• Advice

Secrets of Client Negotiation: The Poker Face

To be a great freelancer, it’s not enough to just be a great designer, technologist, writer, etc. You also need to be a master negotiator!

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be releasing a series of posts about negotiation and why many freelancers leave money on the table. Today, we’re talking about “the poker face.” The phrase is useful in talking about negotiations -- but remember that contracts are anything but a game.

Never say “um.”

If the client asks you how much something is going to cost, or sends you a contract full of terms you don’t want to accept, this is not the time to be shy or hem and haw about it.

Before you enter into negotiations, you should know:

  • What terms you won’t negotiate on
  • What terms would be nice, and you’d like to push on
  • What terms would be nice, but you’re willing to give up
  • The cost of the project, in your time and opportunity cost
  • The value of the project to the client, and based on this value and your cost, what you’d like to charge the client
  • The price you won’t negotiate below, if you plan on negotiating on price at all

This means you need to sit down and really think this through before you enter the room or get on the telephone with your client. Just spending these few minutes to prepare and set down in writing your thoughts can make you more confident during your discussion.

Leave emotions at the door

When you enter into discussions about the terms of a contract or the price, now is not the time to be:

  • Nervous
  • Desperate for the gig
  • Embarrassed about your “high rate” (note the quotes; you’re probably already undercharging)
  • Not confident in your ability to do the job

If you feel any of these things, you need to sit down before going into a negotiation and really think these through. Any of these -- with the exception of the first -- you need to leave outside the door. Nervousness you may bring with you, you just shouldn’t show it.

Give yourself a pep talk

You might think this is cheesy -- and yeah, it is. But it works. Once you become a veteran freelancer, this will be irrelevant, but the first few times it’s essential.

Before you enter into tricky bits with a client, just run through in your head or on paper exactly why you deserve the gig, why you deserve the money you’re asking for, and why you’re the best person for this gig. Flex your biceps in the mirror (kidding). How should a client be convinced of your greatness if you’re not?

How to look confident if you’re still nervous

Body language: Hold your head up high, make eye contact, don’t sit on the edge of your seat as if you’re in a job interview, don’t slouch, don’t give a sweaty palmed, flimsy handshake.

Voice: Speak loudly, clearly, and slowly. Don’t be afraid to laugh and smile.

Ask questions and listen: Remember that now is your time to make sure the client is a good fit for you, too. Let the client talk about what this project means and how important it is for the company. Not being afraid to ask questions and listening and asking follow-ups are all signs of confidence.

Be honest: The most important tip of all. Some people think that having a “poker face” means that you’re lying. Think of it instead as showing your best business face, which may be different from your personality with your family, but is also a genuine part of who you are as a freelancer. If you don’t know something, don’t make it up, but also don’t say “Er...not sure.” Say, “Let me get back to you tomorrow about that. I’m going to do a little research/thinking/talking with X person and I want to give you a clear answer.”

Compliment your client: But not in a creepy personal way. If you genuinely like work or projects the client has done in the past, compliment them. (Just beware not to pigeonhole yourself too much in case the person you’re talking to hated that project.)

Don’t take the contract at face value

If a client is the sending over a contract, read it carefully. It happens very often that a client will send over:

  • An old contract they haven’t read, possibly that includes such terms as that you’ll send them the final deliverable on a floppy disk
  • A contract their coworker drew up for another gig that they’ve barely read or don’t understand
  • A contract drawn up by their lawyers that contains what is essentially a wish-list for the client (the lawyer was hired by them to protect them, after all), but they are both used to and willing to negotiate on.

Note: even if your client has lawyers involved, it does not mean that you have no power to negotiate better terms! Get informed about contracts and stand your ground. Clients who are used to working with freelancers expect push-back.

It is not about you vs. them

Unlike poker, this is not a competition. This is not a game with a winner and a loser. The goal of negotiating is to reach mutually agreeable terms and leave you with the beginning of a great client-freelancer relationship.

The process of negotiation makes the contract and the price fair for both parties. This is not like negotiating in the movies, will screaming lawyers watching out for the bottom line. (And if it is, run away fast.) This is about being clear, setting reasonable expectations, and listening.

The negotiation process and the entire process of setting up a contract protects both you and your client. You’re both working in service of the project, and getting all the details worked out fairly in the beginning means your whole relationship can run more smoothly.

Freelancers, what are your best negotiating tips?