• Advice

Dear clients, you get what you pay for

It started out so well! But then, this type of thing often does.

I met with a prospective client who wanted to start working with me. It was potentially a long-term gig; nothing I was in love with, but vaguely interesting. He communicated so much enthusiasm for my work, was quite bubbling over it – call me corn on the cob, because I was getting buttered up. And then we got to specifics.

He really wanted to work with me – really, oh really – but could I give him a significant break on rates? But to make up for it… he was sure there will be an awful lot of work – at least 20 hours a week, consistently. He didn’t want to guarantee that on paper, of course. But he was so primed to start; did I feel like I had the bandwidth to seriously commit to him?

Why no, no I didn’t.

Flattery is nice! It’s also remarkably easy to give away for free.

I politely told said client that given my current workload, unless he could give me a minimum hourly commitment – in writing – I couldn’t reduce my rates or guarantee much availability for him. Otherwise, I’d be undercutting myself for uncertain return.

He was disappointed. But, you know what? So was I!

Dear clients: you get what you pay for.

All too often, freelancers encounter promising potential clients who try to negotiate for a deal, for an exception. And while it’s tremendously frustrating when a new contact tries to undercut prices for the nth time, there aren’t necessarily nefarious motivations behind it. Everybody likes a discount; everybody, I suppose, likes to feel special. Budgets are sometimes tight, and people want competitive pricing. And under the right circumstances, a little wiggle-room can sometimes be found; if the work is especially intriguing, or if it’s likely to become a foundational sense of income. Can a client really be blamed for trying?

Maybe not – but if clients want long-term access to freelancers’ time and energy, they’ve got to make commitments of their own. Even the best flattery starts to ring pretty hollow when freelancers can’t pay their bills.

Clients of the world, if you want loyal freelancers who do their best work for you, who prioritize you, who invest in your work… you need to invest in them.

When you undercut our prices, you risk that you’ll eventually be left for clients who pay us our due – or that we’ll deprioritize you. When you tempt us with muddy, unspecific promises about all the work you have to give, we get nasty flashbacks of all the friendly, enthusiastic clients who’ve made such promises in the past – only to disappear after we cleared our calendar. When you ask for a deal, some part of us is already rolling our eyes inwardly – because we’ve had some variation of this conversation 20 (or 200) times before.

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Nobody is asking you to pay outrageous, exorbitant fees; nobody is disputing your right to bargain. But if you make a habit of choosing the best deal over the best people, don’t be surprised when you can’t attract the talent you want, when your turnover rate is high, and when your top-choice freelancers are routinely unavailable.

It’s true that you can find freelancers who’ll work for significantly reduced rates, even without a commitment. Those tend to be: good people who are ill-informed about pricing, good people who are temporarily desperate, or incompetent people. The first two types will leave you as soon as they find better work; the last will just undercut every project you put them on.

But if you want loyal, smart, competent freelancers who will do their best work for you on even the tightest deadlines – the kind of people you can call in a panic, because you know they can save the day – you have to make it worth their while. Good freelancers truly value clients who treat them well; they know that they can be hard to find. In return for your investment (maybe a higher hourly rate then you’re used to, maybe a minimum commitment, maybe credit or a strong contract) they’ll pay you back with flexibility, loyalty, and quality. They’ll give you great results again and again. They’ll take on work at odd hours. They’ll talk you up to other freelancers, and you’ll find yourself swimming in a better talent pool.

Clients, if you want the best from us, invest in us – or take your chances with a bargain rate. I’m afraid that too often, you’ll get what you pay for.

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.