Growing Your Client Base: An Ode to Getting a Backbone

Ever feel like you’re becoming a bit of a… diva?

You should.

It feels great.


My hubby says I’m turning into a shark… like the sharks we watch on “Shark Tank”. (Love Dragon’s Den, too. And how ’bout The Pitch? That’s a killer show! But I digress…)

Whether a shark or a diva, the point is that I’m starting to define the ground I want to stand on.

And I highly recommend it.

Here’s wassup: I’m starting to get a backbone.

I’ve always had opinions. (Those opinions have become a bit more informed over the last few years, thankfully.) I’ve never had a real problem expressing my opinions — growing up as the middle child of 7 trains you to be loud and fast with your messages.

But more recently, I’ve started to get a backbone.

And, let me say, there’s a big difference between being opinionated and having a backbone.

The differences became clearer to me today when I was responding to this email from a reader named Daniel, who’s building a conversion rate optimization (CRO) consultancy:

Hey Joanna,

So, I’ve been moving things forward here in San Francisco, and I’ve managed to pull in some prospects.

Got a question about selling.

I come from a sales background, but selling CRO is a new game for me.

How pricing works is crystal clear.

I’m not sure how this sales process works.

I’m trying to be transparent as possible with folks about pricing, and managing expectations about experimenting, but I think I’m throwing my cards on the table too early by revealing pricing in early conversations.

I’m sure you have a lot less selling to do, because people come to you pre-sold with your books and the newsletter and all.

So I’m wondering, do you have any insights on how the CRO sales process works?

I’m thinking of throwing together a slide deck, explaining the potential gain from conversion lifts, and then quoting a price on a 2nd-3rd call, after snooping around analytics, and asking about their revenues and current conversions.

What do you think?


Daniel’s facing an issue a lot of freelancers and solopreneurs do: once we’ve figured out what to charge (which is a question unto itself!), we need to break it to our prospects that we actually charge that much.

And we need to do so with a straight face.

As anyone who’s watched a salesperson in action knows, once you lay the price on the table, you let the other person talk. You don’t say anything. Even if they don’t say anything.

(Ah, power struggles. What fun.)

When you’re a freelancer, you need to present your fees without apology. Without negotiation. You really do. …You probably already know that………..

……But it’s easier said than done, isn’t it?

Which is why most freelancers and consultants do a bunch of other crap instead of holding their ground.

Unable to tolerate the silence, they cave and:

  • Offer flexible terms, like “Do not pay for 90 days” or “Deposit waived!”
  • Discount their hourly rate
  • Agree to start at an earlier date than previously discussed
  • Agree to do a freebie to prove themselves first

To which I say:


Let me lay the smack down for you: no client will believe you’re worth the money until they see the first winning test result – and until you explicitly explain to them exactly what that test result translates into insofar as incremental revenue is concerned.

Let me repeat: no one wants to pay… until.

That’s the reality.

So the best way to look at that is to realize this:

You have to shape what you do around that reality.

Resistance is futile.

Go with the flow.

When you have proven results, going with the flow is easy. All you have to do is show the results you’ve received for other clients, and suddenly your prospect has PROOF that you’re worth the money.

But what about when you don’t have proven results? What about when you’re just starting to build your client base?

In that case, the following has worked for me and my friends:

  • Charge a commission/royalty only, where you do the work and they promise to implement the test as you design it (i.e., using the right tool, using it the right way, following your creative direction)… and then you earn X% on Y sales
  • Set a fixed rate you’ll be happy with, stand your ground on it… and give them peace of mind by guaranteeing your services will pay for themselves (i.e., with test results) in 2 months or you’ll give them their money back
  • Set a fixed rate they’ll be happy with, and ask for a commission/royalty on every sale from the winning recipe

If I were Daniel — or anyone starting out — I wouldn’t do much work upfront without charging. You may think that freebies will help you develop the necessary relationship on which to ‘close’ — you may tell yourself that a freebie will somehow trigger the power of ‘commitment’ (which is the weakest of all of Cialdini’s principles). But don’t kid yourself!

You’d be SHOCKED at what businesses will let themselves walk away from under the excuse of “It’s not personal, it’s business”.

If you give away your services, you give away your services.

Pretty obvious, right? But we lie to ourselves that freebies are just part of the sales process.

They’re not.

Giving something away is NOT the way to sell it… except in BOGO situations (in which case you at least get money in your hands).

I’m sure there are affirmations and mantras you can chant to help you overcome the crazy idea that you have to give stuff away… but here’s one to start with:

“I am a legitimate business.
I offer real value.
Businesses would be lucky to pay me.”

Back to Daniel’s email…

He also mentioned delaying discussions of price until later in the process.

I wouldn’t do that. I mean, eventually they’ll find out what you charge, right? And then you’ll still have to work hard to get them to see why you’re worth the money.

Might as well get that whole conversation over with upfront… before you invest time and energy only to get dumped ‘cos they just don’t have the budget to afford you.

You cannot sell champagne to someone on a beer budget. Unless your champagne is cheap.

(But who wants cheap champagne? AKA: why would you offer a cheap professional service?)

Here’s a strategy that I employ when a prospect reaches out to me for help: I become a diva. I’m not kidding. This is 100% true. I always ask for at least 3 of the following:

  • I ask clients to send me free copies of their product to use (or give me a lifetime membership for soft goods) before I’ll sign them on.
  • I demand they use the testing tool I prefer, and that they have it in place before our first call.
  • I demand they pay for all the time I spend on the phone with them and emailing them. It’s all billable.
  • I charge them at least 4x what the average copywriter charges, and I do it with a straight face.
  • I charge a retainer if they want to access me without giving 24-hours notice.
  • I charge for cancelled calls.
  • I charge a 33% to 50% deposit, which I demand to have before our first call.
  • I don’t negotiate.

REVELATION FROM A HAPPY FREELANCER: I find that the more ‘diva’ demands I make upfront, the more clients want to work with me.

Those who agree to my terms are people I want to work with.

Those who don’t are people I don’t want to work with.

Making diva demands is the ultimate prospect vetting process.

Yes, I lose prospects. More than I sign on. But that’s okay!

I mean, why on God’s green earth would I want to take on more low-paying clients who don’t appreciate my value when I can take on fewer high-paying clients who DO appreciate my value? As it stands, I have so many requests for help, I’m not taking on any new clients until September. I regularly send new leads to my network of copywriters.

My new-found backbone keeps me very, very satisfied… and keeps my pocketbook well-lined.

BEST OF ALL: My clients are extremely satisfied. They get my attention and my expertise… without any grump or frump that comes with being underpaid/undervalued.

Your sales process should end with you getting the clients you WANT. Clients that will value you and make you happy to work for them.

Why the hell else would you go into business for yourself if not to build the perfect working life????????

But, Daniel, please don’t review anyone’s analytics for free. Don’t do anything for free. That devalues your work, and it only pays off if you’re doing it strategically (i.e., to build your portfolio so you can quickly start charging others).

If you have a question you’d like me to answer, gimme a holler right here

Happy copy hacking,

About the author

Joanna Wiebe

Joanna Wiebe - Copywriter and author of "Copyhackers"

  • juliana

    Hi Joanna, I 100% agree! After two years of fumbling about, I stopped thinking of myself as a freelancer and thought of myself as a business instead. Clients started respecting me. I was shocked when they agreed to pay 50% upfront and sign MY T&C!!! So my backbone is developing but it’s happening slowly. This was easy for me to do when these clients approached ME. But my main challenge at the moment is HOW and WHERE do I find new clients?!!! And if I’m the one doing the approaching, I feel the power dynamics switch and I’m back to square one, hands clasped and hoping for the project. Appreciate any advice you could give me! =) Thank you!

  • Hi Joanna, I enjoyed reading this and your bullet list of ‘diva demands’ are an education in themselves. I’m really just starting out copywriting after a false start a few years ago (loving the blog btw) but I’ve already found that when bidding for jobs on UpWork, trying to be the cheapest doesn’t really work and over bidding the client’s proposed budget works much better in attracting work.
    One thing I struggle with is factoring in the client management into my pricing for jobs as I find this can be very time consuming – one client was very demanding and I ended up losing money on what should have been a straightforward job.
    Anyway, loving your work. I finished your free ebook today and I’m learning a lot from the free video course and your emails. Keep it up.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Thanks, Neil! Very interesting insight into bidding for work on Upwork.

      As for client management stuff, are you quoting project rates? Project rates mean you can build all that admin stuff into your fee.

      The kinds of clients that avoid project rates usually think of copywriters as the hammer and words as the nails — they think you should just sit down and churn out fancy words based on exactly what they tell you. “Just do what I tell you to, monkey! No, not like that!” 😉

      I’m being harsh. But I’m partly joking. Partly.

      Clients don’t want to hear that they’ll need to be managed. So you need to help them understand that there’s admin time, brainstorming time, editing and review time – a bunch of things they hadn’t thought about when they thought of hiring someone to write their copy for them.

      You should, as a rule of thumb, be estimating that every hour you’re billing for is made of 30 minutes of work and 30 minutes of emails, phone calls, “quick chats” and other client management stuff. So if you think a job may take 6 hours to complete if you were to sit and work on it without interruption, quote 12 hours.

      I hope that helps!!

      • Thanks Joanna, that’s given me a lot to think about. I like your rough rule of thumb for quantifying the ‘admin/brainstorming/editing/review’ time.
        You are right of course – I’ve had clients who just want me to write their words but in proper English and real sentences rather than what I know will convert and sell their products better. My attitude so far has been: “Meh, they’re paying so I’ll do what they want.” The downside is this strays more into proofreading and editing than copywriting (which I also do a bit of).
        I do quite a lot of press releases but have found that some of my clients say they want a ‘press release’ without knowing what one looks like or what the media want in order to publish. When I produce the release the reaction can be ‘This isn’t what I wanted.’ I’ve learned the hard way and have started showing them exactly what I’m going to produce BEFORE we enter into any agreement.
        So far I’ve been bidding based on project rates rather than an hourly rate however my bids have been based mainly on how long I think it will take me to write the copy rather than the admin stuff. The way UpWork records time through their app is quite restrictive so I prefer to quote per job or piece.

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