Writers, Budgets, and Samples

What I’m reading: The Racketeer by John Grisham
What’s on the iPod: A View that Almost Kills by We Invented Paris

I was talking with a writer friend last week about work. Things are going well for both of us at the moment, but we’re used to the tenuous nature of the job. What takes a little more getting used to is the day-to-day questions and requests writers get from client prospects.

I was relating an encounter with a prospect in which we were almost to an agreement when the they got hung up on the price. The hourly price. Mind you, I’d furnished a list of estimated costs for various items. They were fine with that. But they saw $125 an hour and could not get past it.

I told them to look beyond the rate and look at the per-project price, saying if they agreed to a project at a certain cost, they could budget for it. I gave the usual options — bulk-rate discounts, payment plans, you name it. I heard nothing back. I’m not within the budget even though I probably am.

We’d just gotten beyond the other obvious question — may we see samples of your work?

My friend and I were wondering out loud why it is that despite hefty resumes and portfolios, we were still having to hold these same conversations. More to the point, why is it we have to continue proving our value to new client prospects?

It’s frustrating, but it’s a common occurrence in our profession. We know we can do the job. The prospect, however, has never met us. That’s where we writers have a sizable disconnect between our egos and reality.

Think about it as though we were about to hire a contractor to install new windows. Word of mouth is great, and a good resume is great, too. But aren’t we going to ask for referrals? Feedback from customers? Why do you think Angie’s List is so popular? We want assurances that our money is well spent. So do prospective clients.

Budgets, I get. Not everyone can afford a writer with a specialized portfolio. If it doesn’t fit with their budgets and I can’t help them fit it within their budgets, not much more to do other than wish them well, and maybe refer them to another writer who could do the job for less (if that person exists).

Portfolios and samples, well, that’s a question that’s never going away. Client prospects want the assurance that the freelance writer they’re hiring is going to be able to handle the job. Even people I know still ask — an editor I worked with for years just asked, and she and I were a dynamic team back in the day. But we haven’t worked together in 12 years. It’s natural for her to ask, and I was happy to provide samples and a resume.

We as writers aren’t going to see the day when new clients won’t ask for proof of our skills. Nor should we want that. Not asking for proof, to me, would indicate a lack of concern for quality, and while it’s not always the case, that’s usually coupled with lower-than-warranted pay.

Writers, when do you think the budget conversation is best held with client prospects?
Have you been able to work out a way for clients, who have originally balked at the price, to afford you?
How often do you send samples ahead of the request for them?
Do you have your portfolio on your website? Has that helped reduce the number of requests for samples?

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  • KeriLynn Engel March 9, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    I was just thinking about the hourly rate thing the other day. (Warning – long comment impending!)

    I understand this depends on the writer/client/project/etc., but up until now I've always charged per-project & I avoid sharing my hourly rate for a lot of reasons.

    It varies a lot by client, project, etc., and depends on a lot of factors. Some clients I have a much lower hourly rate but get other benefits from working with them. New clients have a lower hourly rate, but it rises when I get to know their needs better & can work faster.

    I have a target hourly rate & I meticulously track how long every assignment takes me. BUT I don't necessarily want my clients to know exactly how long everything takes me. Due to various factors, the same blog post might take me 1/2 an hour one day, or 3 hours another day. Disclosing exactly how long everything takes feels like crossing that employee-contractor line.

    Now, related to your post… I also hesitate to disclose an hourly rate because I think it does make people balk more.

    When an independent contractor quotes an hourly rate, one can't help but compare it to an employee hourly rate since it's an individual. It's the wrong mindset, of course, because our hourly rates aren't directly translatable into our salaries. It's the hourly rate we charge to run our business, not an hourly rate for our take-home pay.

    But because we are individuals, not agencies or big businesses, I think people tend to automatically equate that with our salary, and balk because it sounds like we're making way too much per hour. So a client who won't bat an eye at paying $150 for a blog post may balk at paying an independent contractor $150 an hour because that's WAY more than anyone in their business makes hourly.

    I understand some work lends itself more to charging hourly, but I tend to think I'd somehow find a way to quote it per-project instead 🙂

  • Lori Widmer March 9, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    Keri, great comment.

    I never shared my rate in the past because once you reduce it to hourly, they start watching the clock. I much prefer per-project rates as they're easier for clients to budget for and easier for me to avoid the "But you've spent four hours on this! Why?" comments.

    Your way isn't a bad way to do it at all. Eventually, you'll come across a client who won't balk at the hourly rate no matter how high it seems. That's the sweet spot. They value your work and they know it comes with a reasonable price.

    For now, I suspect I've lost the client, but if it's down to such detail, I don't think they will see the price is still the price even if stated another way it sounds worse. 🙂

  • KeriLynn Engel March 9, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    Haha, yeah, I don't need anyone knowing that sometimes it might take me twice as long to write something because I'm feeling sick or keep getting distracted or my cat keeps walking all over my keyboard or whatever 😀

    Yup, sounds like chances are that client would've been a chore to work with anyway!

  • Lori Widmer March 10, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Possibly true. I don't understand why the price didn't come up sooner, but had she led with that, I would have seen the red flag immediately. The minute they focus on hourly rates, they start panicking.

    Exactly right — sometimes it's a quick job, other times not so much. 🙂

  • Anne Wayman March 10, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    I too rarely quote an hourly rate… and I want the subject of pricing to come up early in the conversation. Not first, but soon. If it's a problem I want to address that asap…

  • Paula March 10, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    As a consumer, I know I appreciate it when a plumber, electrician or other service professional breaks their hourly rate into 15-minute increments so I know I won't be charged an extra hour if they run a few minutes long. So on those rare occasions when I get to charge an hourly rate, I do that. Of course, I usually have a minimum amount, so if I knock something out super fast I still earn enough to make the effort worth my while.

  • Lori Widmer March 10, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    Amen, Anne. If it's first, it's a red flag, but it should be in there near the beginning of the conversation.

    Paula, excellent idea.