How I Survived My Surreal Client Meeting From Hell

Carol Tice

awkward client meeting

by Josh Monen

Have you ever had a meeting with a prospective client go bad on you?

Well, here’s the story of the worst client meeting I’ve ever had as a freelance writer (names have been changed to protect the innocent — and the snobs):

I walked into the small office and sat down behind the small table. The two agency creative directors, Alex and Nicole, followed me in and sat to my right and left.

Alex pulled out a piece of paper, “Well. We have your resume here. But why don’t you tell us a little about yourself.”

I told them how I left my career as an insurance agent in May 2011 to start my own freelance writing business. And that I specialized in direct response copywriting for the financial services and insurance industries.

I ended by talking about some of the clients I worked with.

It seemed like things were going well enough until…

“You don’t have a degree?!”

After I finished my elevator speech Nicole looked at me with a puzzled look. “So how did you transition from insurance to writing? Do you have a degree?”

“No. I don’t have a degree. I took English in college but never finished my degree. I’m self-taught. I read books, completed online training and learned from seasoned freelance copywriters.”

“So have you ever worked with designers, editors or other writers?” she asked condescendingly.

I gave specific examples of projects where I had worked with designers, editors and writers. But she wasn’t impressed.

Then I decided to ask my interrogators a question.

“What do you look for when you hire a freelancer or a full-time writer? Is a degree a must?”

“Yes,” Nicole said, gently nodding her head.

“So that pretty much excludes me, right?”

“Umm… well, not necessarily. If you could build a portfolio and prove you could do the type of writing we need then we’d consider you,” she said.

Finally Alex spoke slowly, like he was talking to a child: “If you don’t have a degree, then you could work on building an online portfolio.”

Did the office manager not forward my information to these guys? I thought.

“Yes. That’s a good point. When I’ve shown prospects my relevant samples it’s helped them see I can do the same type of work for them,” I said, hoping the light would dawn that I already have a professional portfolio online.

No response. So I continued, “What type of projects do you anticipate you’ll need help with this year?”

“At this time, we don’t have any need for freelance work or a paid full-time position. And it’s hard to tell what we’ll have need of a year from now. We mainly do corporate responsibility writing for Fortune 500 companies,” Nicole said.

Alex said out of the blue, “The main thing that separates us from freelancers is we have editors, writers and designers all working together. The writing goes through a rigorous review process before it goes to the client. And that’s why Fortune 500 companies choose us over freelancers, because they don’t want to take any chances.”

Go to college and make $10/hour

“If you don’t mind me asking, what’s a typical salary for writers here? You don’t have to answer if you’re not comfortable,” I said.

“There’s a range. We have writers in their first year and 30-year professionals. So it varies,” Alex said.

He continued, “A writer right out of college, an A-Level writer would earn about $20,000.”

“Oh okay,” I said, trying to mask my shock.

The meeting ended shortly after that. I got in the elevator and thought, That was the most awkward interview I’ve ever had!

Laughter is the best medicine

When I got back to my car the first thing I did (besides laugh) was pull out my phone to do the math: $20,000 / 52 weeks = 384/ 40 hours in a week comes to $9.62 an hour!

They start writers — with a degree — out at $9.62 an hour! That’s ridiculous. I charged at least $75 an hour at the time (my minimum is now $100/hour). How crazy.

I laughed, drove home and told my wife the story. We both got a good kick out of it.

And I decided I wasn’t going to let this get me down.

3 days later: another meeting

Exactly three days after my nightmare meeting, I received a phone call out of the blue from the CEO of an insurance marketing company. This particular CEO is arguably the highest-paid copywriter in the insurance industry (charging $15,000/day).

He asked if I’d be interested in a full-time copywriting position with his company. It would involve relocating.

I told him I would, but would need to talk to my wife first. So after talking with my wife, I called him back three days later and told him I was interested if the compensation was right.

He said, “OK. What are we talking?”

I told him how much I would need to make, naming a substantial figure I thought would probably be too much for them.

But he simply responded with, “That should be no problem. That fits within what we had budgeted for the position. But you’ll need to earn that amount. For that amount I expect results.

The next step is for you to come down and meet me and the team. My assistant will call you to set that up.”

After a much more positive meeting than the one I had with the agency… Fast forward three weeks, and I had a full-time copywriting job that pays well — with six weeks of paid vacation to top it off!

This whole experience proved to be a great lesson for me. I discovered some people have their own preconceived idea of what it means to be a professional writer (i.e. having an English degree, working for an agency, etc.).

But others look past all that to see if you can get the results they need.

You just have to find the clients who appreciate you, whatever your writing background.

I’m thankful for Carol and the writers who supported me in the Freelance Writers Den, who’ve taught me an important lesson: you become a professional writer when you decide you are.

Have you ever had an awkward client meeting? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Joshua Monen is a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant who helps businesses grow by flooding them with qualified leads. He has written for PerkStreet, MicroVentures and American Express. You can read his marketing blog for valuable tips, tactics and strategies on how to grow your business.

57 Comments

  1. Deborah Savadra

    The degree thing is just *classic*. Thank goodness I have one (in English), but I don’t think much of a prospect who would favor that over a good portfolio and relevant experience.

    My all-time “meeting from hell” moment was one in which the client couldn’t stop taking phone calls and visits long enough to engage in a meaningful conversation. (We were in an “open” room, so staffers were wandering in and out constantly.) As was my practice at the time, I took my digital recorder for a backup to my handwritten notes. Somewhere, buried in the depths of my computer, is the audio for that incredibly unproductive meeting. I may have to dig that one up for a laugh!

    • Josh Monen

      Deborah, sounds like a rude and disrespectful client you had. I can’t stand that kind of attitude. I don’t care how important someone thinks they are… if they don’t have the decency to treat people with respect they have issues and I wouldn’t want to work with them.

      And do you know what’s funny? Some of the most successful people I know are also some of the most humble and considerate people I know.

    • Carol Tice

      I totally agree — people think it’ll be even more scary and stressful to work for top-drawer clients, but often, it’s a fantastic experience. The really top-level people, especially in a big organization, often got there because they really do have talent — and know how to treat people.

  2. Howard Baldwin

    One of the best things about finding yourself in an interview from hell is to realize it in the moment; acknowledge that if this is the way they treat interviewees, being an employee there will be even worse; and then do what Josh did — get the hell out.

    I was in a job interview once when the publisher started quizzing me on music trivia, as if I couldn’t look something up if I didn’t know it. I told him if he needed someone who knew that kind of useless information, then I wasn’t the person for him, and left. Never regretted it.

    • Carol Tice

      Good for you! People who throw random stuff like that at you in an interview are probably not going to be fun to work for. Once back when I was a legal secretary (when dinosaurs roamed of course), I worked for one lawyer who was a coke addict. That’s the sort of weird stuff he would do. You want to avoid people like this!

    • Josh Monen

      Howard, good point. That probably explains the “Help me! I’m trapped” look I saw on the employees’ faces there. I couldn’t even imagine working in an environment like that.

  3. Sarah Russell

    Holy wow! Good for you for not flat out laughing in their faces and walking away (which would have been satisfying, though not very professional).

    I haven’t had any meetings quite that good, but I did get into a fun one once where I met up with a supposedly “big name” in my industry. I sit down to start talking business – he starts out by autographing a copy of my book and handing it to me like he’s doing me some big favor. The rest of the meeting was less “Here’s what I need help with,” and more “Here’s why I’m awesome.” Needless to say, our work together was pretty short-lived 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this!

    • Josh Monen

      Sarah, that sounds like a good meeting too! I’m surprised these creative directors didn’t autograph the poetry and “creative writing” book they sent me home with. 🙂

  4. Amandah

    Hi Josh,

    It sounds like the receptionist understood the value you would have added to the organization. It’s too bad the creative directors didn’t see it. Oh well… it’s their loss. Onward…

  5. Kalon W

    People get paid what they are worth and small minded people don’t seem to understand that a degree only gets you a job interview.
    Of course a go-getter like you wouldn’t nail the $10/hour job. You have to be a recent grad and green in the tooth to fall for an ‘opportunity’ like that.
    Congrats on the new job though Josh. Hope it’s going well!

    • Josh Monen

      Kalon, thank you! The new job is going well. You should come down to Bend sometime to visit (they have some good disc golf courses here!).

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