A conversation with a prospective client usually begins very positively. They’re interested in your work and you are eager to learn about their project. You ask a lot of questions. The more you talk, the stronger the bond you forge, the better your chances of a successful project. None of this can happen without the back and forth of conversation.
Eventually money will come up. Will you bring it up or will they? Will you squirm and stutter? Will you put it off, thinking the time isn’t right? (Is it ever?) Will you avoid it completely? Or will you tolerate the discomfort?
Believe it or not, many creative professionals get deep into projects without settling on a price, sometimes without broaching the topic of money at all. That’s how distressing the topic can be.
When is the right time? Right away or wait? And, if so, how long?
Problem is, there is no rule. And it’s not just one conversation to get through and you’re done with money. There are in fact several points in the life of a project when it naturally comes up. Here are general guidelines for how to talk about money at each stage of the process:
Initial Contact: In this preliminary phase with a new prospect, you’re deciding whether it’s worth your time (and theirs) to build a relationship. Should you start with a phone call or take the time to meet in person? Often it will depend on whether they can afford your services, which you need to know sooner rather than later. To find out, test the waters by floating some general price ranges. Do they blink? Stop breathing? Pause uncomfortably? Skip over it as if it’s a minor detail?
Negotiating: You got past the initial contact and they seem fine with your general price range. But now there is a project on the table and it’s time to get more specific. Run the numbers by your contact verbally (on the phone, not via e-mail) to see if it fits their budget. If not, it’s time to negotiate.
Closing the Sale: This is when you come to terms, or not. You must know your bottom line–the minimum amount you’re willing to do the project for–in order to close the sale.
When the Scope Starts to Creep: Don’t forget about scope creep–when the scope of a project starts to change and you know it’s going to cost more. This is a communication issue and there is a moment to watch for and not let slip by. A moment when you know you should speak up. Once that moment is gone, things tend to snowball and then it’s too late. Watch like a hawk for that moment and seize it.
The point is that only if you take the lead in the money conversation will you be perceived as the professional you are, garner the respect that you deserve and ultimately have control–not over your client but over your income and your role in the process.