Negotiating with Clients: Part 2 – The Verbiage of Negotiations

After a very long absence (*insert apology here*), we’ll get on with the Negotiating with Clients series and talk about the words you’ll hear when hammering out deals with your clients. You might think this topic couldn’t possibly warrant an entire post, but you’d be surprised.

Paying attention to words is always important. Whether it’s on a contract, a job description, or in client negotiations, the words you hear and use often carry meaning that’s different from your initial interpretation. In other words, don’t be fooled and don’t lead people astray.

This is getting confusing. Let’s just jump into the terms and phrases you should be aware of. I’m confident by the time you’re done reading this, you’ll understand what I mean.

What to Listen For

Let’s start our discussion talking about what you should listen for during negotiations. If you hear these words or phrases, stop and take a moment to consider their implications before moving forward in a particular direction.

I Might Be Willing to Consider

Be careful here. This sounds like you’re getting a job. It sounds like the client is interested. In fact, the client might actually be interested. But you need to get a lot more information before you proceed as though they are. The problem, however, is that most people jump to the conclusion that a deal is about to happen and proceed accordingly. However, you could be wasting a lot of time pursuing that course.

For an example, let’s say you tell the prospective client that you’ll be able to write all the content they need for $3,000 and have it back to them in three weeks. If they respond with “I might be willing to consider $2,500,” your initial response might be “Great, they want to hire me for $2,500”.

But hold your horses, there. You have some questions to ask first.

“What would make you willing to move forward at the $2,500 price point?” should be your first question. Let’s say your client says “I’d be willing to pay $2,500, but only if I can have it back in a week.”

If you can’t meet that deadline, you have a problem. (If it were me, I’d say there were multiple problems with this statement, but let’s just stick to the topic for now.)

Now let’s say you had proceeded without asking that question. You might have gone through several more rounds of communication and/or another hour of hashing out details before the client finally threw in that she wanted it back in a week. That’s wasted time for both of you.

Sometimes you can follow a “might be willing to consider” statement up with “Great. What’s the next step?” or “Perfect. Let’s move forward.” Either of these responses will help you figure out if the client is actually serious, or if they’re using the “might be willing to consider” line to dissuade you or buy some more time.

If the client seems unsure after a “might be” statement, I’d suggest giving them one or two additional options that are centered around whatever they might consider (be it a shorter turnaround time, a lower rate, etc.) and tell them you’ll check in with them in a week. Of course, if you’re not willing to do the work for whatever they’re “considering”, the negotiations are pretty much over anyway.

The point is, figure out the specifics as soon as you can and try to figure out if the client really wants to move forward or not. The faster you figure those things out, the faster you can decide whether the project is for you or if it’s not happening. That means you can get back to business faster and move on.


I won’t belabor the point here because the entire first post in this series was devoted to the idea of “comparable”. However, I’m linking it in this part because it’s super important. If you haven’t read that post, go do the thing. I’ll wait.

Possibility of Ongoing Work

Whenever I hear, on a job board or within client negotiations, the phrase “possibility of ongoing work”, all I tend to hear is “We’d like to pay you crappy wages.” Why? Because usually when a potential client says there’s a possibility of ongoing work it’s used to justify somewhat awful conditions. For example, “Our pay is $10 with the possibility of ongoing work.” Alternatively, “We’re starting out on a budget, but there’s the possibility of consistent work in the future.”

You do what you need to do, but if someone is telling me there’s a possibility of future work as though it’s some kind of door prize, I’m not interested. I wouldn’t do one article for $10, so why would I want to work for that rate on an ongoing basis?

Sometimes they’ll tell you that you have the possibility of receiving a bonus or that rates will increase in the future. To me, all of this is a giant nope. There are plenty of clients willing to pay decent rates without dangling the promise of future work in front of their freelancers just to get them to apply.

Be careful when you hear this. Sure, sometimes it’s just FYI. “Hey, if we like what you do we’d be interested in hiring you for future projects.” Super duper. But if it’s used to get you in the door and said in combination with some kind of shady comment about a low price or increasing fees, just run.

Looking to Hire a Team

Now, this one isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. If you’re hiring me and I’m going to be one of several freelancers you use and I’m making really decent wages, fine. But more often than not, being hired onto a “team of writers” means a)really low pay, b)dealing with ridiculous edits that don’t make sense, and c)doing a crapload of work for very little money (see point a). If someone is hiring a team of writers, you’re not writing for the client directly. You’re writing for an agency-type company who takes content requests from the actual clients and passes them onto their team of writers. That’s fine, but it usually means you’re writing for really low rates while your agency is making bank. Personally, I’d rather go find the clients myself and work for them one on one. That way, I control the process (i.e. people won’t make ridiculous edits to my work and make me look bad) and I get more of the money.

On a Trial Basis

Whenever I hear this, I feel like a rabbit that just smelled a wolf. Yes, sometimes there are legitimate reasons to hire someone on a trial basis. For instance, I recently completed a trial illustration for a client. They paid me for the illustration, but they paid several other artists, as well, and they will make a decision as to who they want to move forward with. That is completely legitimate.

However, sometimes if you hear that a client wants to hire you on a trial basis it means they want you to submit free work or work for a very, very low rate to “see if you’re a fit”. What typically ends up happening in those cases is that the client is hiring a TON of trial pieces, using them as their main content, and never making a “decision” on one particular writer. It’s a way to get a lot of content for dirt cheap, albeit while screwing over countless freelancers.

So, the moral of the story here is that if you’re getting paid well for your trial project, fine. But if “on a trial basis” is paired with crap wages, run, don’t walk, to the next opportunity.

Pay Upon Completion

If you’re working on a site like Upwork or Guru, you might have to wait until the end of the project to receive your payment. That’s fine, because on those sites you’re usually protected so if your client bails they still have to pay you.

However, that caveat out of the way, if a client you acquire through your own marketing efforts says they want to pay you upon completion – and they mean they only want to pay you upon completion – you should be wary.

I always request an up-front deposit from my clients, and legitimate clients won’t balk at this. It’s an industry practice that’s widely understood. You ask for a down payment, and it protects both of you. They don’t have to pay a whopping sum only to find out that you’re going to bail on them (not that you would, but some freelancers do, sadly enough). Additionally, you don’t have to work for free if they bail on you.

Agreeing to a “pay upon completion” clause is usually kind of a death sentence. I’d avoid it.

Words You Should Never Use

To be fair, it’s not just what you’re hearing that can sink a negotiation. Your clients have their interest, too, and you should pay attention to what you’re saying. The wrong word or phrase can send a client running, so it behooves you to be aware of what you’re really saying when you use the following words and phrases.

I Think

If you’re charging appropriately, your clients are paying you good money. You’d better know. I’m not saying it’s unacceptable in general conversation. But when it comes to the details of your contract and the project at hand, “think” tells your client that you’re not sure, inexperienced, and maybe unprofessional. Even if that’s not true, they have no way of knowing that. Here are a few examples of phrases that I hear freelancers say all the time – and that always make me cringe.

  • “I think I can do that for you.” (You don’t know what your skills are?)
  • “I think that’ll work.” (Usually in regards to a price. Again, you should know.)
  • “I think I can have that back to you by Monday.”
  • “I think you just .” (If you’re consulting, this is especially off-putting. Don’t give directions or instructions if you’re not sure.)

These are just a few examples, but you get the idea. Never come across as though you can’t do the job or you’re unsure about your business practices. I know confidence is hard, but fake it until it becomes natural. You’re consulting your clients and providing them with a service. You’d better be sure of what you’re asking them to pay you for.

I Charge

There are two ways in which this phrase, or a variation on it, can come back to bite you. First of all, saying “I charge…” makes it sound like you’ve come up with an arbitrary value for your work. It’s not a matter of you charging a certain rate, it’s a matter of what it takes to get the job done. For this reason, I like to say “This project will cost…” or “I’d have to ask for…” or some other phrase that indicates you’re charging a going rate, not just making up fees that don’t mean anything.

However, there’s another way that talking about what you charge can kill you – and that’s if you’re the first one to bring up a price. My favorite question is “What’s your budget for this project?” You’d be surprised what clients are expecting to pay — for better or worse.

If a client is willing to pay more than you were going to charge, sweet! If their bottom line is lower than you’d ever consider and they’re not willing to negotiate, a simple “That won’t work for me,” is all you need.

Now, most clients are very familiar with the disadvantages of being the first to quote a price. The old business adage “He who speaks first loses” is well-known in the business world. So, if you’re asked what your typical rates are for a project, there is a way to answer it without nailing yourself down to a price that might be too low.

“It depends on the project specifications. I’ve seen web development (or content or whatever) projects run anywhere from $300 to $5,000, so I’d have to know more about the project before I gave you a solid quote.”

The Takeaway

There’s more to say in each of these categories, but at least you have a starting point when it comes to considering the words you hear and use during client negotiations. If you sound like you’re unsure, inexperienced, or don’t know what you’re doing, your client will be able to smell it a mile away. Alternatively, if you’re not looking out for red flag terminology you could wind up wasting time, or worse – losing money, by falling for jobs that you probably should have passed up. Negotiation is a tricky thing, and in some ways it’s a game, but playing it can pay dividends down the road.

Do you have any words or phrases to add? Tell me in the comments!

Next time we’ll be talking about pricing and payments and how to talk about them during client negotiations.


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