Negotiating for Freelancers: 5 lessons from a former FBI negotiator

Whether we like it or not, for freelancers, negotiating is an unavoidable part of the job.

If you’re not able to negotiate, or are afraid of talking about money, you simply won’t be able to convince clients to give you the fees you deserve.

But negotiating can feel really icky and unpleasant.

Most of us freelancers just want to please and would rather avoid all of this negotiating stuff completely. But negotiating involves sticking to your guns and having the confidence to achieve the outcome you want.

I want to show that negotiating doesn’t have to be so scary.

And let’s face it, you are already negotiating on a daily basis – whether it’s with a partner who’s washing up, kids on what time they’ll go to bed, or even with your mobile phone company when you try to switch plans or leave. 

So in this article, I want to share with you some key points from the amazing book Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss, a former FBI negotiator. 

Kidnapping is, as horrible as it sounds, at the end of the day, usually just a business for criminals. When you understand that, it’s no surprise that you can use lessons and tactics that negotiators use to save people’s lives to get the rates that you deserve for your projects.

So here are some key takeaways from the book and negotiating tips that you can start using right away to get higher rates and hold your own in any negotiation.

Negotiating lesson 1: Closely listen to and repeat what your clients say

“Listening is not a passive activity. It is the most active thing you can do.”

Chris Voss

One of the most important parts of negotiations is, like with any kind of communication, being able to listen to the party and understand where they are coming from, and what’s motivating them.

To successfully negotiate, you need to be able to understand your clients’ problems – you need to make them feel understood and as though they have their fair say.

So while you want to be confident, calm and in control – you should aim to avoid talking too much or putting words into the other party’s mouth. Let your negotiating partner think about and tell you their problems – don’t overpower the conversation.

The more that you know about the client, and where they are at, the stronger your negotiation position will become, because you’ll be able to demonstrate that you actually understand them and can help them solve their problems.

By listening closely, you’ll be able to talk specifically, not just generally.

Chris advocates a very simple but powerful technique that can really help you here – it’s called mirroring.

All you have to do is wait until your negotiating partner has finished their sentence, and then just repeat the last few words of their sentence back to them but pitched as a question.

Here’s an example:

Client: “We’re struggling with cashflow and so we need to make more sales.”

You: “You need to make more sales…?”

Client: …”Exactly, well either that or we could cut costs in other areas maybe…”

Inevitable, when you use this technique, the client will reply to your question by giving you more details about their current position and the challenges they are facing. Your simple question will cause them to think more about what they have just said, and often expand upon it.

They will often reveal more information and even solutions that can be extremely valuable to you when you come to the point to discuss how you personally are brilliantly positioned to help them resolve their problems and help them.

Negotiating for freelancers - post from instagram by Freelance Success

Remember that negotiating is usually ultimately about learning more about the other person, and helping them to understand how you can solve their problems for them. If you can do this and make them feel happy about the outcome, you can both win.

Negotiating lesson 2: Set your anchor

In the world of negotiations, the initial offer is crucially important – because it anchors all the further discussion around it.

For example, about buying a car – the salesperson might make an initial offer by putting a price on the car, and then the potential buyer might try to lower the price through the negotiation – but the discussion is all based around that anchor.

In the book, Chris says that you should always let the other party set the anchor. But, in the freelancing world, that’s not really possible to control. 

Your potential client might set up an anchor by telling you their available budget for the project, or – more commonly – they will give you the opportunity to set the anchor by asking you for a quote.

If you’re not feeling completely confident with your pricing, the ideal option is often to let the client set the pricing anchor. This way you avoid over or underpricing, and learn more about what the client is expecting to pay. Learn more about finding out a client’s available budget.

But if it’s up to you to set the anchor, don’t hesitate to do it. The earlier you do it, the less time you are going to spend on dead ends. You will be able to filter the clients who are a good fit from the ones who just want to get the lowest rate possible. By talking money early on, you’ll save both yourself and your clients time.

Negotiating lesson 3: Give a range instead of a fixed number

Throwing a number out there can be really daunting though, and it can actually kill a project stone dead if you’re not careful, and it’s much higher (or lower) than the client was expecting.

This means you have to be careful about this. A great way to go about this is to offer a range instead of a single sum.

Chris calls this ‘establishing a ballpark figure’, which means giving a possible price range for the negotiations .

To translate this to real life as a freelancer:

When you’re asked to give a quote or a project fee, don’t feel obligated to give an exact, precise number straight away.

Instead, offer a range, explain that’s how much you usually charge for this type of project, and gauge the client’s reaction.

For example, if a client says they want your help with branding, without giving any specifics, you can say the fee will usually vary between £5,000 to £10,000, depending on the project scope.

You can then ask if that’s sounds like it’s within their available budget limits.

This will open a further discussion, and also set the right expectation early on to your potential client about how much they will need to invest in the project approximately.

You’ll also usually get a good idea of whether this is higher or lower than they were expecting, and if you need to be able to change tact – for example if you have overestimated the scope of the project.

Negotiating lesson 4: Add non-monetary value to sweeten the deal

Non-monetary value is a little something extra, that isn’t financial. Doing this can really help you to get your negotiations over the line, because it indicates to the client that you’re really at your limit, and are doing everything you can to make the deal work.

It doesn’t hugely matter what the item is (it could be an hour’s consulting work, email support for a certain amount of time, bonus templates and materials that you have already created previously) just have in mind that you really need to understand your clients’ needs and goals to be able to add something that will be of value to them.

The point of doing this is to send a signal that the price really cannot go any lower. But for this to be effective, you should be able to offer something they will actually find useful. 

Another way you can use this is if the client’s budget is too low.

You might be able to ask for some non-monetary value from their side.

This will depend on the type of the client and situation, but if they can provide you with big exposure, referrals or establish a long-term business relationship with you, then accepting one project at a lower budget can bring a significant return on investment in the long run.

Negotiating lesson 5: Avoiding big round numbers

According to Chris’ experiences, numbers that end in 0 ‘can easily be negotiated off of’. So he suggests using numbers that sound less rounded – for example, £1,483,31. He argues the more specific you are, the better as it will give an impression that you have come to that number as a result of a careful calculation.

But, I’ve experimented with this and for freelancers, in reality, being so specific actually confuses people. To the point where they will be really intrigued at how you reached such a specific figure.

The principle here is good, however. Just don’t take it so far to the extreme. It’s definitely true that a figure like £1,975 just sounds better to a client than £2,000, for example.

So apply this tip with some care, but it can really help you.

More Resources on Negotiating for Freelancers:

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It

If you found these lessons helpful, then you should definitely pick up Chris’ book and dive deeper.

Learning how the very best negotiate when the stakes couldn’t be any higher, and the proven techniques they use, can really help you when you’re dealing with pricing discussions. This fantastic book takes extreme situations and translates them to the business encounters you’ll face every day as a freelancer.

The Art of Negotiation MasterClass by Chris Voss

Even though a lot of class material and topics are similar to the book, the real benefit of this MasterClass are real-life examples, footage of actual hostage negotiations where you can see how negotiating principles are applied in the most serious situations – and how you can apply them to negotiate with your clients.

Watch the sample here to get a feel for it.

Pricing and Negotiation Masterclass by Freelance Success

This Freelance Pricing and Negotiating Masterclass will transform the way you approach pricing for the better. You work hard and offer high-quality service — you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable charging for it.

Our masterclass will teach you different ways to calculate and form prices for your services. It will also teach you the main principles of persuasion and basic negotiating tactics that you can use to stand your ground and get to the price you want.

So you can stop worrying about how you are going to pay the bills and focus on providing the best service for your clients.

Get access to the masterclass today and start getting paid what you deserve.

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