Always have a conversation before you provide your price.
Recently, a prospective client emailed me. The subject line of her message said it all: “Need a Media Trainer.”
As someone who delivers media-training workshops, I was delighted. So we scheduled a call.
Ten minutes into the conversation, however, it turned out that she didn’t want a workshop on how to talk with reporters. She wanted a workshop on how to talk with an audience. In other words, she wanted a presentation trainer.
To her, the difference was a mere nuance. To me, these were two entirely different topics. Sure, they were related and there was some overlap, but only in the same way that Fiat and Ferrari are both cars.
A few days later, a different prospect was introduced to me. I was told he needed an editor for his report, so I sent over my kick-off brief for editorial projects. (This short form poses questions such as, “Do you prefer a heavy hand, or a light touch?”)
After a few rounds of emails, it turned out that the usual kind of editing I do — tightening up language — wasn’t what he wanted. Instead, he was looking for someone to tighten up his ideas — to identify weak points in his arguments.
Again, to a prospect, an editor is an editor. But to an editor, there’s editing for proofreading, editing for structure, editing for adherence to a style guide, and so on. Each entails a different level of labor — and thus a different cost.
Why does any of this matter? Because when we consultants confront a new client, some of us are tempted to dash off a quick reply and an estimate. We know our price; why bother with an intake conversation if the budget isn’t there?
Let me offer three reasons to do just that.
1. Because the Same Word Often Means Different Things to Different People
With apologies to Humpty Dumpty, outsiders use language differently from insiders. Consider the client who asked me to edit his “book.” I expected the text to clock in at 50,000 – 75,000 words, yet when I received the Word doc, I was surprised to count only 25,000.
Had I estimated the cost for a traditional book, he likely would have been so shocked, that would have been the end of the exchange. In contrast, by reviewing the manuscript first, I salvaged the business.
Similarly, just today, I saw an ad for a “digital-marketing freelancer.” I was immediately intrigued. Yet upon reading further, I was swiftly disabused: They weren’t looking for a communicator; they were looking for a designer.
Then there was the time a client wanted help with Wikipedia (one of my specialities). Except that, after a few email exchanges, it emerged that they weren’t referring to Wikipedia.com but to a wiki-based intranet.
The lesson: Don’t assume that everyone uses nomenclature the same way you do. Instead, before you reveal your fee, make the scope of work you envision as clear as a Bahamian bay.
In fact, to minimize misunderstanding, I’ll often repeat back, using my own words, what the prospect wants. I’ll then ask for confirmation. Only if the answer is positive do I proceed to outline my plan.
What’s more, before pivoting to price, I pause to solicit a second confirmation. I ask, “Does this align with your thinking?”
Again, only if I get a “yes” — that is, only if we’re in unison about the task at hand — does it make sense to talk numbers.
2. Because You Have to Sing for Your Supper
As consultants, we don’t sell widgets. We sell services, whose quality, cost, and value vary widely.
So, if you’re not competing on price, why should someone hire you if the other guy is cheaper?
The only answer, of course, is that you’re better (faster, friendlier, smarter). But how do you prove it?
By demonstrating your expertise. As Uma Thurman sang in The Producers, “When you got it, flaunt it!” Specifically, whether your intake interview occurs through an email, call, or meeting, focus first on whetting your prospect’s appetite.
For example: Exude passion for your profession. Cite similar assignments and clients. Above all, offer a little free advice.
Indeed, it’s been my experience that counsel camouflaged as a question can sometimes win over someone on the spot. (A classic example: “Have you ever considered doing it this way?”)
The lesson: Fight the temptation to suss out a budget. The smartest salesmen know that a big part of their job is to educate people. Only after you’ve done that should you tell someone how much the full show costs.
3. Because Interviews Go Both Ways
Finally, there’s a rightfully selfish reason you should welcome all this give and take. In the course of your conversation, you’ll glimpse a number of seemingly small cues that reveal volumes.
For example: Does your counterpart respond to emails promptly? Are her answers thorough and thoughtful, or short and superficial? Is she arrogant, or appreciative? Does she address all your questions, or only some? Does she call you 15 minutes late? Does the call you place at the scheduled time go to voice mail?
The lesson: Gain as much firsthand intel as you can. This kind of soft data is invaluable not only in predicting what a person will be like to work with, but also in helping you decide on your fee. (Someone who takes his time to reply will likely require a follow-up for you to get paid.)
Embrace the Muddle
They say the devil’s in the details. That’s one of life’s great truths. In fact, when it comes to public relations (PR), Old Nick doesn’t announce himself in a headline; he prefers to lurk in a job description, an offhand remark, a missed call.
If you want to sell PR services, then you need to embrace this muddled reality.
Put another way, don’t listen only to what a customer says he wants. Listen to what he’s actually describing. All too often, people lack the vocabulary to articulate their vision. A smart consultant gives them the space and time to express themselves.
All of which is to say this: The next time Opportunity knocks, welcome her in with open arms. Get to know her a bit before you name a number.
In other words: Every time you get a chance to have a conversation, grab it with both hands. If you don’t win the work this time around, at least you’ve set yourself up for success the next time.
Addendum (1/14/2020): PR pro Lewis Fein left a comment on LinkedIn, where I cross-posted this piece. He identifies a fourth reason — because speaking is different from writing — which I failed to make explicit:
“Good communicators are good listeners. They listen to learn, uncovering what no transcript can reveal and no recitation of the record can reproduce: The circumstances of a conversation — the context of a call — in which intonation says more than all the words a person says and the silence between words says all the listener needs to know.”
Addendum (6/17/2022): Here’s another example: A client asked me to create a pitch deck. But it turned out they didn’t want someone to develop and design slides; they wanted someone to write a script.
Jonathan Rick is a ghostwriter in Washington, D.C. He specializes in thought leadership.