by Ilise Benun
Creatives get this question all the time and often give the easy answer: a number, unadorned. $50 or $150 or $300—the number itself is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that it requires no conversation.
It can be tempting to answer this way, even a force of habit, especially if you don’t like talking money. But, when it comes to something as subjective as creative services, talking about hourly rates (or any other quantifiable unit of measure) diminishes the perceived value of your talents, cheapens the enterprise and turns it into a commodity that your prospect can get for less (often much less on the Internet).
If you respond to the question with your hourly rate, they may start immediately comparing you to other creative professionals, despite stark qualitative differences, essentially comparing apples to oranges. Or they may stop listening to the carefully constructed explanation of your creative process and start calculating what they think it should cost or, worse, how much you earn, perhaps compared to what they earn. Don’t let them go there.
Unless you’re talking about on-site freelancing, which is commonly paid hourly, it will serve you best to respond to this question by proposing a project fee as an alternative and framing it as “good news” for them, which it actually is. Here are a few variations to try:
- “I don’t charge per hour because it’s not good for my clients. What’s far more helpful to you is to know what this is going to cost. We’ll agree on a scope of work and a fee for it and you’ll know what you’ve got.”
- “We quote by the project, not by the hour, and I’m going to come up with my best estimate and I will give you a number, a fixed fee, so you don’t have to worry that once things get under way, I’ll throw up my hands and say, ‘Sorry, but now the meter is running.’”
- “I don’t bill my time that way. It’s far better, for me but especially for you, to give you a fixed fee. It’s all too easy for a simple project to turn into more hours because the meter always feels like it’s running. That way, you don’t go into a project wondering how many hours are going by. Instead, you know this job is going to cost $X with these stipulations. You have a clear line item in your budget, barring some unforeseen addition of work or scope creep.”
What Do They Really Want to Know?
Sometimes, when a prospect asks first for a price or your hourly rate, that’s not necessarily what they want or need to know at that moment. To find out what is, you must listen for the question underneath. Do they want to know how you bill? Are they asking about your process? The amateur clients especially may be unfamiliar with the way creative services work; others are trying to get a sense of where you fit in the world of creatives.
Talking about hourly rates (or any other quantifiable unit of measure) with clients Can diminish the perceived value of your talents, and cheapen the enterprise, turning it into a commodity that can be found for less
Illustration courtesy of Branden Vondrak
1. User experience design consultant Mona Patel believes, “It’s not smart to discuss actual prices too soon, because once you do, you’re both stuck with the numbers you’ve put on the table. The longer you wait, the more information you gather, the more accurate your price will be. By talking about the project and its scope without mentioning price, you are essentially buying yourself more freedom in the pricing. If you name your price too soon, it will be harder to negotiate down, even if you want to.”
2. If you take the lead, you can engage your prospect in a different conversation. In fact, be like a politician: don’t accept the premise of the question. Instead, direct the conversation where you think it needs to go before you talk about price— essentially positioning your price before you give it.
3. Mona recommends this response to buy you time: “I would be happy to provide a competitive price; however, I can only develop that once I understand your requirements better. May I ask you more questions?”
1. For more information like this, pick up a copy of Ilise Benun’s new book, The Creative Professional’s Guide to Money: How to think about it, How to talk about it, How to manage it.
3. Want to try a free mentoring session? Sign up here.