Articles - 5th November 2020

A guide to negotiating without fear

Words by Tom May
Illustration by James Merritt

One of the biggest problems we encounter as freelancers is asking for decent money. Particularly in the early stage of our career, it’s common for clients to lowball us, and for us to accept, because we don’t have the experience, or self-esteem, to negotiate properly.

Unfortunately, that’s a habit that can stick, and bedevil us for a whole career. But a life feeling underappreciated is not a life worth living. So in this article, I’ll offer some practical steps to help you go about negotiating properly, and get what you truly deserve.


1. Just ask

The starting point for negotiation is simple: ask for what you want. That might not sound like rocket science, and it isn’t. But many freelancers simply accept what they’re offered, every time, and never think about asking for more. Not just at the start of a relationship, but even years, or decades into it.

This often stems from a misplaced belief that what you’re being offered is the market rate, and you “don’t want to seem greedy”. So the first step is to check what the market rate actually is.

In many professions, there are both formal reports and informal surveys you can check out. For example, Ben the Illustrator carries out an annual survey of how much freelance illustrators are being paid.

If that’s not the case in your sector, though, there’s nothing to stop you carrying out your own. Twitter, for example, makes it easy to host polls, so you can ask people which of several pay bands reflects their earnings most closely. Even if you don’t have many followers, you’ll be amazed at how quickly a post like that will be retweeted; because everyone else will want to know the answer too!


2. Research your client

Once you’ve done your research about market rates, you can make a properly informed choice about what you’re willing to accept from clients. And it’s certainly the case that if you don’t ask, you won’t get. However, even if you do, it’s not guaranteed of course. So before you pitch your new rate, you need to prepare your ground.

The bedrock of negotiation lies in knowing who you’re dealing with, what they can afford and – crucially – what value you can potentially add to their operation. If what you offer is marginal to them, then they can afford to rebuff you. However, if your contribution is crucial to their success, they’ll have no choice but to at least engage with your request.

In other words, you need to fully research your client and the market they operate in, and understand where they’re coming from, both in terms of the organisation and the person you deal with specifically. Then you’ll be able to put yourself in their shoes, and think: “How would I respond to this request myself?”


3. Ask questions

What’s the secret to negotiating? It’s not always, as TV shows might suggest, about “being tough” and “playing hardball”. Often it’s just down to good communication, and understanding the other side’s point of view, so you can come to an agreement that satisfies both parties.

When it comes to clients, this often means sitting down with them in person, either physically or on Zoom, and asking a lot of questions. These questions shouldn’t feel like a police interrogation, though. Instead, the client should feel you’re showing an admirable interest in their business, and how you can serve them effectively.

Do this right, and it will make them more willing to see you as a partner they want a long term relationship with; a psychological process often referred to as ‘buy in’. Plus the more information you gain from the conversation, the better you’ll be able to make your case for appropriate compensation.

The more you can build a level of trust and personal connection with your client, the easier you’ll find this process. That doesn’t mean being false or manipulative; you don’t have to be best buddies. But if you can find shared interests, or hit it off in some way, that’s only going to help you communicate better and each get more of what you want out of your working relationship.


4. Upsell rather than undercharge

Do your homework, make your case carefully, and hopefully your client will agree to the rate you ask for, or at least meet you halfway. They may, however, simply say: “I’d love to, but we don’t have the budget.” So where do you go from there?

One strategy can be to reframe the conversation and upsell them extra services instead. Bear in mind that, with big companies especially, there may be “no budget” for one thing, but plenty of cash for something else. So for example, a freelance web designer might be told by a company they can’t afford to pay more for building them a website. But the designer might counter: “How about I take on your social media management as well?” and cut a beneficial deal over that.

Again, the more research you can do into your client, the more ideas you’ll be able to upsell them with. And even if none of these options work for them, it will hopefully get them into the mindset of making their own suggestions, helping both of you to get closer to a mutually satisfactory deal.


5. Learn to walk away

Ultimately, the main negotiating weapon you have as a freelancer is to walk away. And if you do this convincingly, it can often work.

Anyone who’s shopped at a tourist market on holiday, and wandered off after examining an item, will have experienced this. Typically, the stallholder will shout at you down the street “Okay, make it 20…. Alright, 10…. Five, my final offer.” Then as you near the horizon, you hear a distant voice crying, “Three?” Harness that dynamic in your freelance negotiations, and you’ll do well in the long run.

Even if the client doesn’t bat an eyelid, they may well be bluffing, and come back to you at a later date when they can’t find anyone else decent. And if they don’t? Well, in the nicest possible way, screw them. There are plenty more clients out there, and you probably wouldn’t have enjoyed working with them anyway.

More importantly, each negotiation is a learning process, and something you get better and better at over time. So you just need to put the effort in, learn to deal with the rejection, pick yourself up, and start again. Do this, and ultimately you’ll end up making the right deal with the right client… and be glad you didn’t compromise.

We champion the freelancers and every entrepreneur who took a leap of faith with their idea.

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