The Copywriter's Crucible

Surviving the Vagaries of the Freelance Life

Should copywriters offer “sales” or “discounts” every now and then?

Posted by rachelwriter on October 20, 2009

Photo Courtesy: Flickr/quinn.anya

Perhaps it’s the state of the economy, or perhaps it’s just in the blood of small business owners in general, but… I’m starting to wonder if the only thing small companies care about is getting the job done as cheaply as possible. 

Small and solo biz prospects regularly approach me with the demand for a “very reasonable price” (read: cheap), “some kind of special deal” (read: very cheap), or a “significant discount” (read: very, very cheap). You know—because they’ve shaken my hand at a networking event once before and, therefore, feel entitled to a Friend and Family Discount or something. 

This got me wondering: should freelance copywriters offer special deals or discounts to their clients?  And, if so, when and how? 

For a short while, I offered a 10% discount to new clients on their first project, but, after crunching the numbers, I realized that I was actually losing money.  And to make matters worse, some PITA (pain-in-the-ass) clients got too used to the idea of getting 10% off, so they demanded it on every subsequent project—even though I explained to them that it was a one-time offer, only.

Then I started thinking about it some more.  Other professionals who offer professional services and charge professional rates offer their clients reduced rates on occasion.

My husband, for example, who’s a corporate attorney at large law firm, told me that even lawyers—yes, the ones who charge hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars per hour for their workgive discounted rates to select clients from time to time.  (Granted, the discount may only be something like 1.5%, but it’s still a discount!)

My CPA, for another example, charges $100/hour.  Yet, even she offers $20 coupons to her clients whenever they refer a new client to her.

And then there’s my mechanic (a swell guy, really).  He once charged me all of $0.00 to find and fix a problem that had been puzzling us both for weeks.  You can bet your bottom dollar that I’ve kept going back to him for whatever service my car needs.  His kindness cemented my feet in the repeat customer club.

So, I wonder: if all of these professionals offer special discounts and rates to their clients from time to time, would it be worth my while to do the same for mine?  And if so, why?  And how?  Or, would that be setting up a bad precedent and lead to the further devaluation of a copywriter’s skills?

I’d love to hear input from both writers and non-writers.  Please share your thoughts below!


23 Responses to “Should copywriters offer “sales” or “discounts” every now and then?”

  1. Jacqui Chew said

    I don’t believe in giving discounts for the sake of giving one; especially to new clients. Giving new clients a discount creates an expectation of future discounts. It also devalues your service. However, giving an existing client a price break or even a free round of edits for a referral is perceived differently by the client and has a different connotation. Doing so rewards your client for the referral and is less likely to devalue your service.

    • Jacqui: Thanks for your feedback. I think you make some excellent points–particularly about a client’s expectation of future discounts after having received a “freebie” one up front (I’ve had that experience before!). And, yes, whether discounts or special rates undervalue my service is a question I often ask myself–and wrestle with. It’s good to get the perspective of another creative freelance professional!

  2. Dawn said

    I work with primarily smaller clients and I understand how stressful things are financially right now for small businesses. That said, I, too, am trying to make a living and I have extensive training and experience in my field. I feel I have set my fees at a reasonable rate (a bargain really in this city).

    I do have a special rate that I offer to non-profits (half my regular rate) and I do offer a discount for multiple projects. In this economy, it might not be a bad idea to offer a discount to attract new clients, but you need to set the expectations clearly that this is a one-time offer. You also have to be prepared for the client to walk away and seek a new, perhaps less experienced, and less expensive writer if they don’t want to or can’t afford to pay the rate you’re asking.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts on this, Dawn. I agree: as small business owners, we, too, feel the pinch. And, perhaps for that reason, we empthasize (and sometimes sympathize) with other small business owners and feel like offering a discount is the compassionate thing to do. Yet, on the flip side, we need to make a profit if we’re to survive! So it can sometimes seem like a Catch-22.

  3. southwrite said

    You have to tread carefully when giving anyone a “discount.” A reduction in rate can very easily become the “full price” and it then is hard to get it back up again. Of course, if someone is giving you a lot of business and they’re good clients, you (as the attorney you mentioned) could give them a break as long as it’s not making the job unprofitable. While doing this one thing we really need to try to avoid is the impression that what we offer is a commodity. Too many people already view writing and related services as something to be purchased on cost alone.

    • Tread carefully, indeed! It sickens me to know that so many people consider writing a commodity. And, yes, perhaps offering discounted rates for the service can only perpetuate that misconception. I suppose the safest–and only–“discount” we should offer is one that rewards a good, loyal customer for his or her repeat business. The hardest part, sometimes, is having to tell a fellow small business owner that, no, sorry, you can’t “help him out just this once”–as much as you might feel sorry for him. Of course, business isn’t about compassion. It’s about business!

  4. Excellent question, Rachel!

    The answer is, we should give discounts if it will lead into more profits in the long term. For example, I’ve offered discounts to get previous but inactive clients to hire me again for new projects. I give discounts to clients when they hire me in the long term or for bulk projects. I give discounts to clients who have referred other clients to me.

    These clients make it unnecessary to market my services, which means big savings for me in terms of time, energy and even money. So in the long run, the 20-25% discounts I give them is well worth it.

    People love getting freebies and discounts, so it helps you build a lot of goodwill. That said, you need to make sure you’re not shortchanging yourself.


  5. Erik Wolf said

    I lived this question about 2 years ago… I thought that if you gave someone a good deal on the first project that they would be more likely to use you and more profitable business would follow. But honestly, it never works out. If you offer a discount or a friend price to a client the first time around, even though you are honest about your intentions in doing ths just to win his or her business, that client will always expect you to cut your rate. And why not? You gave them a good price to win their business, why shouldn’t you give them a good price to keep their business? In my experience, clients tend to feel a bit betrayed when you send them a an otherwise fair quote but without the “special” consideration you gave them the first time. It can be a relationship killer which is ironic since you offered the deal to help build the relationship in the first place.

    And definitely beware the client who asks you to take money off of your first proposal as a gesture of good will because of all the business they will bring you down the line. These folks will never be long term clients, they’ll finish with you and hop to the next person who gives them a discount (if the additional prospect of additional work was real in the first place). I fell for this a few times.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve offered anyone a discount. I’ll still price a project on the aggressive side if I want it for a portfolio piece, I do take barter deals when they make sense and — if it’s for a good cause — I will work for free. But I’ve realized that, on the whole, it’s just not in my interests to try to intentionally lower the going rate for my services.

    • GREAT points, Erik–especially about the clients who lure you in with the promise of future business as long as you cut them a deal the first time around; either they leave you out in the cold in search of some other unsuspecting freelancer, or they harrass you for future discounts. Argh! Thank you so much for your insight. Definitely some good food for thought here that may help other professionals change their business models!

  6. I give “Cool Client Discounts” on my invoices to established clients who pay on time, are a pleasure to work with or for some other reason. Achem… it’s NEVER because they were cool about a bullet point I missed… achem.

    So yeah, discounts. No, not to new clients. No, not just because.

  7. Rachel, thanks so much for writing and thanks to everyone for the comments. The tips and thoughts here about what you all have gone through is helping me greatly as I have just priced my first project for my first client. This has definitely helped me determine that discounts are not the way to win and gain more business in a first-time situation. Thanks again all for providing so much value!!! 🙂

  8. Preston said

    A great post and great responses. My continuing education technical communications and copyediting students always have at least two questions about this topic in each class. These questions and replies will expand student discussion.

    I only have one rule so far. Since I plan on becoming self-employed, I am open to more rules. Here is the advice from established copyeditors that I follow for copyediting jobs.

    Never give an estimate on a project without performing an edit of at least three representative pages of the paper, book, manual, etc. The definition of a page is 250 words. This approach lets you know how time consuming the job will be, how many pages there are to edit, and provides the opportunity to determine (perhaps educate in passing) what types of editing (content, format, copy, light, medium, etc.) need to be done.

    Estimates are free. The results inform the prospective client of what needs done and of the value you bring to the project. It also reveals some of the character flaws that may get in the way of a successful business relationship.

    Do not underestimate your value. I have yet to meet a student that charged too much. Most undervalue their work. Be fair to your client and to yourself.

    I currently have one client on the side. It is a start up and my roles are varied. I am willing to take the risk and be paid in stock. Worst case, I walk away with invaluable business experience and some portfolio pieces.

    Lawyer – they give discounts to “select” clients. First, the client is established, not likely to leave, and has been good to the bottom line. The prospective client does not get the discount. And some accountant has done the math, the discount will lead to greater profits for the firm. If you have a client that is not leaving, bringing in more business, and great to work with, and you are passing your income goals – feel free to give them a “discount.”

    CPA – This is not a discount. It is a reward (commission) for bringing in new business. Does the CPA really give coupons for referrals? Or only for referrals that become clients? My dentist will give me a coupon or something like it if I send her new clients. Bottom line, you are not giving anything away here. The current client gets a coupon that is given back to you. The new client business should pay for that coupon (even though the funds for the coupon came from your marketing budget).

    Mechanic – Sounds like he gives a “free” estimate. If I think potential work is worth it, I give free estimates. In my case it is the time taken to look at three pages. Mechanic, time taken to identify a problem. Though he charged nothing to fix the simple problem (would he have charged if a part had to be replaced or there was more than an hour of labor involved), he has earned your business and word of mouth referrals for the rest of your life. A form of marketing, but since the tough problem did not involve costly parts, not expensive.

    Great post.

  9. Jeremy said

    yeah, it helps to give people the little nudge to buy soon…why not, go for it!

  10. Still finding this post so useful!

    Similar situation is happening to me at present, although its not a discount (yet).

    I gave an initial consultation, then gathered information, spoke to the company’s web developer and gave a fully customized project proposal. The guy acknowledges receipt of it, gets back to me almost 2 weeks later and has some more questions and wants to finally discuss the proposal. I answer the questions and propose a time for a phone meeting on the days he said he was available. Those days go by and he never responds. I follow up, he says he’ll get back in touch when he has time.

    He leaves me a frantic voicemail last night about how he needs to make a decision and needs to talk to me more about link building and optimization to grow his business (now mind you, this started as a social media project). I sent him an email saying I would be happy to advise him, but that I would have to start charging him my hourly consulting rate.

    He wrote back saying he did not think that that was consulting. That he just needed information from me on how to approach his corporate office about building a website or having a customized link. I told him I would be happy to go over my proposal with him and that it could be changed based on his decision, but that to have a separate website outside of the corporate one would ultimately be his decision for his business.

    I also told him that providing him with the necessary information to make a case to his corporate office for his decision would take my time and professional expertise and so I would have to bill for that. (I am really trying to drop this guy at this point and was hoping this would do it). Ohhhhhh, now he’s going to call me today to talk about all this stuff.

    Why do people think they can get all this stuff for free? He has a painting business….if someone changes their minds on the project or wants more information from you, at some point you have to start billing for your time.

    Essentially, the guy wants me to give him an entire strategy and proposal before he will pay for “managing” the project…aka, only wants to pay for the cheaper work. No doubt he will try to get more strategy out of me today and then try to get me to lower my rates for the day-to-day mgmt. ARGH!!!!!!! I DO NOT WORK FOR FREE!!! If you need this information so badly, how do you figure you dont need to pay the person who is going to give it to you?

    • Preston said

      In your situation, I would draft a contract that reasonably covers reasonable costs (you define that by comparing to “normal” clients) and take that to your meeting.

      Include an hourly consulting rate and any project-based fees.

      If he brings up strategy or consulting related issues, pull out the contract and ask him whether he would start a painting job without a signed contract and estimate. If he balks, ask him what he wants and expects.

      Be ready to leave after half an hour to an hour. If he wonders why you are leaving, let him know that any further discussions will be billed at your consulting rate unless it is specific to a contracted project.

      At this point, what do you have to lose? In your own words you want to disengage. If the risk is worth it, play hardball. If not, walk away and let someone else deal with the disingenuous client.


    • Tori, I agree with Preston. This client is clearly trying to bilk you of your time and expertise–and, to top it all off, he’s unprofessional. I’d tell him that what he’s asking you to do for free goes well beyond an appropriate “free consultation,” and that you can’t–as an expert in your field and as a savvy business owner–just hand out your tricks of the trade like Halloween candy. If he still doesn’t get it, just walk away. He’s clearly not worth your time–or frustration!

  11. Victoria Dunmire said

    Basically took the advice you both gave and sent him a final email where I explained again that this was my intellectual capital and that I could not spend more time on this for nothing. I told him that since we disagree on what “consulting” is and what I should and should not be paid for, it would be best for us to part ways on this so he could find the right person for this project.

    The prospect of extra income kept me vested in this, but at the end of the day, I have a job where I am often walked on, under-valued etc. and so if I am going to do my own thing, the biggest benefit should be not having to put up with prospects who are unprofessional and would probably never have paid me a dime anyways.

    Thanks guys!!!!

    • Good for you! It takes a lot of guts to stand up for yourself! 🙂

    • Preston said

      I agree with Rachel. Great job!

      Rachel has provided excellent advice (and resources) for identifying and then bringing new clients on board in this blog. Do not hesitate to learn from her experience and the mistakes of others to develop a process that is easy for you to perform with new and existing clients. The process reduces some of the risk while providing you a tool that ensures critical tasks with a degree of objectivity.

      Take care and here is hoping the next client is worthy of your skills and talents.


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