How to Reign in Runaway Negotiations

Clients who don’t know what they want can chew up countless hours of your time with exploratory emails, phone calls, meetings, and requests for more details if you let them. Ditto for blood-sucking zombies who milk you for free advice but have no intention of ever hiring you.

Here are some suggestions for “training” indecisive clients and weeding out the bloodsuckers:

Cap getting-to-know-me meetings. Bloodsuckers are fans of meetings with agendas like “let’s spend the next four hours talking about how you’d execute our project were we to actually offer it to you.” For this reason, I have a rule about complimentary getting-to-know-me meetings: One hour max is all you get – by bat phone, webcam, or in the flesh – and then I’m billing you for it. Likewise, I don’t dress, drive, and give up my morning for just anyone. Unless there’s big money, repeat business, or real PIE potential, I phone it in.

Use templates. Although I have a bio and work samples on my website, I still need to email interested clients my references, additional samples, and a more detailed bio or resume from time to time. The materials I send vary wildly, depending on whether I’m talking to an arts organization that wants me to teach, a potential copywriting client, or a news website that wants an article written. Rather than reinvent the wheel each time, I have a nice collection of templates I emply: ShamlessInstructorPromo.doc, Fortune500Bait.doc, and MediaWhore.doc.

Create a FAQ. Rather than answering the same questions over and over, email a “How I Work” doc to interested clients. Or post a FAQ page on your website. “Before I do any illustrations, I send clients a detailed breakdown of how I work, how many sketches I do, what sorts of changes they can ask for, and when payment is due,” says freelance illustrator Molly Crabapple. “So many headaches averted!”

Send a questionnaire. Besides having a helpful FAQ and Design Process page on her company’s site, Emily Carlin of Swank Web Style cuts to the chase by sending a design brief for interested clients to fill out. We’re talking twenty-plus questions about everything from the site’s purpose and number of pages to preferred colors, graphics and layout. Considering how many people will call a web designer before they have any idea what they want, this saves her a load of time.

Make a video. For Erin Blaskie, who runs Business Services, ETC, a virtual assistance company based in Ontario, Canada, creating a ten-minute video called “How to Work With a Virtual Assistant” was “the smartest thing I’ve ever done.” Not only has it greatly reduced the time she spends answering potential clients’ questions about how she works, it adds a personal touch. “What’s nice about the video is instead of it being written, they get to see who I am,” she says. “It’s a great way to get that trust built.”

Do have a business-savvy pal in your industry weigh in on any FAQs, web pages, or videos you make before you send them to potential clients, especially if you’re new at this. You don’t want to be so demanding – “Only green M&Ms in my dressing room!” – that no one wants to hire you.

(C) Michelle Goodman. Excerpted from My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire (Seal Press, 2008).