Getting clients to pay: 10 tips for freelancers

How do you make sure you getting paid properly for your design work? Joel Hughes of Jojet Ltd reveals the mistakes freelancers make and how to avoid them.

Clients and pricing are two subjects very close to my heart - in fact, I talked about them at the Port80 webconference in Newport in May. And let's be clear here, I feel qualified to speak on the subject as I've made pretty much  made every mistake under the sun when it comes to the topic - it's a miracle I'm still in business!


Well, that's maybe overstating it, but the truth is that I managed to learn from my mistakes and have the scars to prove it. And I'm hoping this article will help you as well.

My company Jojet was set up in 2001 when I was a freelancer with agencies but it wasn't till about 2005 that I started to sidestep the agencies and deal with companies directly. This was when the fun began as I realised that, whilst I knew about the web and so on, dealing with business, pricing, negotiating, etc was a completely foreign land to me.

So here I'm going to share with you some of the harsh lessons I learned. And while they took place within the world of web design, they apply equally to any creative endeavour where clients and pricing are involved...

Words: Joel Hughes; Main image: ilovedust

01. Learn to say no

Bad clients are bad for your business - they'll be poor payers and will sap your energy

You don’t have to work with every client that comes along. Yes, in the early days this seems like a luxury, but bad clients are not good for your business.

They'll be poor payers, difficult to work with and they'll hardly turn out to be great advocates for your services. They'll sap your energy and destroy your joy. Worst of all, they'll eat up valuable time which would be better spent with clients who appreciate you.

Trust your gut. Sniff out the rotten apples early, spare yourself some pain and show them the door.

02. Get your pricing right

In my agency/freeance days pricing was simple. My day rate was, say, £250 with the only grey area being what actually constitutes a 'day' (some agencies want you there 24 hours!).

On first dealing with actual client proposals I'd think, "okay, that looks like about five days work all-in", and tell the client £1250 (+VAT). Only to hear their jaw hit the floor: "But X only quoted me £275!"

Don't undercharge

I took this to mean that, somehow, I was wrong; that I'd got my pricing totally wrong, that perhaps the business world was different to agencies. Or perhaps I wasn't that good and I was a bit slower than some other web developers. Perhaps they could do it in four days. Or three. Or one.

So I would adjust my quote accordingly. Which meant that structured pricing went completely out of the window. You would be simply plucking figures out of the air when it comes to proposal; adjusting it to the whim of the client. And if you got the job you'd have to hunker down to the bitter end because, however crap the money, you just had to get paid - you'd come this far...

Prices are relative

Lesson: in this crazy world we live in, pricing is relative; what's cheap to one person is expensive to another. The supermarkets sell economy baked beans as well as truck loads of Heinz; there is a vast difference in the price but they are both basically baked beans in tomato sauce.

YOU set your price. Don’t get into a haggling match in potential clients. If the client cannot afford your service then they cannot afford you - simple as that - do they haggle with the person behind the till at Tesco? No? I thought not.

03. Be happy with talking about money

Talk about money from day one and you'll stand a much greater chance of getting paid

In my early days I hated talking about money - in fact I would avoid it and end up having meetings, etc before the subject ever came up.

Result? An awful lot of wasted time with clients who simply couldn't afford my services. Time which you cannot get back and time which should have been spent with clients who can afford you or time better spent developing your business.

Lesson: from the very outset I'll let potential clients know either a day rate or the ball park which a project costs. This acts as a perfect filter at keeping the zero/unrealistic budget brigade away from my attention.

04. Frame your prices

Most potential clients have pretty much no clue about what goes into design work, especially in my area, web design. I'm not saying that as a criticism - it's just a trait I've spotted. They know their business but no little about the web; fair enough. And it shouldn't be a surprise that they have no idea how to ask you about prices, and so on.

We've all heard about clients asking: 'How much is a simple, five-page website?'. But after the laughing stops, it's really our responsibility to help the client understand.

We've already covered being comfortable talking about prices but this tip is more about giving them an early estimate of the overall project cost. You could do this either:

  • a guesstimate on number of resource days
  • the cost of a similarly sized project
  • off-the-shelf solutions

Estimates are not quotes

Please note I've said an early estimate here - this is not a quote. Initially I just want the client to get a ball park of the range of prices  - does this fit with their budget? If not, can we do something smaller?

Oh, and there's a school of thought as well that if the client doesn't wince a little at your prices then you are not charging enough.

05. Consider packaged solutions

If clients seem overwhelmed by the complexities, think about offering simpler packages

The 'off-the-shelf solutions' point I made previously demands a bit more attention. I don't sell shrink-wrapped websites but, over time, I've spotted some commonality between certain solutions offered to clients - e.g. this is a small content managed website for a sole professional, or this is a larger, more complex website for companies. Or, this company also needs a WordPress blog set up with hands on training.

So what I did was to create some packaged solutions where I could say, "this is what you get for X price", and talk them through the features/benefits, and so on. This approach means that it's very clear from the outset what the client is getting - and it really helps keep out one of the web design demons... scope creep!

Opt in or out

The packages also allow the client to qualify themselves in or out; questions like, "oh but we need X or Y", can be met with, "sure, in which case we can offer you A and it will cost B".

Note, I'm not talking about GOLD, SILVER, BRONZE websites here - perhaps this is even something you make no mention of on your website. Perhaps it's just some pricing guidelines you have in your back pocket when you're trying to establish budget with a client.

Next: Define your delivery process, consider kill fees and more...

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