Being a writer and all, I like to think that clients pay me for my silken prose, my clever insights, and my slightly irreverent yet endearing writing style.

Not so. They don’t care that much about the writing per se. 

And they’re not paying for years of experience, either. And not for how many hours or how many pages, or how many certifications, or for skill with typography or the fact that you have been illustrating since you were nine years old.

Clients have higher and ulterior concerns.

Once that dawned on me, things started to make sense. It was a bit easier to land clients. And keep them.

Here’s what I mean.

I had a client at AT&T who had handed me about fifty assignments over two years. A steady stream of work.

In all that time, I suspect that he never actually read my stuff very closely. And he never seemed to have strong feelings about my prose one way or the other.

All he knew was, when he handed it off to his bosses or internal clients, they usually okayed everything with minimum fuss. 

To his boss and everyone in his group, he looked like the model of cool efficiency. He kept putting wins on the board.

Which was why he kept calling me, kept approving my invoices. Over and over. Until he got promoted right out of the division.

Another client:  An in-house video producer at big insurance company. 

For the routine and straightforward projects, he wrote the scripts himself, and very ably.

But when a project came in that promised to be a steaming hairball, or it required too much homework, or if the clients were fractious and boneheaded, he always called me. 

“Hey, I have a script that is right up your alley,” he’d say. 

I was paid, year after year, to wrestle those porcupines off his desk. That’s what mattered to him. We got along famously.

I recently sent an invoice to a VP for a speechwriting assignment. The official invoice read something like “Development and writing, YSA Conference keynote.”

But what she really paid for was more like “Making it so you could walk onto the stage without being terrified, and then getting some early laughs then plenty of warm applause so you could walk off feeling like a million bucks and get an email from the CEO in the morning saying ‘I heard you nailed it at the YSA.’”

You see where this is going?

You and me, what we get paid for is always one of two things:

To make the client look good. To their peers, to their bosses, to their audience.

Or. . .

To relieve pain.  Either some nagging chronic pain, or something sharp and sudden.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that is ultimately what they want from us. And what they are really paying for.

When a client is chatting with us for the first time, this is pretty much what is playing in the back of their minds.

“Will I feel like a genius for hiring this guy? Or not. Will this annoying problem go away? Or might it get worse?”

When I remember to stay focused on what they want (spoken or unspoken) clients sense it. The vibe is better. It’s all about them.

That makes things fall into place. I see the project the way the client does. I can better match the fee to what a client gets from the work.

I make better decisions. The work stays on track. The clients are happier. They pay their invoices, over and over.

Make them look good. Relieve their pain, fix a problem.

I sometimes forget that. But it needs to be the north star for every assignment, every client relationship.

Of course, there is a flip side to all this.

If you screw up and put a client in hot water, or or somehow make them look like an ass, or inflict severe pain on them, you will be banished, blackballed and bad-mouthed.

I managed to bring that wrath on myself three separate times last year. I still feel guilty about it. I will be on those shitlists for a long time.

There is much more money in making them heroes, easing their pain.

Big bullet point:

  • ‘Making them look good’ does NOT include cutting your fees, working for peanuts, or giving stuff away.

We don’t get paid for, you know, NOT getting paid.


Feel better about what you do all day: Smarter Freelancing.