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Negotiating for Freelance Success Series (Part 2 of 3): How to prep for negotiation success as a freelancer

To “win” a negotiation, you have to put in prep work. The more you prepare, the more likely the negotiation will go your way.

Photo by  William Iven  on  Unsplash

My friend, Beth (not her real name), is an exceptional freelance writer. Her words flow with grace and clarity that few can match. Yet, for years, she’s been struggling to make ends meet as a freelancer.

The other day, I asked her how she prepares for a conversation with a new client. She gave me a perplexed look. “I think about how awesome it would be to have more work, and I pray to the freelance gods that the new client will like me?” she answered, her voice rising into a question.

Aha. And there you have it.  Like so many other freelancers that I’ve talked to, Beth doesn’t know how to prepare for a negotiation. As a consequence, the potential client always has the upper hand.

But even a short amount of time spent preparing effectively can alter the playing field and tilt it in our favor.

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Would it surprise you to know that professional negotiators spend several times longer (3-10X) preparing for a negotiation than actually conducting the negotiation itself? While as a freelancer, you’re not negotiating Middle East peace, the fundamentals of the prep work are the same for any negotiation.

To be prepared, you have to consider the factual, emotional, and physical aspects of the negotiation.

Factual considerations

First, you have to know what you want and what you don’t want. It sounds deceptively simple, but most of us - especially when we start out - are so happy to be offered anything other than zero that we forget to ask ourselves this question: “What do I want?”

Will you be happy with $20/hour or is even $200/hour too low? Do you want to work on one-off blog posts or only take on sustained, long-term projects? Do you want to have weekly call-ins with the client to discuss progress or do you want to be left alone until you’re done with the project?

Once you know what you want, you have a starting point for your research to decide whether it’s realistic for the market in which the client operates. If you work with major corporations, $100/hour can be reasonable. If you’re working mostly with online content mills, you’re lucky to be paid $50/blog post. Knowing what the client’s specific market will bear and what the expectations are around the type of work you can do within that market is essential for deciding (a) where to start the negotiation; and (b) whether to even bother having the negotiation in the first place.

Closely related to the question of what you want is the question of what are your alternatives. If we’re in the middle of a dry spell, we are often quick to think that anything is better than nothing. That is not true.

As a freelancer, you’re spending the one thing that you can never replenish - your time. So, if you’re offered a gig at $10/hour and you’re going to work 100 hours, you’ll make $1000. But if you turn it down and instead spend these 10 hours prospecting for a $50/hour gig, then work 20 hours in that gig, you’ll make the same $1000 but having only spent 30 hours not 100.

The clearer you are about your alternatives, the clearer you are on your walkaway point. And you MUST clarify a walkaway point for yourself because without it, you’ll feel desperate for an agreement. And desperation is how we give away the store.

On the other hand, the clearer you are on your walkaway, the more confidence you gain in your own value, which naturally comes across as being a stronger negotiator.

What do you know about the specific client and what can you ask during the conversation? The more you know about the other party in the negotiation, the stronger your hand is. What does the client want to achieve through this engagement and how valuable is it to them? Has the client worked with freelancers before? Are the client’s written materials polished and professional, which suggests that the client places value on good writing? Why are they looking to hire someone right now?

You may be able to find out the answers to some of these questions before your discussion with the client and that should inform how you approach the conversation (for example, if the client has no experience working with freelancers, you could offer some information about what is typical or usual in freelance arrangements). But it is equally important to develop a set of questions to ask the client during the conversation - both as a means of finding out information and as a means of establishing rapport.  

The more you know about the client’s situation and the project, the more likely you are to speak to the right pain points, thus positioning yourself as a partner who’s worth a premium rather than a temporary and disposable hired hand.

Examine the strength of your arguments from the client’s point of view. I know one freelancer who requires a 20% deposit to just get on her calendar (she’s booked 2-3 months out) and she asks for 100% of the fee up front. How does she justify the request for this arrangement? She explains that it allows her to keep a slot on her calendar for that client.

The real reason for her request is to balance out her cash flow, but she never mentions that in her negotiations. Why? Because her clients don’t care about her cash flow situation. But they do care about not being pushed off her schedule.

Similarly, if your policy is to never turn around a project the same day, you’ll have a strong argument by explaining that this allows you to guarantee your work product because you’ll be able to review it with fresh eyes. You’ll be in a much weaker position if you explain that your kids are home in the afternoons and therefore you can’t get any work done. Both of these statements may be true and may be important to you, but only one of them is important to the client.  

Emotional considerations

As I discussed in the first part of this series, to be a successful negotiator, you must separate the problem being negotiated from the people negotiating it.

Taking things personally is the fastest way for a negotiation to go south. The more you’re aware of your triggers, the easier it is to avoid the trap of taking things personally. When a client throws out a lowball figure, it’s not personal. It’s the client wanting to conserve resources or not seeing the value of paying more. If a client questions your writing experience, it’s still not personal. It’s the client wanting to make sure that the freelancer they’re speaking with will be able to get the work done.

Listen to trigger statements and understand what the client is actually saying or asking, then answer the client’s real needs. You’ll build deeper rapport by understanding the interests that drive the client.

Learn to love silence. Many of us are uncomfortable with silences during a conversation. So we rush our responses or we babble to avoid the quiet. But this tendency is really detrimental when negotiating. It means that we’re not listening deeply to the other person (because we’re worried about what we’ll say next) and we’re not giving ourselves an opportunity to respond properly.

Practice the following two things with another person. First, have a conversation in which you’re both silent for 5 seconds after the other person stops speaking. (“Jim, how are you?” 5...4...3...2...1… “I’m great! How are you?” 5...4...3...2...1… and so on). Second, practice having a conversation where you say “that’s an interesting question. Let me think about it for a moment…” then be quiet for 10-20 seconds, formulating your answer (don’t be surprised if the other person jumps in and fills in the silence within 3 seconds!).

Anchoring in what you want. There are pluses and minuses to stating your fee versus letting the client tell you what they’re willing to pay. But by and large, the party that names its conditions first anchors the negotiation - its proposal becomes the basis for the negotiation. Therefore, I’m a big proponent of stating your fee first.

This may be an incredibly uncomfortable thing to do if you’ve not done it before or if the first few times that you’ve done it resulted in the client walking away. So practice saying the number until it sounds natural to you. Say it to yourself in the mirror. Say it to your spouse, your dog, or your cactus. “My fee for this project is….” “My hourly rate for this type of work is….”

The more confident you sound when you state your number, the more confidence the client will have that you’re worth it.

Physical considerations

We don’t often think about creature comforts when we’re planning a conversation with a potential client. But your physical state and your surroundings can influence your confidence, your ability to express yourself, and ultimately your likelihood of getting to a good agreement.

Don’t let them see you sweat (or shake). Different people react to stress differently. One of my friends gets really cold. Like, shivering-cold. To the point where her voice shakes. That’s why she always turns up the temperature in her office before she gets on a call with a potential client or wears an extra layer if she’s going to an in-person meeting.

Keep notes on paper or on a screen - don’t rely on memory. Taking notes does two things: first, it helps you create an accurate account in a situation where your emotions may cloud your memory. Second, it’ll inevitably slow down your conversation, allowing you more time to think about what to say next.

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As you can see, there’s a lot to think about before a negotiation. It may seem overwhelming at first, but if you try just one or two of these suggestions, you’ll already improve your chances for a good negotiation outcome. And many of these things become automatic with practice.

In the final post of this series, I’ll discuss the importance of the TLC Factors™ (Trust, Leverage, Creativity) in negotiation.


If you haven’t done so already, download this very useful checklist for negotiation prep. It’s a negotiation game changer!

Maria Granovsky