One of the hardest parts of working for yourself is finding clients. First you have to market yourself to let people know you exist and that you can help them. Then you have to find people who need what you’re selling. Finally, you have to go through a long sales process to convince them that you can do the job.
This is where things can get ugly.
A friend of mine, who does graphic design, is often asked for samples of her work. That’s completely reasonable, and she has a portfolio for just that reason. But, sometimes a client asks for more. They want to see how she would work specifically with their needs. They ask her for a sample.
What they are really asking her to do is work for free.
Should she do that small piece in hopes of getting the bigger project? Sometimes the answer is yes, but in many cases, we are giving too much away in the sales process, which doesn’t actually lead to more work, it just leads to more people asking us to work for free.
As a consultant, I’m often asked to come in for a meeting to talk about whatever organizational challenge my prospective client is facing. In order to convince them that I can do the job, I have to demonstrate my expertise. But, it’s way too easy for some of those initial scoping consultations to turn into 2-hour to 3-hour strategy sessions; i.e., they are asking me to give away my work for free.
Most new freelancers are surprised by how much time they spend on sales. It’s easily 50 percent of my work week, unless I’m buried in a project. Sometimes, I’m updating my website or scheduling posts on social media. Other times, I’m attending a conference or a networking event. I schedule a lot of coffee and lunch meetings to stay connected to my network, so I can stay top of mind for new opportunities.
With all that activity (which I’m doing for free), it’s easy to fall into the “one more meeting” trap. But at some point, those scoping conversations need to turn into paid work. At some point my friend the graphic designer needs to hold the line and insist that she has shown enough samples.
Giving things away for free is easy, and it can become a habit, especially early on when you are trying to prove yourself. When we’re competing with larger organizations that have more bandwidth, and the ability to give more away up front, you may feel the pressure to say yes to one more meeting or one more concept.
To break the cycle of giving too much away during the sales process, start by keeping track of how many meetings you’re having with each customer. Set a target and then when you hit that limit, suggest that you can continue the conversation on an hourly basis if they are not yet ready to commit to something longer term. Put a price on those samples, even if it’s a heavy discount.
Some prospects may say no, but the truth is that if a prospect is already balking at paying for your work now, they are probably not going to get better once the contract is signed. Work with people who value what you do, which starts with valuing it yourself.