or after checking out their portfolios and finding he wasn’t a fan. He didn’t even get that far. (And I have every confidence that WOULDN’T have happened anyway. As I said above, they’re both great copywriters, and they also happen to be very nice, genuine people.) He came back for a very different reason.

John and his wife were persuaded to return by the fact that I said “no” in the first place. By the fact that I stood by my rates. And by the fact that I had the good-will and honesty to refer them to two excellent copywriters, at the expense of a job I could probably have won (had I decided to try).

So now everyone wins. I get to work with a client who appreciates my value. And my client gets the job done by someone he respects and trusts.

This may seem an unlikely sort of story, but it honestly does happen — in one way or another — fairly regularly. And the moral is… well… you know what the moral is.

Now. I’m busy, and I can’t, for the life of me, think of a quick and easy way to conclude this post. So I’m gonna end it right here and get back to work. You should do the same. (Move along, move along. Nothing more to see here!)

Feel free to comment...
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Justin Roberts wrote on January 21st, 2010

Nice post Glenn. We have experienced the same thing in the web development industry. The number one rule is never compromise the quality of your work. We have actually had businesses hold off on their project until they can afford our services which is a great confidence boost. We learnt the hard way when we first went out into business and wanted to win every contract even if it meant reducing our costs. The result was we ended up overworked, underpayed and had no time to focus on getting the well paying clients in. Justin - Big Click Studios

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Nick Bowditch wrote on January 21st, 2010

Gday Glenn, Nice post mate. I know Justin and Dean from Big Click Studios well and I think we are all in a pretty similar boat. Web design, copywriting, travel - these are all businesses in which we have the opportunity to discount the cost of our work if we wanted to. And I used to. A lot. However, I once heard a smart guy at a small business say, "someone has to be the most expensive and it might as well be you". And, while I am certainly not the most expensive, I pretty much never give someone the cheapest quote for their travel plans. Importantly, now I don't want to, for one very simple reason: if someone is looking for the absolute cheapest way to get somewhere and the cheapest room in the cheapest (but nicest of course) hotel when they are there, then they are not someone who will ever come back to me as a repeat customer. In short, they are wasting my time - not to mention undervaluing (spelling) my work and my time. I refer them straight to Flight Centre and wish them well. We should all value ourselves and our professional worth more highly - particularly those of us who own our own small business and/or work from home. Nick Nick Bowditch Travel - Australia's Family Travel Expert

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Sean Lyden wrote on January 21st, 2010

Glenn, Thank you for sharing your story on this. It inspires writers to respect themselves, which attracts respect -- and much deserved higher pay -- from clients. When you're really good at your craft and are able to deliver "spot-on" copy for the client, you can charge more and still be bargain. You're saving clients the grief (and buyer's remorse) for having to dealing with copy they hate, while creating copy that generates sales, new leads, etc. Sean Lyden's Lab for Copywriters

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Pamela Wilson wrote on January 21st, 2010

Time and time again, my writing colleagues and I have this discussion. It goes a little like this: 'Oh, I just hate talking about money. Don't you?' 'Yep. I don't bring it up. I wait until they do.' 'Oh, I know, me too.' Your post is spot-on and it is how we should all be, whether we are copywriters, travel writers, freelancers, whatever. Unfortunately, because so many people undervalue the industry we are in, we sometimes undervalue ourselves too. Sigh.

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Karri Flatla wrote on February 3rd, 2010

I have nothing to add to your brilliant insight as a business person, Glenn. Seriously. Well, except to please keep sharing :)

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Peter Wise wrote on March 18th, 2010

As usual, another excellent post Glenn. Saying no is often the way to go. And I like the idea of actively recommending someone else like that.

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