One of the most challenging decisions freelancers, solopreneurs, and independent consultants face is how much to charge for their time and expertise. What if people complain that you’re overpriced — or, even worse, walk away from a deal with you entirely? But the answer isn’t swinging to the other extreme and asking a fee so modest you’ll ultimately resent it.
As I discuss in my book Entrepreneurial You, you can’t do good work for others if you can’t keep yourself in business. Charging a fair price is what allows you to create long-term value. Here are four things to keep in mind to become more comfortable charging what you’re worth.
Underpricing sends a bad signal. We all know the danger of overpricing: You lose the deal. But underpricing can be just as perilous. Author Kevin Kruse learned a lesson about understanding one’s value a number of years ago from an unexpected source: someone he was trying to hire as a speaker. At the time, Kruse was running a nonprofit life sciences association, and his job was to organize the annual convention. The board had a specific person in mind for the keynote speaker, and even though Kruse had a budget of $30,000, he wasn’t sure he could land the speaker, who was a New York Times best-selling author with an Ivy League doctorate and a heavy media presence.
But when Kruse called, the author quoted a shockingly low fee: $3,000. “From the outside,” Kruse says, “it looked like he had all the signs of success and credibility, and we would have gladly paid literally 10 times his asking price.” As it was, Kruse wondered if the author’s low fee scared a lot of people away, thinking he must be an inexperienced beginner onstage. Price is often a proxy for quality, and when you put yourself at the low end, it signals that you’re unsure of your value — or the value just isn’t there. Either can be alarming for prospective clients.
Develop a network of trusted peers. Those who make purchasing decisions usually aren’t keen to reveal their standard rates, because they possess an informational advantage. If you don’t know that the going rate for a given contract is $10,000, and you ask for $5,000, in their mind it’s a win-win. You’ve gotten a number that makes you happy, and they saved money. But if you later find out that you’re earning less than others, it’s a bitter disappointment. The antidote is to develop a trusted peer network that can provide you with honest information about going rates and terms. You might feel nervous raising your fees — but if you discover that everyone else is getting $10,000, it’s a lot more comfortable.
You can’t think your way into being comfortable — you have to act. Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit and the proprietor of a successful training firm, recalls that in his early days, “I was charging people around $200 for four one-hour calls per month.” He quickly found himself exhausted and decided to raise his rates to avoid burnout. How did he get comfortable asking? “At a really tactical level, it’s just practice,” he says. “Somebody once said to me, ‘Your going rate should be fear plus 10%.’” I love that, because it’s like, what’s the level you’re comfortable saying, $1,000? All right, add 10%, so it’s $1,100. Now, go say that in front of a mirror 20 times. You’ll feel like an idiot, but what happens is the phrase loses some of its power.”
You can slowly test market demand. This strategy doesn’t work for negotiating a job salary, which happens once and then benchmarks you for as long as you’re with that employer. But if your business model entails working with multiple clients, you have more flexibility to experiment with pricing, steadily and incrementally increasing your rates until you feel you’re earning what you deserve. “I still have one client paying me $500 a month because he’s grandfathered in after years of working together,” says Jenny Blake, author of Pivot. “But the next time you pitch to a client, it’s $850, and the next time, $1,000.” If you hit a level where clients start to resist, you can consider freezing or reducing your rates until you’ve built up other income streams or increased your reputation in some other way (landing a marquee client, or starting to write for a prominent publication) that may justify a higher fee.
Setting your rates is one of the most stressful decisions professionals face. It directly affects your ability to attract clients and create a meaningful quality of life for yourself. Plus, it hits at core insecurities we might harbor: What’s so different about my product or service? Am I actually worth that amount?
Those doubts might prompt us to lower our rates and ask for less. But, if you have a good sense of market norms and you’re not requesting something outlandish, that’s a mistake. As Kruse’s experience hiring the underpriced speaker shows, price is often a perceived proxy for quality. If your skills and abilities can justify it, ask for what you deserve. In the end, you may well get it — along with more respect.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, Reinventing You, and Stand Out. You can receive her free Entrepreneurial You self-assessment.
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