Many freelancers are being asked to lower their rates because of coronavirus, but should you ever agree? Sian Meades-Williams explains how freelancers can use this in their favour.
Q: One of my regular copywriting clients has asked me to reduce my rates during the lockdown. I’m understanding of their difficult position and really enjoy working with them and I want that to continue, but I’m wary about lowering my rates for the same amount of work. It just doesn’t seem fair. What should I do?
Sian Meades-Williams says: A couple of years ago I was doing some copywriting for a well-known travel company. The projects were meaty, regular and well-paid and I was really enjoying it. After a few months they dangled the opportunity of a permanent role, something I really wanted at the time, but with a catch: they wanted me to lower my day rate for the next project. I did. As soon as the project ended, they ghosted me. I suspect there was no job, but they’d got the work they needed at a lower rate. I felt really let down, and if I’m honest, more than a bit stupid.
Despite this cautionary tale, we’re in different times now: we know the pressures our clients are under, because we’re all watching the news and looking at the closed shops and restaurants along our high streets. And for the most part, I really believe that a client asking you to lower your rates isn’t trying to pull a fast one, they’re just trying to survive. We all are.
But it doesn’t make it any better for freelancers, who have definitely got the raw deal here. I’ve spoken to dozens of people this week who have been asked to lower their rates because of the pandemic. One was asked what was the “absolute bare minimum” hourly rate they would work for. More than one has been asked to slash 20% off their day rate as the rest of the full-time staff have. A couple of people have been asked to work for free with the hope of payment in the future. What’s clear is that everyone is approaching their budgeting problems differently: there’s no one-size-fits-all scenario. Which means there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for freelancers.
In a perfect world the answer is to never lower your rates. But in a perfect world you wouldn’t have lost half of your clients and commissioning budgets wouldn’t have been slashed. And we’d all be allowed to go to the pub. Only you can decide what you should do with your money. Your bills still need to be paid and you are in the best position to judge the state of your bank balance. Sometimes you will decide that lowering your rate is the right thing. Other times it just won’t be possible, or your relationship with the client just isn’t strong enough. Your decision will probably vary between clients. That being said, I think any company offering lower than 50% of your usual rate is absolutely just taking the piss.
So let’s approach this situation differently. Where possible, be understanding. Don’t jump to the offence if you’re asked – questions like this are often coming from much higher up the ladder, but you can make things work in your favour. If you’re asked to write for less money, offer a lower word count. Agree to 800, not 1,000. If you usually do graphic design four days a month, offer three instead. This isn’t unreasonable, although it might not be the answer your client is hoping for – it’s the same as negotiating at the start of any agreement. It means that you’re bargaining with your time rather than your output. It’s your client’s budget that has changed, not the value of the work you do for them.
It’s also useful to think about what value the company can offer you. Perhaps it’s a guest slot on their podcast, or a bio with a headshot on the website if you don’t already have that. Maybe you can file Word documents instead of having a weekly battle with the outdated CMS. Or you can ask that you don’t undertake as much image research as you usually would. Our work doesn’t end with the file we submit on deadline day and a good client should be aware of that.
If you do decide to lower your rates, make sure you agree to a time limit on your new contract. In my experience, when a payment rate has decreased it’s never gone back up again. This is the risk you take. Don’t agree to anything so vague as “when this has all blown over”. Make it clear that it’s a temporary change and be willing to walk away if you need to. Continue to pitch pieces elsewhere, have meetings with potential new clients when the opportunity arises (and seek out those opportunities!). Editors are still commissioning; companies are still hiring freelancers. Moving on from a client might seem scary now but it could lead to greater things. Client loyalty is a real asset, but don’t feel guilty about doing what’s right for you and your career. All of us need to do what we can to make ends meet, but we also need to make sure we don’t sell ourselves short.