Negotiation for freelances | Part 2 of 2: The negotiation

by Tom Albrighton 12 January 2010 Freelancing

This is the second of two linked posts on negotiation for freelances. Read the first part here.

Choosing the channel

While the content of the negotiation is obviously paramount, the channel you use to negotiate can have a significant impact on how things pan out. In other words, it’s not just what you say – it’s the way you’re obliged to say it.

  • Face-to-face negotiation can be daunting, but brings the advantage that you can read the body language and facial signals of your client. The choice of venue can be key; negotiating on your ‘home ground’ feels reassuring.
  • Email provides ample time and space to consider your response and a written record of every move in the game, but your only feedback is what the client chooses to include in their emails.
  • Phone can be the worst of both worlds, with no visual feedback and no time to respond either. However, many negotiations do end up being conducted by phone. Help yourself by choosing quiet surroundings and using the clearest line you can (i.e. a landline).

If you can, take charge of the situation by initiating negotiations in the channel you want, rather than passively waiting for the client to choose one. There’s nothing worse than taking a client’s call unexpectedly and being pitched into a negotiation without warning. Similarly, if you feel pressure during the proceedings, consider asking for a time-out and moving the negotiation to a channel you feel more comfortable with.

Handling the negotiation

  • Choose your style. Everyone has their own negotiating style, and it usually flows from their personality. If you’re naturally bullish, you may feel comfortable with an ‘in your face’, aggressive approach. If you’re more laid-back, a more conciliatory, co-operative style may work better.
  • Banish emotion. It is your enemy. Handling negotiation is about presence of mind, rationality and balance – like playing chess. Remember: he or she who cares least wins. If your client gets emotional, try to defuse the situation, perhaps with a time-out.
  • Look for trades. Negotiation works through quid pro quo. Determine what’s important to the client, and weigh it against what’s important for you. If you’re quiet right now, could you offer faster turnaround in return for a higher price? Or, if you’re just starting out, how about a lower price in return for a glowing testimonial?
  • Get their information. Probe the client on the factors behind their stance: how they want to work, the aims of the project, budgetary constraints and so on. There may be an opportunity to trade, but you need to know what they want first. Savvy clients will know that disclosing budget weakens their position, so just get them to chat on a general level and see what comes out.
  • Guard your information. Be aware of the value of certain information; by disclosing it, you may cede the advantage. For example, a seemingly innocuous enquiry about how busy you are, or your experience in certain areas, may be the prelude to price pressure. If you don’t want to reveal, try a vague or non-committal response – many clients won’t want to press the issue.
  • Make space and time. Don’t be afraid to ask for time to respond. For example, many prospects ask for a ballpark price during the very first call, but quoting a big-sounding number without context can be fatal. You need the chance to put a proposal together with price and service information, communicating value as well as cost, before negotiations begin.
  • Know your value. If you’re invited to make your price ‘more competitive’, but it’s competitive already, say so. Restate all the things you’re going to do for the price proposed, making it clear what a great package you’re offering. Above all, remember that although the client has a choice, they’re talking to you; they want you to do this project. You are not powerless.
  • Cite authority. If you can, refer to an authoritative third party to back up your stance. For example, many industry bodies have standard rates that can be useful. However, since they’re intended to prevent exploitation, they’re admittedly more likely to bolster your bottom line than give you a target to aim for.
  • Walk away. If the client repeatedly offers terms below your bottom line, politely decline the project. Do it calmly and unemotionally, with a smile, and certainly with no feeling of ‘paying them back’. Remember, it’s just business. To emphasise this, you could apologise for being unable to meet their expectations, or wish them luck in finding a supplier who can meet them. They may counter-offer, or they may not; as things stand, this isn’t a job worth going for.

After the negotiation

  • Record commitments. As soon as you can, set down the agreement in writing and get it agreed. There’s nothing worse than thinking you’ve got a deal, only to find your recollections of the conversation differ.
  • Chase up. If the negotiation stalls (for example, you submit a price by email and receive no response), make sure you chase up the client to find out why. Sometimes, you might feel that you don’t want to know – that the information can only undermine confidence. But it’s always better to know.
  • Look for learning. Finally, review the negotiation and think about what you could have done differently. Even if you achieved your top line, there will still be details of technique that could be improved.