Why You Must Quote a Ballpark Figure

rates“I quoted the prospect a ballpark fee for the project, he thanked me for my time, and I never heard back from him.”

That’s a common dilemma most freelancers face at some point. If you quote a ballpark figure early on, you run the risk of scaring the prospect away before you have a chance to explain the value of your services.

But, if you wait too long, you risk wasting time with someone who would never pay anything close to professional-level fees for your work.

So, what’s a freelancer to do?

You quote the ballpark figure anyway. And you do it as early in the conversation as possible.


It’s a Matter of Time

Here’s the thing. As a freelance professional, your most valuable nonrenewable resource is time. You must use it wisely. So when you spend two or three hours “educating” a prospect on the value of your services (and why you’re a much better option than someone charging one-tenth of what you charge), you’re using up valuable billable time.

Let’s settle this argument once and for all: There are enough prospects who understand the value of what you offer to save you from wasting time with those who don’t.

Believe me. If you accept this fact and are willing to let the deal go elsewhere, you will be a much happier and wealthier freelancer. Yes, it’s hard to see a potential client walk away because you won’t budge. But, let’s face it. If his budget is 75% less than your absolute minimum fee … what’s the point?

Take the Stress Away

Another reason to quote a ballpark early in the conversation: It’s much less stressful than quoting your fee and waiting days to hear back from the prospect.

When you have three or four hours invested in that prospect, you feel much more committed to the deal. So if pricing suddenly is a big problem, you feel that you have to make it work somehow. After all, you wouldn’t want to let that time you’ve already invested go to waste.

Spend Time Assembling Pricing Intelligence

Naturally, in order to provide ballpark quotes early on, you’re going to have to assemble some sort of master fee schedule, which lists all the types of projects you work on and the approximate fee range for each.

This is going to take some work. You’ll have to go through dozens of completed projects and estimate their value based on what you charged, the level of difficulty, how long each took to complete and so on.

You’ll also have to call some trusted colleagues for their advice. And you may have to scour freelancer sites to get an idea of what others are charging. Do this part last, however. You want to have a good idea (from trusted sources) of what professional rates are in your field before you go out to sites of freelancers whom you don’t know and who may be severely undercharging.

What If You Keep Scaring Them Away?

OK, Ed. But what if I keep scaring prospects away? What if after all this work, I still run into the same problems?

Simple. Start pursuing better prospects! (Notice that I said “simple” and not “easy.”)

I know it’s tempting to go after only local small businesses or folks you know. I’m a big proponent of tapping your personal and business networks. So I see the value of approaching what may seem like low-hanging fruit.

But, if those folks simply don’t get it … why bother?

Again, there are enough prospects who understand the value of what you offer to save you from wasting time with those who don’t.

Part of my definition of “wealthy freelancing” is working with clients you enjoy—people who value your skills, insights, creativity and work ethic. Clients who give you projects you want. Projects that enable you to make a nice living and enjoy a great lifestyle.

Screening out poor prospects and clients early in the process is essential to achieving this level of success.

What About You?

Do you quote ballpark figures, or give precise estimates? How quickly do you respond to an inquiry from a prospective client?

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Comments

  1. says

    It’s exciting talking about projects that fall into your job description. I almost can’t resist “mind designing” someones project from the get go. Its hard to not get overcome by the creative process.

    Yes, quoting upfront is important. I probably waste at least 3 or 4 hours a day thinking and working on projects that never pay me a dime. Straining your clients through a siv before throwing them in the oven is essential to landing projects that actually pay.

  2. says

    I always do. It is always good thing to do. I recently started to work per hour, but I give an estimate how many hours the job might take.
    Regarding talking to the clients – very simple rule: limit your meetings to 1 hour. Tell them first that you expect meeting to take no longer than an hour and if it takes you will charge them for the rest of the time a a consultant. I charge £30/hour and believe me – never had to do it :)
    And I agree with Ed – if someone is not ready to pay your price, they are not ready for the project they think about anyway. I think it is like with the marketing advice – they will listen, but will never use it.

  3. says

    I try an quote a ballpark figure every time, but also inform the potential client that changes in scope will increase that amount. Seems like programming jobs have many variables to account for, great communication is key. I always reply to inquiries with 24 hours.

  4. says

    “…your most valuable nonrenewable resource is time.”

    Well said Ed. Every freelancer ought to memorize that phrase and post it in a prominent spot in their office.

    Great post!

  5. Michelle says

    Completely agree – I give a ballpark as early as possible. It’s by far the best way to weed out potential clients who don’t have the budget for the project they’d like to see built.

    Oddly, giving away a lot of work for free – to friends or causes I believe in – has helped me to be more of a hard-ass when it comes to drawing the line with paying clients. I basically only want clients who will pay full-rate, without complaint, for excellent work. I don’t have any time for clients or projects that I resent. There’s little worse than spending time on a project while thinking “I would rather be doing a site for my in-laws for FREE than work one more second for this jerk who’s grudgingly paying me half-rate and wants it done yesterday.”

  6. says

    I personally tend to lean more toward giving precise quotes than estimates, but overall I think the article is right on point.

    Great read!

  7. says

    I give ballpark estimates as early in the process as possible, but they seem to be much more palatable when I’m able to say “I’ve done a number of projects that are very similar in scope to yours and based on those projects, here’s what yours might cost.” That adds some credibility to my estimate and gives the potential client some assurance that I’m not just shooting from the hip.

    But I’m also always careful to point out that I need to see a pretty detailed scope description before I can provide a more firm estimate.

    Regarding your last question, I try to reply to inquiries from prospective clients within an hour of receiving their inquiry, even if it’s just to thank them for their inquiry and ask for a little more information about their project. A quick first response is incredibly valuable in establishing your reliability and professionalism. And even if I can tell from their initial inquiry that I’m not interested in the project, I try to tell them that immediately as well; you never know when they might come back with an attractive proposal.

  8. says

    Fantastic comments, everyone! Glad to know that you see this as a way to streamline the quoting process so you can spend more time on either billable work… or on the things outside of work you enjoy. That’s what it’s all about. More time for other things.

  9. says

    Early ballpark figures work sometimes and not others, it depends on the type of prospect as this article rightly observes.

    I know that tyre-kickers only want to know a price, they don’t care about much else, and are not a good fit for my business. So I simply state “For a site of this type, the minimum price is £XXXX and can go up from there.” Most of these enquiries I never hear back from and that’s perfect. I don’t want their business.

    It’s easy to determine the other type of client who already understands the value of hiring a professional. For those types of enquiries, if they ask for a price in the first enquiry (and the difference is, they usually don’t), I won’t give a ballpark until I’ve had an initial phone call to determine scope. And even then, the ballpark range will be very broad. It’s only after getting into the requirements gathering and scoping phase that you can begin to nail down a more definite cost. Good, valuable clients understand this and those are the people I want to work with.

  10. Cycleburner says

    Good article!

    Another usefull tip: Make sure you know the clients budget and willingness to invest right from the start of the meeting. This helps getting an idea of the clients wishes and possibilities and you can then decide to walk away or cater your info towards their budget. If clients don’t want to share this info right away: walk away. Trust is essential in each collaboration. Clients let us explain what we can do for them all too gladly..but of course it works the other way around, too.

  11. says

    @Cycleburner:

    By turning away prospects who don’t have a budget figure, you’re making quite an assumption. There are plenty of clients out there who really have no idea what a website costs — that doesn’t mean that they can’t pay, they might in fact be loaded and potentially your most lucrative clients.

    While I agree you should proceed with some caution, don’t write these people off simply because they are uninformed. It’s your job to determine their viability using other techniques, budget alone should not be the deciding factor. If it is, then all you’re competing on is price — and we all know that results in lower quality work.

  12. says

    I give the minimum project fee right on my contact page. I found that I was wasting so much time with the tire kickers, this has helped weed them out almost 100%.

  13. says

    You always hear time is money and there’s no doubt to that. Throwing ballparks takes the control out of your hands and gives it back to the customer. By not telling them rough estimates you can work with them to feel out their budget.

  14. says

    After wasting countless hours on super detailed proposals, hoping to get the client to see the value in my work, I’ve decided to start quoting up front for how much I think it will be. Clients read the price first, then maybe they’ll read what I wrote. I can’t afford to give free time to those who cannot afford my services.

  15. says

    I have found out the hard way that it’s better to lose that potential client (who’s not willing to pay your rates), than try to keep the discussion too long. As some said here, there are people who value our work and are willing to pay. Getting at least an estimate from the first discussion, weeds the clients who can’t or won’t pay our rates and leaves us more time to deal with actual clients or .. sleep :)

  16. says

    I think it’s true that a lot of businesses have no frame of reference for what a website costs or what is involved in writing copy for a brochure.

    I find it helps to ask some questions about what they’re looking for, the timeline, whether they have an ideal customer, their USP, etc. Then I explain how these different factors affect the price.

    It also helps to create fixed price services, at different levels (regular, super, and deluxe). It gives the client an idea what to expect.

    For example, rewriting existing sales letter copy would cost X. All new copy with design suggestions, Y. Starting from scratch with design ideas, opt-in for further news, plus a thank you page, Z.

  17. says

    When someone contacts me about work, I meet with them to find out exactly what they want and how much they’re willing to spend. Then I give them a proposal that estimates the hours of work, as well as the materials that need to be provided. I also get a 50% up-front, non-refundable deposit. I always state in my proposal that this is an estimate of work hours only, so it covers those who request a million changes.

    This has been very successful in weeding out those who can’t or won’t pay. Through this process, I have found out that my rates are very competitive with those doing quality work in my area.

    My only exception is when I do work for one particular former employer. They always pay in less than 30 days and I’ve never had a problem with them, so I never charge them a deposit.

  18. says

    In our relatively uneducated web design South African market it is essential to provide ballpark figures up front. Clients often have no idea of the value of good designers and developers and so its also useful to be able to display work of varying degrees of quality. If you can show an entry level website and a top custom site, it helps the client to understand what they’re paying for.

  19. says

    As I’ve been on the client side many times, I definitely prefer the ballpark figure at the meeting and a quick list from the freelancer recapping the requirements. I also don’t want to waste the freelancer’s time. Service fees on the website may also give me an idea on what the ballpark is, but that can be a bit tricky if it’s not done right (eg. with proper explanations). I may quickly rule out a designer based on price; however, if I met the freelancer in person, I may end up contracting with the freelancer based on personality match (and experience/portfolio of course).

    Once the client has approved of this ballpark figure, freelancers can go on to quickly create their quotes through Billing Boss (http://www.billingboss.com). It’s a free online invoicing tool which allows you to currently create unlimited quotes and invoices for unlimited customers.

    Full Disclosure: This author has been compensated by Sage. I am their Social Media Consultant but I was using their product well before they contracted me.

  20. says

    I believe that giving a ballpark figure early on will prevent further problems in the future. If the prospect have the budget for it, then I will know right there. One must be prepared to justify why you rate the project as such and do your elevator pitch why hiring your services will give quality for their time and money. One of the pet peeves of noob in the world freelancing is setting rates. There’s this insane idea of bidding for the lowest price just to get a job. I’d say freelancers must stand up and get a pay worth their skills…and I agree with you, if the budget isn’t going to pay for my bills and stuff — I’d better look for ‘better’ prospects. Nice insights.

  21. says

    These are good reasons for giving clients the rough fee of the services to be done. Quoting them in advance will give them time to stretch or evaluate their budget. If they badly need the project and your work profile fits with them, they’d accept the deal anyway.

  22. says

    Quoting a ballpark figure is great if done correctly. From experience you learn the upper and lower limits of a specific project, time and cost wise. Rather always quote an upper limit as a ballpark with the option of reduction should the project go well.

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