Negotiating With Clients 101

Negotiating with clientsAfter freelancing for a while, many freelancers find themselves at a crossroads — asking themselves a single important question: how can I get better projects?

It’s an important question, but fortunately it’s also a question that is fairly easy to answer. You can get better projects, better pay, and better terms through negotiation.

Unfortunately, many freelancers just don’t negotiate. It’s much easier to complain after the fact, but it’s much more productive to negotiate better terms before even getting into a bad situation. Here are some of the most common complaints:

  • “I don’t really have enough time to get my project done.”
  • “The project was sure a lot of work — too much work if you ask me.”
  • “I wish that could have gotten paid more for that work.”

Too often, we freelancers just accept the project terms that are dictated to us by the clients without question. However, accepting projects with too short a turn around, too little pay, or too much work can lead to freelancer frustration and burnout.

Freelancers needn’t be afraid of negotiating better project terms for themselves. In this post, we’ll show you why. We’ll also give you a few pointers that might help you start winning better projects.

Afraid of Negotiating? Here’s a Phrase That Helps

Many freelancers are afraid to negotiate project terms because they are afraid that if they question any part of the client’s offer they will lose the job.

Sometimes this fear might be valid, but most often the fear is unwarranted. Many clients actually expect you to negotiate terms. Some clients even welcome negotiations because they know that if you are pleased with the terms you are likely to do a better job.

If you are afraid to negotiate, I’ve found that leading into the negotiations with the following phrase helps the client to know that you want the job:

“I am really interested in this project, but. . .”

After the “but,” insert your negotiation in the form of a question. For example, if you are concerned about the timeframe, you might start your negotiations with the following phrase:

“I am really interested in this project, but I wonder if it would be okay for me to turn this project in on Wednesday instead of on Monday?”

If the client answers “no,” then you can still decide to take the project with the shorter timeframe, or you can choose to turn it down.

Why It’s Okay to Negotiate

As freelancers, we often assume that the client knows exactly what it will take to do the project and what the project is worth. Often, this is not the case at all. Remember, as a freelancer, we are being offered the project because we are the ones with the expertise.

I once had a client tell me that they were just guessing at how long that they thought it would take to get their project done. Other clients may guess (or be misinformed) about what the market rate is for the work or about what it takes to actually do the work.

When you do negotiate a project, be prepared to support your request. For example, if you think that the client doesn’t realize the full scope of the project, be prepared to give them some reasons why the project requires more work than they thought.

When To Negotiate

One key to successful negotiations is knowing the best time to begin negotiations. If you begin negotiations too early in the project, then you are likely to negatively affect your chances of being chosen to do the work. If you negotiate too late, then you may be viewed as unreliable.

The best time to begin negotiations is after you’ve been offered the work and all of the terms have been listed for you, but before you’ve actually accepted those terms. Since the client has already decided that they would like you to do the job, they will be more likely to work with you on the terms of the project.

Generally speaking, it’s not a good practice to accept a project and all of its terms and then try to backpedal and negotiate a change.

What You Can Negotiate

You can negotiate virtually any part of a project, down to the most minute and mundane detail of a project. However, in most cases you will want to focus your negotiations on one of three aspects of the project:

  • Timeframe – When you negotiate timeframe, you will be suggesting a better and more workable deadline than that originally proposed by the client.
  • Payment - Payment negotiations include not only how much money you will receive for a job, but how and when you will be paid.
  • Scope - A project’s scope is the amount and type of work required. Often, if you cannot negotiate the timeframe or payment you can negotiate the amount of work that is required.

For long or complicated projects, remember that it may take more than one round of negotiations between you and the client before you come to an agreement. Don’t panic if at first it seems that you can’t seem to reach an agreement. Remain flexible and suggest several alternatives.

What Negotiating Strategies Do You Use?

Do you negotiate projects, or do you let the clients define all of the project terms for you?

  • If you don’t use negotiation, what is holding you back?
  • If you do negotiate project terms with your clients, why not share what works best for you?

Are you an individual or company that hires freelancers?

  • How do you feel when a freelancer negotiates project terms with you?

Share your thoughts and ideas on this topic.


  1. says

    Ever since I mastered the art of negotiation, I’m making more money and have more time for myself. But most importantly, I’m only working on project I choose to work on. There’s much less pressure. Isn’t that what we’re all aiming for? ;)

  2. says

    I used to be afraid to state my terms and be firm with them.
    But I realized soon that the whole reason to freelance was to work on my own terms. Within reason of course.

    So I started negotiating better rates, reasonable time frames and turning boring project or ‘bad’ clients down.

    Definitely worked out well for me: more money, less stress and better projects.

  3. says

    This was a truly excellent article, thank you. Negotiation is probably the number one thing that keeps freelancers and entrepreneurs from making more money. I think that knowing what price we ought to be paid for our work and then working to get it is key. Even if you are slightly higher than the competition, I think it is important to tel your clients what makes you special, different, and/or better than the rest instead of just lowballing yourself and “matching” your competitor’s price.

    And I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s easier for men to negotiate than it is for women.

  4. says

    I have always been a freelancer that accepted any deadline, any reasonable price and any term. It killed me because I was making a low income and I often had to quit the project halfway because I didn’t have the time. I was afraid I would lose money and lose reputation.

    Luckily, I have found a great freelancing site and I am able to confidently state my terms. I’m not afraid anymore and I am starting to see success. The site makes everything easier on a freelancer and I am getting paid for quality.

    Negotiation is important and you will suffer if you do not state your terms fully.

  5. says

    I find that nothing beats presenting a clear proposal with your itemized cost estimate. If the client wants to modify the plan based on price, you can see which options and features to cut back. I don’t negotiate rates, I negotiate project details. This way I am always paid what the project is worth and my clients get the best solution for their bottom line.

  6. Rich says

    This is a very helpful article that I definately will use going forward. A few weeks ago I had a client working for a marketing firm who wanted some flash presentation work done. Unfortunately the designer they worked with beforehand charged them a really low price and turned around and took the money leaving them with no project files. Keeping that in mind I presented them with an offer that was reflective of the work they wanted and they were in turn hesitant to sign off on the project.After reading this article I’m sure I can be more negotiable moving forward. Its unfortunate to have to lose work based on other peoples dishonestly but at least there are unlimited opportunities out there. Its just a matter of finding them and coming to an agreement with your clients requesting work.

  7. says

    Thanks to everyone who has left a comment.

    For those of you who are now going to try negotiation when you accept a project, please come back and share your experiences.

  8. says

    Every project begins with a negotiation. This means I need to know what they want (subject, how many articles, etc.), when they want it, how they want it, etc. Then, once I know the parameters of the project, I submit a bid based on what I know.

    Usually, my price is accepted or rejected with no further negotiation needed. I don’t lower my prices to get a job, but I also price my work competitively and what I believe to be the fair market value of the work.

  9. says

    The thing I always tell people afraid to negotiate–“Don’t worry, they EXPECT you to negotiate. Anyone who doesn’t ask for SOMETHING risks looking like a sucker who says yes to anything at all.”

    Nice article on this, healthy advice for anyone trying to get themselves a better deal.

  10. Teresa says

    This is a tough topic for me, as well. I have become comfortable with defining my rates. What I typically run into is the client not understanding what all is really involved in doing the “simple task” they are requesting. I also run into the problem of potentially high out-of-pocket expenses through the process of planning a meeting or event. Since these things take time, I may not see money for a while.

    Negotiating is tough, and I am working on my skill in it. Thank you for writing this article.

  11. says

    Time frame always seems to be the one for me. Last week i got a phone call at 4:20 in the afternoon asking if i could have a logo design done for their upcoming promotion… by 5:00.

    40 whole minutes, guess whether or not I took the job :P

  12. says

    I am a freelance writer and negotiations naturally happen at the beginning of each project for me. Most of the time, my potential clients will ask me for a quote and how long it would take me to turnaround a certain amount of work. I tell them what I would like to be paid, and give them a deadline that fits in with my current schedule.

    If the client has a tighter budget, they will negotiate. Sometimes this will come in the form of an offer, such as, “Can you do these articles for a $1 less each if the word count is 100 words shorter?” All the terms are worked before I write the first word.

    I wasn’t always one to try to lower the amount of work, change the deadline or ask for higher pay, but I eventually learned that it is an important part of the freelance business. My advice is to be fair, honest, polite and professional, and don’t be afraid.

  13. says

    Negotiation is an important art and freelancing or not – every one should master some tactics about it. Having said that I think that you can probably negotiate a better deal if you have some portfolio to show off. This certainly helps negotiate a better pay for the work you do

  14. says

    Negotiation is very important for the Freelancers.

    But doing it perfectly is the key for the best projects and for success in getting them in future.

  15. says

    Negotiation can be really hard, especially with clients that come to you with a respectable budget, but if you can show them you’re assertive and business-savvy, that will be all the more appealing to a client and your clients in the future!

  16. Forest Gao says

    The purpose of negotiation is to get the job well done, on time and with good enough quality for clients, and get reasonable payment for your work. It’s a Win-Win communication process.

    Negotiation -> agreement -> good result, you could build up long term relationship with clients.

  17. says

    Hi there,

    I’m not a freelancer but a small business, but the above still applies. Negotiation is the key. Very few clients know how long a project should take or how much it should costs, after all they come to us for our expertise. The key is to stay strong and stick to your guns within reason. Work out exactly the time frame and costs you will be happy with and approach the client. Don’t dictate the contract, but dicuss and review and be prepared to offer something is return for say a longer deadline.

    We’re in a tough business and sometimes time makes the difference but quality should still be kept. If a client continues to push for a discount or shorter time frames and they have little folio merit, then it’s time to cut the ties and concentrate on other clients. Try not to spread too thinly and realise your worth.

    Stay strong!

    Michael Murdoch

  18. says

    Break your projects/quotations down into several or more stages with costs for each. That way the client can get a better understanding of the amount of work that has to be undertaken in order to achieve the desired results.. and they will respect your costings more! (Well that’s the theory anyway – and its worked for me!)

  19. says

    Your best advice is taken for the betterment of handling our clients…
    I like the post with the questions also the answers which are suitable for them….is the best feature for the post…keep sharing.

  20. says

    It’s probably best to simply lay things out with the client in a lot of cases. I tend to let them know the process of the task by each major detail, so they can better understand why I am negotiating. People are reasonable, they just need to know why you’re challenging them.

  21. Flore Leng says

    Recently, I have a client who insist to get our product on consignment term which let me thinking how to negotiate to avoid losing a client ? Having a consignment term it is an disadvantage to our company. Please advise ?


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