Before I started freelancing I always thought getting business would be the hardest part. Turns out that’s not really true. What’s hard is getting companies to pay you appropriate money for doing business with them. Having turned down a fair share of not fair offers (pun intended), I’ve realized that it’s a quite emotional process, that usually goes something like this:
The 5 Stages of Turning down a Freelance Offer
- 1) Shock – Yes it usually starts with the initial shock. If you get the offer via email you’ll find yourself re-reading the email several times to make sure you didn’t miss something – like the sidenote that the suggested price is per hour and not per project. If you get the offer in person you might flinch and start laughing nervously, finally being left with an inappropriate grin stuck on your face. In both cases your escape reflex will ring: Don’t answer that email! Let’s just get out of here.
- 2) Anger – After you’ve gotten over the initial shock, you may start feeling pretty angry. If I got an offer by email, I’ll probably start ranting about them not knowing my worth to my dog (sorry, Murphy) or if I’m face-to-face with them, I might go into quiet mode to process. By the way, a weird transition from the nervous grin in stage 1.
- 3) Bargaining I – Calm yo tits! You’ll have to open up the negotiation. Make sure you’re prepared for this one. For me, this means calming myself down and structuring all the thoughts in my head (certainly not only nice ones) to come up with a way to highlight my skills again, explain why this project will take x amount of hours and, finally, why it should be worth more to them. I’ve noticed that companies that offer shit rates to freelancers, besides wanting to save money, often don’t realize how high the ROI of a certain task can be – so pointing this out clearly can help get the price up. This stage is the only stage with an unclear outcome. Yes, I’ve been at this point and was able to get an offer that satisfied both parties. Yes, I’ve been at this point and walked away.
- 4) Bargaining II – If your bargaining I doesn’t go well, you might end up here. A more appropriate name would be bargaining with myself. After you’ve wrapped your head around the shitty offer, you’ll try to find ways to convince yourself that it’s not too bad. I need the money. Maybe it will really only take me 4 hours. It’s great for my references. Shut-up. Seriously. No great reference in the world is worth you working for a low rate (you are actually harming other freelancers if you do). The project will always take longer than X hours and yes – even though you need the money – this project will take time away from you that you could spend on other projects that actually pay well. You won’t have time to find them if you take this one.
- 5) Acceptance – Once you’ve accepted that this offer isn’t doable and that you won’t go into business with this company, it’s all about damage control. If you’ve been communicating via email, you might want to ask for a quick call to end the negotiation. No matter if you call, email, or speak in person, make sure to mention that you appreciate them considering you and making you an offer, that however at this rate, you must prioritize other projects. It’s as simple as that and no one will argue with it.
- 5b) Appreciation – This is not really a stage, but something you should do. Appreciate what you’ve just done! You’ve walked away from business for good reasons. You’ve stood your ground. You’ve been good to yourself. You’ve been professional. You’ve maybe even helped the next freelancer get a higher rate. That’s a great job! Now swallow that stupid, naggy what-if thought in the back of your head and move on. The next client is out there.
From talking to other freelancers – especially those who work in fields considered creative, like writing or illustrators – I’ve realized that many of us are too insecure. Insecurity is especially damaging in the bargaining stages. It’s important to realize that you are dealing with a business – the person you are talking to is most likely used to pitches, negotiating, and talking about money. If you don’t stand your ground, there is no way you will get the payment you deserve. And yes, I do think that many companies low-ball their offers to test you.
But what if my price is too high?
In my experience, this rarely is the case. Of course, it makes sense to adjust your rate to the needs of clients. But even the adjustable part of your salary should be fixed. If you’re a smart freelancer, you know exactly what amount of cash you need to survive. Make sure you get that in.
Always be transparent
This comes in handy at any stage, but especially in the bargaining stages. You know what you can do and what you have done. Make sure you share it openly. Be open about what type of work didn’t go well too. This will help you build credibility. Show your work. A good start is having a portfolio with some work samples. Share the process. A copywriter doesn’t just sit down and hack out some slogans, she does proper research, observes people in the target group and develops a strategy, before even starting to write a single word.
By the way…
You can apply these stages to almost any kind of work vs money-type negotiation. So the next time you non-freelancers negotiate your salary, think of this.