Friday Q&A #2: What to do when a client asks for my rate prematurely?

Earlier this week, we talked about how to raise your rates as a freelance developer – and how to get your clients to say yes to those rates. 

A key part of getting that “yes” is how you present your value as you negotiate. Over the years, we’ve found that focusing on what you bring to the table before you ever discuss price is the best way to sell a client – because by the time you do talk about rates, they’re already bought into your value.

But what happens if a client asks for your rate right off the bat?

We got a great follow-up comment / question from Russ (sidenote: we need more emails from you readers, get on it!):

“Let me tell you about how I felt about this before reading your article: If the roles were flipped, and I asked someone their rate early, and then they politely redirected me, I always thought it was a slightly adversarial move. I assumed that they wanted to have extra time to suss out how much they could charge me. That was of course never a deal breaker in and of itself…it just activated my defense mechanisms a little bit.

Now that I’ve read your thoughts, I realize that there’s a very non-adversarial way of looking at it, too. You want to get the prospective customer’s sentiment primed with the value you can deliver before activating the rational number-crunching part of your brain. And I can see, from the way you put it, that this can be a service to your customer (you are helping them reach a conclusion they will be happy with).

So here’s my question: If a client asks for the rate too early, is there a gentle way of framing the redirection such that you could also indicate it’s for the greater good of both parties that you want to talk about it later? A way to indicate that you are avoiding the question for now, but not for adversarial reasons?”

Rachel: You got it exactly right when you described priming the emotional side of the brain with value before activating the logical side with numbers.

Any purchase decisions of this size are very emotional, and the relationship between a freelance developer and a client requires a tremendous amount of trust. When it comes down to it, we always try to treat our customers like friends (that’s really the key to building a strong referral network), and it starts with the first sales call.

In my experience, one of the best ways to handle an early question about rate is to say: 

“It really depends on the scope of the project.”

If they push you again, you can give them a range (making sure that the top end is above what you want to charge them, and the low end is no lower than your anchor rate), and tell them it depends on the size and length of the project.

I’d be sure to also give them a frame of reference if you share your rate (which can be tough without project details), but you can always say:

“I’ve seen people spend anywhere from $X to $X on an MVP (iOS app, Shopify site, etc.).”

A lot of clients want to get a ballpark estimate on a first call, but the reality is there’s really no good way to do this. Either you’ll over-estimate and they’ll decide you’re too expensive, or you’ll under-estimate, and set the bar unrealistically low for what the project cost is likely to be (which can cause problems downstream).

And it’s ok to be honest with your clients about that – I think people actually really appreciate it when you’re up front about wanting to give them the most accurate estimate possible (which sometimes means they’ll have to wait a little while). 

I wouldn’t avoid the question entirely since that may make them wonder why you don’t want to share anything. Just give them a taste of what they want to hear, and make it clear that you’ll have more info for them soon. This way it isn’t adversarial or cagey; you’re just trying to be a good advisor to them, and give them real info they can use to make decisions. 

Again, it all feeds into building your credibility and value. So while it might seem counter-intuitive, being honest about why you’re not giving a full estimate yet can actually create more trust, and get them to pay you more in the end.