Don't work for less: 7 time-tested negotiation tips for freelancers

Before I got into sales, the word “negotiation” used to conjure images of a smoke-filled study where Churchill, Truman, and the Allied leaders chewed cigars and decided the fate of the world. But now, it connotes something much more benign.

In my mind, it’s simply a conversation where you find out someone’s position and arrive at an outcome that makes you both happy, even if it means not working together. That’s an option, by the way. Sometimes walking away is winning. Early in my career, I thought I needed to win every deal and I’d agree to projects at low rates and then be slow to respond, resistant to feedback, and generally intolerable. It was uncomfortable for me and unfair to the client. Never agree to something that doesn’t make you happy.

Here are seven negotiation principles I’ve picked up over the years:

1. Write down your non-negotiables beforehand

As a favor to your negotiating partner, write down your non-negotiables beforehand. That way, you won’t decide under pressure. If those conditions aren’t met, politely walk away. You can always walk away.

2. Have so much pipeline you don’t need this deal

Bluffing is immensely difficult and something most of us, myself included, are just plain awful at. If I get into a negotiation with a client that I like, I will fold like a lawn chair. Instead, I’m always honest, but I protect myself by doing so much outreach that I have way more business than I need. When I say, “Sorry, I can’t take that on in good conscience because I have other clients willing to pay X,” it’s a statement of fact. There’s no judgement. There’s no tactic. If the client walks away, I’ll understand. I’ll even refer them to a competitor. I don’t need it. But if they can meet my price, then great.

3. Know that it’s okay if it doesn’t work out

Most clients are not a good fit for you. If you draw a Venn diagram of all the people who you vibe with, who need your help, and who have budget, it’s actually quite small. Don’t be surprised if half the clients you’re introduced to aren’t a good fit—be surprised that it isn’t more. And again, no judgement. There’s someone out there who’s a better fit for that client. By not working with them, you’re freeing yourself up to find that legendary retainer client who, at the end of each quarter, calls and says, “If I don’t spend my budget, I lose it. Can you send me an invoice for $4,000 and we’ll figure it out later?” (True story, three years running.)

4. Understand your negotiating partner’s position

There’s a famous negotiation study that goes like this: a group of people are broken up into pairs and told to negotiate over the price of oranges. They’re rival pharmaceutical firms trying to cure different terminal diseases, and both are given a fixed price they can’t go below. Negotiations drag on all day and nobody makes progress until someone finally asks their partner, what part of the orange do you need? It ends up, one needs the rind, the other needs the juice. They can share. Negotiations aren’t always zero sum. Find out what your negotiating partner wants before you waste time haggling.

5. Everything is a give-get

Whenever you concede to something, like getting the project done in a rush, you deserve something back. It’s only fair. Don’t cheat yourself. Before you agree to a request, say, “Okay, I can do that, but in return I’ll have to charge a rush fee.” Or, writers, “I’ll have to get the byline.”

6. Overcharge slightly

Whatever you want to be paid, increase it 10 percent. There are two things that can happen when you present this price to the client: Either they negotiate you down to the number you originally wanted or they simply say yes and you’re thrilled to have the project.

7. Don’t discount

The biggest mistake freelancers make in negotiations is assuming that the price is the problem. There’s this great cartoon I can’t find anymore so I’ll explain it: a salesperson stands before a client and tells them the price, and the client says nothing. Distressed, the salesperson says, “Okay okay, 20 percent off.” To which the client says nothing. Dying, the salesperson tears the shirt off their back and shouts, “Fine! Forty-percent! Take it all!” to which the client says, “Ok.”

Don’t negotiate with yourself. Lots of times the client’s concern is really about the quality, your experience, or whether they can get approval from their boss. Nine times out of ten, you can resolve their concern in ways that don’t involve money.
Want more tips? Watch the first chapter of my sales course for freelance B2B writers and let’s chat on Twitter, @cgillespie317.

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