Scotty Stevens asked me an important question. So important that I've decided to reprint it here, with his permission:
“How far would you travel to meet a potential client, if they had the deposit ready for your services? My girlfriend thinks the customer is pulling the strings if they don't at least meet me halfway. Before, I've always traveled as far as it takes, even if it meant driving all the way to the customer, but is that setting a weak precedent?”
Good question, but it's the wrong one.
“How far would you travel” is irrelevant. A better question is, do they value your time? Do they respect it enough that they are willing to pay for it? In other words, are they willing to cover your travel expenses and pay for you to go out of your way for them?
If so, then I'd be willing to travel anywhere.
I would always consider travelling to meet a prospect if the project was large enough, and provided they paid for what is commonly referred to in this industry as “TMI” (i.e., travel, meals, and incidentals). And in some cases, for my time, too.
(By the way, travel includes lodging, and incidentals include photocopying, long-distance calls, Internet connection in the hotel room, car rental, etc.)
Plus, I would ask them for an advance so I can take care of my own expenses. I would avoid getting them to handle my trip on their end. I would want to have full control over the choice of airline, hotel, restaurants, etc.
If you were driving to meet them, then the client — or, in this case, the prospect — should pay for your gas, normal wear-and-tear on your car (such as $[X] per mile), your meals, and any incidentals. And lodging too, if you were staying overnight.
There's a very good reason for this.
My clients are responsible for any direct, out-of-pocket expenses — whether they've hired me yet or not. It's included in all my agreements and quotes. For example, I've had many clients fly me to meet with them before they've hired me.
Whether you're a copywriter, a web designer, or a graphic artist, you're still a freelancer. You are not only a marketer selling your services but also the provider of those services.
You're not a salesperson working on commission where your only job is to close deals — and therefore, you don't have the luxury of expense accounts or the ability to write the trip off as a business expense against sales commissions.
As a freelancer, your time is immensely valuable.
As the person providing the service they are buying, by making yourself available to them also forces you to be unavailable to work with other clients, let alone to market yourself to find other clients. So the cost is a lot greater than just the trip itself.
That's why, if the trip would be a considerable distance away or if it were to take longer than a one day, I would even want my prospect to pay for my time. And that would be $3,000 a day. Minimum. For several reasons.
For one, they are paying me to consult them. Even if it's an attempt to hire me. Call it an “assessment” or a “needs analysis,” if you will. It's still a consultation.
Believe me, a lot of clients try to get you to consult them for free, disguised as a “trial” or in an effort to see what you can do for them first. To me, it's a dangling, elusive carrot. Too often, these pre-sale consultations are easily abused.
A consultation is a consultation. Period.
I even go as far as to add a dollar value to my “free quotes.” Why? Because it not only adds value to my estimate and therefore my time, but also prequalifies them to a degree.
If you offer a “free estimate” and leave it at that, you are also communicating that taking the time to analyze their needs and provide the estimate is nothing to you. Therefore, they're left wondering what else can you do for free. After all, “it was nothing,” is it not?
Don't devalue yourself or the item you're giving away for free.
Something that's free is not really “free” if it's not worth something or otherwise sold. It just is. But an estimate is not just free. It's a gift, a concession, an expense on your part. Rather than a free estimate, it's a $[X] estimate you're giving them for free.
The language might seem a bit of a play on semantics, but it's critically important. In fact, if your customer is looking for a “great deal,” make sure they know it really is.
If you give something away for free that's always free and expected, then it's worthless. But if you give something valuable away for free, then it's indeed a great deal.
Ultimately, I would never, ever, meet with a client until and unless they pay for my expenses. After all, if they're not willing to at least pay for my expenses, then…
- They are unqualified;
- They are going to haggle;
- They will nitpick my work;
- They will demand more, likely for free;
- And they'll avoid paying for regular, project expenses, too.
Even if they don't seem like they will be a hassle at first, you want to stand firm. First impressions can often be deceiving. Keep in mind, just as you're trying to get them to hire you, the prospect is trying to sell you on them, too.
Many of my students have told me: “But my prospect seems genuine! They are willing to pay handsomely if I go ahead! They appear really interested!” Remember, if you give in now, chances are you will be giving in (or expected to give in) later on.
Remember, the member who asked me the question at the top of this post added this revealing tibit: “They (have) the deposit ready for your services.”
That's the problem. They are dangling this carrot in front of you, expecting you to follow. Sure, they probably do have a deposit ready. But they're going to expect you to work for it. For free, no doubt. And oftentimes, in little, insignificant, and subtle ways.
Asking them to pay for your expenses also helps to stop the grinding away process.
Otherwise, if you're willing to bend over backwards in trying to land the account, you're educating them you are also willing to do so after you get hired — often, to your detriment. They will grind away at you. Because they expect it.
A prospect refusing to pay for your trip always sends up a big red flag.
In my experience, a client who is not willing to compensate for my travel is a client who may not be hiring me based on my expertise, experience, or marketing — in which I've already invested a lot of time and money to get the client in the first place…
… But hiring me based on how amenable, cheap, and willing to be manipulated I am.
Some people say that showing you are willing to do anything to get the project means you also are willing to do anything for your client — and therefore, it's a positive thing.
Wrong. Because human nature invariably dictates.
It sends the wrong message that could, and often does, work against you. In fact, while it may or may not communicate that you're a hard worker willing to do anything for your client, it also communicates five other distinct yet negative messages:
- Your time is not valuable. If they can't respect your time now, they certainly won't respect your time after they've become clients. Guaranteed.
- You look desperate. Therefore, you're not in demand. Maybe it's because you're not good enough. Maybe it's because you're having trouble getting work. True or not, you're going to have to work twice as hard to convince them otherwise.
- You appear deceitful. You are subtly communicating you're willing to do or say anything to get the job. Like it or not, that doubt will linger in the back of their minds over the course of your relationship with them, which may hurt you in other areas.
- You're too pliable. You show that you can be easily manipulated, which opens yourself up for abuse. (Believe me, I know this all too intimately!) Plus, they often do this as a “test” to see how subservient you are.
- You lack confidence. It communicates that you're weak and uncertain, and that you question your own skills, which can backfire. If you're willing to question your own abilities, chances are, they will too.
So yes, it does set a weak precedent.
Above all, they will wonder what else you're willing to do for free and, exactly as you wondered yourself, how far you're willing to go. Not only are you allowing them to haggle, hassle, and quibble, but also you are inviting it.
If, lucky for you, they do end up hiring you, chances are they will nitpick your work, wrangle over your invoices, question what you deliver, sabotage your deliverables, barrage you with incessant demands, and become high maintenance.
I know what you're going to say: “But Michel, isn't that marketing? Isn't that showing how much of a hard worker you are? Surely, not all prospects are like that?”
True on all three counts.
But you can communicate the same in more effective ways.
If you get them to understand how valuable your time is, how confident you are in your work, and how much your work is worth, then you are communicating — although, to everyone's benefit — that you are a hard worker willing to do what it takes.
A good, qualified prospect will see this. Even expect it.
Those who refuse to accept your position only means one of two things: they are fishing for a “great deal” (e.g., a naive, cheap, unquestioning, slavish freelancer), or they are just looking for someone who can complete tasks rather than help them achieve results.
Re-read that last paragraph. It's crazy important.
Check out Paddi Lund's website. It's all about positioning. The less available you are and the more hoops clients have to jump through to hire you, the more it communicates you are valuable, your time is valuable, and your work is valuable.
Because, and keep this in mind, if they have a chance to get a great deal (and some, at your expense let alone your sanity), they will. Left to their own devices, they will take advantage of you. Don't take it personally, because it's not you they are abusing. It's your services. Your time. And your willingness to do what it takes.
Call it greed. Call it a sign of the current, sluggish economy. Call it what you will.
I prefer to call it human nature.
If you think I'm the only one, here's a funny, albeit realistic, video on how clients tend to view vendors, brought to me courtesy of “Copywriting Maven” Roberta Rosenberg…
So, there you have it! I hope this post was helpful to you.
Michel Fortin is a certified digital marketing expert and renowned copywriter who specializes in a unique combination of SEO, CRO, and UX to improve traffic, leads, and revenue for his clients. For the better part of 30 years, he's produced countless wins, generating in excess of $300 million in sales and results that have broken many industry records. He has worked with thousands of businesses ranging from individual entrepreneurs to enterprise-level multinational companies. He's the author of two top-selling books and often speaks at industry events. To connect with him, visit his LinkedIn profile where he is most active.