One of the challenges of being your own boss as a freelancer is the client-negotiation process. If you don't like going outside your comfort zone to assert what you want, then negotiation is probably not something you're looking forward to.
With a few strategies, any freelancer can master the art of negotiation. Think about it this way: By negotiating with your clients, you appear more professional.
“The negotiation process establishes the boundaries of the relationship," says Amy Hardison White, an Austin, Texas-based freelancer writer and content strategist for software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies. “If you don't negotiate, you're setting yourself up to possibly getting pushed back in the future."
She feels that as a professional, it's important to not only ask for what you want, but also to ask questions.
“Many people get so excited about an opportunity that they don't necessarily think about what is in their best interest, or what the consequences will be down the line of what they're agreeing to," White says.
Start Negotiation Early
Voice-over artist David Strong of Tampa area, Florida, says it's a mistake to think the negotiation process starts after several rounds of communication with clients or the client's decision to engage your services.
“The process starts much sooner, with your first communication with the client," he says. “Technically, it starts before the two parties meet, but that delves more into the realms of market branding."
To improve your chances of a successful negotiation, you need to show your value to the client. Clients who see your service as a commodity are less likely to be flexible.
In most industries, there are many talented people and you have to find ways to set yourself apart, but setting low rates is not one of them.
—David Strong, voice-over artist
Ryan Vet, a marketing consultant and speaker based in Raleigh-Duram area of North Carolina, typically starts with one question: What is the client's desire at the end of the project?
“That desire doesn't always align with the scope of the project," he says. “I always first ask, 'What do you want to walk away from our relationship feeling, doing or experiencing?'"
This question, Vet says, helps him understand the value he could provide—which may then play a role in the negotiations.
Don't Undervalue Yourself
Freelancers often charge less than the value they bring. When you're first starting out, you're likely to accept any project that comes your way. That may work fine as you're gaining experience and building your portfolio, but it's easy to fall into the trap of settling even when you can command a higher price.
“I always try to push myself to ask for X percent more—for what makes me uncomfortable but not want to jump out of my skin," White says.
Setting the rates too low could backfire, particularly with higher-quality clients. Charging fees that are on the low end of the market rate may signal that you're not experienced or are desperate for work.
“I have met some extremely talented freelancers that do high-quality work; however, they don't have rates equivalent to their quality and many times are perceived as a 'fly by night,'" Strong says.
He adds that this doesn't mean “anyone can just jack up their rates" and expect to be contacted by high-end clients.
“In most industries, there are many talented people and you have to find ways to set yourself apart, but setting low rates is not one of them," he says.
Know What You Want
Rates are not the only negotiable term. It's often the main thing freelancers focus on, but everything from turnaround and payment schedule to indemnity and non-compete clauses is on the table.
Your first need to know what you're negotiating for. Sometimes, Vet says, you may want to settle for lesser terms if money is not your primary goal behind the project.
“If you have an opportunity to grow your portfolio or turn it into an ongoing project or something that's economically beneficial tomorrow instead of today, sometimes it's not worth negotiating when the terms of the original agreement are not as favorable," he says.
Know Your 'Deal-Breakers'
While you need to remain flexible and not expect to get everything you want in your contract, know where you will absolutely not compromise.
“One of the toughest things to learn is how to walk away from a project," Strong says. “It can be difficult when you have a mortgage and bills to pay, but sometimes you just have to let the client know that you aren't able to take on a project with the current terms."
For White, one non-negotiable is an upfront payment and contract for new clients. It's a way for her to mitigate risk and protect herself, and a way for the client to demonstrate commitment. Sometimes the accounts payable department balks at going outside of the customary “net 30" payment, for example, but White enforces this contractual part judiciously.
“You don't want an adversarial relationship at the beginning, but at the same time, they signed the contract saying they'll do something, and it's their responsibility," she says. “You, as the business owner, have certain responsibilities to yourself […] and your client is supposed to uphold certain requirements."
One other clause White considers important is a non-compete clause. Because her niche is so small, she has to be careful about contracts that limit her income opportunities.
In a recent case, a client wanted a 12-month non-compete clause while asking White to take on a trial project for two blog posts. The company had a list of competitors White couldn't write for, including one that was already her client. She recalls telling the marketing manager during negotiations, “I really want to work with you guys but this amounts to an income cap for me. There are not that many companies in this industry." The vice president became involved and her explanation resonated with him—and the language was removed.
When clients present you with their own contract, go through it carefully and flag those terms that don't align with yours. Keep in mind that the person you're negotiating with, such as the marketing director, is not the person who oversees the contracts. More typically, that's the legal department, particularly in larger companies.
To make it easier to negotiate, White sometimes preempts the conversation by listing her requirements and suggesting for the legal department to plug them into their standard contract. Then, your real work begins—following through and making sure your expectations are met.
Photo: Getty Images