Expert Negotiation Tips From a 6-Figure Freelancer
Discover how to pivot from only talking price and deliver personalized follow-up that works for you, too.
For creatives, who make up a big portion of the modern freelance market, there’s often uncertainty about protecting pricing and boundaries. And yet pricing and boundaries are also extremely important for anyone running a business. (If you’re a freelancer, that’s you! You are the CEO of your company.) Knowing when and how to negotiate is a very valuable skill, and the good news is that you don’t need an MBA to start leveraging negotiation techniques.
I always say that you can negotiate anything, even if the client is set on their budget. Since these issues should be coming up after a phone call or initial conversation and during or after the phase of the relationship where you write a proposal, you should have already positioned yourself with value. If the client is hung up on a certain part of your proposal, be prepared to respond confidently and quickly with these negotiation tips.
Dive deep into your client’s psychology on the initial call
Let’s stop calling them sales calls, shall we? I prefer opportunity calls. Because that’s what it is — the chance to see if you’re the right fit for the client and for you to gather as much information as possible about their concerns and needs. During this phone call, you’re hunting for clues that you can plug into the proposal. For example, if the client mentions they don’t really understand Facebook ads and are concerned about spending too much money and realizing that too late, build steps into your proposal to ease their fears. You might suggest weekly reporting or monthly budget caps to make them feel more confident about working with you.
Related: The Fine Art of Client Pitching
The initial phone call is also a great chance to see just how important it is to this client that they solve the problem in question. If they’re casually shopping or don’t feel that the service you provide is vital, it will be very hard to convince them to pay you for any of your packages. As much as you can during the call, draw the connection between what you do and how it solves this serious problem for them.
Take notes during the call so you can repeat the client’s words back to them as much as possible. If a client hiring a content writer is concerned about duplicate or plagiarized content, that might show up on a proposal as “100 percent unique content-guaranteed.” Even though that might seem obvious to a professional writer, it makes the proposal feel very personalized for that client. And what better way to kick off a new relationship with a client than them feeling that you listen to what they say and turn that into strategy?
The more on-target your initial proposal, the less need for negotiation at all.
Negotiation goes well beyond pay
It’s true that there will always be plenty of people who just can’t afford you. But if you can adjust your costs down and subsequently scale down the scope of the project or their expectations of you, lean into it. After being rejected on cost, you have little to lose. Maybe your proposal was too expensive for them but included four hours of phone calls with you. If you cut that down to a 30-minute strategy kickoff call each month, are you closer to their target budget? Were you offering a supplementary service that isn’t essential to their core needs right now that you can delete from the proposal and adjust the price accordingly?
You can negotiate overall expectations, turnaround time, communication, size of the finished project and so much more. In order to negotiate, however, you have to have somewhere to go down to. Look for opportunities to adjust expectations outside of price. Clients don’t always expect it, but it shows that you’re willing to work with them and you don’t have to give up on being paid what you’re worth, either.
Don’t give too many details
If a client pushes back on your price, raising your rates or a certain company policy, like requiring a 50 percent deposit for freelance services upfront, don’t feel like you have to justify it. You can respond confidently and firmly to these requests with statements like:
- For the protection of both parties, it’s company policy to require a 50 percent deposit so I can hold the spot for your work in my calendar.
- I understand my price is more than the average or cheapest freelancer for this project; however, with my level of expertise, results and time in this industry, I don’t charge beginner rates.
- Due to increased demand for my services and my desire to serve my clients at the highest level, my rates are increasing on July 1.
One clear sentence like those above will help you clarify to the client that this is a non-negotiable policy or that there’s limited room to budge you from your position.
Prepare your wording in advance (don’t feel like you have to agree now)
Clients will often want to negotiate on the phone, but this doesn’t work well for anyone who feels like they need time to gather their thoughts. Just like you shouldn’t have to justify your position as listed above, you also don’t have to agree to anything on the phone. You can tell a client that you need some time to mull this over. Give them a date or time by which they’ll hear from you on your decision, such as:
- I understand your concerns over the cost of the proposal. Did you have another budget in mind? I’d like to take a second look tonight if so and revise to see if we might still work together. I could have that to you tomorrow morning.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to work through a mock call if a client pushes back. Think through those common scenarios listed above — cost, turnaround time, scale of the project, etc. — come up with a response for each of them and type it out to keep your head on straight if these issues come up during a call.
Always have a backup option in your pocket for when a client pushes on your proposal or idea. The more successfully you can maneuver into a new idea if you’ve really tried and been unable to convince them of the current proposal, the better. Tap into their words to learn more about what they’re having an issue with. You should have different approaches for responding to concerns over price, scope, ability, schedule and more.
Having some ideas in mind of where you might be able to adjust down and negotiate before you ever go into an email exchange or phone call with a client will help you feel more like you’ve got a toolkit to pull from and less like you’re scrambling to say anything to secure the project. Remember: It's your business, and you're in control.
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