"I can get it cheaper": What to do when a client rejects your fee

Aug 5, 2014

“I can get somebody cheaper.”

Is there anything more galling to a freelancer than sending your (carefully-considered) fee structure to a prospective client, and getting back a response like THAT?

That’s unusually blunt, of course. Variants include:

“Oh, wow. That’s higher than we budgeted.”
“Most freelancers we hire work at X rate.”
“Hmm. That’s more than we usually pay. Can you tell us how you arrive at that number?”

In my experience, there are 3 options for dealing with this kind of client response.*

(Note: any one of the 3 should be attempted only after ritual ablutions to cleanse oneself of the response’s level of sting. Effective ritual ablutions include: swearing softly at screen, rolling one’s eyes, sighing dramatically, indignant texting of loved one, passive-aggressive refusing to respond for an hour while re-watching episodes of The Office on Netflix.)

1. No Second Date (aka Abandon Ship)

This is rarely my first response, but I am willing to abandon the bid altogether under the following circumstances:

  • A huge discrepancy between my normal hourly fee and what they expect to pay. A little negotiation is normal, but if you offer me one-third of what I normally make, I’m better served by pursuing clients who pay reasonably.
  • A nasty response to my initial bid. If you can’t respond reasonably at the beginning, you probably aren’t going to be very pleasant to work with – it’s a super red flag. I try never to deal with clients who make me hate them (and myself, for taking said project).
  • A response that involves some variant of “we can’t actually pay you right now, but you’ll get plenty of exposure!” I work for free plenty, for myself, in my creative work. I won’t do it as a freelance copywriter – and “exposure” is easy to promise, hard to pay the bills with.

You don’t have to cannonball the entire relationship in order to abandon pursuit of the project. Just send a polite email saying that you understand their position, and you’re probably not what they’re looking for at this time, best of luck! Then move on to friendlier waters.

**2. It’s Not You, It’s Me (aka I’m Worth It) **

When I get a polite query back about why I happen to charge $X when their last copywriter charged $Y, I like to have a few tangible examples ready of why I charge what I do: relative speed of my work, relevant experience in their field, breadth of experience, etc. It’s especially helpful to have a client reference or two to sprinkle in this email, who they can call up and ask about your awesome work. It’s a version of the old you-get-what-you-pay-for argument; but I find if you can give very concrete examples of your expertise (and how its helped clients in the past), prospective clients tend to approve the rate increase.

Another thing to keep in mind is THEIR fee structure history is not really relevant; YOURS is. So if your other clients pay $X, you can stand firm – that’s your fee, and you can’t go any lower. If they can’t afford you now, maybe they can eventually – but you won’t starve in the meantime.

3. If You Want It, Better Put a Ring on It (aka Make a Commitment)

Be careful with this one – after all, a commitment goes both ways.

I, like many other freelancers, see hustling to find new regular, consistent clients exhausting. Thus, I will give a reasonable hourly / per-project discount to clients who commit to a certain number of projects or hours per week or month. Always make sure that this is put in writing, if possible – if I had a nickel for every client who told me that they were SURE I would have X hours of work a week and failed to follow through, I would never need to think about rates again. It’s worth it to me to give this extra little “bonus” to clients I enjoy working with, and having a consistent income flow is invaluable.

These are the three options I use when faced with a skeptical client response to a bid, and I don’t worry much about it once I’ve chosen one. I’ve very rarely regretted giving up a gig that didn’t meet my specifications – and narrowing it down took all the mystery out of responding. Now I can fret about a million other things, instead!

How about you, freelancers? How do you respond to a client who balks at your pricetag?

* Caveat: I will occasionally lower rates considerably for something I’m passionate about, or for a client I really desperately want to work with – and much of my purely creative work is low-paying. But those exceptions are my projects, and I’m very selective about them; the bids I’m talking about here are for “money” gigs.

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