Freelancing as a full-time career, in any field, is tough. It’s so tough that it’s not for everyone, but, like most things in life, it comes down to the individual and what they value. If being your own boss, keeping yourself disciplined, and setting your own course is of higher importance to you than working for someone else who sets the deadlines and projects, then you know freelancing is a great way to make a living WITH a fulfilling job.
But, (and this is a big but here) that also means winning your own clients. And with that comes marketing and sales, and with those two activities comes… NEGOTIATING.
If the idea of negotiating with your clients makes you break out in a cold sweat and want to jump on Indeed.com to look for full-time jobs, then take a moment to read this post. By the end of it, you’ll realize the simple truth about how to negotiate as a freelancer:
The key to a strong negotiation is knowing what your must-have requirements are and where you’re willing to compromise. It sounds obvious, but as a freelancer, especially just starting out, you’ll go into these conversations with your clients without a solid understanding of your needs, and without that sure foothold, it’s easy to be motivated by the wrong factors.
I went to school for film and video production and like design, it’s a technical and artistic trade full of a lot of freelancers and independent contractors. I had one professor tell our class that the work you choose generally falls into three categories:
Ideally, you want to pick projects that fulfill all three criteria, but we all know life isn’t that simple. Generally, we’ll work that meets two criteria and occasionally we’ll agree to do just one.
So what does this have to do with negotiating as a freelance designer? Like I said, if you don’t have a firm grasp on what you need in every project you take on at the highest level, how can you negotiate with customers and know you got it? Or if you do choose to compromise, how do you know if you’ve given up too much without learning the hard way?
Look, there are going to be times in your freelance journey where you decide to let go of the passion and learning and take the high-paying, boring project to pay the bills and that’s okay. But at least you’ve made a conscious decision about that choice.
Okay, next, let’s establish something about freelancing that often gets overlooked: Most folks who choose to freelance as designers don’t do it because they are excited about the sales and marketing aspect of the job. Like I said earlier, many talented designers may become physically ill thinking about talking to strangers about contracts and pricing, and that’s understandable. However, changing your mindset about this part of the freelancing lifestyle is key to success. Without an understanding of sales and marketing, you’re at the mercy of word of mouth and clients finding you somehow, right?
To be a successful freelancer, you need to change your mindset about sales by recognizing two things:
First, everything is sales. When you explain what you do for a living to a friend or post your work online, that’s all sales. That doesn’t mean you need to do it like a stereotypical used-car salesperson, it means you need to do it authentically. Being yourself and being comfortable in yourself is key to becoming a successful freelancer because at the end of the day you are selling yourself to your clients and they are establishing trust with you that you can get their project done.
Second, sales should be value-based. When you become obsessed with helping your clients suddenly it doesn’t feel like sales at all. It feels rewarding to send a pitch deck full of great ideas that will help their business grow and it will feel fine sharing the cost of the project with a client because you’re not “selling” them, you’re offering value for investment. Framing your sales as a way to help your clients also makes negotiating easier. I really like how Ran explains this in this video: making sure everyone wins.
When you give value to your client and they see the worth of it, they will be willing to pay for it (within their means). When you have the mindset of helping your clients and making sure both you and they “win” when you work together, you’re in a great position to either not have to negotiate with them at all or have a clear position you want to be in that drives your negotiation.
Moving your sales mentality towards value-based is an important step in embracing sales and marketing as a part of your freelancing job and it establishes a much more useful set of terms you can begin sharing with clients. And if there are questions or requests, you are in a much stronger position to negotiate from because you have established what they are getting when they work with you.
As a freelancer and especially starting out, you’re going to deal with a nice, strong case of imposter syndrome. You won’t feel confident in your abilities as a designer, you will feel like you need to price yourself under the market to get work and you’ll struggle to confidently set prices for your work when talking to clients.
Now, I know that if I tell you here in this blog article to just be more confident, it won’t flip a switch in your brain. Confidence takes experience. You need to go through a few projects from beginning to end to start to feel it. You need to bulk up your portfolio and have a few projects you’re really proud of to show off. But one thing you can start doing today is knowing that you do offer value to your clients and you are worth every penny for it. Even if you changed careers and just finished a Flux Academy course, you still have knowledge to bring value to your clients because that’s why they are talking to you!
Once you establish your rates for your services, you have to stick to them and only compromise on them when you run projects through the three criteria we talked about at the start. Then you can decide to take a project on for under your rate because it’s for a cause you are passionate about or because it will force you to learn new techniques. But beyond that, you need to stick to trying to get two of those criteria met AND get paid your rate for it.
Having the confidence to say your rates proudly and know you are worth it will make negotiating easier. People will respect that you do good work and charge for it and be less likely to try to challenge that fact.
In his book Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss explains that splitting the difference really isn’t the great compromise it’s made out to be. The common idea is that if you can meet in the middle, you’ll both be happy. But if you meet in the middle, doesn’t that mean you, and your client had to give something up? If you split the difference, are you still fulfilling your commitment to choosing projects that fit the categories you need to fulfill with each project or Ran’s rule that everyone needs to win? Compromise and splitting the difference are two different things, I'm not saying never compromise, I’m saying taking the split the difference route can often feel good but you need to critically examine if it really helps both parties.
Before you just go for the split, consider what is on the table and make sure you know the client knows that removing a page or service may be a way to save some money now, but if that detracts from your ability to build a site that converts, they may actually be compromising the entire project for short-term savings.
Depending on your client, if they have any sales experience or training in negotiation, they’ll know an important tactic is to approach everything about your proposal as negotiable. From their perspective, what’s the harm in asking? Knowing this is a common tactic can help you realize you don’t need to feel obligated to agree to compromise on every point they bring up. Instead, you can simply consider their counter offers and say, “unfortunately I can not do that, here’s why”. You might have a lot of fear that by doing so you’ll upset the client and they will walk away, but more often than not they are happy with the offer and just doing their due diligence of seeing if they can get a better deal. It’s an odd dance but one that requires you to really make sure you understand the client’s needs and why they are asking for you to compromise. It’s also a really tough lesson when you are just starting out because you’re desperate to grow your portfolio and make money but I guarantee that when you do this, you’ll be happier for it and likely be working with clients you actually want to work with.
Some people like negotiating, they see it as a game and they see their ability to get what they want as a defining part of who they are. This isn’t to say everyone like this is evil and out to get you, it’s a natural human trait to want to win. When you meet these people, you’ll know because as they continue to challenge your offers you still continue to move forward on the deal.
How do you manage this personality type? Give them something that doesn’t impact your side of the deal but feels like a win for them. Often it doesn’t have to be of the same value as what they originally asked for, they just need to feel like they pushed for the best deal and got one. Knowing what things cost you is important when you do this but if they ask to reduce the price, counter them with keeping the price as-is but adding something of value to the project that you know has value but won’t take a ton of your time. The client will feel like they got something from their negotiation and you’ll have kept your pricing.
Alright, you’ve established the kind of work you want to do and the reasons you want to do that work, so you have a footing on why you choose to do projects. You now also understand that when sales are focused on creating value and not hocking services to anyone that will pay, the sales process becomes about helping you and your clients win. You’ve discovered that no matter the level of experience you have, you offer services clients need and therefore you should be confident in sticking to your prices. We’ve also discussed common pitfalls of negotiating that many freelancers fall into so you can avoid those along the way.
So how do you put it all together? If you are just starting out freelancing you might be preparing for every client interaction to be a negotiation but in reality, they are the ones seeking advice and they need your help which means you hold a lot of the cards. You can start negotiating right now by establishing prices, processes, and policies for how you do your client's work. Whether you choose to share that on your portfolio website or pitch deck is up to you but by documenting these fundamentals of your business you once again establish a baseline for how you do business, which leads to stronger negotiations right out of the gate.
When you go to a restaurant and see the dishes and prices listed, you don’t call the manager over and ask to see their supplies, overhead, and labor cost breakdown and negotiate a lower price that eats into the restaurant’s profits (if you do do this, please stop…) so why would your clients do this to you? This is partially due to the fact that most clients don’t have any experience buying your services the way they do a salad but it also comes down to the fact that you’re not putting a menu in front of them.
This doesn’t mean you have to put your prices on your website in neat service packages, you can and it is a trend in the industry right now, but the reality is that every project is different, so show them an example. Don’t be shy about sharing how long projects take and how much they cost. Creating a case study that they can grasp in terms of what was produced and how long it took can be a great way to show your work AND the cost that goes into something similar to their project. Your clients will respect that you know what you are doing and that you have a process for them to follow.
Fortunately, you’re not alone in the world of freelance sales and negotiation, it’s something your peers deal with every day and thankfully we are part of a community that loves to share. There are tons of resources out there about negotiation and more broadly about running the business side of your freelance business. You can leverage others for specific tactics but what I find to be most useful is the confidence you gain when talking to your fellow freelancers. When you hear them confirm that you should charge X price or X sized project, you suddenly feel the validation you need to go to your customer and practice what we’ve discussed here. Remember, you offer a valuable service that will help your clients grow in their endeavors and that’s something you deserve to be compensated for. Negotiate from that place of confidence, avoid those common pitfalls, and watch your freelance business flourish.
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