“Please, Sir, I Want Some More”: Friday Chatting About Negotiation

Nicole: Good afternoon! Happy Friday! I am counting the days until Thanksgiving when I get a break from my holiday workload. How about you?

Ester: I keep forgetting Thanksgiving is even coming up because I’m so focused on taking things one step at a time. It’s the only way I know how to cope when I’m this overwhelmed. 🙂 But to my credit, I think, I just sent an email to n*e*g*o*t*i*a*t*e for a better fee for one of the many projects I’ve agreed to take on. Negotiation is one of those things that is so much easier said than done. I can tell everyone I know to do it, I can even tell myself sternly that I will, but then I find that some opportunity pops up, and I just … don’t. I find some “good” reason to accept the first offer and then kick myself later.

Nicole: I’m reasonably good at the first offer. I don’t know about you, but a lot of people who contact me these days ask me my rates first, and then they either say “Okay!” or “Well, you’re too expensive for our budget.” The part I’m bad at is renegotiating rates with long-term clients. I have a couple of clients whom I really like writing for, but who are paying rates that were appropriate 18 months ago.

Also, when I write that, I laugh at myself, because I think, “Who am I to say that in 18 months, I went from $75 per piece to $300 per piece, and now I’m worth literally four times more than I was then?”

Ester: Ack, but of course you could be and are, right? (It’s much easier to do this kind of coaching for someone else.) You’ve gained in experience and exposure, and that’s how the market appreciates. Why is my apartment worth so much more than it was when I bought it? It’s no different than it was. But what people are willing to pay for it has gone up substantially simply because of how attractive its various features are. Your work is the same way.

In my case, several times this fall people have approached with me a project and a fee. They haven’t asked what my fee is first. My problem is that the little voice in my head says, “That seems reasonable!” And, I guess, the “Who are you to ask for more than that?” voice kicks in too.

Nicole: I know that if a person leads with a rate I consider reasonable (and I totally have a mental chart of my own reasonable rates) I never ask for more. This means I am leaving money on the table, as it were. We should always ask for more, right?

But I think you want that first interaction to be like a first date, in a way. “Do you like this restaurant?” “Yes, I love it!” instead of “No, I’d rather go here.”

Ester: Right! I don’t want to appear “high-maintenance.” Oh, the horror of appearing HIGH-MAINTENANCE. But yes, you are leaving money on the table, and so am I. If we don’t like bratwurst, why should we agree to a Bavarian restaurant just to seem agreeable? Or even if we like bratwurst fine and yet feel more like swordfish?

Nicole: Well, the theory is that if you agree to someone else’s needs now, then your needs will take on more weight in future discussions. This works with sibling relationships. It does not so much work in adult relationships, including professional ones.

Ester: Yeah, I’m skeptical of that in professional settings. I imagine it’s more like, if you appear to be someone who does not prioritize her own needs, you will get filed away under P for Pushover. I was astonished, early on in my life as a New Yorker, at how niceness didn’t get me anywhere in the city; I really had to learn how to stand up — even step up — to people here to get any respect. And that was hard to do. As soon as I did, though, people reacted! And they didn’t even call me a bitch; they said, “Oh, cool, so that’s how it is? Okay, sure!” and gave me what I wanted.

Nicole: I don’t have as many of those experiences, I don’t think. This might also be my own innate Midwesternness. The whole “guess culture” thing. But I’ve found when it gets to the point where I have to say, “This is not working for me,” it tends to herald the end of the relationship.

Ester: Isn’t that what that phrase means? Or are you saying that, in relationships in general, if you have to bring up any issues or things you wish were different, you’ve already reached the point of no return?

Nicole: It means that by the time I am ready to say, “I need to stand up for these needs that are not getting met, and I am willing to leave if they don’t,” the response is, “Okay, I can’t meet those needs, goodbye.” I am anticipating that will happen with one of my clients this year. The thing I am not anticipating will happen is that the client will say, “Okay, we’d be happy to pay you X much more.”

Ester: Is the underlying problem that your clients aren’t flexible or that you aren’t speaking up soon enough, do you think?

Nicole: Honestly, I think that it’s because some types of clients base their budgets on hiring a particular level of freelancer, and that pay scale seemed attractive to me when I was at that level, and now I’m not. So asking for more money, while a smart thing to do on my behalf, would be problematic to that client’s budget.

I’m making a lot of assumptions about clients, though! But I have a little bit of experience on the organizational budget side of things from when I worked at the think tank and was Executive Assistant to everyone (which meant I was in the room where all these discussions happened — look at me NOT QUOTING HAMILTON HERE) and there isn’t, like, an extra pile of money sitting around to pay people.

Ester: Ah yes. Those assumptions can be helpful but they also need to be aired out regularly and reexamined. In any case, why say “no” preemptively on their behalf? Why not just ask and let them say “no” if they need to? It’s not your job to manage their budget, after all.

Nicole: Same reason you don’t leave a job until you have another job in hand.

Ester: But there’s a difference between saying, “Can you do a bit better on this fee going forward?” and “BTW, if you can’t pay me X from now on, I’m out the door.” They can say “no” to the first and the relationship can continue — especially if there’s something else they can do for you instead. At my last FT job, a non-profit with cash-flow issues, I negotiated all sorts of things in lieu of an actual raise, including working ⅘ time for the same money.

Nicole: Yeah, I think that’s my own fear to overcome. The whole “if I ask for a little bit better now, will I lose what I already have?” They are probably not going to drop me from the freelance roster, but people tend to favor team members they know are happy. (Or who they think are happy.)

Ester: They also tend to favor people they have pre-existing relationships with — especially good ones, like they have with you — over strangers with whom they have to start from scratch, though, right? You have an advantage in the fact that they know, like, and trust you. The whole point, arguably, of building up credit is that you can then draw on it.

Nicole: Indeed. So what’s this mental block about? Who knows. BTW I interviewed Katie Lane of Work Made for Hire for The Freelancer this week about this very subject, and she said that the way to start a negotiation was not to ask for more money outright. Instead, after completing a successful assignment or two, we’re supposed to ask what the growth path is for a successful freelancer. That way we know, from the beginning, if the client is likely to pay more and give you better pieces/responsibility, or if it’s the kind of place that hires early-career people and is happy to see them move on to better things.

Ester: That’s good advice, but I don’t think it would work in every circumstance. After talking with people who have other points of view on the matter, I’m toying with the idea of always asking for a bit more for projects that come my way going forward, even the rate seems fine, because that so goes against my natural instinct. I assume several people will say “no” but that will both be fine, because if they approached me in the first place, presumably they’ll still want to work with me at the originally quoted price, and maybe it will even be good for me, because this way I can learn that I can hear “no” and SURVIVE.

If I hear “yes,” then great! Bonus confidence, bonus monies. It’s kind of win-win.

Nicole: It really is, and I should do it too. I need to find a way to be accountable about it to other people, otherwise I might not. I sense a Billfold Negotiation Round-Up in our future! Or, at least, me writing about it in Do 1 Thing.

Ester: I want to know if anyone has really been Punished, in a surprising and Dickensian way, for asking for something reasonable, like Oliver.

Nicole: Ester, that’s the exact reference I made in my Freelancer piece! Why do we always feel like we’re small children, looking up at a scary person who can either give us more or kick us out?

Ester: I don’t know! Because it’s the worst-case scenario? Does it really happen? Or do most people end up pleasantly surprised when they assert themselves. Tell us, readers!

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