April 3rd, 2008
Thanks to everyone who wrote in with their burning freelance questions last month. I really appreciate it. This question really stuck in my craw, so I decided to give a quick answer now.
Frustrated Freelancer asks: I recently was negotiating a project with a client I really wanted to work for. After I told them my price, they came back with, “We think this could turn into a lot of ongoing work, so would you be willing to come down?” It made no sense. If they are going to come to me with more work (and therefore take up a higher percentage of my time, which is then unavailable for other projects), why would I lower my price? Maybe there is some logic to lowering your price for some situations? I’d love to know.
I answer: Your instincts are right. “We will give you more work later” does not justify a haggle-down now. It’s a pretty weak argument for the client to make. Not only are you forfeiting 5, 10, or 20 percent of your earning potential now, you’re doing it month and after month if you continue to work with this client. And since you’d ideally want to raise your rates in another year or two to keep up with the cost of living (a topic for another day), you’re starting out wayyyy behind where you need to be.
The client’s tentative language (“Would you be willing…?”) indicates they’re just bluffing and trying to save a few bucks. Something more hard-and-fast like, “We’d love to work with you, but $xx.xx is the highest our budget will allow” lets you know there’s no more wiggle room (say, because you’re negotiating with a non-profit organization or a small company with limited funds for outsourcing projects). So my answer would be, “No, but I could do [a price midway between what you initially suggested and what they're now offering].” If you’ve padded your first offer by 10 to 20 percent of what you actually want for the job and a haggle-down ensues, you have a much better chance of coming away with a price you like.
Before you enter into any negotiations with a client, I’d get clear on what “I really want to work with them” means. Would one sample in your portfolio from this company meet your needs? If all you’re looking for is to be able to say, “I’ve worked with Fancypants Client X,” then the answer is yes.
If, however, you believe strongly in the organization’s mission and want to do whatever it takes to forge an ongoing relationship with them, maybe you resign yourself to working for them at a discounted rate (if that’s the best you can do) in the name of community service and make up the difference with higher-paying bread-and-butter clients. Or, if the client’s offering some high-profile work that would get you noticed by other potential clients, industry bigwigs, and perhaps even the media, maybe you do a few pieces for them and reap the rewards in other ways (perhaps press for your business, which leads to more business) before moving on.
But back to the haggle-down at hand: Say the client’s shot down your counteroffer or shut you down with a “We simply can’t afford it” statement. You want to work with this client at least once, but you don’t want to get branded as someone who makes 80 percent of what she knows she’s worth. So you tell them you’d really like to work with them on their campaign to save the polar bears and will give them a 20 percent discount on this one gig so they can afford it. If it’s a for-profit company, you can add that you hope they can come up in price in next time.
Then on your project agreement and invoice, be sure to indicate that you’re giving a 20 percent discount. That way, the client won’t expect the same low price in the future. And neither will any of the colleagues they recommend you to.