Freelance Negotiating, Used Car Style

Because my life wasn’t complicated enough, I decided to buy a car right when everything was turning to quicksand underneath my feet. The night before I drove west to help my mom with my dad’s care, I was signing papers for my new(er) car.

Twelve hours later, I drove it west.

When I got home, I had to put my old car up for sale.

If you’ve ever tried selling a car, you know it’s not a terribly fun process. You set a price. The potential buyers get in touch and negotiate a lower price. If you’re lucky, you find one person who sees that your price, even if you’ve negotiated lower, is actually fair.

But mostly, you get people who want something for nothing.

And that’s our freelance writing lesson for today – what selling a car can teach us about how to handle a freelance writing business.

The Price Isn’t Always the Price.

One of the potential buyers (we’ll call him Dude) wanted to negotiate. He threw out his price.

You may charge $150 an hour, but you may also realize that the work the client is wanting isn’t going to be so involved that getting $100 an hour would tie your hands in knots. It’s okay to negotiate, and it’s okay to go lower if you know the job is relatively easy for you.

You Can Say No.

What Dude didn’t realize was that offering me $1,500 for a car listed at $3,100 was laughable. He was looking for a bargain. I wasn’t willing to accept just anything, particularly since his “offer” came in four hours after I’d put the listing up.

If terms don’t work for you and you’re having trouble saying no, pretend you’re selling your house (or a car). Would you accept the low-ball price then? No? Then don’t settle now. Say no thank you, as I did to Dude. It’s okay also to not accept the first offer that comes your way.

Don’t Reward Pushiness.

After I’d rejected Dude’s offer, he pushed back. Hard. He wanted that car (sight unseen — hello, red flag!), and he wanted it for much less. He increased to $1,800. Right. Like his first ridiculous offer, I rejected that one without a counter-offer. He then came up to $2,000. Really? Are we actually wasting time with this? I repeated that no, that’s not working for me. I countered with $2,900. That’s when Dude escalated his pushing — the car had “mucho miles” he said, and I should be happy with that offer.

Oh, writers. Have we not faced that same “you should be grateful” bullshit from those low-paying clients? What’s wrong with Dude’s offer is exactly what’s wrong with their offers — it’s insulting. I don’t need him to save me from myself, nor do I need to be grateful to any pushy little shit because he wants something for nothing. That thinking — apply it to your freelance writing negotiations.

Respond with Civility.

I was more than tempted to reply to Dude’s insults with a “you’re out of your mind” type of comment. I didn’t. Instead, I said no thank you and wished him well.

Freelance writing is the same. You should leave your emotions out of your negotiations. It doesn’t matter what level of insult was just hurled at you. Your job is to respond to the facts. In my case, the fact was his price wasn’t acceptable. Yes, he’s a pushy little shit, but that’s beside the point. The point is his price isn’t acceptable. Period.

Break the Cycle.

Twelve hours later, Dude was back in my email. This time, he’s telling me $2,200 and I should be happy with that as it’s halfway. Halfway to what? It was $900 less than I’d listed for. It was also $500 lower than my absolute minimum, which I won’t let this guy get to. I’m no longer interested in talking with someone who thinks he can push and cajole me into compromising my position. I would never sell my car to someone like that. Even if he came to me with a full-price offer now, I couldn’t do it.

I didn’t respond. I won’t. It’s no longer a conversation I care to have.

Besides, I’d already ended the conversation by wishing him well. Ending on a high note (on my side) is exactly where I was comfortable leaving it.

When your next belligerent client starts shoving their parameters at you and trying to convince you that a raw deal is a good one, break the conversation off without a word. Don’t keep the cycle going. You need your sanity back. It won’t happen at the hands of a jerk. Worried about burning a bridge? Don’t. Sometimes, bridges need to be ablaze, particularly within the low-paying or pushy crowd. From my own experience, I’ve found that pushy begets pushy. Wasting time mending fences with someone like that gets you referrals to people exactly like that. Plus, no matter what you do for clients like this, they’ll never be happy.

Writers, what experience with negotiation have you had that had you proud of how you handled it?

What negotiations in your personal life have you had that shows your ability to stand up for yourself?

What methods do you use to negotiate with professionalism?

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  • Devon Ellington September 13, 2017 at 10:52 am

    I am actually much politer in freelance negotiations than in personal life. But “no” still means no. I’m sick of the bullying that far too many “clients” try to get something for nothing — especially here. There is much less of this type of crap in NY, because there, they look at my skills as an actual profession. Here, they’d rather “hire” a neighbor’s high school niece to do it badly for free, because “no one pays for writing.” Um, yeah, people do, and that’s how I make my living.

    In my personal life, I starting working in the 70s, and have fought the sexism in the workplace during the years when I was a temp. I’m sure as heck not going to put up with it decades later, now that the culture, in general, is backsliding.

    • lwidmer September 13, 2017 at 3:31 pm

      I’m a tad more polite in my freelance life too, Devon. Funny how the BS meter just pegs once I clock out. 😉

      Agreed — New York clients understand you get what you pay for. You’ll never get that same respect in a small town. Never.

  • Paula Hendrickson September 13, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    Personally, most people who really know me know that trying to cajole or bully me always backfires. Sorry, but I just can’t help it. I don’t like being pushed around. The REALLY obnoxious ones occasionally see me in fight mode. That doesn’t happen very often, but when it does I ALWAYS win. (Mostly because I only argue a point to death when I’m 99% certain I’m right and the stakes are high enough to merit my time.)

    In business, I’ve told this story before, but it’s a classic. It happened 15-20 years ago. I’d contributed regularly to a business newsletter that paid 50-cents/word, which was really good for a beginning writer back then. The former editor was really laid back and let me choose my sources and angles. He trusted me. The new editor called and asked me to write a 600-word article and gave me a list of about a dozen “must have” sources and started detailing what she wanted the article to be. She concluded by saying the new pay rate was the “industry standard” —10-cents/word. I laughed. She said it was such an “easy” project they couldn’t pay more. I told that after listing all of those names, their job titles, and their companies (and you had to note the city and state, too!) there would barely be space for a single sentence quote from each source—leaving no room for paraphrasing, transitions, or a lead. Then I added something like, “Since it’s so easy, you can do it.” And then I hung up.

    I should add that this happened just after one of my best clients folded and I’d “fired” a long time client because the new editorial team had no respect for contributors. While my client base was the smallest it had ever been, I still couldn’t accept that impossible assignment from the micro manager with the micro budget.

    It’s worth noting: Any time someone reacts with “You’ll regret it!” you probably won’t regret it. They will.

    • lwidmer September 13, 2017 at 3:32 pm

      That was brave, Paula. And absolutely necessary.

      I agree — I’d never work for that no matter how “easy” the profess it to be. And you’re right about the “you’ll regret it!” comments. I’ve never looked back at those and thought “Golly, I messed up!” LOL

  • Mary Schneider September 16, 2017 at 12:33 pm

    I’ve sold cars, and negotiated prices… You’re absolutely right, both are a pain, and what I hate most about freelancing.

    • lwidmer September 18, 2017 at 10:02 am

      We’re not born negotiators, are we? I found it easier once I set my minimum rate — the lowest I’ll go even if conditions are perfect.

      It becomes a dance, Mary. You get to know your own movements after a few negotiations, and you get a better sense of project depth and scope as you learn to read between the lines of what’s being said, and as you learn to flesh out the details that you might have once overlooked.