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Money First


Talking about money can be awkward, which is why it’s often brought up too late. But no other diagnostic question you ask matters unless your client can afford to pay you for the work they’re hoping you’ll do. And oh boy does that mean that you had better be charging enough. But that’s another article …


I’ve learned that the best way to begin talking about a project is to discuss money. Too often, we wait until after the client has assumed control of the negotiations, after you’ve already spent a ton of time trying to close on the job, or worse yet, after work has already been done. By then, you’ve set a precedent that is almost impossible to reverse. And if you’re operating this way, you likely aren’t even certain what you need to earn for the work you’re doing. You’re winging it, and the client can see that. The only way you’re going to get the budget you need is to have the money conversation right away.

If you haven’t mastered this discipline, the first barrier to overcome is fear. There’s often this reverse “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” vibe that designers bring to negotiations, where they feel that if they mention money too soon, they’ll come off needy—and really good designers are always in demand, right? Well, not really. Everyone needs work. Some designers may have more opportunity than capacity—that’s certainly a strategic position to aspire to—but even they need the work that they say yes to. Getting there takes discipline and practice.

Clients are like bees. They can smell your fear. If you’re at all hesitant about bringing up money, or betray your lack of confidence through clumsy speech, body language, or lots of written hemming and hawing, you’re not likely to get what you’re asking for.

Just to be clear, when I talk about discussing money up front, I mean remaining firmly in estimate territory. That means ranges are appropriate until you’ve gotten confirmation that the bigger number is something your client can afford and is prepared to spend (different things, believe me). You should be able to provide an estimate after hearing even the “elevator pitch” version of what your client needs, which in turn will make your client feel more confident about your ability to provide what they need.

Think about it this way: When you go to the doctor, you want to hear something like, “Yes, this is quite common. A few weeks on this medication will take care of it.” Your client wants the same kind of authority from you. Translated into web-designese, it should sound something like, “It looks like you need a full site rebuild with a focus on lead-generation functionality and integration with your CRM. Sites like that cost between $35 – $55k, depending upon some details we can go over.” If they’ve got $55k, you can move into talking specifics.

So, what about the specifics? First, keep your hourly rate to yourself; make it the unit by which you determine prices, but not the price itself. You should have such a clear sense for what your deliverables are—even with the typical project-to-project particularities—that estimating costs is a system that you hold yourself accountable to, not the other way around. Ideally, your prospective client will see one large, round number. (There are exceptions, of course: Sometimes it will be appropriate to have line items for additional functionality, each with a single price.)

As soon as you work through qualification, let your client know this number verbally—either in person or over the phone, then follow up with a contract. As one of our trusted colleagues, Blair Enns of Win Without Pitching fame, says: No proposals, just a brief contract detailing scope, price, and terms. If you’re still selling the job in your proposal, you don’t have control. By the way, if you’re interested in going deeper on this subject, seek out Blair. He wrote the book on it, literally.

Finally, a couple of things to keep in mind. There are actually two budgets that your client needs to consider and allocate in advance of beginning any web project. The first is the cost of the initial project, which should cover the planning, prototyping, design, and development leading up to the first launch of the site. The second budget is the yearly amount they are likely to spend maintaining their website. This might include specific costs like support and hosting fees, as well as any functional upgrades or design changes they need moving forward. Often, this amount is commensurate with the initial project cost; the more complex and costly a website, the more complex and costly it is to support and maintain. The more experience you have with web work, the more you’ll be able to help your clients anticipate the long-term costs.

You can do this. Now, look in the mirror and say, “I can do this.

Just kidding, don’t do the mirror thing.

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