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Never Negotiate Your Freelance Rate

Key Takeaways

  • Never negotiate your rate, negotiate the project scope.
  • Avoid clients who nickel and dime you.
  • Professionals hold fast to their prices and don’t compromise.

“Everything is negotiable. Whether or not the negotiation is easy is another thing.”

The problem with selling time is that the buyer knows margins are high.

When I ran my consultancy, I was constantly pressured to negotiate down our rates. Our formula was pretty simple: We had a client rate, and then we had what I paid my staff. The difference is what paid me, our non-billable staff, outfitted our office, and whatever was left was profit.

So savvy clients, almost all of which were business owners, knew that it can’t hurt to ask for a discount. And I totally get it. Let’s say you’re hiring someone to work on a 3-month project (480 hours) at $100 an hour. A $10 an hour discount saves $4,800 — not a bad return for taking a minute or so to ask a question.

But what I’ve come to discover (which I’m guilty of myself) is that almost all of us cave and lower our rates when asked.

It’s usually because we don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot at the last minute.

We’ve worked so hard to get the client to this point that we don’t want to lose them over a $10 rate difference.

…And that $4,800 goes up in smoke.

Two big takeaways that you MUST commit to memory right now:

Almost everyone who asks for a lower rate will pay what you originally quoted

Because I work — both directly and through osmosis — with literally thousands of freelancers, I can tell you it’s pretty rare to find a client who walks because they can’t score a last minute discount on a project.

Also, this is the surest way to degrade your professionalism. Professionals hold fast to their prices; amateurs don’t. If your goal is to build the best damn company in the world (and if you’re following my work, this should be your focus!) then never, ever lower your standards.

Clients obsessed with nickel and diming are pathological

You want to only work with clients who treat you with the professionalism and respect you deserve. If your client sees you in the same light as their kid nephew who “builds websites”, then you’re setting yourself up to be screwed over. Trust me — the only bad clients I’ve ever worked with were bad from the start. There was always something unsettling about how our engagement was drafted, and not trusting my gut always led to a nightmare situation at the 11th hour.


Your bandwidth is limited — you can only work on so many projects at a time. And while fear often irrationally leads us to accepting whatever we can get, it’s always better to suffer short-term (and do a little more lead generation and cultivation) instead of working long-term with a toxic client.


Never negotiate your rate. Negotiate on scope (i.e., what you’re going to do.) If the math doesn’t work out with what they want to do and the budget they have to do it, do less. Never let your client dictate the scope and the cost of an engagement.

  • Deepak

    There are literally thousands of freelancers and it isn’t so hard to find them, open any design portfolio sites and you can contact any of them.

    If we don’t lower the rates it is obvious that he/she can find anyone who can do that same job for a lot cheap and maybe better.

      • Deepak

        I read those articles, I still don’t get why you said “I am like commodity”

        • maybe – because what you are offering isn’t unique enough? if your client can go somewhere else, you indeed fall into the trap of negotiation. Could be the case right?

          • erikpmp

            Brennan’s point is that you should not position yourself as a commodity.

            Sure, there are countless others like you/us out there. Let’s assume your technical expertise is just as adequate as any others’ for this client. So what do you bring to the table that countless others like don’t?

            For starters, your potential client has already take time to teach you the business model and product/service. You know their pain points and have mapped out how you will solve their problems.

            Switching away from you to begin another search for others like you is very time consuming. Time is rare and valuable. Potential clients don’t want their time wasted. They will realize that when it’s time to decide whether it’s worth it to let you walk just because they did get strong arm you at the last minute.

          • I totally agree. When a client needs to strong arm you, there’s no good ‘ trusty ‘ base for a future service relationship anyway. Instead of appreciating the end value and service he could be getting, he’s in it to save money….

        • To Do

          Or maybe you are shi…. / crappy? if you want lower the rates its mean you ar not good enought, simple.

          • Deepak

            Yes, I am not good enough, I don’t have a best project yet. I always think my last project was my best project, because I keep improving.

            I don’t call myself a professional. I don’t have any good skills, but so is others, people don’t know what they are doing providing sh*t designs for thousands of dollars.

          • andyjoslin

            And you just said it: the reason you aren’t making more is because you believe you aren’t worth it.

          • Boom! This it it.

            Deepak – I know how you feel, but until you get an angle, then you’ll always be competing on price. Have you read Breaking the Time Barrier by Freshbooks?

            It’s awesome:

          • Vede Emanuel

            Being good won’t bring you projects. You have to tag youself because nobody will tag you as “a professional logo designer”. Be good at what you do and learn to sell it. That is what everybody is doing or trying to do.

  • Maria Frey

    In response to the question posed in your email, here’s a situation (not yet war story) that I’m curious to know your thoughts on.

    I have a new client that accepted my hourly rate for an initial project. They’re excited already to partner with me on others that they want to start up when this one finishes. The comment made to me before starting up though was “your hourly rate is fine but if this goes well, maybe we can look at project rates for future work instead.”

    I may have missed a boat or dingy here by not prodding further about what they meant so I’ll have to find out later, but do you have an idea of maybe the motivation there? Or perhaps how to approach the conversation when it comes up later?

    • Maybe your client would feel better knowing he’ll be paying a specific price for a project instead of having this future project price vary if you are charging per hour? This could mean some extra fees he as not been expected.

      I personally it’s a better option to price a project for the value you can bring to it instead of the hours you’ll be working on it.

      Anyone can compete on hourly price but not everyone can compete on your value.

      Only you should know how long it can take you to do a specific job. For example, I know, with my experience, that I can design a great web page in less than 2-3 hours. If I charge 150$ per hour to a client, I’m only billing 450$ for this job? Where would my business be after 15 years if I kept billing 500$ for a design?

      I much prefer to bill per project value instead of hourly. And even with that situation, the client might get stuck on my hourly fee (150$) and start comparing it to other less experience designers who charge 50$/h. I’m never going to argue with a client who only looks at hourly prices. This would a never ending negotiation… And I don’t negotiate because I know I can deliver great value.

      The famous Jim Rohn said it best:
      “You don’t get paid for the hour, you get paid for the value you bring to the hour.”

      This quote is hand written on my wall.
      And it’s changed my business and my personal life for the best.

      • Tracey Hamilton

        Well said!

  • Wale

    Great article Brennan. I love it bro!

  • Any advice for turning down an offer to lower rates other than… “I’m sorry our rates are firm.”

    • I think, if you still have a good feeling about the client and are exited about the project, you can remove some parts of the work that needs to be done to accommodate the budget. You would not be lowering your rates, but simply doing less on the project.

      I’ve been recently faced with that exact situation with a client. I had told them the project approximate value and they approved. I then presented a detailed estimate (I won’t work on building a 2 hour estimate if I know the client can’t even afford the price of the work I’ll be doing) and sent them to be approved and signed with a request for deposit.

      The client came back asking for a deal (25% off the whole project).
      I told them what I could do is remove 25% of the content of the estimate work to fit their budget. That did mean they would still have to work with someone else to get this 25% done…

      They decided to pay for the entire estimate.
      By not reducing my price, I showed them I was a professional.
      They also trusted my expert judgement throughout the project a lot more than if I had folded to their negotiation request. That made my job a lot easier and much more fun!

  • I charge relatively steep rates in a speciality field, and I’ve seen clients walk because of the rates, and I’ve seen the pathological types. I can confirm your observation however 100%. Setting a rate and sticking to it is the way to go, it’s like a high pass filter for clients.

  • I charge relatively steep rates in a speciality field, and I’ve seen clients walk because of the rates, and I’ve seen the pathological types. I can confirm your observation however 100%. Setting a rate and sticking to it is the way to go, it’s like a high pass filter for clients.

  • jgn

    There is a way to provide “play” in your rate: Namely, to provide defined deals, e.g., the first engagement can be discounted 10%. Once that is used up, you’re done with such a deal. Etc. Don’t advertise it up front. Wait for the customer to request a discount and say: “I don’t discount, but since you’re a first-time customer, I can offer you a one-time discount.”

    Now the customer feels like she’s getting something, but you thought it through in advance. Print a coupon. Make it real.

    Another good deal is % off for referring. And so on.

    The claim that you should “never negotiate” is forgetting that you are dealing with a primate, who expects reciprocity and exchanges that are self-serving.

    • Wow, that’s for that – I think that’s a perfectly good case for offering a discount. Making clear that you’re only offering this discount under certain conditions is a lot better than just stonewalling them. But i think it also depends on your situation and your deal flow.

    • If they think you are too expensive the first time, it’s unlikely they’ll want to increase their prices the second time.

  • typo

    “your goal” versus “you’re goal”. Learn the difference.

  • JW Kind

    In dealing with large co’s, and I’m not a sales guy, but my experience in helping with those proposals, companies have ‘strategists’ whose job is basically to ask for discounts and they get evaluated on that, so what is so often done in Enterprise sw and consulting services – raise your list rate 10% (or more is commonly done) – then give the discount. You get around the rate you want – they get to say they got the discount.

    Another thing I’ve seen, if the client has to reduce the overall amount of money they will spend with you, definitely take some work off the scope. Have rarely seen clients complaining that for less money they will have to accept less work.

  • Michael Agee

    Its not a good idea to start out your relationship with your client with inflexibility. Sure there are some revenue considerations to be made by giving a 10% discount.

    However, there are many more valuable considerations to be made, such as; longevity of the client, the scope of the project, the potential for future work in the field. The need for ongoing communications during the project.

    Rarely do I get a project specification from a client that is so complete and I can just go into my cave and code it up. If that was the case they could outsource it to India for a fraction of the cost. Most of my clients work with me because of my subject matter expertise and my reputation. If my clients are under budget constraints. I try to work with them and get their project done, but I define clear boundaries, i.e. “out of scope” work billed at standard rates.

    Not all negotiations are an attempt to grind you down. Your client may be under actual budgetary pressure and your discount might help them out of a jam.

    I think understanding when to discount and when not to, is a far more important element to success than just saying NO to all discounts.

  • Glenn Marcus

    I present options for discounts that benefit my consultancy. I would never do a lower rate just to please a client. Here are some ideas to demonstrate:

    1. Many clients ask to keep our engagement private to avoid disclosing their partners and prevent any SEO related traffic coming towards my consultancy. I will offer a 10% discount on the rate if they allow me to include the work I perform for them in my marketing materials (online portfolio, twitter feed, presentations, etc). This benefits me since it helps me build my public portfolio and attract new business.

    2. If a client is committing to a long term project (usually 400+ hours), then I am willing to give a discount since it benefits me from having to spend 5-10 hours a week on new business development.

    I agree with the article that you should not negotiate your rates in order to win a contract. I will add that offering discounts, when there is a clear benefit to you, is something to consider.

    Please contact me if you need help developing an iOS or Android app. I may be able to give you a discount 🙂

    Founder, Cliq Consulting

  • Francesca Hemsey

    Thought provoking read per usual. And thanks for the rate versus hour widget. Sometimes all it takes is something tangible to ignite your confidence.

  • I read never to discount your rate in a book by Jeffery Gitomer many years ago and have never considered it since. When asked I’ll usually politely say that all of our rates are firm. Or, usually their estimate has a rate and hourly estimate on it if it’s not a fixed project. If they want to “pay less” I talk to them about what features they could remove. They never want to do that so they are always ok with paying the full price. Another option is to say, that you could do it for less if you have flexibility on when the project is delivered. For example, maybe you are willing to discount the rate 10% to adjust the timeline from 3 months to 6 months. That way you can fit it in here or there, or have more flexibility over your production schedule. No client wants to double the time it takes to get their project, so they will again: be happy to pay your full rate.

    • Great idea on floating the idea of increased time for a discount. Shows flexibility and willingness to work with them, but like you said, they won’t want a small discount for a big increase.

    • As Alan Weiss stated in his book: “They always want to reduce the fees but they never want to reduce the value”.
      For me I keep this idea in my head – I can’t control if client will attack the price, but I can control the way I describe the value of my service so he won’t want it.

  • toby

    Another less glamorous way to look at raises, is performance and skill. I Illustrated a technical illustration for a client for $45. It took me 3 hours so $15/hr and after doing these for many years I am able to now create 3 per hour @ $45 each thats $135/hr for the same rate to the client… 🙂

  • This video gives great insight into clients who want a discount, and some clues to appropriate responses.

  • Daisy McCarty

    I agree with negotiating on scope and never on the rate. However, billing by the hour is a pitfall in its own right. Selling time always puts a cap on your earnings at some point. Using per project pricing and selling value is a better strategy.

  • Henry

    Brilliant advice! Thank you!

  • Merrit

    If you have a client that wants you to work as independent contractor full-time (vs the 20 hours you had been providing for a couple of years), should you provide a discounted hourly rate because they are committing to provide you with 2,000 billable hours for the year? The hourly rate x 40 hrs per week is too steep for them and they want to negotiate a lower hourly rate in exchange for 40 hours of guaranteed work.

  • Smart companies save so much by focusing on contractors. Full-time employees cost a LOT. Just ask Zirtual, who recently lost control of their own finances after they realized the cost (20-30% more) and couldn’t make up for it quickly enough. https:[email protected]/zirtual-what-happened-and-what-s-next-f9bd493ecc49

    Learn to negotiate the rate you’ve set. You obviously set it there for a reason (market research, your own experiences). You can count on every single company pretending to be shocked, and asking you to lower it. Create a list of reasons why it’s set where it is. Learn to easily communicate them. Follow the rules you’ve read above (especially ‘lowering the scope’).

  • Kristen Winstead

    How do you feel about quoting an hourly fee over email? Some people come to me looking to scope out a bunch of designers at once. They’ll push for an hourly so they can easily compare me to other designers. There must be a better away of getting around this? Maybe by saying that I only quote per project, and I would be happy to discuss a certain project with them? On the other hand, sometimes scaring someone off who is looking for the cheapest rate could be a good thing…Thanks for your advice!

  • Jose Caban

    A long time ago in a business far far away I was a 100% commission based salesman for an authorized cell phone dealer. There was a minimum cost, but other than that I was free to price the phones wherever I wanted and split the profit 50/50 with the company.

    One day an old man came in the store, looking for tech support. After I inspected his phone i quickly noticed the small watermark sticker was pink. “Sir, did you get your phone wet?” Absolutely not he told me. I held his phone up in the air and water literally started pouring out of it. LOL I mean a steady stream of water poured out formulating a small puddle on my desk!

    Now after I checked his account I saw he had no insurance and no upgrades on either of his 2 lines. I informed him he would have to buy a new phone at full price. He spoke in that soft old man voice about how he didn’t know what he was going to do. He couldn’t afford the price of $220, he used the phone for emergencies and grandchildren. So, I did what any decent non business minded person would do. I told him I couldn’t just give him a phone but, I hovered my mouse over the blackout box on my screen to reveal the actual cost of the phone and I showed it to him. The phone costs my company $100 sir. I have to add something. I’ll charge you $105 and I will take the heat from the company as well as make no money.

    He thought about this a short while. Looked me square in the eye and said…

    Great, I’ll take two. One for my wife.

    As I boxed up 2 brand new phones each sold at cost I learned a valuable lesson that day.

    You’re client has a number they have allocated to your service before they ever meet you. They are a fixed variable, remove them from the equation. You can only be lower, higher or right on that number. All that’s left is you. If you have that “inner negotiation” with yourself, you’ll start to lower your price before you even propose. Ask them for what your worth. Stand firm. Hopefully, If it’s at or under what they wanted to pay everyone wins. If you are higher, then follow the multitude of Brennan’s Articles and show them why they need to pay more. Put your efforts into proving why you are worth more and not less.

  • Nigel

    I am so glad to hear you say that, I am being approached By companies who say they want the best, high level skills and I am just the ticket, then when it looks like I’ve got the job. ‘we can’t go to that rate, we were thinking half that amount. Please understand the rate is already lower than I am used to and they want me to to four jobs in one, it’s a real bind for me at the moment.

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