What Do You Say to a Prospect Who Asks for This?

I recently got an email from one of my sidecar-coaching clients—and a budding commercial writer. He’d made contact with an interested prospect who then sent him the following email:

I’d like to get a quote for a first project with you – to try you out. If the first one goes well, we feel there’d be ongoing work (multiple projects). As such, I’d like to get a quote for _______ as well as a________. Can you share your pricing terms, while understanding that we’d like to get an introductory price for these projects? And can you give me a price for the projects separately as well as together? Thanks!

He was asking me how he should respond to it. Obviously, it’d be easy-breezy for me to tell the guy, flat out, that I don’t offer “introductory pricing” (after all, I’m not at all desperate for work). But, if you’re a new commercial freelancer, you want to craft a way of doing business that sets your terms—in all senses of the word—without turning off a client.

My reply back to him :

Had to smile when I saw this. One of two client types. First, he’s the kind that thinks he’s being SO original in his pitch: “Hey, gotta lotta work coming up, so give me a really good price for the first one.” And maybe there’ll be more, and maybe there won’t be.

Or the second type: He’s honest about considering future work, but acting as if introductory pricing was a given. Would he ask for introductory pricing from an attorney? Doctor? Accountant? Folks like him need to get that we’re professional service providers, deserving of competitive market rates. And if you want the work because you’re starting out, then do it in a way that doesn’t seem subservient.

Anyway, all that said, while it’d be easy for me to reject such a pitch since I don’t need the work (or the aggravation of dealing with a client that thinks like that), it’s not my place to tell someone starting out what they should or shouldn’t do.

And that said, if you want to give it a shot, I might say something like, “I’d love to work with you, but I don’t really offer introductory pricing.” OR, “If there is indeed additional work coming—and I’d love to establish an ongoing relationship with your company—then how I work it when people approach me with such an offer is to charge my normal rate for the first one, and if you indeed hire me again, I’ll extend a discount to you on the second project.” Or some variation of that.

This can be a tricky call. On the one hand, by giving in to a prospect’s terms, you can set a precedent as being a doormat, and he might keep working you. By the same token, most commercial writing-buyers I’ve crossed paths with in my 21 years in the business aren’t connivers; overwhelmingly, they’re hard-working, honest people who just need to get their work done, and see the possibility of us helping them.

But, even good people can take advantage of you if you let them, so it’s still important to set and stick to your terms upfront—whatever they are—so clients don’t think they can get whatever they want, whenever they want.

Bottom line, he landed the gig (~$5K). He shared the email log with me, emphasizing to me the importance of continued follow-up when you’re negotiating. And indeed, there were several times in the process where he had to send a second email to get the client to reply. So, if you don’t hear something, email them again to keep things moving.

After he wrote me, he felt he needed to reply soon, so my reply came after he sent his initial response. He started out asking for 100% upfront payment and use of the final pieces in his portfolio (seems like a given, but clients sometimes refuse such requests just because they can; a good case for never asking in the first place) in return for an introductory price.

In the end, he settled for (and received) 25% upfront. While he wasn’t crazy about it, he wanted the gig, so he stayed flexible.

And that’s a key point here: It’s easy to suggest playing hard-ass, demanding this and that, but if you’re starting out and want to get some traction, you need to be flexible, and a little trusting.

Remember: As a rule, clients in the commercial copywriting field pay well and reliably. The last thing a growing company needs is a PR nightmare because they hosed their vendors and one of those “hosees” posted something on social media. We don’t have anywhere near the payment hassles experienced by many “freelance writers.”

How do you handle clients who ask for “introductory pricing” or some kind of special deal? How did you respond?

Have you given in to such requests in the past, only to regret it later (i.e., the client vanished after one discounted job, or was a pill to work with)?

Ever had a prospect try to “work” you, but who changed their tune and had new respect for you based on how you replied back to them?

If you’re more established and can afford to take a harder line towards prospects like these, what advice would you give to new writers who need to be more flexible as they get established?

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15 replies
  1. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    This scenario is pictured in the dictionary right next to “slippery slope.”

    I think we’ve all seen that type of e-mail before. As a beginner, I grabbed stuff like that. Do you know why? Fear (of no one else calling that week/month) and not being confident in my skills, or my ability to price something fairly.

    Part of the problem is the mindset. We let the client be the “boss” instead of a “partner.” Or we’re still so new we lack confidence in standing up for ourselves and possibly pushing away the “client of a lifetime.” Frankly, my belief is if they send an e-mail like that, they’re not the client of a lifetime. But that’s just it… we really don’t know. So we roll the dice and let them dictate all terms in the hopes that what they seem to be promising (more work at your regular rate) is true.

    My guess is the vast majority of the time, it isn’t true. But the fact that it COULD be true THIS time is what pushes us to give in when we really don’t want to. We’re like gamblers hoping that the next hit is going to be the big payoff, even when a voice tells us we should walk away.

    You can say “Don’t do that” all you want, but when you’re the one having to pay the bills or support a family, you do what ya gotta do. So I won’t criticize this person since I’d be the ultimate hypocrite.

    What I found early on when not sticking up for myself was that I ended up establishing a lower-than-what-it-should-have-been rate and it was near impossible to get the rate higher. It’s a stress causer.

    In the end, I needed to “fire” one particular client because I was making more money with other clients where I had established myself with more confidence. The one client wasn’t a pill and always paid on time, but wasn’t willing to pay a higher rate because they could find someone else desperate for work to replace me. Couldn’t even blame him for that.

    The “bonus” downside of a client like this is that, if they give referrals, they often give them to other people who expect you to bend to whatever whim they have.

    Still, I left that relationship with a lot of good samples and more confidence in my abilities. So my reward wasn’t great pay, but I did get a benefit in portfolio samples and experience/confidence for the future

    While I know this probably isn’t helpful to the person you’re talking about, I finally got to the point a few years ago of requiring 100% of the fee upfront with new clients and that continues with all their future projects.

    In addition, the rate I give them is the lowest rate I’ll take unless the specs of the project change. Otherwise, I come off as someone whose word doesn’t mean much. (And this is another reason to ask for a budget upfront, but that’s another topic that we’ve already talked about.) If I say my rate is X, but lower it at the first sign of resistance or pressure, what message does that send?

    By laying out my terms very clearly on my site, I no longer get e-mails like this. I let people disqualify themselves before they think of contacting me. The people who do call are the serious ones.

    I would not necessarily recommend my method to a beginner, but we’ve talked about this before here… there are lots of things you can do to come across as a professional and not give the impression you’re ready to be walked over. (Example: Lots of samples on your site that show people you can do what you claim to do. They don’t even need to be from paying clients.)

    I look back at my own experiences with this as part of the learning that comes with being a freelancer. This person Peter is talking about is going down a well-worn path that many of us have been down. My advice is not to stress over it. Take each client project as a learning experience and adjust as necessary with each new project or client.

    If your confidence is low, read books or network with people who can support you to fix that. If you feel you’re attracting clients like this, maybe something needs to be done to reach a different quality of client. (That’s probably a separate topic.) If you don’t think you’re writing is good enough, take classes or read copywriting books.

    Sorry… I think I’ve rambled on long enough.

  2. Peter DeHaan
    Peter DeHaan says:

    My experience is that once a discount is given, it is always expected on every future project – if there are any. Whenever I’ve given a discount I end up regretting it and invariably resent the client and the project.

    (If you cut your price, what corners would they like you to cut on the project?)

    I tell them that my prices are for quality work. If they want cheap, go to Elance.com or Odesk.com (now Upwork.com).

  3. Lori
    Lori says:

    Been there, heard that. I smiled, too. It’s a pretty common “offer.”

    When clients have asked me for a price break, I usually come back with options — installment payments, bulk project rates, or I can do part of the project for their rate. It’s also the time I insist on a contract stating whatever we’ve agreed to. When I tell clients it protects both their interests and mine, most will sign without concern.

    One time I gave in to a lower-than-acceptable rate in exchange for my higher rate. I was getting about fifty bucks for a 300-word blog post, but in exchange they had agreed (contractually) to pay me my full rate for their press releases. Color me surprised when one day after the third release was delivered, they came back with “We don’t see the difference between the blog posts and the releases, so we’re just going to pay you $50 for each.”

    Color them shocked when I hauled out the contract and made them pay the rate they’d agreed to. I dumped them shortly after. However, they came back three months later, begging me to help them “at your rate.” So the price for the blog posts went way up. It didn’t last because now they were extremely picky and creating three times the work by overthinking things. I dumped them for the last time a month later.

    I can say that I may have had an incident recently that did change a client prospect’s tune. Not sure yet. This was a client who had told me my price was outrageous (which I wouldn’t justify with a response). I saw him at the trade show last month. Damn if he didn’t ask me if I handled PR and proceeded to say we needed to have a conversation. However, I’m not clapping yet. I suspect he thinks his admonition had put me in my place and I’ll fall in line with whatever budget he’s dreaming up. Not a chance — I’m overworked right now and have plenty of client prospects interested who think my rates are just fine. I’m doing myself a favor and avoiding his issues, which I suspect would quickly become my issues.

    Typically, I do take a harder line with people looking for an instant discount. For it to work for us both, we have to be on the same page. Some of these prospects aren’t even reading from the same book. But I think if you’re a new writer, it’s fine to ask a prospect what their budget is. They should be willing to share it (if not, they might indeed be bargain-hunting). You’ll know then if it’s something you can afford. Plus, I’d say do your homework and know what your minimum rate is. It makes the negotiating so much easier knowing your lowest acceptable rate.

    Also, one of the primary lessons new writers can learn — their lack of funds isn’t your problem to solve. Sometimes the client’s budget and your rate simply won’t mesh. It’s okay to wish them well and walk away. You can’t be all things to all clients.

  4. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Mike, Peter and Lori!

    Mike, good stuff as usual, and as I read through your descriptions of everything you—and so many newbies did/do (like a gambler grasping at what he hopes will be the big score), I realized that that early-stage lack of confidence is, for the overwhelmingly majority of people, an unavoidable step along the way.

    Enough times making mistakes and giving in when we shouldn’t, is precisely what we need to do to gain the confidence to NOT make a habit of those less-than-resourceful behaviors. But, to think we could all be so self-possessed right out of the gate is a bit unrealistic. Like that old saying reminds: Good judgment is born of experience, and experience is born of bad judgment. 😉

    So, true, Peter – a discount for no particular reason absolutely sets the wrong tone, and more importantly, sets a precedent of client using us as a doormat. As Lori nicely pointed out, if you’re going to offer a discount, then make sure you’re changing the scope of the project or expecting some other concession from the client.

    Good for you, Lori, for holding that client’s feet to the fire. Would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall when they got that email. And I loved the simple brilliance of, “Their lack of funds isn’t your problem to solve.” Absolutely right, yet how many times have all of us (at some point or another) shouldered that burden?

    But newbies will still do all those things until they get burned enough to stop.


  5. Lori
    Lori says:

    True enough, Peter. I think another lesson they need to learn (and one that I’ve just written an upcoming blog post for) is admitting mistakes. The lessons you learn from screwing up are so valuable. If you as a writer can’t own up to yourself for that, guess what’s going to happen again and again until you do?

    I say if you’re already deep into the flames, make sure you get your s’mores out of it. LOL

  6. Christy Tucker
    Christy Tucker says:

    I’m an instructional designer (I design and develop online courses), so my work isn’t exactly the same as yours. Many of the same challenges arise though. I’m finishing up a course now for someone who initially agreed to a price, but asked if I’d give a bulk discount if he signed the contract for 5 courses up front. Work has been a little slow this year, and the prospect of a $20K+ job was too good to turn down. Wouldn’t you know it–I finished one course, and he’s canceling the contract for the rest. Of course, he’s only paying the discounted rate for his one course.

    It’s a good lesson learned for me. If I give a bulk discount again, I’ll definitely be more careful in structuring the payments so the first one is at full price even if they cancel the contract, and the discount will only kick in for later work.

  7. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Lori,

    And absolutely agree about admitting mistakes. In some ways, I’d put it in the same category as things like reliability, turning in good, clean work, being easy to get along with – they’re all things that are surprisingly rare in the freelance world. And someone who says, “Hey, I screwed up, I’m sorry, and I want to make it right,” can be an unexpected breath of fresh air to a client, and rare enough that they might give you another shot.

    But, that said, you shouldn’t own up to your mistakes just because you think you can salvage a deal. You should do it with no thought of the outcome, just because it’s the right thing to do. AND, regardless of the outcome (i.e., even if they client doesn’t want to continue the relationship), it’ll settle things in your own mind.

    It’s about being aware of the things you can control and the things you can’t. If you messed up, you can’t control how the client is going to react, but you CAN control what you do about it. And once you do something, again, you have no control over the client’s reaction, so move on. And learn from it.

    Thanks Christy, for weighing in. And yes, speaking of mistakes and learning from them (but in a different sense), sounds like a good lesson you learned. Funny, how, in the moment, even though our scam-detecting radar is going off, we still believe what this person is telling us.


  8. Joe Mullich
    Joe Mullich says:

    I can’t speak for a beginner. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I have a lot of clients and assignments. I wouldn’t even respond to the introductory pricing comment and would simply be pleasant and businesslike:
    Great to hear from you. I look forward to developing a long and productive relationship. For project 1 the fee would be X; for project 2, the fee would be Y. In the future, if you commission multiple projects, we can’t certainly discuss how that would impact the fee. Thank you so much for thinking of me. Let me know if you have any questions.
    I might add more details depending on the project, but that’s the gist of it.

  9. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks, Joe,

    Great solution – friendly, but firm. And coming from that most wonderful of places to be: where you really don’t care what they say. And that’s the key (and the goal): when you have plenty of work, paying what you want to be paid, you set your terms. When you don’t, you’re more likely to have to make accommodations. We’ve all been there at some point, and the other is better…;)

  10. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    In my experience, the clients quickest to promise lots of future work are the ones least likely to have it. And the ones who present themselves as doing you a favor are most likely to become abusive down the road.

    As for “trial rates” — well, after 18 years in the business, I don’t audition. You pay your money and you take your chances. Concerned about whether I can get the job done? That’s what the portfolio samples are for.

    One of the most impressive things you can say to a prospective client is, “If you don’t feel that I’m the right guy for the job or that my work is worth my rate, then you really shouldn’t hire me.” They never expect to hear that! But it’s true — for both parties.

  11. Star
    Star says:

    Back when I did commercial work, I even had people say they did not pay for the first job–at all! Well, C ya! My rule was if I made any concession, I got something back for it–or seemed to. I might have said your first option…“I’d love to work with you, but I don’t really offer introductory pricing,” but would have added “but you are entitled to a reasonable rewrite if you have problems with anything I do. I want this to be a continuing relationship. All this will be included in our agreement. I don’t like surprises and I know you don’t either.” I always asked for half on deposit–not 100%. I think I would have gotten pushback on that.

  12. Bryan
    Bryan says:

    “If you’re more established and can afford to take a harder line towards prospects like these, what advice would you give to new writers who need to be more flexible as they get established?”

    I think flexibility is kind of “depends on the situation” deal. Even today, I am a lot more flexible if it’s a client that I want to have in my roster. Like, one that I either respect the company and it’d be kinda cool to work for them OR if I know they are the kind of business that has steady gigs. That’s one of the things where I disagree with (not your position) a lot of freelancers who teach new freelancers. They often ignore that stability is worth flexibility.

    You learn to appreciate that. Sometimes, the hard way.

  13. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks all,

    Good stuff, William. What a great place to be. It’s SO liberating. And yeah, I’ll bet they weren’t expecting to hear that! Just underscores the mindset that many clients have in transactions such as these: That they truly are in the driver’s seat, and as such, get to set all the terms.

    And sure, there’s always some of that dynamic present when we’re being hired, as opposed to doing the hiring, but good clients understand that it’s a two-way street, and that, an ideal outcome is predicated on that hire being a win for both sides. They may not start out with that mindset, but a quality practitioner can have them realize it.

    Star and Bryan, good points. Taking a hard line is fine, but staying flexible is always a good idea. Not because it’s about giving in, but rather, it’s about being realistic. Developing a reputation as someone who can give a little when asking someone else to give a little, is a good thing. This business, like life in general, is not a black-and-white proposition. As you two point out, if you see the potential for a positive LT relationship, flexibility can make that happen.

    And especially, as Bryan says, if it’s the type of client you’d really like to work for, even better. Our business, let’s face it, can often be a lot of well-paid writing that’s far from creatively fulfilling (or even enjoyable). That’s the trade-off. But, when we’re looking at work that could be fun, gratifying or otherwise enjoyable, that’s worth giving a little.

    Point being, in all these cases, you want it to be a conscious choice, as opposed to feeling obligated by circumstances (like money) to take something that’s not ideal just to have some work.


  14. Holly
    Holly says:

    Strangely enough, I’ve never had a potential client ask this! I have often been asked to write a ‘test piece’, but it’s always been a paid test and always my regular going rate.

  15. Kevin Casey
    Kevin Casey says:

    Recently had a major Australian software company ask for a quote on some landing pages for white pages. I had worked with them before. I quoted $1850 flat fee for the job. They came back and asked “can you do this for $1400?’

    I wrote back and said no, and listed about 8 reasons why I have never given a discount for writing services, and never will.

    They hired me for some other work, but not that project. Which is fine. It wasn’t worth my time to do it for $1400. But the point is, stick to your quotes. Once you start giving way, all writers lose.

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