Moving Up The Fee Ladder

Here’s a query for you. Why on Earth would anybody drop a load of dough to buy an S-Class Mercedes when they could buy a nifty Nissan Versa for a comparatively paltry price? They both have an engine and four wheels. They’ll both get you where you want to go, right?

In a word, “perceived value.” Okay, that’s two words, but you get the idea. Value, or sometimes perceived value, is an important thing to humans. Sure, both cars will get you there. It’s just that the Mercedes will get you there in a lot more style and comfort. And that, dear reader, is something people are willing to pay for to possess. Clients are generally human and, odds are, they’re willing to pay more when they perceive more value and, ultimately, benefits.

There’s a lesson in there for freelancers.

I hear lots of solopreneurs complain that they aren’t being paid what they believe they’re worth. They want to move up the ladder into the higher priced realm of the “valued consultant.” But, making that trek can be a challenge for several reasons. The first, and probably foremost reason is their own perception of their worth. If someone doesn’t truly believe that they bring something of value to the table, they’re going to have a awfully tough time convincing prospects that they do. That’s followed closely by blind fear. They’re afraid that if they ask for more money they’ll either won’t get the gig or lose an existing client. There are several other reasons, but they usually center on one’s own psychology and have little to do with the client or prospect.

Here’s a case in point. I while back I read a paper by copywriter Richard Armstrong titled, How to Make More Money by Writing Less.

In the report, Armstrong mentions a potential client who he didn’t want to take on. He was on the good side of the notorious feast or famine syndrome and was simply too busy to deal with this guy. So, he jacked up the price tag … way up … and told the guy he couldn’t possibly start the job for at least a month. The prospect said, “No problem.”

Armstrong was stunned and learned a valuable piece of information – if people believe you’re good and can solve their problem, they’ll dig deep into their pockets, if need be. Plus, telling a prospect that you’re booked a month or more in advance tends to prompt the thought, “Gee, if this guy’s booked that far in advance, he (or she) must be pretty darn good.”

Most freelancers are service providers. As such, we sell intangibles. People buy our services based largely on their perception of us. That perception is created by word of mouth, press coverage we receive, papers and articles we write, awards we’ve won, our work for other clients and how we position and present ourselves. In other words, our perceived value is something we create, not our clients. It’s within our control and it’s the first rung on the “higher paid” fee ladder.

So, where does one begin? Being good at what you do is always a nice touch. If you need to hone certain skills, get some training or at least buy a book. You must be at the top of your game in an ever-changing business landscape where the competition is ready, willing and often quite able to eat you alive.

With excellent skills, you’re halfway there. But, skills alone won’t cut the mustard. Frankly, I’ve never been very sure about how one actually cuts mustard, but the metaphor seemed to fit. Alas, I digress. Confidence is the next color on your palette. Without confidence in yourself and your skills, as mentioned, it’s going to be a tough sell. But, fortunately, self-confidence is a learned thing. The following is from chapter one of my current book, Starting Your Career As A Freelance Web Designer (Allworth Press, 2011), regarding self-confidence.

Self-confidence is the ability to believe you can do something. In this case, being a successful freelancer. It’s important to note that authentic self-confidence is different than being excessively proud or overly self-assertive. The latter tends to be loud, boastful, arrogant, and, in the vernacular, cocky. Plus, it’s often not true. Genuine self-confidence tends to be quiet and realistic. It’s a trait that resonates with others often simply by its being there. Clients want to work with designers who are self-assured and confident in their abilities. Self-confident people see setbacks as temporary and find ways to overcome them.

Developing self-confidence is similar to developing self-discipline. Since it’s about knowing you can accomplish something, you should have done it, or something similar, before. For example, you may have taught yourself HTML. Learning CSS might not seem that big a challenge and well within your abilities. It’s taking smaller steps before taking the big leap. Over the course of time, with tenacity, you build and hone your abilities and become confident in them.”

With great skills and hefty dose of confidence, it’s important to remember to under-promise and over-deliver. Always. Doing this simple thing will help to ensure your clients are doing the happy dance and singing your praise to their associates. Those testimonials will go a long way toward getting you on the second, third and fourth rung on the fee ladder.

Don’t be afraid to ask for more money. Oh sure, that sounds simple enough. But fear has a way of stopping us in our tracks. “Geez, they’ll never pay that much!” Don’t be so sure. A while back I was working with a freelance designer on his marketing. I looked his rate structure and ran some numbers. He was charging $75 US/hour … sometimes. Other times, he was charging around $35. It came down to the fact that he had no idea what he really needed to charge based on his overhead, target salary (draw) and profit. In essence, he was simply pulling numbers out of the air, trying to figure out what a prospect might be willing to pay and hoping they’d bite. But numbers don’t lie and they said he needed to be charging at minimum $90 US/hour. This, of course, freaked him out, but it was, nonetheless, the reality.

We decided to go through his prospect list and find one he could take or leave to test things out. He set up a meeting and, I’m sure, went in with his knees knocking. After the meeting, he called me to say the prospect didn’t even bat an eye at the (new) rate. And there you have it. Now this guy is charging around $125 US/hour and is happy as a clam. That’s another thing I’ve never been too sure about. How happy are clams? If this designer’s profit and loss statement is any indication, clams are pretty darn happy mollusks.

By the way, if you’re one of those freelancers who are pulling numbers out of the air or charging the “going rate,” you might want to read my article, How Do You Rate? Figuring Your Real Hourly Rate. In it, I take you through the math to calculate the rate you need to charge based on your specific situation. Don’t worry. You don’t need to be an Einstein to run your own numbers. The math is pretty simple.

Beyond all that, also don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. By that, I mean begin to position yourself as an expert. Clients and prospects like to work with experts and they’re more than willing to dig deep into their pockets for the opportunity. Write some articles, answer questions on LinkedIn, post quality and useful content on your site, Facebook and other spots. Sign up for HARO  and get yourself some press. If you’re not familiar, HARO, which stands for Help A Reporter Out, is an online service that matches writers and reporters with various experts for interviews, quotes and such. They send out an email three times each day, Monday through Friday, with interview requests. How handy is that?

Also, now that you’ve got all that self-confident mojo going, how about booking some speaking gigs? Yeah … I know. Public speaking is ahead of death on the stressful things to do list, but it’s a top tool for positioning yourself as an expert. Think about it. You’re the ipso facto expert because you’re the one with the microphone in front of the audience. People may have even paid to attend the event where you’re speaking. If they’re shelling out some dough, you can be sure their ears are open. Whenever I do a speaking bit, I always have a line of people afterward wanting to ask questions and get their business card in my hand. It’s one of my best marketing tools and brought me many clients over the years.

If you need to hone your public speaking skills and get comfy in front of an audience, consider joining Toastmasters. It’s a great place to learn the ins and outs of public speaking, giving presentation and being comfortable in front of a group of people.

From their site, “A Toastmasters meeting is a learn-by-doing workshop in which participants hone their speaking and leadership skills in a no-pressure atmosphere.

There is no instructor in a Toastmasters meeting. Instead, members evaluate one another’s presentations. This feedback process is a key part of the program’s success.” Toastmasters has 13,000 clubs around the world. Odds are there’s one near you.

In closing, give some deep thought to what your clients’ and prospects’ perception of you and your business really is. This isn’t something for a gambled guess or what you think they think. It’s something you need to ask them about. Perhaps a client survey is in order. If you find the perception isn’t what you want, it’s time to start re-spinning your positioning, image and brand. It won’t take very long before you find yourself at the top of the fee ladder, reeling in the dough that you deserve.

2 Responses to Moving Up The Fee Ladder

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