Working as a freelancer is a tough gig, especially when you’re starting out, or if you’re going through a dry spell. Finding clients willing to pay for your services – especially when you haven’t got a lot of those services under your belt yet – can be scary.
Even successful freelancers sometimes have trouble getting clients to pay them for their services. Some clients are just stingy, or poorly managed, or even simply stuck with a small budget for a really great project.
But you’re good at what you do, and you’re offering something of value, so how do you make sure that clients will work with the price you’re giving them?
Well, here’s what you need to know…
When They Want You to Work for Free
If you ask advice from any successful freelancer, they’ll tell you one thing: Never work for free.
Why? Because the whole reason you’re in business is to make a profit. Even if a gig lands you great “exposure” – which is the excuse a client will use to get free labor – it’s not doing you any good in the long run. No amount of exposure will help you pay the bills, as they say.
But what happens if you really, really want the job anyway? Sometimes it may happen where the company is offering a chance to publish on their coveted site or maybe the work is for a great company and you want to get your foot in the door. In either case, is it still okay to work for free?
How to Handle Cheap Clients
Look, we’re not here to tell you that you can’t work for free, but we’re saying that you probably shouldn’t, at least in most cases. So how do you land the job and make money? Here are a couple ways:
Just say no, but ask for referrals. If the client has approached you and asked for free work, state your prices, and if they still persist in asking you to do it for free, tell them no. Now, it may seem illogical to ask for a referral when you haven’t done any work, but don’t write it off so easily. Restate the value you offer, and let them know that if they have a budget for something in the future, or know of someone looking for services like your own, that they can contact you.
Prepare a thorough pitch and use examples to justify your prices. If you’re pitching a client and they tell you they won’t pay, then it comes down to your ability to hard sell. Preparation is your best friend. Put together a project proposal that blows them away, and include samples of work you’ve done in the past, and then – and don’t miss it – include specific numbers and examples of how your work will improve their lives. Include some spec work if possible to boost your credibility.
When They Won’t Reveal Their Budget
Sometimes you’re eager to pitch a client a project proposal, or maybe they’ve offered you some great work, but the client asks the dreaded question, “How much do you charge?”
For freelancers that have been around long enough and have figured out their fee scales (and are confident with them), that question may be easy to answer. But for newer freelancers or those still fiddling around with their fee structures, that question can be daunting.
The last thing in the world you want to do is undercharge, but if you throw out a high figure you might not land the gig, either. So what do you say to a client who asks you what you charge if you’re not exactly sure what you charge?
How to Handle Mysterious Clients
According to Karen Marsten from Untamed Writing, “People who aren’t as good as you are making more money than you, simply because they have the balls to shout about themselves.”
In the long run, it’s actually a safer bet to aim high with the risk of losing the work rather than pricing too low and getting cheated. Why?
Well first of all, because you’re here to pay your bills, but it’s also because budgeting too low also means you risk being stuck at that price forever. Even if a client is offering you work that you’re excited about, they may bail when you muscle up the courage to tell them your rates are increasing. Either way, you’re getting screwed over.
Another big factor is the “fake it until you make it” idea. Humans tend to think things that cost more are higher quality, even if they’re not. So even if you’re not the smartest cookie in the cookie jar, if you price your services like you are, people will believe it.
But you still want to make sure that your “expensive” pitch doesn’t scare away work. Here’s what you can say when a client wants to know what you charge:
Outright ask them if they have a budget in mind. Sometimes clients won’t be forthright about their budget, or they’ll lead with asking about your price and forget to mention it. Try asking if they have a budget in mind – or if they can give you a “round figure” and see what they say. They may give it to you, but if they don’t…
Tell them it depends on the scope of the work and then ask to see more project specs, or float some numbers to them in a broad ballpark. The more information they share, and the more you pitch ideas back to them during the process before giving them your rates, the more they’ll be likely to work with you no matter your rates. Saying, “It depends” also buys you time to see what you’re getting yourself into before committing.
When They Offer a Lower Price
Now let’s say you have a client who finds you, and they have some work that needs to be done and is right up your alley, and, amazingly, they have a budget in mind. Awesome, right?
Well, what happens when that “budget” is hundreds (or thousands) of dollars less than you normally charge? For some freelancers, saying, “No thanks” or “Actually, I charge…” isn’t a problem because they have other clients and sources of income. But what happens if you’re either just starting out and don’t have very many clients (so you need the work), or you’re trying to add additional sources of income and this client would be a great fit?
Similar to the problem of the no-budget-client, if you come back and say, “Actually, I charge…” you might risk losing the gig, which for newbies can be financially devastating. If you don’t renegotiate, however, you risk being charged less than what you’re worth, and much less than the value you provide.
How to Handle Low-Priced Clients
The trick is to consider the long-term benefits of a client or project. Will this project matter in five years? Maybe – if the client loves your work enough and offers you a full-time contract then you’ve netted yourself some serious dough. But again, you don’t want to be undercut forever, so you have to stand your ground.
Take the project, but on a contingency. If you really want the job, then take it, but make it clear that your normal rates are much higher. Then, proceed to smash the project out of the park. While it can be tempting to slack because you’re not making as much money, resist that urge and do your best work anyway. When they love the project (and love working with you) they’ll be more willing to say yes to your budget when they offer you the next gig.
Tell them your rates and upsell your value. If you’re not quite desperate for cash and you have a little leeway if they say no, consider telling them what you normally charge for a project of that scope, but then sell them on an extra service. “I charge X, but what I can also do for you during the process is X” is a great way to upsell the value they’re getting. The key to a good upsell is to show proof, so if you have success stories from other clients to backup your claims, use them. If they accept, you’ve got more money in your pocket. If they don’t accept, they probably weren’t the client for you.