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Are You a Commodity?

August 28th, 2006 by Bob Bly

Has your service become a commodity?

If so, you will have an increasingly difficult time selling your service — and competition will force your prices so low it becomes tough for you to make a decent living.

For instance, an aggressive self-promoter recently e-mailed me that he was the greatest proofreader on the planet and that I needed him because he found typos on my Web site.

I asked him what he charged. When he replied, I told him: “I have GREAT proofreaders already working for me for half that price. I just haven’t made proofing every page on my huge site a priority yet. So why should I hire you?”

Of course, I never heard from him again, because he had no idea of how to answer my simple objection.

Do YOU? When a prospect says to you, “I can get someone to do X locally for half the price you charge,” do you have an answer to overcome this powerful objection?

How do you, in an era increasingly driven by technology and speed — not creativity and quality — differentiate yourself from all the others out there providing a similar service?


This entry was posted on Monday, August 28th, 2006 at 10:41 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

72 responses about “Are You a Commodity?”

  1. Ted Demopoulos said:

    First you need to realize some people always go for cheapest and can’t distinguish OK from great — we can ignore those people.

    Me, personally? A combination of business AND technical skills which in itself is pretty rare, good communication skills, and a few recently commercially published books.

    Of course I answer questions like yours politely and professionally, knowing most people don’t care what the answer is. Some do however, and they make ideal clients. The ones that pay well, get great value, and are damn happy about it!

    As for the best shoeshiner on the planet, well, for that I only need good enough . . .

  2. Jean Biri said:

    In today’s era where things change so fast, I find thet being “famous” (having a strong personal brand, in business lingo) is the best way to differentiate oneself from the masses.

    Professionals who have achieved some level of recognition in their industries can charge way more than the norm and still have a client waiting list.

    Credentials play a big role too. Usually they help in being recognized as an authority.

    In our proofreader’s example, if for instance he had done work in editing the Encylopedia Brittania or was a proofreader at an established and reputable newspaper, magazine or website, he would have a very good platform to charge high fees and get people (who recognize his credentials) to pay them without hesitation.

    It’s like in the world of fashion I guess… A polo shirt is a polo shirt is a polo shirt. Yet a Lacoste shirt will probably be up to 10 times more expensive than a shirt that you can buy at your local clothing store…

  3. Bob Bly said:

    Jean: you are correct, of course. There are a finite number of ways to differentiate yourself, and personal branding — becoming known as the guru in your field — is among the most obvious and effective.

  4. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Bob – you say your objection was a simple one.

    What could the proofreader have said to have overcome it under the stated circumstances (that you already have proofreaders who charge less and that proofreading the site is not a monster priority)?

  5. Michael A. Stelzner said:

    I just got an inquiry for 3 white papers. AND the budget … $300 each. I told this person they would never find someone willing to do a white paper for such a price and asked if it was a typo. He said, “No, I found someone who would do it for $500.” Hmm. I know my services are by no means a commodity, however there most certainly is and will be pressure from overseas as folks in India start offering dirt cheap writing services.

    To your question Bob. I do not do business with folks that have such limited budget. It is usually a sign of ignorance in my space. There are plenty of businesses that can and will pay my prices. I also happen to have some insight into the market and know that it is an anomaly to have a writer offer to write a white paper at those rates. Good topic!

  6. Bob Bly said:

    Michael: I face similar situations. My question: are these bargain-basement writers a threat to our business? Is it possible their work is equivalent to ours for less than 1/10th what we charge? My feeling is no: they simply provide an alternative resource for people like your prospect, who can now get at least some kind of white paper for his $300, where before, he could get none. It won’t be good, but he doesn’t want good.

  7. Steve Slaunwhite said:

    Bob & Michael: It would be a mistake to underestimate the increasing competition from India. The writers there are well-educated, business-savvy, motivated and learning fast. They will only get better. In fact, I was recently approached to teach copywriting seminars in India. And I’m sure many of the other experts on this blog have received similar offers.

  8. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Thinking about this topic some more last night, I wondered if the proofreader didn’t do just about the right thing here. He determined Bob’s need for his services was low, and he went away – presumably looking for other, better opportunities. He limited the time he spent on an uninterested prospect … he didn’t try to convince Bob or change his mind. He made his pitch and moved on.

    Which was probably pretty smart, as it’s possible there was n-o-t-h-i-n-g he could have said which would have moved Bob in this case.

    Sounds a lot smarter than mooning around, trying to convince himself that Bob’s sort of a “warm maybe” when it seems fairly clear that’s not the case.

    (I know I’ve never had any real luck changing people’s minds when they don’t perceive they have a need. Sometimes you’ll get a bit of business from them, but nothing much seems to come from it. IMHO.)

  9. Bob Bly said:

    Steve: programming a computer is not culture-dependent, so can easily be outsourced to India. But do you really believe a minimum-wage novice copywriter sitting in Calcutta can write as compellingly to a U.S. audience as Steve Slaunwhite, who has 10 years plus experience and hundreds of successful projects doing so?

  10. Patricia said:

    Hi, I have been a big fan and customer of Bob Bly and Michael Stelzner for several years through the newsletters and published books (including just ordering Stelzner’s new white pages bible, which I am sure I cannot live without). My thoughts on the proofreading issue are this: if I were the proofreader offering the more expensive service, I would never have originally approached Mr. Bly (the potential customer) with notes about mistakes in his site. I probably would have done more homework on an informational interview type of initial contact and then when customer says he has proofreaders that already do this and that typos were not a priority, I might have offered an article about professional work product and or pointed to one of Michael Masterson’s articles about (recently) “Speed vs. Excellence” and pointed out THEN (in a nice way) that proofers he already had at the discounted rate were not necessarily on the top of their game if they were perhaps choosing speed over the exact definition of proofreading. The money he was currently spending was not accomplishing the task at hand. Certainly not personal and perhaps his current proofreaders were multitasking or working on too many projects for them to be great at all of them.

    I won’t say I’ve never sent anything out with typos because perhaps I have. But, I know two sets of eyes are always better than one, especially for things out to the general public, and adding my set of eyes, because I have experience of proofing legal documents and redlining software programs and great linguistic and grammar personal usage skills, is a true asset to your writing and communication business, People have become complacent on using “spellcheck” and other tools which don’t catch words that technically change the meaning of what you are saying (i.e. your and you’re, then and than) and it ultimately falls back on the author because it is his work, image, meaning etc. I recently cancelled a subscription to a legal real estate newsletter because the “lawyer” wrote a technique with blatant meaning-changing word mistakes and when I wrote to him for clarification and asked if he really meant this, he wrote back and said yes, then chastised his proofreaders and other office workers for not fixing the mistake. I cancelled the newsletter because he blamed someone else, not because of the mistake.

    Back to your example, I would not spend a lot of time convincing a customer of a need he doesn’t perceive, but I am sure that I would want to learn something from my customer and hope that the customer wants to learn something from me and that might be how I would construct an initial contact to earn the higher priced business service. Sales is always about education first, ne c’est pas?

    Thanks for all the great work. I enjoy your style and do learn a great deal with every post or “read” that I do.
    Patricia Koehler,

  11. Michael Stelzner said:

    Bob, Steve and Everyone Else;

    Yes. India will be a threat eventually. However, they are so far behind the curve right now on writing that it will be some time before they become a serious threat. I know some very well-spoken Indian’s who have left their country and taken great jobs in America, Japan, … It is the folks back in India that will try and compete. Currently I do not see them as a threat to writers of longer documents like white papers. Now if you focus on different areas—like graphics design, that is a whole different story.

    Good writers communicate with clients regularly over the phone or in person. Anyone outside the US will struggle with the overseas time differences and communication differences. However, there will be many who do come along. But I predict not enough to commoditize my work OR yours.


  12. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Reading Bob’s post again, I see that he described the objection as both “simple” (implying an obvious comeback) and “powerful” (which makes it seem tougher, maybe a lot tougher).

    It’s possible there’s no consistently viable way around someone saying they neither want nor need what you offer.

  13. Bob Bly said:

    Sponge: One solution is to have so many potential projects in the pipeline that you do not CARE whether any particular one closes or not. In fact, the busier you appear, the more clients want you. The harder you are to hire, the harder they will try to hire you. When you cold call, you signal to the client that you are not busy.

  14. Craig Hysell said:

    Exactly. While apathy is sometimes very depressing and utterly terrible in some circumstances it denotes an aire of confidence in oneself. And people will always wonder why an apathetic person can be so comfortable with not caring. As if the person has discovered answers which they have yet to behold.

    I am not saying that Bob Bly or any other successful copywriter is apathetic toward life or the human race. Bob has helped me significantly with personal messages I have had no right to expect and my gratitude toward his kindness and help is unending. He is a good person.
    But, in terms of business, clients will stand in line for these successful copywriters and pay handsomely. Which is why these copywriters no longer need to care about what I and others just starting out have to contend with- i.e. how am I going to feed myself and keep my mortgage this month.

    So, how did these proven copywriter’s become such a success? I am certain it was through hard work based in trial, error and negotiation. But how did they get the work? I have just begun my career and must cold call and yield to deals (at times) in order to build my portfolio because I currently have a lot to prove and not much opportunity for experience which will serve as testimonial to my ability.

    We all pay our dues. I have begun this enterprise prepared to pay mine. Clients that know what they want out of a copywriter and can pay handsomely for them will stand in line. I say to the copywriters in these positions to enjoy it. We at the bottom are no threat. And just because we are cheap doesn’t mean our work is. It just means we haven’t had the opportunity yet to prove otherwise.

    P.S. Even I at times will turn down a client because they are too cheap or too difficult to work with. I shudder to think who picks those poor souls up. Those types of copywriters are more of a threat to me than the writers who have people waiting in the pipe for their services.

  15. Bob Bly said:

    Craig: When I started freelancing in 1982, I talked with everyone who wanted to talk to me, met with anyone who wanted to meet with me, and worked for just about anyone who would pay me a decent wage, on almost anything they wanted. In retrospect, I should have been much more selective much earlier: I would have saved myself grief and made more money sooner.

  16. Craig Hysell said:

    Bob: But would you have learned at the rate you had gained the knowledge if you hadn’t been so earnest? So hungry?
    If we only know what we would do differently by our experiences that can’t it be said that no experience is ever wasted? If we have learned then what is there to regret?

  17. Sean Woodruff said:

    With competent marketing and selling, the price objection you mention above shouldn’t be an issue.

    The problem with the proof reader is he didn’t give you any proof to read. Without proof, there can be no value and the basis becomes price. Price is an idea that needs to infused with value.

    If you haven’t already, I would suggest everyone here reads “Pricing on Purpose” by Ronald Baker. It’s excellent and sheds a light on a very important business issue that many don’t pay much attention to. Ok, I’ll admit, that is a cheap pun. Sorry, that’s a poor pun also. I’ll stop now.

  18. Dan Horne said:

    I hope people are still reading this thread because I have a question about commodities. I’m a web developer and designer by trade and one of the areas I’ve been developing is the second-hand car sales site. It seems to me that car sites are commodities – you can offer a searchable database, but apart from the graphic design elements, all sites are the same.

    So my question is: can you differentiate a car sales site through copy? My guess is that prospective buyers simply search the car sites for the make and model that they’re after, and then make a decision on price. There may be factors like after sales service, but my gut feel is that people ignore these soft sell points. I’d love to know what others think about this.

  19. Bob Bly said:

    Dan, there are several ways. One is to have a guru behind the site, such as a race car driver or automotive columnist for a local newspaper.

  20. Dan Horne said:

    Those are good ideas. Thanks, Bob

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