Plenty of stand-up comedians have had fun skewering the silliness of the “What’s your greatest weakness?” question that job interviewers often ask.
The two best comedic answers I’ve ever heard are, “I really struggle with attendance,” and, “For me the hardest part is remembering that the company’s money… is the company’s money.”
Fortunately, the answer I gave in response to a prospective client’s tricky question about my copywriting rates wasn’t nearly as bad as those.
But it was bad.
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And for a guy who’s been writing professionally for his entire adult life, including more than a decade as a freelance copywriter, my answer — or rather my lack of a decent one — was inexcusable.
Here’s hoping this short post will prepare you to answer a similar question, should you ever receive it — and to do so without rambling like a lunatic.
The prospect’s question that sent me babbling like an idiot: “Will you lower your rates for us over time?”
The initial phone conversation was going well — perfectly, in fact.
This tech CEO and I were really hitting it off. He had seen my work and liked it; he was comfortable with my project-based writing rates; and I found the software platform he’d built to be pretty badass.
The call was actually a lot of fun. All that was left was to end it — so he could go off and figure out what he wanted me to write first for his company.
But then he tossed out the following question, which I have to assume he found in left field, nowhere or the blue.
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Robbie, obviously we’re going to be giving you a lot of writing work over time. Your rates are fine for now, but I’m wondering — as you get more familiar with our company, and writing this content gets easier for you, will you lower your rates? It seems like that would be fair, since you’ll have to put in less work on each new project after you’ve been writing for us for a while.
Let’s stop here.
Before I tell you what I said — after a good 30 seconds of ums and uhs and wells and hmmms — try to formulate your own answer. Imagine you were on that call with a prospective new client. What would you have said?
And I don’t mean only the yes or no part. That’s easy. (Unless you try doing it without using profanity.) I’m asking if you can — right now — formulate a cogent statement for the second part of your response, the why part.
Why would it not make sense — for either party, frankly — for you to lower your consulting rates for a client over time? (Again, no profanity.)
The answer I finally came up with (after some serious stumbling)
I couldn’t think of a decent answer. At least not right away. Honestly, in the moment I couldn’t even fully understand the question. It seemed so odd and illogical — hence all of my uhs, ums and dead air. (In my defense, I’m a much better writer than I am a speaker.)
So I fumbled around, admitting to the prospect, “You’re catching me off-balance here. In all of my years as a freelance writer, I’ve never had this question.” (Honesty is the best strategy in a moment like this — as it is in just about any situation.)
After some embarrassing stumbling, though, I hit on the most cogent response I could think of. Here’s what I finally said:
You’re right — over time I will get faster at completing writing projects for your company. And yes, it will also become easier for me to produce better-quality work for you with time, because I’ll be getting more familiar with your company, your messaging, your market and your audience. But all of this will make me more valuable to you, not less so.
Ultimately you’re paying me for great work, delivered on time — not for how difficult the work is for me. So if I do become more skilled with time at writing in your company’s voice, delivering stronger work, and doing so faster, then if anything my rates should go up over time, not down.
And the prospect agreed. I started working for his company right away — under the standard terms of my pricing sheet.
But had I not stumbled onto an answer that resonated with and satisfied that prospect, this business relationship — which has since proven valuable for both parties — could have ended before it began.
Or I could have committed to an arrangement that would have left me feeling underpaid and resentful. Or it could have left the client feeling overcharged and resentful.
Which is why I thought this anecdote could prove useful for any creative freelancer or consulting professional. It highlights some fundamental misconceptions many of the businesses that hire us have about the services we sell. It also highlights some aspects of our businesses, and the ways we deliver value, that we ourselves might not have fully thought through.
Here are some of the bigger-picture takeaways I gleaned from that prospect’s question.
Three important lessons this question can offer any freelancer or consultant
1. Most people who hire creative freelancers don’t fully understand what they’re buying or how to value it — so you’ll need to tell them.
Can you imagine saying to your doctor, “Doc, I’ve been coming to you for years. You have all of my medical records on file now, and you know me pretty well. These physicals are certainly easier for you today than they were in my initial visits. Shouldn’t my co-pay be going down?”
Or to Jerry Seinfeld: “Hey, Jerry, tonight’s performance will be… what, your 80th time doing this set on the road? It’s not like you’re working as hard as you were during those first stops on your tour, when you still had trouble remembering all of this new material. Can you charge us less for each ticket?”
But when it comes to buying a service, particularly a creative service like graphic design or writing, many businesses are unsure how to value the work. So they default to metrics that make sense to them — such as the level of difficulty of the work for the professional they’re hiring.
This actually makes sense, considering these companies they don’t know any better. If you’re a graphic artist and you dash off a brilliant icon set for a company in 45 minutes, and you nail it on your first try, it’s understandable that they might come to perceive that service as less valuable. After all, it was so easy for you.
So you need to be ready to articulate your value proposition to a confused or misguided prospect. You are not being paid to work really hard; nor are you being paid to struggle to get the assignment right. The client is paying you to deliver great work, on time, every time. That’s your answer.
2. A lot of people who hire freelancers think in terms of time put in — hours worked, days worked — because it’s familiar and easier to measure. So you’ll need an answer for that, too.
This isn’t an article about the merits of charging by the project versus hourly. But I will say this: As creative freelancers, we aren’t selling our time; we’re selling our talent and a final creative product that will meet or exceed our client’s expectations.
For someone with a mindset of paying for hours worked, like the tech CEO who asked me about lowering my rates over time, it can seem logical to expect that as your freelancers put in fewer hours, they should expect to earn less.
But just as the notion that creatives and other consultants are paid based on a project’s level of difficulty is false, so too is the idea that we’re paid according to how long a project takes us.
If you want to charge on a project basis for your work, and you’re looking for a persuasive and logically bulletproof answer to a prospect’s question as to why you won’t charge by the hour, your best bet is to explain that as soon as both parties agree on what the final output is worth, you’re both perfectly aligned in your interests.
In other words, you both have an interest in arriving at a product that pleases the client in the shortest possible time frame.
If you’re charging by the hour, on the other hand, you and the client are always working under opposing interests — you wanting the project to take longer, the client wanting it done in as few hours as possible.
Even worse, the client’s own interests are totally in conflict — because they want the highest-quality work you can deliver, but at the same time they have a financial interest in your rushing to bang it out as soon as you can.
If you can persuasively articulate these inherent conflicts, and at the same time articulate your true value proposition as a creative freelancer — delivering outstanding work, reliably, and on time — you’ll be in a much better position than I was to answer the occasional out-of-nowhere billing question from a prospective client, and earn that client’s business.
3. Some people just want to negotiate — which is why you need to be prepared with an answer, whatever that answer is.
One possible reason for that strange billing question, which I thought of only later, was simply that this client likes to negotiate. Perhaps he fully understood that a freelance creative would have no reason ever to charge less for his services to a client over time, but he thought he’d throw the question out there anyway, just to see if he could get a break on that creative’s pricing.
As a freelance professional of any type, you need to be prepared for prospects looking for a price break. I’m not talking about bargain shoppers. Politely turn those people down as quickly as you can — they will never be worth your effort or talent. But for the legitimate businesses that can afford your services but just want to see if you have wiggle room in your pricing, you’ll need a strategy.
If you are willing to drop your prices by a certain percentage for larger clients, or during quieter times, fine. But be prepared with that percentage, your reasoning behind it, and a firm statement as to what the boundaries are of your discount. You don’t ever want to find yourself agreeing to something you’ll regret over a long-term relationship, just because you were caught off guard by the price-break question.
And if you’re not willing to drop your prices under any circumstances, you’ll need a well-thought-out and logical explanation for that as well.
Remember, some people just like negotiating, to see what they can get. In many cases these people — particularly when they’re working for a company and hiring professional services — will be perfectly willing to pay your rates. So if you’re truly prepared to lose the prospect rather than charge them less, stick to your guns.
Episodes like these are great learning opportunities — which we need if we hope to grow our businesses, and to grow as individuals.
When I realized in that phone conversation that there was a question about my copy-writing business that I flat-out could not answer, it was a bit exhilarating. It meant that even after a decade-plus as a freelance writer, there were still some fundamental things about my own business that even I didn’t fully understand.
In my case, I hadn’t fully thought through the true value proposition of the writing services I offer to businesses — or how to persuasively articulate that value proposition.
Have you had similar experiences with clients or prospects, which forced you to re-examine and ultimately learn something new about your business? If you do, I encourage you to share them in the comments. Let’s learn from each other!
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