Why I Don’t Usually Deal With Clients Who Ask ‘Can You Do It For Less?’
It’s an unpopular opinion, but I hate negotiations. This is why.
One of the beautiful things about working as a full-time freelancer is getting a crash course in running a business. If you do this for long enough, you’ll also deal with plenty of contract negotiations, including some which you may find icky.
Part of the process of running a solo business is also figuring out what works for you and your mental health.
Which is why — although it may strike many as grossly inflexible — as a general principle I don’t end up doing business with clients who try to undercut my rate before we’ve started working together.
I’m writing this blog post not to vent about thrifty clients. But rather to explain my reasoning precisely because I imagine it’s unpopular.
As I’m based in Israel, this policy has also meant that I’ve tended to work with more international clients than local ones. The stereotype about Middle Eastern haggling, in my experience, is totally true. I’ve found international clients less likely than local ones to attempt the “how about $X?” dance.
So here’s why when a prospective client asks “can you do it for less?” my response is usually both ‘no’ and a gentle way of trying to say ‘please find another freelancer.’
I Find It Disrespectful
I’ve dealt with a number of prospective clients over the years who have raised multiple million dollars in funding only to attempt to shave $50 off a piece of marketing collateral. The attitude puzzles me every single time even though I’ve seen it often.
I have also sometimes gone along with the negotiation process solely to see what happens as you go through it. In virtually all cases, my response to ‘can you do it for less?’ is a simple negative — I know my rates (more on that later). But I’ve also typically noticed that those prospects quickly backtrack and meet your rate. Which again puzzles me: what happened in five minutes that magically changed your budget?
The implication I draw from situations like these is that the client had the requisite budget to begin with but was hoping that I (the vendor) would be prepared to settle for less than what I had advertised.
When that’s the operative tactic, I assume — maybe unfairly — that the client was hoping to leverage something like my desperation — or lack of business — to save themselves a buck. There’s a power imbalance inherent in the relationship between most freelancers/consultants and most businesses. I don’t like when people try to leverage that.
In My Case, Haggling Usually Signals Cheapness
Do I think that there’s no place for haggling or negotiations in the business world?
But I also think that the acceptability of haggling depends to a large extent on the value of what you’re selling and who your prospective customer is.
Negotiating a six figure contract would be prudent. Trying to knock ten cents off a one dollar tomato would strike most as downright cheap.
Personally, I don’t object to negotiating a four figure contract retainer. We’re talking about an ongoing expense and for a small business that might be a substantial drain on their budget. Likewise, I think that a business attempting to negotiate a salary is both perfectly reasonable and to be expected.
However, when I find myself dealing with a client who asks whether a one time writing project can be done for $300 or $350 rather than $400, I tend to view it as a sign that that client is going to be difficult about money from the first project through to the last. Value-based buyers (more on that later) tend to be focused on the bigger picture and aren’t looking to save themselves pennies.
Yes, I can shave half an hour off the project to make it work. But when I’m compromising on quality over such petty numbers, the project is unlikely to be rewarding on my end. Think: worse portfolio samples or ones that I wouldn’t want to use at all to land more work. The reasons begin to stack up.
When a client asks “can you do it for less?” I weigh up what kind of money is at stake and who the client is and whether they really need to cut corners or are just trying to leverage their size.
If I’m dealing with a highly profitable business that’s trying to shave pennies off a marketing spend — and I’ve seen that many times — I take it as a sign that they or their organization doesn’t value or respect the type of service that I provide. In turn, that would likely portend a frustrating working relationship.
I Know How To Price. Doesn’t Haggling Assume That I Don’t?
I’ve been working as a freelancer/consultant for more than five years now, including almost three years doing this as my full-time living.
How to Set An Hourly Freelance Rate
Two months ago, I provided some guidelines for tackling one of the most difficult aspects of working as a freelance…
One of the trickiest parts of freelancing is knowing how to quote well — particularly for us writers who are often far more comfortable dealing with words than with numbers. Which is why I’ve spent a lot of time staring at spreadsheets in the small hours of the morning in order to figure out how much I need to charge to make this line of work viable for my financial situation.
In general, quoting more complex projects is harder than quoting for simple ones. But if I’m preparing a quote for a very simple project — let’s take writing a blog post for argument’s sake because it doesn’t get much more straightforward than that — I do so with a reasonable degree of mathematical precision.
My process is simple. I always control for scope (I generally limit writing clients to one revision before overages apply). And then I estimate how long a project will take before multiplying that estimate by my hourly rate.
The process has taken years of practice and “whoops, I didn’t charge enough” moments to get right. Which is why when a client asks whether something could be done for less, saying no is usually just me being honest — assuming they want the project done well, that is.
Haggling Can Signal Difficulty
Those on the other side of the “should you negotiate” argument will say that negotiation is just a part of business. I agree but loop back to my point about the contract value making a big difference.
When clients have asked the “can you do it for less?” question there have times when I have said “sure.”
Without fail, the clients that succeeded in saving themselves small sums of money also ended up being the most difficult to work with.
I love working with clients who assume that I know how to quote and don’t quibble about my rate. I also love those who tell me up front what their budget is so that I can see whether it’s viable for me. I have often had a client tell me their budget only to quote them less than what was available.
Almost always, working with clients like these are the most seamless experiences — and when they happen, they leave me kicking myself for choosing to take on a haggler when my gut instinct told me to run.
Haggling Signals Price-Based Rather Than Value-Based Buying
If I were asked to give only one tip to newbie freelancers, consultants, or anybody selling a knowledge-based service it would be that you always want to be selling your value to a business rather than a price.
The reason for this is very simple but extremely important (I picked this up from a sales book years ago but have sadly forgotten its name!)
In today’s globalized economy, there is always somebody who will be willing to do it for less. And guess what? If a business hires you because you’re cheap, they’ll also leave you as soon as they can replace you with somebody cheaper.
Price buyers vs. value buyers: the easiest way to screen potential clients
If you’re selling solely by price, there’s almost always somebody cheaper
Early stage haggling is an indication, for me at least, that a business is just looking to squeeze a service into a line item which means that they’ve capped its value at less than what you have. I prefer to sell value and find clients who will make the budgetary magic work on their end.
I Know It Shouldn’t, But Haggling Triggers Me
Let me tell you something. Being a freelancer ain’t easy.
Over the course of five years, I’ve dealt with some amazing clients. But also some downright abusive ones.
Finding a way to assert and then sell my value has been a long struggle for me and an uphill battle with lots of self work to become more assertive. As it has for many. And dealing with clients who don’t want to pay for that brings back a lot of bad memories for me.
Another top freelancing tip: deal with nice people who you’l enjoy working with.
If a prospective client starts trying to haggle my rate before we’ve even talked about our first project brief, the relationship — for me — is already starting out on a bad foot.
I don’t want my first move in a business relationship to be a concession or settling for less.
I Rarely Haggle
One final point that I think is worthy of inclusion.
Having dealt with plenty of prospective clients whose first move was to ask whether I could sell my time for less than I was asking, I rarely ask a seller the question in return.
Might they be overshooting and expecting the customer to haggle? That’s the culture in some parts of the world, including where I live. In those situations, I’d rather simply buy from somebody else.
Which is why whether I’m buying tomatoes for my dinner or the services of a contractor for a company I’m working for, I assume that those I’m doing business with know how to price their services. Am I leaving money on the table? I assume so. But it would be hard for me to maintain an anti-haggling posture if I leveraged the same tactic myself.
As you can probably tell, I’ve never worked as a business negotiator!
Everybody has their own way of running a business and their own level of comfort in dealing with the sometimes uncomfortable business of negotiating contracts.
I’m neither suggesting that not haggling is a universally good practice nor necessarily advocating that any of the reasons I’ve offered above are correct.
However, they are my reasons for not generally choosing to engage in the budgetary dance and why I usually avoid furthering such prospects in my pipeline.