Why Experience Matters…and Doesn’t

Anyone in business knows what it means to compete for customers. You’ve had to put your goods, services, or know-how up against a competitor’s and strive to emerge the winner — the one the customer buys from or the client chooses to work with. Many times, prospects are looking for a vendor with experience doing the same type of project as theirs. But is that really the best evaluation method?

My take is, it’s one evaluation method, but not necessarily the best.

I recently talked with a woman looking to hire a writer to “fix” the copy for a Web site describing her newly organized and unconventional non-profit organization. She found me via a writer colleague of mine, who was too busy to take on this project for her, his longtime client, and recommended me instead.

The potential client wasn’t happy with the copy as it stood. I agreed — I found it not only didn’t clearly explain the new organization, it actually gave me the wrong idea. As I listened to her describe the organization, I asked many questions, trying to zero in on how I would describe it so it would make sense and convey the unique, creative nature of the organization.

The client, gun-shy over having been burned once on the copy, kept expressing her desire to make sure the site had the right voice. That she hired the right writer who “got it.” She seemed uncomfortable with my probing questions, actually saying that many people she described it to just immediately understood what it was all about. (But obviously not the person who wrote the initial copy.) Along the way, she asked to see samples of my work (more than what’s on my Web site) and reiterated that the site needed the “right” writer.

In the end, she decided to let the agency who had designed the site handle the selection of a writer. By that time, I was a bit relieved — the project seemed to be more trouble than the 10 or so hours it would consume.

But it made me think, again, about the value of experience and the importance of “fit” when hiring a writer.  Here’s my take.

  1. Ask for recommendations — and believe the people you ask.
    Certainly, you should ask people whose opinions you value whom they would recommend and why they think that person is a good choice.  I believe any writer who comes recommended in such a way could do the job, particularly if both recommender and recommendee have been in business awhile.
  2. Ask if the writer has done just what you’re looking for — but don’t be afraid if he or she hasn’t.
    In many ways, commercial writing is a process. The writer studies the subject in advance, asks probing questions, gauges the appropriate tone and feel of the finished piece, produces a draft, and refines it based on feedback from subject matter experts and other reviewers. Whether the topic is product packaging or hedge fund fraud or why-my-law-firm-is-better-than-yours doesn’t matter. When it may matter is if your subject is highly technical or highly industry-specific; then it may make sense to hire a specialist in that area to avoid a steep learning curve. But even then, your subject matter experts can often inject the “insider” perspective your writer may lack, and a good writer will quickly learn the industry and lingo.
  3. Most importantly, trust your gut.
    Do you get a good feeling when you talk with the writer? Does he put you at ease that he understands what you’re looking for? Does she come recommended by someone you trust? Is she willing to meet your budget and schedule constraints? Does he ask smart questions that make you think? All of these are likely more important than seeing “your project” reflected in the writer’s portfolio.

My potential client, who decided to let someone else choose her Web site writer for her, probably didn’t get the gut feeling that I was right for the job. And that’s OK. Our interactions also convinced me we weren’t a good fit. Working together may have changed both our minds, or it may have been an exercise in frustration. More than I trust my 20 years of writing experience telling me I could do the job, I trust my40+-year-old  gut telling me it wasn’t meant to be. My advice is to trust yours, too — more important than whether your prospective writer’s experience matches your needs is your gut feeling that he or she is right for the job.

# # #

There is no need for the writer to eat a whole sheep
to be able to tell what mutton tastes like.
It is enough if he eats a cutlet.
~ W. Somerset Maugham


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