7 Pricing Pitfalls Every Freelancer Needs to Avoid

June marks month number nine of my “freelance writing career”. I’ve had some great months, and some not-so-great months. But I’m finally getting to a stage where I have a few, long-term clients, who are paying me well to do work I enjoy.

I don’t mean to imply “I’ve made it” — that would be laughable. No, I’m nowhere close to having “made it” — whatever that means. I’m not even sure I want to “make it” — it sounds so final and boring. But one thing I am sure of is that I’ve learned a lot from the numerous rookie mistakes and pointless dead-end calls I’ve made over the past few months. In particular, in relation to pricing.

How do you define what fee to charge your clients? You don’t want them to consider selling a kidney to pay for your services, but you don’t want to low-ball yourself with a ridiculously low figure either. So here are 7 tips to keep in mind when you’re setting your price.

1. Don’t assume the client has the upper hand.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. But the quicker you come to this realization, the better.

During the first few months of writing, I spent a considerable amount of time reaching out to clients who were doing work I was interested in or pitching for projects that were advertised online. But the past few clients I’ve worked for have all come to me; either through referrals from other clients, LinkedIn, and even Medium — landing these deals required close to no effort on my part. And the best thing about this situation is, it completely changed my perspective on how I attribute value to my services.

It’s easy to feel as though the client has the “upper hand” because they’re the ones who are doing the ‘paying’. They’re your customers, and if you don’t produce something they like, they won’t pay.

Now, this perspective isn’t terrible; I do agree, as a freelancer, you should do whatever you can to keep your clients happy and provide them with an excellent product/service. But it’s not like they’re a customer in a food store who can go buy their ketchup somewhere else if you’re charging $1.50 more.

If you’re a content creator, a web designer, a graphic designer, a consultant… [Insert freelance gig here], your services involve an inherently unique skill that only you can provide. Nobody will come up with the same ideas or be able to bring the exact same breadth of experience to the table as you. So don’t underestimate how much the client values you — exclusively you.

2. Compare, but don’t make rash assumptions.

An obvious place to start whenever you’re looking for an answer to any question, is, the beloved Google. I too was one of the (probably millions of) people who kicked off her research by typing in “what is the average copywriter hourly rate?” into her search engine. Unsurprisingly, I was met with a pretty unhelpful range of answers, spanning from $25 — $100, left to decide for myself where on this scale I would fit.

There’s nothing wrong with defining realistic parameters to help guide your decision. But the problem with relying exclusively on what you read online is that you’re left to your own devices when it comes to drawing inferences from the data you collect. It’s easy to tell yourself “oh, surely the people who charge $100 an hour have a degree in journalism and years of experience” — why? Why would you assume that?

We try to justify why things are the way things are all the time. And so, we try to find the most logical conclusions we can come up with, despite the very limited information we often have.

I had a lot of questions before I finally decided to take the plunge and go freelance, and I found the best source of information (by a mile!) to be: speaking with other freelance writers directly.

My first port of call was a really cool freelance copywriter from Surrey called Claire Stapley. She was refreshingly candid and overwhelmingly generous with her time. She gave me the ins and out of what to do, what not to do, and even put me in touch with other writers and clients. She’s a huge babe, and we’ve since had numerous wine-night catch-ups on Zoom, and exchanged many, many minutes-worth of Whatsapp voice notes.

You’d be surprised how willing to help other people can be. Don’t be afraid to reach out and see.

3. Don’t limit yourself to one option.

Different projects will require a different level of involvement on your part, and your price plans should reflect that. On Claire’s advice, I devised a three-option fee structure, which gives clients the flexibility to hire my services in a way that suits their needs best, and also manages their expectations.

I offer an hourly rate, a day rate, and a project rate.

  • The hourly rate is great for clients who are maybe looking for a one-off article every now and again that I could whip up in one morning.
  • Whereas, if I’m working on a long-term project or an ongoing project with no defined end date, and my client needs my full support for 2–3 days per week for the duration of the project, the day-rate is ideal.
  • The project rate is for projects set to last for a pre-defined, mid-term period of time, and the client prefers to pay me once I hit certain milestones. For example, a two-month script-writing project comprising three different stages of development.

4. Don’t be scathed by the “we don’t have a big budget” cra*.

I’m actually a little surprised by the fact that anyone would ever use this phrase. What does it even mean? What does “big” mean to you? What am I supposed to do with this information? I mean, what do you think the chances are of me coming back with: “sure, no biggie, just buy me a coffee and we’ll call it even”?

Plus, I have no way of knowing whether it’s true or not, so just save it for a volunteer, Sally. This phrase should never serve to undermine your confidence. It’s a shockingly poor and unprofessional attempt to negotiate your fee.

I’m not saying don’t negotiate your fee. There could be super interesting projects worth taking a slight pay-cut for because you want to work with a group of really talented people who are involved, or because you want to expand your portfolio with a project like that.

But never feel obliged to drop your price just because a client says they don’t have a big budget (unless they’re a charity you’re interested in helping, in which case — good for you!). This is where you clearly set out your price plan if you haven’t done so already (I recommend you have a template in which you set out your fees, ready to copy and paste), and wait for them to get back. If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be.

5. Watch out for “when the project sells” consultants.

This is perhaps the biggest pitfall I’ve made. I’ve wasted SO much time on the phone, speaking to “potential” clients, who lead me nowhere.

My tendency to blissfully trust anyone and everyone is something my friends have laughed at me for time and time again. Unless someone does something to prove otherwise, I assume people are good, kind, and trustworthy.

Despite what my friends think, I consider this to be one of my good qualities. Sure, I’m probably an easy target to steal from. But it also means I don’t shy away from meeting people and speaking to strangers. If I have a question, I’m not afraid to ask, and this has helped me learn a lot of valuable things and make a lot of interesting friends.

This being said, I spent maybe 6–8 hours speaking on the phone to a “consultant” over the course of a month, who kept speaking to me about a project he wanted my help with. It later transpired that he hadn’t even sold the project he was talking about. He expected me to develop the content FOR FREE throughout the course of the month, and he would only pay me for actually delivering the project (via online presentations) IF the project sold. The deadest of ends. Obviously, I declined the “offer”.

I’ve since come across two consultants who were looking for help on a similar arrangement. Except obviously, I nipped these in the bud after the first call. It appears a lot of independent business consultants operate in this way; they want your help developing the project content, and they’ll pay you for your work “if” the project sells. So, make sure to clarify exactly what the situation is at the outset, and don’t do work for free!

6. Don’t etch your value in stone.

A few clients have recently begun to ask me for services I hadn’t even thought to couple with my freelance work. They saw my profile on LinkedIn and thought my previous experience could elevate the copywriting work I was doing for them to a new level. It also meant they were willing to increase their budget because the new service I’m providing requires an additional level of skill that’s valuable to them.

Likewise, I have sometimes completed much more ‘passive’ tasks for clients, which I accepted a slightly lower rate for.

I personally think it’s dramatically pompous when people say “my time is worth X”, as though some people were inherently worth more than others. When it comes to quantifying the value of “time,” it’s not time in itself we should be quantifying, it’s the value of the output you generate in that time.

Say one man is a heart surgeon, and another is a cashier in Costco. An hour of the heart surgeon’s time isn’t more valuable than an hour of the cashier’s time. An hour of the heart surgeon’s time “in his capacity as a heart surgeon” is more valuable than an hour of the cashier’s time “in his capacity as a cashier”, because the output of that time, i.e. improving someone’s health, and/or, saving someone’s life, is more valuable than someone getting their groceries checked on time. But an individual’s time, inherently, in their capacity as an individual, is exactly the same — we’re all people.

So, it’s not dumb to be flexible with your pricing. If a client wants you to do something which you could do in tandem with listening to a podcast, giving them a slight discount to reflect the decrease in the effort required on your part, isn’t something to be embarrassed about. It’s called integrity.

7. Track your time.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but here it is again: “time is money.”

Admittedly, it can take some time to figure out exactly how long a certain task will take. It doesn’t matter that you can write 1,000 words in under an hour if the article the client wants you to write means you’re going to spend 3 hours doing research.

Tracking your time is a way to collect more data, for yourself. It helps you make more informed decisions about pricing in the future because you’ll have a better idea of how long the service you agreed to provide will take you.

Key take-aways

Money talk can be awkward. But attributing a financial value to your work shouldn’t be some ‘taboo’ point to mention at the end of a conversation as though it’s the last “point for discussion” you need to check off your list.

Feel confident in yourself and the value of your service, and remember to avoid these 7 pitfalls:

1. Don’t assume the client has the upper hand.

2. Compare, but don’t make rash assumptions.

3. Don’t limit yourself to one option.

4. Don’t be scathed by the “we don’t have a big budget” cra*.

5. Watch out for “when the project sells” consultants.

6. Don’t etch your value in stone.

7. Track your time

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *