The first rule of asking for more money from an existing client: Don’t whine. Freelance writer Jonathan Blum learned this the hard way. Pushing for one of his articles to be included in a package, he let it be known to the editor that he felt shortchanged by the publication for work he’d already done.
After that, the work dried up. “It cost me easily twenty-five K,” he wrote via email from an office in Mamaroneck, New York. Blum writes The Digital Skeptic and supplies technology content to websites and magazines.
What happened to Blum is one of an independent contractor’s worst nightmares. Yet, freelance relationships can quickly get out of hand, with clients demanding more and more from you. You’ll go to the wall once for a good client, no question, but how many times do you do so before it’s time to ask for more compensation? Just as important, how do you handle that conversation?
It's critical, says Amy Feldman, general counsel of the Judge Group, a $300 million international placement firm based in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, is to be neither defensive nor aggressive. “A negotiation is a cooperation,” says Feldman, who also speaks and writes on employment law. “You start with the fact that you have the same goal. You say something like, ‘I would love to continue working with you. I’m growing concerned that this is outside the scope of work.’”
Here are five other tips for getting what you’re worth from an existing client:
Set the stage for negotiation. Make sure your original contract includes language about what triggers a renegotiation: it's the simplest method of paving the way to ask for more money. Factors could include the number of hours you work; or a percent of time (if you work more than 5% above your contracted hours in a given week or month, for instance); a price increase for the supplies you’re using; or a change in the scope of the work that requires you to hire people or subcontract.
Keep track of your hours. Not only will this help you realize when the scope of work has far exceeded your original expectations, it will equip you for the conversation with the other party.
Price your services appropriately, and set expectations clearly. If you explain up front the level of service clients can expect, it will be easier to start a conversation if those expectations creep up. “Are you the bottom-dollar person? Or do you want to be top-dollar?” asks Stephanie Barko, a literary publicist who markets nonfiction from her home in Austin, Texas. “Both can be good business models,” she says, adding, “I’m moderate. I’m not a Manhattan publicist, but I didn’t just start out, either.”
Make your level in the market clear from the get-go, so you’ll have a leg to stand on if you end up with a client who expects top-dollar service without paying top-dollar price. Using a bit of humor, as Barko does, can frame the communication in a positive light. You can say something like, “I'm not a big-city agency. I treat my clients well, charge them a fair price for my services, and expect to be treated fairly in return,” which will help make it clear that this is a relationship, not a one-way street.
Provide for a natural break in the work. Barko divides her contracts into a pre-publication phase and a post-publication phase. That is a convenient time to revisit pay and scope of work – and to allow both parties an “out” if the relationship isn’t working. She hardly ever has clients who don’t renew.
Speak up sooner rather than later. And don’t try to manipulate the timing. If you ask for more money right after a big win or at the end of a big project, the client might feel that he or she is being extorted, says Feldman. Instead, remind yourself that it’s unlikely your client is deliberately trying to put the squeeze on you. “The other party had no idea you felt this way. This is a business arrangement,” she says. “Just make it a conversation: I’m feeling that this work is more than I anticipated.”
So when is a good time? As soon as you realize that the situation is out of whack, make plans to have the conversation. Your time is worth a lot. If you have a client who doesn't recognize that, it's better for you to search for alternatives sooner rather than later.