How do you discuss money with a client?
July 4, 2014 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Say a client hires you, a freelance creative person (artist, writer, designer, ...) for a project without bringing up the budget or asking about your fee. The client is valuable and you want to come across as smooth, friendly, and of course professional--so what are clever ways of approaching the subject?
posted by cyrusw8 to Work & Money (35 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
You can't have been hired until you talk about the money.
Say that, even though it's not clever.
posted by the Real Dan at 9:57 AM on July 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes I know, it's still in the talks. I'm talking about "the talks" phase.
posted by cyrusw8 at 10:01 AM on July 4, 2014

The professional way to do it is to avoid trying to be "clever" and just talk about money in an upfront and unambiguous way.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:01 AM on July 4, 2014 [33 favorites]

Do not be clever. Be direct. "This sounds likes great project. Let's talk budget and a payment schedule."

If their answer is anything other than "yes, let's", run. Run far.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:01 AM on July 4, 2014 [31 favorites]

"I charge $xxx/hr for my work. When would you like me to start?"

Any client that doesn't answer, "yes, that's fine, let's start yyy and please send the invoice to zzz" is not worth working for.
posted by saeculorum at 10:03 AM on July 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Dear client,

Thanks for a great initial meeting about project! I'm really excited about this opportunity to work with you.

For this type of work, I generally charge $XXX. However, I can be flexible to a certain extent depending on my clients' budget parameters. Please let me know your thoughts and we can go from there!

posted by JuliaJellicoe at 10:03 AM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: What if I'm trying to interest my client in my services knowing that they work with another creative who is a competitor of mine?
posted by cyrusw8 at 10:05 AM on July 4, 2014

While they are discussing the project with you, fairly early on in the process, you should ask "What's your budget?" (Be direct, not clever.) They will probably respond with something vague, and if they do, you can then come back by saying, "Well, are you thinking about $500, $2,000 or $5,000?" Choose your ranges as relevant to what you do or the project, but get some numbers out there.

Do not begin working until you've formally agreed on a price, and it's in writing.
posted by Leontine at 10:06 AM on July 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

Is the client only interested in low prices?
posted by Leontine at 10:10 AM on July 4, 2014

Response by poster: No I think it's about the quality of the work, but the price definitely affects the decision-making and I have no idea what the other designer charged.
posted by cyrusw8 at 10:13 AM on July 4, 2014

That is irrelevant. You should charge a fair price or you are undercutting everyone in your profession. Pricing yourself super low will not only hurt you now but in the long run. No offense, but it seems pretty clear that you're new to this... you need to do research on how to draw up a formal contract.

Beyond that, you should have a frank discussion with your employer that "This is the rate I charge and this is the hour estimate, does that fall within your budget?" and the conversation can go from there. Talking about money is not taboo unless the person is going to cheat you which is PRETTY DAMN COMMON.

This is business, not a friendly project. Respect your skills and expertise and have more faith in yourself!
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:19 AM on July 4, 2014 [17 favorites]

One other approach would be to refer all price negotiations to a third party who works for you - an agent or a partner. You will pay for such a service for three reasons:
1. It lets you and your prospective client avoid sullying your pure creative conversation with base talk of $$$.
2. The third party should help you reject unreasonable schedules or flakey clients.
3. The third party should be aiming to sell you at the highest rate possible (since they are getting a cut).
posted by rongorongo at 10:20 AM on July 4, 2014

It sucks that you even have to do this, but frame it as you making logistics easier for them. "What format would you like the invoice in, and how much should I invoice?" "Do you prefer hourly or flat rates?" Etc.
posted by dekathelon at 10:22 AM on July 4, 2014

Or perhaps phrase it to yourself like this, the client will want to pay as little as possible for quality work. You will want to be paid as much as possible for quality work.

Don't do the clients job for them and start at your lowest threshold. I guarantee they're not going to go 'Oh, that's too low! Let's give you a raise!'

Read Design is a Job and also, while it's a funny site, you should read Clients from Hell because you need to know about some of the possible pitfalls you're going to run against in this line of work.

Good luck!
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:23 AM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

When you feel that you have all the information you need from the "talks" phase, you say, "It sounds like I have everything I need. I can write up a formal proposal for you, or would you rather discuss budget and schedule now?"

What the other designer charged is none of your business. You should set your prices based on your costs and your margins, and phoeey on the other guy. If you are too expensive for your market, you'll find out quick. If the potential client is looking to rip you off, you'll find out quick. Writing it up in a proposal is a good way to get the point across (in literal black and white) that these are firm prices, but you can also be open to negotiation based on budget if the client can't afford you but wants to hire you.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:24 AM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I tell my clients my industry-standard day rate. If they make any sort of noises about budget, I tell them that I'll be glad to make a flat-rate deal. I ask for a partial payment up front, like a retainer, make sure they understand that I don't work for a deferred payment, and then we work out a pay schedule, based on certain milestones (in my work--rough cut, fine cut, and delivery.) Then we work out a deal memo or contract. I charge 10% more for late payments.
I also remind them that I'll be negotiating deals for their projects with as much conviction and good will as I negotiate for myself.
You need to know what's the going rate for your business.
Being clever and coy isn't professional--be straight forward and direct about money.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:29 AM on July 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

Being clever and coy isn't professional--be straight forward and direct about money.

Very much this. Being clever or indirect also opens the door wide for relationship-wrecking misunderstandings about the cost and when payments will happen. Honest clients will feel embarrassed for misunderstanding, and dishonest ones will deliberately take advantage of you. Don't set yourself or your client up for this.
posted by rtha at 11:13 AM on July 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

What I do in this case is write a proposal that I know will be better than those of the competition. I try to demonstrate that I have understood the client's business problem as it stands (why do they want this thing? why do they want it now?) and how what I am offering will specifically help with that. Often they are asking for something which is not really the best thing to ask for in this situation, and if you can clearly articulate why this is and offer the better thing instead, you're winning!

In the proposal I often offer a fixed price for a job (a well specified job!) because that keeps their mind focussed on whether that's worth paying for what they will get, rather than how much per day I put in my pocket.

Usually the competition offer up the same exact thing that they are offering to everyone else. If your potential client picks your competition for price reasons when you have pulled off a great custom proposal, you can tell yourself that such a very price sensitive client is only going to be a nightmare later.

Sometimes they call and say they are interested but the price is quite high; at which point if you are sure your proposal is worth it, you hold tight and don't discount.
posted by emilyw at 11:16 AM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your question doesn't make sense.

Say a client hires you, a freelance creative person (artist, writer, designer, ...) for a project without bringing up the budget or asking about your fee.

If you haven't discussed payrate, billing method etc. then you haven't been hired. If you're trying to figure out how much to charge so they potential client doesn't walk away, you haven't been hired. You're in negotiations.

Be direct. If you know they want an hourly situation, say "My hourly rate is $X. How do you want to handle billing and payment?"

If they want a quote for a predefined set of work, say "I can do that for $XXX.XX."

They're going to try to figure out a way to pay less, you don't need to help them do that. You're not doing yourself any favors if you undervalue your work.

When I've had clients who are being vague and avoiding the real discussion, I've said "You can tell me how much you want to spend and I can tell you what I can do for that amount, or you can tell me what you want me to do and I can tell you how much that will cost."

I wouldn't worry too much about how your price compares with competitors if you don't actually know the prices they've offered. Figure out what makes sense to you as far as what you need/want to earn and then tell them your rate and how you typically bill. If they have other ideas they'll let you know.

The only jobs I've lost because my prices were too high were ones where the client really hadn't done their research and had unreasonable expectations (i.e. jobs that would have been a nightmare).

But seriously, if you don't know how much you're going to get paid then you have not been hired.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 11:40 AM on July 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Sorry, but I have to emphasize - trying to be clever or suave displays weakness, which can be exploited. Anyone running a business who is put off by having real conversations about money won't be in business long, and probably shouldn't be. Anyone who is experienced running a business will see your indirectness as a sign of weakness and/or naiveté, which they can use to push your rate down or heap extra work onto the job. Not all businesspeople are evil of course, but their responsibility is to get more value for less money, and if you give them the idea they can do that to you, they will.

Doing anything other than being direct is a waste of time, devalues your work, demonstrates a lack of confidence and experience and makes you look weak. You don't need to tiptoe around something like this. If the people you're potentially working for cannot handle this kind of conversation, then you should have misgivings about getting involved with them.

Be direct, it's the only way to respect yourself and your potential clients.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 11:48 AM on July 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

"Great idea. Let's get spec down on paper and I'll work out an estimate."
posted by SemiSalt at 12:17 PM on July 4, 2014

"I'll send you a Statement of Work that outlines the deliverables and a cost estimate so you're confident in what you're getting."
posted by DarlingBri at 1:57 PM on July 4, 2014

You need to feel confident that your product is excellent and that the prices you charge for it are fair. That said, you broach it thusly:

"I'm really intrigued by this project, it's exactly the type of thing that's in my wheel-house. Before we continue, I'd need to understand your budget so that we can be sure that we're on the same page."

If it sounds low, or if it sounds like the customer doesn't appreciate how much time is involved, or what the going rate for this kind of work is, educate the client. Develop a timeline and cost estimate and present it as a Statement of Work. "I charge X hours, and my rate is Y."

It's business. Be professional and business-like about it.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:39 PM on July 4, 2014

What if I'm trying to interest my client in my services knowing that they work with another creative who is a competitor of mine?

Never compete on price.

As someone who works for clients, I am confused by this drawn-out "talks" phase. I do not have a "talks" phase. I say, "I cost $X/hour". I do not accept clients who hem and haw about price. One reason is that I have to get a court's order to fire a deadbeat client, so I want to weed out flakes on the front end.

All of the dithering about price makes me not take either side very seriously. Both sides know that you want to transfer money from the client's pocket to yours. This whole dance is not clever and not smmoth- it's unprofessional on both sides. Say, "this work will cost $X".
posted by Tanizaki at 3:30 PM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a full-time freelancer, I'm going to have to strongly disagree with a lot of posters above.

In an ideal world, payment would be unambiguously negotiated beforehand, and all clients will be on the up-and-up. However, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in the real world. In the real world, if a company perceives you as being rude, brusque or hard to work with, then you have a good chance of not getting that job after all, because the job market in creative fields means there are literally thousands of people who can replace you. It's like bringing up salary in the first round of screener phone interviews. (Needless to say, this goes double if you're female. Is it fair? No. Is it real? Yes.) What comes off as "business-like" to you may well come off as unprofessional to the person reading it, and what comes off as "coy" to you are methods developed and used in the real world by a lot of freelancers to save face. It's code, and clients generally recognize code. And if that code means the difference between getting a job and getting paid, and not getting the job and not getting paid, then use the damn code.

Besides, if a company is going to stiff you, they're going to stiff you regardless of whether you gave them a rate up front or simply hinted at it. Look at all these people. I highly doubt that they all just did it wrong in the negotiation process.
posted by dekathelon at 3:32 PM on July 4, 2014

You need to listen to the designer's patron saint Mike Monteiro. (Famous speech. Less famous but excellent book.) No, you don't have to swear, but you have to value yourself and let your client know that you are offering value.

You don't necessarily have to negotiate your rate in the first conversation, but it should be addressed relatively early in the process. There are several good suggestions above. I usually tell clients my standard rate. Some agree to it with no complaint, and if others seem reluctant, I have a little room to offer a reduced rate e.g. my "small business" rate.

Your perspective should be that you're a pro who does great work, and that you can be willing to negotiate under certain circumstances. If you really need work, bills are piling up, and you don't expect to work with that client again, you may have to cut your rate more. But don't be shy, and don't negotiate against yourself from the start.
posted by maudlin at 6:01 PM on July 4, 2014

Don't overthink this. Here's how I always did it: "That sounds like something I can do. Let me get some details and I'll write up a proposal."

Then start asking questions and writing notes. My proposals always contained a couple sentences stating that the estimate is based on current information about the project, and is subject to change based on changes in scope as the project progresses.
posted by The Deej at 6:06 PM on July 4, 2014

Be direct. I learned this the hard way, but life is so much easier now...

"Thanks for your interest! I charge X for an initial consultation, and Y per hour for any work beyond that. Does this fit in with your budget? If so, I can meet you on next available day"

It works well, and all parties know what the deal is up front.
posted by PlantGoddess at 8:56 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's not like your potential clients have never had to pay for a product before. They won't be surprised or weirded out by you bringing up the topic of money, and they don't need to be creatively led to the idea of paying you. They just want to get on with the actual project which is where the real cleverness needs to be.

Thirding the recommendation that you read Design is a Job, which gives more detail about the kind of advice you're seeing already in this thread. Mike Monteiro is one of the designers that other designers look up to, for good reason. Since I began following his advice, my freelance life has become much simpler and I get a better class of client who often refer me to other good clients.

It's not always as easy as that. But dodgy clients will run a mile from a clear and firm statement of price, and be attracted to anything complicated and fancy because it gives them wiggle room and loopholes. Good clients will respect you more for valuing your own time/expertise. They might negotiate, they might want you to fit into their internal invoicing methods or whatever, and you can work with that to come to a mutually-beneficial relationship. But you must be clear and firm to begin with.
posted by harriet vane at 11:19 PM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Provide a proposal, don't just talk hourly rate.

Format: "cyrusw8_co proposes the following in response to your Project."

Discuss the work needed and propose provision of work packages. This is risky if you are accustomed to doing work by the hour. For example:

Work package 1: outline / site map / rendering : €450
Work package 2: detailed requirements: €850
Work package 3: detailed design: €1,200
Work package 4: testing / user feedback: €500

Proposals with work packages rather than hourly work gives the client something tangible at every progress point. A description of what is included in the work package is very useful for both you and the client, because you both refine what you need as the work progresses.

The message you should get from the entire thread is ensure you get paid for each work package before you advance to the next, especially if your client is a previously unknown quantity. My clients are of long standing and I let them smear multiple work packages together because they have been eminently fair with me and prompt with payment.
posted by jet_silver at 6:42 AM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

You don't have to talk about rates during the requirements-gathering phase; some clients see it as a turn-off because they're trying to get to know you (and v/v). Others don't, and if they ask a question related to that, I'd answer something general like "I usually charge about $XXX an hour, but it depends on the overall scope of the work, so let's make sure we understand everything about the project..." and keep on talking about the project. At this stage, it's not being coy, it's gathering enough information so that you can give a meaningful answer. Even stating a rate isn't much of an answer, since developers work at all kinds of different speeds.

As soon as you understand the project, a proposal is in order. I'd present it in writing, framed as something that the client approves so that you can proceed. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but I'm convinced that many/most of the stories on sites like clientsfromhell got their start because developers and artists let a client start them working without a clear understanding of what the terms were going to be. I mean, how do you wind up with a client saying "I thought freelancer meant you work free?" without being impossibly vague on the front side of the discussion?

A proposal should include enough detail that an overall price can be quoted, BUT it should also clearly state what happens when the client adds or changes features (I usually state this as a tier of hourly rates, like one rate for development, another for content management, etc.)

A deposit of about 50% isn't a bad idea, either. This is another commitment device that keeps clients honest.

If you're concerned about being undercut by a competitor, the thing to do is quote a price where you'd be happy if you lost it on price (because anything lower and you don't want it) and you'd be happy if you got it (because you didn't let it go for peanuts). Easier said than done, I know, but if you look at it that way, it takes a lot of the mystery out of it. This is assuming you need the work; one of the great mysteries to me is why developers who are busy (and complain about how busy they are) don't go up on their rates.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:51 AM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

As others have said, there's no one-fits-all script. If you know they expect to pay something approximate to your rates, you're free to talk about working with their budget etc. more in the strategic sense or if it's a project with a fixed scope, mention money at the end as a formality or only when you send the proposal that confirms what you discussed. But, if you think they are likely to be too clueless/cheap about costs, then float a cost range or an hourly figure out there to qualify them. Learning to read potential clients is a business skill you develop as you gain experience working with people.
posted by michaelh at 8:30 AM on July 5, 2014

Anyone who's ever tried to dance around this or be coy in any way with me on this point has ended up being an asshole, and they were trying to get at least some amount of work done before they even had to think about paying me, or at worst get all the work and then not pay.

Regardless of what you do, the flowchart should always be something like:

1. Assess work to be performed, get outline of job, give estimate
2. Agree on that. At this point, i honestly am going to start printing them out and making them sign it.
3. Work
4. Optional/situational, but have ye olde "this is going to cost more money than we talked about" discussion. Even if you agreed that anything under X percent of price increase was going to be covered STILL have this discussion to avoid agony later
5. invoice

I really can't say enough times that anyone who just wanted to "be chill" and "figure out that stuff later" or just sort of tried to smooth their way right past steps 1 and 2 ended up being some mixture of a hassle and an asshole. At least one of them i would have taken to small claims if i thought they weren't judgement proof.

Also the estimate should include the the hours you spent doing outlines and discussing the project with them, if you were onsite. I still can't believe this one guy who was offended that i charged him money to drive out to his house, talk to him for several hours, and give him a list of supplies/parts to order so i could start work. What a doofus.

There's also something to be said for the fact that a lot of not so nice people will look at someone who isn't immediately up front about this stuff and go "Awesome, a newbie i can roll". Being super upfront isn't just professional, it's a self defense mechanism.

As for what to charge, that's an entirely different question. You were essentially asking how to charge. You are a business, you show them the price and they agree to pay or not, or haggle. They can ask you the price before you tell them, but there should never be an awkward silence coy waiting period. If they haven't asked, and the work has been properly outlined, that's when you just go "Ok so i charge $XYZ an hour labor, and i'll need YZX supplies/parts/etc which costs $123 in addition to that. When do you want me to start?". As was said above, if the reply is anything but either "Ok, let me check the budget" or "Ok, let's start on 12/4 and bla bla bla" and busting out of pens and paper then fucking run.

God i wish someone had told me all this years ago. This should be taught to everyone in high school.
posted by emptythought at 7:28 PM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

To be honest, if you've been doing work for them and haven't had this figured out already, having no legal contracts or agreements in place, then you've been working for free with no obligation on their end to pay you. For work such as this having a business lawyer help you figure out a contract that's amicable to both parties would have been to prudent thing to do first.
posted by ZaneJ. at 5:53 AM on July 6, 2014

I'm a freelancer, who provides both individuals and businesses with my services. I agree with the above posters who say the the "talks" phase should introduce price as soon as possible - why waste both parties' time by dithering on this very central issue?

As soon as a client has made an enquiry for my services, I write back with the following template:

- Thank you so much for your enquiry.
- I can most certainly provide XXX service.
- These are the formats I usually provide it in (half day, full day, in house, off site, etc).
- The product will accrue the following benefits for your needs (list them).
- The cost for the above would be XXX.
- The dates/timeframe at which I can deliver this project in the near term future are XXX.
- I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the above - I will pencil this project in and hold this timeframe/quote for you for the next 14 days, to give you some time to assess its suitability.
- Do let me know if you have any questions. I can be available for a phone/in person meeting to discuss your requirements further.

This template above has stood me in good stead, in 3 years of consulting, I have never had a deadbeat client who hasn't paid. It always enable clients to make a quick decision on my services, and cuts down on the time I spend going back and forth with people.
posted by shazzam! at 9:54 PM on July 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

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