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Copywriting: What to Do When Things Go Wrong

Sometimes, things go wrong, even for the best of us. When you get a complaint, always be professional and resolve it if you can. If you can't, refund any payment made, and part on good terms. You never know how that will benefit you over time.

I've only had a few major problems since my copywriting business started trading in 2001. Here they are, and what you can learn from them.

Quality control

The first time was when a client complained: "This copy could have be written by a four-year-old." Yes, that's what I specialise in - I call it writing without waffle; making complex information simple so that everyone can understand it. But there was a mismatch between what he was expecting me to do and what I was expecting to do.

I apologised that he wasn't happy, and immediately refunded his 50% advance payment.

You've probably heard that happy customers tell 2-3 people while unhappy customers tell Google! We mix in the same circles, and I didn't want him to ruin my reputation locally. Fortunately, he later gave me a magnificent testimonial when he told a networking group that I was one of the most professional people he'd ever met.

Ironically, one of the 300+ client comments on my website says: "So simple it could have been written by a four-year-old!" (That was from a happy client.)

Another time, a client had written her own sales letters that had never worked. I rewrote them, but she didn't like them. "They're just not me," she said.

I was confused, because I thought I'd done a really good job (as I always try to do). I'd spent ages interviewing her. I double-checked my notes and I'd used all her own words, translated into persuasive customer language and with marketing tricks added to incentivise action. Again, I refunded the money she'd paid.

I stayed in touch with this client, and she's recently endorsed me on LinkedIn. Guess what for? The skill of copywriting!

I wrote some ads for a client, and couldn't understand why they didn't like them. At the follow-up meeting, I used body language techniques such as matching and mirroring to build rapport and get them on my side to agree with my expert point of view. But it turned out we disagreed at values level. They wanted me to write in a way that I didn't think was right. No matter what I did, I couldn't write the way they wanted.

So we agreed to disagree, and I refunded their money.

Money troubles

Then a client went bust. I'd done piles of work for him and he kept coming back for more. He usually paid on time, or he paid a little late, but he always paid. Until the time that he didn't.

I issue clear Terms & Conditions upfront that state 50% in advance, 50% on completion (or 25% interim for projects with a long timescale or delays).

In this case, because he was a regular client, I only invoiced at the end of each month. The payment due date came - and went. In line with my usual payment-chasing procedure, I sent a friendly polite reminder. No reply. A couple of weeks later, I sent another one. No reply. I rang and left a message on his voicemail. No reply.

Now, this was an invoice for several hundred pounds. Not a fortune, but enough to help towards my mortgage. Enough for non-payment to be noticed. Enough to make a difference.

Don't you just hate it when a client goes quiet?

My T&Cs allow for late payment and interest to be added after an invoice is 30 days overdue. And after 30 days, I still hadn't heard anything. So I sent an email reminding him that I have the right to add late payment penalties and interest and that if he didn't pay I'd have to take him to court.

He phoned me, shouting and swearing. How dare I threaten him when he was owed so much by so many? The amount due to me was so small, his wife was ill and he had his own mortgage to pay. Anyway, he didn't need the work I'd done any more. Then he hung up.

I fretted for a while. I'd done that work for him in good faith, at his request. His turnover was much bigger than mine - I knew he had more money than I did (at that stage). I needed that money more than he did, and I'd lost time doing the work he'd asked for.

I spoke to my business coach about it. She asked whether he'd always paid me before? Yes. If he had the money, did I think he'd pay me this time? Yes. When he got the money in that was due to him, did I think he'd pay his own mortgage or help me to pay mine? He'd pay his own mortgage, of course, and not worry about little old me. She asked me if he sounded stressed? Yes.

I'd already drafted the letter demanding late payment charges, but I didn't post it. Instead, I sent him a card with a big picture of a happy sunflower on the front and a message inside that read: "I'm sorry to hear you're going through financial difficulties at the moment. I'm sure you'll pay me when you can, and look forward to working with you again when things improve."

He wrote me a surprised reply, thanking me for my understanding.

Months later, he wrote me another letter. That business had folded, and he'd started another one. He wanted me to do some copywriting for the new business. The debt was to the old company and would never be paid. But he said: "You can load your quote with an extra premium to make up for what I owe you." So that's what I did.

Negative impact

Most recently, I took on a job to write a number emails per month for a client.

I wrote some compelling subject lines, but they said they didn't want them; they wanted me to write in exactly the same style they'd used before. I suggested a new layout, but they wanted to stick with plain text. I designed some stronger calls to action, but they preferred to use their old ones. So that's what I did.

The emails had to be written two months in advance, so in November I wrote January's emails, and in December I wrote February's emails.

January came, and my first emails were issued. In mid-January, I got a phone call. "Results have halved since last year," they said. "We're going back to our previous copywriter to see if that makes a difference."

What? That's never happened to me before! Usually, my copywriting helps increase sales, not the other way around!

I checked the year-on-year data. Click rates had increased and unsubscribes had dropped since I took over. If sales had halved, it must be to do with something other than the copy. Maybe the mailing list had changed, or the economic climate, or the product pricing, or the days/times/frequency of sending - all aspects outside my control.

As a goodwill gesture, I wrote the client an email, thanking them for the business along with the analysis of my findings and a sample of what I recommended: new-style subject lines, different layout, more added-value content, better calls to action. I did this extra work at no charge. I also said I'd be interested to hear what happens to their sales with the other copywriter, and that I'd be happy to help them if required in future.

I don't know what will happen next, but I'm sure something good will come of it somehow.

What you can learn from this

Sometimes, things go wrong, even for the best of us. When you get a complaint, always be professional and resolve it if you can. If you can't, refund any payment made, and part on good terms. You never know how that will benefit you over time.

You have to work from a mindset of abundance, and assume that everything happens for a reason. Don't deny the reality of the situation, but just believe there is plenty of work out there for everybody, including you. Give off a vibe of confidence to win yourself new business, and you won't have to worry about any clients you may lose.

Remember the story of the two monks who were not allowed to touch women, yet one of them carried a stranded female across the river. The other kept talking about it for miles afterwards: "How could you do that?" The first monk said: "I put her down ages ago; you're still carrying her."

The moral of this article is this: Don't carry your problems with you. Let them go. Put them behind you. Move on.