10 Negotiation Strategies for Creatives

tedleonhardtDesign business consultant Ted Leonhardt provides an excerpt from “The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines.”

These 10 negotiation strategies will help you make sure you’re getting a fair deal while also remaining in control during client meetings.


1. Build your own Virtuous Cycle.

A Virtuous Cycle is a series of events that result in a favorable outcome, over and over again. For creatives, it means using your work and the insights you’ve gained from doing it to gain the interest and attention of future clients on a continuous basis. Their interest in you means that they’ve accepted you as an expert. When that has occurred, your fees become non-negotiable. A well-managed Virtuous Cycle negates the need to negotiate.

2. Behave like the expert that you are.  

Experts determine how to best meet a client’s needs. Experts ask questions and create plans. Experts develop lists of the deliverables required to achieve success. Experts produce the budgets and schedules necessary to create the agreed scope of work. Experts don’t cut fees to meet a client’s demand because only the plan created by the expert will achieve success. Cutting the fees undermines the potential for success and the power of the expert in the relationship.

3.  Ask questions and really listen to their answers.

Listen, take notes, read back what you wrote and ask for clarification. Listening is a powerful tool. You’ll learn what they really want, need and how it will shape their future personally and the future of their company. The more you know, the more precisely you’ll be able to define your response. Being really listened to is immensely flattering and endearing. So, not only do you learn about the opportunity you also build a bond with the client.

4. Avoid talking too much.

Talking too much is a natural way to relieve nervous tension. Don’t do it. It’s a sign of discomfort and neediness that a trained negotiator can exploit. It’s always a sign of insecurity when you’re at the bargaining table.

5. Separate yourself from your services.

This is hard for creative people. We are the product. As a result, we care too much automatically. When you’re at the bargaining table, you must train yourself to care but not too much. When we care too much at the bargaining table, we lose perspective and, sometimes, the insecurities that we all have rise to the surface and take over. If that happens, you must find an excuse to leave the bargaining table.

6. Don’t accept the client’s initial offer

In business, some attempt to negotiate the fee is expected. Clients who present an initial budget are prepared to move up some on the fee. They hold back to protect themselves. Their initial budget is never the real budget – there’s always a larger budget available. They’ll expect you to ask for more. If you don’t ask, they’ll lose some of the respect they initially had for you and your expertise. To maintain your expert position, you must define the scope required to meet the client’s need. That means you must set the budget, too.

7. Do not give clients anything for free.

Always get something in return for everything you provide. In the world we live in, everything that’s valuable is measured in money. If you don’t get a fee for what you provide, the clients won’t value it.

8. Never cut deliverables to meet the client’s budget.

Cutting deliverables completely undermines your expert status. You’ve built the exact combination of activities and deliverables to provide the best possible solution to the client’s need. Then, under the pressure of bargaining you cut services; what does that say about your expert judgment? It says you’re just like everyone else — desperate for the work. Don’t do it.

9. Never rush to close.

Discomfort with negotiating often causes us to close the deal hostility or cave in to the client’s demands. Instead, think of the negotiating stage as part of the creative process. It is. Take all the time you need to consider every step, every detail of the process. Remember the phrase “I have all the time in the world.” Rushing to close is another classic sign of weakness and insecurity. Don’t do it.

negotiationshutterstockPhoto from Shutterstock

10. Never tell what you would’ve done it for.

Never, never, never tell. Often in a misguided attempt to connect personally with the client one feels the need to reveal more than required. You never want the client to know how you compiled your costs or what your real bottom line was. If you do, rest assured that they’ll use it against you in the future. Or worse, they’ll feel taken advantage of.

These strategies were adapted from Ted Leonhardt’s “Ten Steps to Negotiating Success for Creatives” – Used with permission. Learn more about Leonhardt at www.tedleonhardt.com

For more business advice, be sure to pick up the latest issue of HOW magazine.