One of the more difficult parts of being a consultant is determining and negotiating your rate with a customer. Consulting is a lot different than product based sales because you can generally charge whatever you think you can get away with. The first few months of my consulting career, I was charging $67.50/hour. It took several iterations for me to find out what my time and expertise was worth, but eventually I did. My rate increased to $70 for my second client, $90 for the third, $120 for the fourth, and eventually peaked at $275/hour.
The key to making good money as a consultant is to know how to negotiate your rates. This is not a skill you generally learn in college. It takes time, practice, and even if you’re good at it, you don’t always get what you want.
Tip #1: Never be the first to mention a price
Standard practice for negotiating anything is to let the other person state a price point first. This establishes the minimum or maximum price. It also tells you whether or not you are in the right ballpark for whatever it is that you are negotiating over. For example, if you are going for a job interview and they ask you what the salary is that you are looking for, then you’re in a difficult position to be able to play this game. If you state a number that is too high, you’ll be disqualified. If your desired salary is too low, then again you’ll be disqualified because they will think you don’t have the required skills, regardless of whether you do or not.
Your goal is to land somewhere in the middle, and preferably at the high end of their price range. Unfortunately, they’re simply not going to tell you what that is unless you ask. If they were willing to pay $70k-$90k for the position and you only asked for $70k, chances are that you’ll end up with less because you set the maximum price by saying $70k.
In every case, someone has to mention the price first or everyone goes home. Companies will generally tell you what their expected range is up front in order to save time, but if they’re looking to save money, a lot of times they’ll simply say something like “salary commensurate with experience”. It’s garbage, but you have to live with it.
Tip #2: Never negotiate against yourself
If you’re the first to name a price, never let the other person tell you that the price is too high and ask you offer a lower price. This is known as bidding against yourself. There are two problems here. First, you are giving up ground in the negotiation without the other party doing the same. I’ve seen this happen and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it myself. Second, you will unintentionally give up more ground than you intended to.
For instance, if you are negotiating a consulting rate, most companies will ask you flat out “What is your hourly/weekly rate?” and the expectation is that you have to tell them. Again, you can’t always avoid naming the price first, so this is pretty common. Just make sure you are in the same ballpark as others who offer similar services. But when they tell you that your rate is too high, ask them what they would be willing to pay or what they see as reasonable. If you say $100/hour, and then drop it to $90/hour, you’ve just given away $400/week and received nothing in return. You haven’t even established the bottom yet, so you have no idea if they’re willing to pay $50/hour or $10/hour.
The point is, don’t immediately counter a resistance to your rate with a lower rate, even if you’re desperate for work. In fact, especially if you’re desperate for work. People like a consultant who is confident in their rates, but able to justify them with a list of happy customers who paid that much. Just don’t cross the line into cocky. Prospective customers will walk you out the door and eventually, out of business.
Tip #3: Don’t negotiate your price until you are ready to
Through a long-time friend, I met a guy in Philadelphia several years ago who was interested in having some programming work done for his business. He didn’t want much more than 10-15 hours per week and was looking for what I thought was pretty basic PHP and mySQL work. My thinking was that it was just a meet-and-greet to establish a relationship and then we’d go from there to discuss the work that needed to be done and the rates for that work.
Maybe 5 minutes into the conversation, he asked me flat out what my rate was. Now, in keeping with Tip #1, I tried to dodge the question and was a bit vague, saying that it depended on what he needed done. He pushed hard telling me exactly what programming languages were to be used and how many hours of work each week he was willing to pay for, so I had little choice but to name a number and it was pretty close to our standard consulting rates in the small enterprise space. Immediately he jumped all over it and said it was too high and waited for my response. I certainly wasn’t going to negotiate against myself, so I asked him what he felt was reasonable. Of course he low-balled it at $25/hour, which we both knew was way too low.
I never knew what hit me. It couldn’t have been more than 5 minutes later when we “agreed” on $50/hour and he ended the meeting quickly, saying he had to get going. As I walked away with my friend, I shook my head wondering what the heck just happened. We hadn’t even reached the bar when I realized that $50/hour didn’t even cover my costs, let alone make me any money. In fact, in all my years of consulting I’d never charged as low as $50/hour.
Tip #4: Establish the lowest rate you can accept and don’t budge
From the previous paragraph, I obviously made two mistakes at the same time. First, I wasn’t ready to negotiate. I had intended to feel out his personality and find his hot buttons, but when he immediately launched into negotiating, I got too jumpy and played the game. Bad idea. Second, I had given absolutely no thought to the minimum rate at which my developers could work for to break even. It didn’t even occur to me until after we’d concluded negotiations. By then, it was too late.
Decide for yourself what the lowest rate you can work for is, and don’t accept a penny less. Losing money is no way to stay in business.
Tip #5: Be ready to walk away if it’s not going to work out
Too many consultants make the mistake of reducing their rate further and further until their prospective customer accepts. You’ll never get ahead this way. If you do good work, people will hire you. You want your rate to increase over time, not decrease. If a customer only has a budget of $2,000 and can’t get a penny more for a week of work, you’d better be willing to work for just $50/hour. If not, you need to walk away and find another customer.
Any retailer will tell you that when you sell at a loss, you can’t make it up on volume. At least not without cross selling other items. It’s “Ok” to do something very short term to lose less money on a particular week or to land a longer term arrangement for more money, but don’t make a habit of it. If a job isn’t going to make ends meet for you, then you need to walk away and find one that does.
In the previous case of my abysmal Philadelphia negotiation, I eventually ended up walking away. There was no reasonable way to renegotiate the rate. For the money and anticipated length of the engagement, it just wasn’t worth the effort.
Tip #6: Take what a customer says about your competitors’ rates at face value
Was my customer bluffing about the rate of my competitor or no? Maybe, but I’ll never know. I basically had two options. I could either accept/deny the rate decrease, or I could ask for proof, trying to call his bluff.
Had I called his bluff, there were only two possible outcomes and neither was going to be good.
1) If he was unable to produce proof of the competitive rate, then I could probably have maintained the same rate. However, I would have also been calling him a liar. I somehow doubt that calling a customer a liar is going to encourage them to hire me.
2) If he was able to produce proof, then I still called him a liar because I didn’t believe what he originally told me.
This was a lose-lose situation if I were to attempt to call the bluff and I think he’d have gone with my competitor in either case. Ultimately, I accepted the lower rate because I wasn’t going to lose money on it and I knew it would hurt my competitor a lot more than it would hurt me.
Before you start any negotiation, make sure you know what you want, know what the minimum is that you’re going to accept, and be ready to walk away if you need to. If you’re not ready to negotiate, don’t. Ask for more time or to reschedule, citing a need to do some research or give some thought. Simply saying that you’re not prepared to discuss it is an honest way to handle the scenario. It tells the customer that you’re not brash and are willing to think things through. They may not want to wait, but this does a lot for your credibility as someone who understands how businesses operate.
Last of all, remember that negotiating your rate isn’t about you winning or losing. You need to ensure that you and your customer both get what you need. The key is to establish a long term relationship with your customers so they keep coming back for more consulting services when they need them. If you nail them to the wall during every negotiation, eventually they’re going to walk away and find someone else to work with