Negotiating isn’t about saying magic words that can hypnotize clients into paying higher rates or giving a raise. Yet many freelancers approach client negotiation with either fear or distaste, like it’s some black art.
This is where this guide comes in. It will help dispel common misgivings you may have about negotiating with clients by showing you five concrete, actionable steps you can take to prepare for a negotiation (including a downloadable worksheet).
Learn how to analyze your client’s business, prove your worth, build a strong case for your rates, and even prepare for possible objections. By the end of this guide, you should feel more confident to negotiate above average rates with incoming clients, to ask for a raise with current ones, or to be generally comfortable when discussing rates. Let's get started.
1. Find Out Your Client’s Goals and Problems
Before you can actually negotiate, you have to know as much as you can about your client’s business. For current clients, you already have the benefit of familiarity with your client’s business, it’s just a matter of filling in some of the things you might not know yet. But if they are a new client, you can set up a preliminary meeting or ask them to fill up a client brief or questionnaire.
Let’s take a minimalist approach here because it’s easy to get lost in asking clients 50 different questions and yet miss how all this info will fit together. There are only two things you should focus on: your client’s goals and their problems. Later on, this information will come in handy when you position yourself as the freelancer who can help them reach their goals or solve their problems.
Here are some questions to ask to identify your client’s goals:
- What's the number one, most important goal that you have for your business this year?
- If there was only one goal you want your business to achieve this year, what would it be and why?
- Which potential opportunities could make the biggest difference in your business right now?
Here are the questions that can help you uncover the problems, frustrations, or obstacles that your client is currently facing:
- What's the most painful/frustrating thing about your business right now?
- What’s the most challenging thing about your typical workday?
- Which barriers or obstacles are getting in the way of your success?
- Which aspects of your competitors’ businesses keep you up at night?
Note: The more you do this, the more you’ll find universal problems and goals across most businesses. For example, attracting and retaining more customers is often important to small business owners. You can see this reflected in surveys such as this one from Constant Contact, which found that “how to attract new customers” is the top concern for both B2B and B2C small businesses. Another survey from Inc.com found that for 91-percent of small businesses, seeking new U.S. customers was a key part of their business plan. Over time, you’ll become better at guessing possible problems and goals before you even talk to the client, as you'll have more experience with their type of business and the market.
If you want to go beyond generic goals and problems, try to identify more specific areas you can address, especially if it’s relevant to the project you’ll be working on. For example:
- In their past experiences working with developers, what frustrated them the most?
- If the social media campaign you’re hired to run turned out perfectly, what do they think it would be like?
- What’s their perfect mental picture of what it would be like to work with a designer like you?
To summarize, invest in finding out where your clients want to go with their business and what’s getting in their way. Not only will this give you a stronger negotiating position later, it will also demonstrate that you’re not negotiating just for the sake of getting more money—there’s value in it for the client as well.
2. Measure Your Impact
Increase the chances of a negotiation swinging in your favor by having concrete proof of the value you provide. Any freelancer can say that they’re writing articles, redesigning a website, or building an app—but these things are just the product. They are not the value you provide and they don’t do a good job of communicating the impact of your contribution to the business. And it’s this impact that you need to track because, ultimately, that’s what clients are paying for.
How important are you to the client you’ll be negotiating with? This question seems simple enough to answer but, when you think about it deeply, it’s hard to come up with an answer that doesn’t seem like guesswork. This is why quantifying your impact is such an essential part of negotiating.
The good news is that there is a simple way to show just how important you are (or could be) to your client’s business.
Step 1: Gather Specific Positive Feedback
Even if you’re a beginning freelancer who’s only worked on a handful of projects, odds are you’ve already received positive feedback about your work. This feedback can come in handy during negotiating.
Search your email inbox for previous email exchanges with your clients. If you’re negotiating with a current client, specifically look for their emails. If you’re negotiating with a new client, any previous feedback from your clients will come in handy. Start collecting this positive feedback into a file.
If you communicate with your clients in other ways, such as instant messaging, social media, or a project management app, search those channels for any praise as well. Just remember to take note of the date they gave you that feedback and why. That way, when you bring it up again, you can be specific about the context.
This step works best if the feedback you receive is as concrete as possible. For example “Excellent job overall!” is not as compelling as “Thanks for redesigning our website. Our recurring customers love the new look!”
If you find that you’re lacking concrete client feedback, now might be a great time to indirectly request one through a client feedback form. Here are some questions you can ask:
- What are my most important contributions to your business?
- Which business goals did you achieve with the help of my services?
We often think of feedback as something that’s only useful when we want to improve or when we need validation that we did good work. But, as you’ll see from this exercise, positive feedback can also prove that you’re a safe investment.
Step 2: Gather Concrete Outcomes You’ve Accomplished
When it comes to proving your worth, appreciative words can only go so far. To really seal the deal you’d need to gather concrete proof of the things you’ve accomplished—preferably if it’s quantifiable. This is different from just showing a portfolio of your work. Usually, a portfolio just presents a list of your projects and or a showcase of the finished product. For this step, you’d have to dig deeper and find the data that shows exactly what your client accomplished as a result of your finished product. The data you’d need would depend on the services you provide.
There are two different ways to get this data: track it yourself or use publicly available data. Here are some examples of the data you can use:
Publicly Available Data
- Online writers can track social media shares, number of comments, and if their work has been cited/shared by thought leaders.
- SEOs can track search engine rankings of their clients’ websites for important keywords and how their clients rank compared to their competitors.
- App developers can track the number of downloads to their app, as well as any public reviews.
Data You Can Track Yourself
- Marketers—from consultants to social media marketers—often have the advantage of having analytics reporting as part of the services they provide. Apart from being a service, this helps justify a marketer’s role in a client’s business.
- Web designers, as part of their services, can use heatmaps on webpages to see the parts of the page users tend to click on, or A/B testing of redesigned pages.
- There are some productivity analytics that might be useful, depending on how you frame it. You can also track how many hours you worked on the project and equate it with time the client could have spent working on it alone. You can also track how quickly you finished the project, especially if you turned in your deliverables early.
- When you have enough time to prepare before a negotiation with a current client, you can ask them to provide the data needed to measure your impact. One way to do this is to tell them that you’d appreciate access to this information because you’d like to help improve those numbers—something you were going to do anyway if you’re committed to helping your client with their business.
To find out which data would be useful to you, list all the key services you’ve provided to your clients in the past. Which ones have had the most significant positive impact on their business? Try to measure that impact quantitatively. Many of the things we do for clients have a measurable impact and, if we look hard enough, we can find a way to prove it.
3. Build a Strong Case for Your Rates
For this step, you’ll be using all your research so far to build a strong case for getting the rates you want. (Note: If you’re unsure about your asking price, you can check out our guide on how to give estimates. Another solid resource is the Freelance Industry Report, which list the hourly rates of international freelancers across several industries.)
Once you’ve set the right price range for your work, go back to the list of goals and problems for your client, and for each item, ask yourself the following questions:
- What skills, experiences, and traits do you have that can contribute to this goal (or solve this problem)? List the top skills, experiences, and personality or character traits you have that can help your clients achieve the goal or solve the problem. Basically, you need to answer the question “Why me?” Why are you the ideal person that the client should invest in, compared to their other options, such as doing it in-house or hiring a large firm?
- What would the client's business look like as a result of achieving this goal (or solving this problem)? Put yourself in your target client's shoes, and think about how achieving the goal or solving the problem would change their business. For example, if their goal is to double their revenue, don’t just focus on the numbers—what would it mean for them to double their revenue? Would they be able to expand their office space? Hire some staff? Be as concrete as possible.
At this stage, you’ll be establishing the connection between your unique set of skills and traits to your client’s ideal scenario; what their business looks like when they’ve achieved their most important goals and fixed their most painful problems. Once you’ve created this connection, your client will better understand the role you’ll be playing in their success.
4. Outline and Practice Your Pitch
This is where all your preparation finally comes together. You’ll be summarizing everything you’ve gathered so far into a draft pitch of what you’ll say to the client come negotiation time. Here’s one way to outline it:
- “In our previous conversations, you’ve mentioned that you want to…” [Insert one of their goals or problems here.]
- “I know I can help you with that because I have a track record of…” [Bring up the outcomes you’ve achieved and the skills and experience you can contribute.]
- “In fact, you’ve even said…” [Bring up positive feedback that the client has previously given you. If this is a new client, this is where you bring up praise from your other clients.]
- “Once I’ve helped you achieve this goal (or solve this problem), your business will…” [Paint them a picture of what their business will look like as a result].
- [This is the point where you tell them what you’re asking for. If you’re declaring your rates with a new client, you can just say “To get to that point, the investment in this project would be…” and state your rates. If you’re asking for a raise, you can say “But for me to be able to deliver those results, we’d need a slight adjustment in rates…”]
- “How does that sound?”
For example, someone doing website design work could prepare the following outline:
- “In our previous conversations, you’ve mentioned that you want to get 20-percent more customers in the next six months.”
- “I know I can help you with that because I have a track record of designing websites that sell products really well. In a recent project, I was able to help a company increase the number of downloads to their app, just from a simple homepage redesign.”
- “In fact, they told me their repeat customers found the site easier to use.”
- “Once I’ve helped you get more customers, your business will have more financial room to grow and pursue additional opportunities.”
- “To get to that point, the total investment in this project would be $8,000 to $10,000.“
- "How does that sound?”
You don’t have to use this outline verbatim. Using the perfect words isn’t the point. What’s important is that you bring up this information in your negations. You want to make strong connections between all the information you have so far: your client's goals and problems, your track record, and your rates.
It’s best to draft two to five versions of this to find the one that will work best for your situation and sounds as natural as possible. As you practice saying these statements to yourself, not only will you remember how to prove your worth, you’ll be reminded of your best work and gain confidence from that.
5. Prepare Yourself Against Possible Objections
Sometimes, no matter how strongly you present your case, some clients will still hesitate to give you a raise, or pay your asking price—even if they can afford it. In some cases, this might be a sign that you aren’t a good fit or that they are not a good fit for you. But if the discussion has been friendly so far, maybe you just need to address their objections. This is why it’s best to anticipate their objections beforehand, so you know how to reassure them.
If you’ve been freelancing for a few years now, it’s likely that you’re already familiar with the most common hesitations that clients have when negotiating. Here’s two common ones, including ideas on how to respond:
- "It doesn’t fit the budget." There are some cases when this objection is valid, such as when working with a non-profit or if a client will use his or her personal savings to fund the project. In other cases, though, there’s usually some wiggle room. Ask them how they set the budget and what the decision-making process was. This can reveal their underlying issues: maybe they’re not making enough sales, maybe they don’t have the power to adjust the budget, or they want to see results first before they invest more. Knowing this allows you to respond to them appropriately.
- "Other freelancers are quoting a lower amount." You can tell the client that you understand that your price range is a bit higher than others, but that’s for a very good reason—the returns you provide. To prove that you’re the better investment, you’ll want to refer to your accomplishments, such as the concrete results you’ve gotten for other businesses, as well as the unique skills and experience you have.
List other possible objections you can think about, and then refer to all the prep work you’ve done so far to see how they’d be useful in dealing with those objections.
Remember: When your clients have any objections, it’s best to address these objections and reassure your client rather than just making an opposing statement. Understand that their objections seem real and valid to them, even if you’ve already gathered all the proof you need to show that you’re a good investment.
Confidence Comes From Preparation
Not all freelancers are confident enough to justify getting a raise from clients or charging above average rates, and that’s perfectly normal. But once you do the above exercises, not only will you be ready with all the information your client will need to make a decision in your favor, you’ll also remind yourself of everything that makes you a valuable freelancer. Given all this preparation, you can walk into that discussion feeling calm, confident, and ready.