The Proofreader’s Corner: A Call to Action — Nudging the Customer to Work Out Whether the Fit is Right
by Louise Harnby
Unless we’re a member of that small cohort of editorial freelancers who do it all, we’ll have good-fit customers and bad-fit customers. Take me, for example — I’m a proofreader who specializes in working for social science and trade publishers. I also proofread for independent authors whose manuscripts have been professionally edited.
Experienced writers (e.g., academics) and mainstream publishers know what a proofreader does, so they don’t ask me to index, copyedit, structurally edit, or write. They know the differences between these levels of editorial service. We all know we’re a good fit for each other.
Often, this isn’t the case with the customer who is unfamiliar with the publishing process. I’m regularly contacted by self-publishing authors whose first manuscript has been beta read by their mother and their best mate. The likelihood of this file being ready for proofreading is miniscule. Give me a badly written and poorly organized manuscript and I’ll do my best to eradicate spelling mistakes, ensure there’s subject–verb agreement, tackle any misplaced apostrophes and wonky homophones, and attend to overall consistency of the client’s preferred style. But the manuscript will still be badly written and poorly organized when I’m done with it. I won’t apologize for this any more than my dentist will apologize for not being a good plumber.
Then there are the infrequent (one or two a year) requests from students who want me to write sections of their doctoral theses. The likelihood of this being possible (I only have a Bachelor’s degree) and acceptable (surely that would make it our doctorate) is zero on both counts.
In the above two examples, there’s a knowledge gap — I know we’re not a good fit for each other but these customers don’t. Why would they? For them, proofreading is a catchall term that means “help me sort out the mess.” Alas, that’s not my job. So what to do?
What’s the Problem?
The problem is that every minute I spend responding either to a student asking me to collude in her cheating, or to an honest independent author who needs a deeper level of editorial support, is a minute spent communicating with a bad-fit customer, and that’s a waste of my time and a waste of theirs. I’d rather spend my nonbillable hours engaging with good-fit customers than explaining why I won’t, or can’t, take on a particular project.
Furthermore, like many of my colleagues, I’m keen to educate the customer so that they understand more about the different levels of editorial intervention, and what’s appropriate and when. Take self-publishing as an example: The massive growth of this market has meant a substantial increase in the number of independent authors facing a steep learning curve as they move from being writers to publishers. And while there’s a ton of advice for them out there, we are still a long way from a world in which we can be sure the indie author understands exactly what service is needed and who can provide it.
As I said, the solutions are out there. I’ve produced a free ebooklet, Guidelines for New Authors, and created an FAQs page at my website that summarizes key issues aimed at helping customers identify whether we’re a good fit. I’m not unique by any means. Many of my colleagues, too many to list here, offer excellent examples of this best practice that aim to guide their customers in the search for appropriate editorial services — in the form of blogs, terms and conditions, FAQs, guidance sheets, ebooklets, and other knowledge bases and resource centers.
Is the Information Discoverable?
I hit a problem early on. All the necessary information was available to help the customer determine whether we were a good or bad fit, but I was still receiving a huge number of inappropriate requests to quote, indicating the message wasn’t getting through. I stopped taking student proofreading work two years ago, but still the inquiries kept coming. My Guidelines for New Authors were popular, but not popular enough — I was still being asked to copy- and structurally edit, and receiving sample manuscripts that weren’t even close to being ready for proofreading. I concluded that I wasn’t enabling the customer to navigate their way to the information effectively, so they couldn’t ascertain whether we were a good match.
From a marketing perspective I’ve always been a keen believer in focusing my blurb on what I can do rather than on what I can’t. I still believe that this is an appropriate strategy for my website’s home page. However, there comes a point for many of us when too many bad-fit customers choose (understandably — they’re busy, too) to move straight from the home page to the contact form. No matter how many other pages there are on our websites detailing our areas of expertise, there’s still a good chance that our customers miss these (or don’t spend much time reading them). Jakob Nielsen sums it up nicely:
How long will users stay on a Web page before leaving? It’s a perennial question, yet the answer has always been the same: Not very long. The average page visit lasts a little less than a minute. As users rush through Web pages, they have time to read only a quarter of the text on the pages they actually visit (let alone all those they don’t).
(“How Long Do Users Stay on Web Pages?”, 2011)
This was my problem—the information was there but it wasn’t discoverable enough. I needed to nudge my customer with a stronger call to action.
Nudging the Customer With a Call to Action
Given that I was receiving inappropriate requests to quote via my Contact page, I decided to nudge my customer about the good-fit issue by placing a strong call to action right above my email address — a statement saying:
“Help me to help you…Whether you’re a colleague or a potential client, if you have a question for me, you may find that I’ve already provided the answer on the FAQs page. If you wish me to provide you with a quotation, please click on the button below. This will open a one-page PDF that summarizes what I need to know about your project. Then call or email me to discuss your proofreading requirements in more detail.”
Underneath, I placed a large gray button—”What I need to know when you contact me…” Clicking on this button links through to the guidance sheet.
It’s early days so I don’t have anything statistically significant to report at this point. But already I’m receiving much more detailed information from potential clients that proves they’ve read the guidance sheet and have considered the different levels of editorial intervention. This means I’m able to assess whether we are potentially a good fit much earlier in the process. The results? Fewer email exchanges, much less time wasted quoting for projects that ultimately I’d have had to turn away, and happy customers who’ve learned a little at no cost to them.
What I’ve Learned
The primary lesson for me throughout this process is this: What I place on my website and what my customer chooses to read might well be two entirely different things. If I really want them to read something, I need to nudge them at the point where I have their attention. And that nudge — the call to action — needs to be obvious. Says Ginny Soskey, “In the land of calls-to-action, the motto is go big or go home. You can’t make a tiny little button that appears at the bottom of the page and hope that people will click on it — chances are, people are going to miss it.…” (“The Complete Checklist for Creating Compelling Calls-to-Action”, 2013).
If you feel you’re spending too much time fielding inappropriate enquires, or it’s taking too long to establish whether you’re a good match for your potential client, consider introducing specific guidelines to help your customers do their own assessment first. If you already have these guidelines, but you feel they’re not being read, then consider how best to nudge your customer in the right direction. Perhaps it’s your Contact page, or perhaps it’s somewhere else. That’s for you to test. There are no wrong or right answers when it comes to testing — just a gradual, practice-based understanding of what works best for you.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and the forthcoming Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.