Your Time and Talent. What’s It Worth?

I speak with consultant and coach Ted Leonhardt about smart marketing and negotiating strategies that will help you earn what you deserve

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Illustrations by Ted Leonhardt

true story: In my quest to find the right kind of clients — organizations with interesting projects and good budgets — I redesigned my website and posted about it. Instead of calls from prospective clients, the response was a barrage of emails from a well-known web provider offering “free consulting by top marketing experts.”

After about the 200th email, I broke down and dialed the 800 number. What were they really offering?

The friendly salesperson asked a few questions and then recommended a Facebook business profile page. Really? He assured me that clients for high-end design services are looking for designers on Facebook. Really? And that for only $199 a month (cancel any time, money-back guarantee), they would create an awesome Facebook business profile page for my firm. Not only that, included in the cost was an ad campaign that would put me directly in front of targeted decision-makers including CEOs and communications directors. I took the bait and sent them my credit card number and ten images.

The results were so embarrassing that I immediately removed the cover photo they’d made from cheesy stock images of globes and atoms. I was totally embarrassed by the way-too-promotional posts and ads. The thing I like least about Facebook is getting ads in my news feed, and now my ads were in my friends’ news feeds! I apologized publicly, deleted the posts, and tried to make the page more relevant and useful.

After 30 days — with not one inquiry or call from a CEO or anybody else — I cancelled the service. And got them to refund my $199.

What is the RIGHT way to attract clients? The right person to ask is Ted Leonhardt.

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Photo of Ted by Mike Folden

A former big-agency head based in Seattle, Ted is a top consultant to creatives. He helps people learn good negotiating skills so they can make more money. I mean, a lot more money. In Ted’s world, designers get $195-an-hour gigs and projects for which the client readily agrees to a $150,000 fee.

He tells all in a sweet little book, Nail It! Stories for Designers on Negotiating with Confidence. It’s a book that’s relevant to anyone who needs to negotiate to get their fair share of money and respect. Not just print and web designers, but anyone looking for a full-time job or part-time gig. Topics include real-life stories that illustrate strategies for negotiating job offers, salaries, contracts, and raises. Ted writes: “Don’t be intimidated by negotiation. Nail It shows you how to stand your ground and ask for what you’re worth!”

Ted and I recently enjoyed several Zoom calls, and I’d like to share his point of view with you:

Q: Ted, everyone wants to find clients now. If the good clients aren’t looking at Facebook ads or posting their requirements on online contests, where are they to be found?

A: Good clients do post their requirements on online contests. A freelance designer client of mine uses one of those sites himself. He posts the requirements of an assignment he’s working on, uses the results to broaden his own view of possible solutions, and shares the results, along with his own solution, with the client.

Ah, but that’s a different use. A smart one. What is your definition of a good client?

Good clients are a pleasure to know and work with. Good clients have assignments you love to be a part of and contribute to. And they have the money you need, both for income and for respect, so you know that you’re valued.

How can we find clients like that?

The best clients will find you. Good clients search for designers who have a reputation for doing the kind of work that they want and need. To be found by good clients, your community must be aware of your reputation.

In my experience, the designers and small firms that don’t have enough work simply have not done a good job of getting the word out. I’ve encountered this situation many times. The firm, or freelancer, is kept busy for an extended period by a couple of clients, often for a few years or more. Then for one reason or another, the work dries up. While they were busy, they were too busy to do any self-promotion, so their community is simply unaware of them.

In the short term, the solution is to reach out to the opportunities that are most likely to provide work: clients in the same category as your past clients, individuals you’ve met through your work who already appreciate your expertise, clients you meet through professional and industry associations, and so on.

In the long term, you need to create a continuous chain of outbound messages that lets your community know how your expertise helps people and businesses succeed.

Most creatives aren’t natural self-promoters, and that can make this task seem difficult. But I’ve found that if you think of self-promotion as your next creative project — a challenging problem to solve and one that’s every bit as interesting as any client assignment — the effort can be fun. And of course, the results — a few inbound calls — can be very motivating.

You are a major advocate of storytelling. How does that work in the context of self-promotion?

Here’s the formula: You do great work for your clients. From doing the work you gain insights and examples. Then you create stories about how the insights you gained from doing the work helped your clients achieve success. Post the stories in places where your community will see them. The stories can be rendered in any form that’s digital: videos, images, cartoons, narratives, or whatever tells the tale. They just have to display in a compelling manner how your expertise helps others.

The result of this effort will be what I call ‘inbound opportunities’ —phone calls, emails, texts — from prospects that are somewhat qualified because they are responding to your messaging. This forms a virtuous cycle in which your work and messaging lead to opportunities for more work.

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Once a prospect contacts you, what’s the next step?

Your priority is to differentiate yourself from your competitors. But first, spend some time qualifying the prospect and the assignment. You need to see if there’s a good fit. Do this in person, via Zoom or Google Hangout. By phone, if you have no other choice, but never through email.

Why not through email?

Because, to win the gig, they must like you. You must develop a personal relationship with them to win their trust. That’s the hook, and that won’t begin to happen it they can’t see your face or at least hear your voice.

When you speak in person, ask:

  1. “I’d like to ask you a few questions to see if there is a fit. Is that all right with you?”
  2. “First, how did you hear about me? What was it that prompted you to call?”

You want to know if someone referred you or if they are responding to your outbound messaging.

Referrals can be extremely powerful. If the referral was to you only, that is very differentiating. Asking reminds the prospect of that.

If they included you in their search because of something they saw or read, your questioning needs to uncover what it was, precisely, that got their attention, because that, too, is differentiating.

3. Ask: “Tell me as much as you can about the assignment.”

You need to know what their expectations are for the project. Asking questions helps them see your experience and expertise in action. Questions also show your genuine interest, and as a result are very flattering. Questions honor their knowledge and expertise.

4. Ask: “What do you expect to spend on the project? What is your schedule? and “What do you need us to deliver?”

The answers will give you new insights on their expectations that will further the conversation. Or it may be that they are not qualified and you will choose not to pursue the relationship further.

Now they’re hooked. But we’ve gotten to the tough part. Clients almost always refuse to state a number. How can you get them to reveal their budget?

There is nothing more effective than telling them what a project will cost to get them to reveal their budget! If their answer seems unreasonable, ask:

5. “How did you arrive at that number?”

Remember, if the opportunity is a good one, before you even get to the budget, you need to inspire them. That is the most important step. Inspiration. That is where your creative skills will be most effective. From your questioning and the ensuing conversation, you’ll sense who they are. You’ll feel what they are feeling. You’ll intuit how they would like to see their future, and the future that the project you create for them will help bring that future to life.

You can demonstrate all this when you describe the opportunity in a way that dramatizes the results they are seeking; when you explain what you can add to the effort that will make their project a success. Start your inspirational remarks with, “In my experience…” and keep it short.

You need them to know that you and only you will approach this project in your unique way and get the results they need. Inspiration is how you show them your passion and win.

Then you can talk budget, schedule and deliverables.

And then, if necessary, you can successfully negotiate to get the time and the money you need to do the job right. Right?


However, when designers ask about the budget, clients often say, “We don’t know. You tell us.” And then when you state a number you think is reasonable, they say that it’s way too much. Or, they might agree and then ask for a proposal. When they get the proposal, there are no more ‘inbound calls’ from them. I often suspect that they agreed to the number just to get the proposal and now they’ll take every idea you proposed and use it — or find someone else to do it for less. Sometimes they get proposals from several designers and cherry-pick everyone’s ideas.

That’s why I advise qualifying the prospect! And I always advise summarizing in person before giving them anything in writing. Summarizing costs, schedule, and deliverables extends the conversation and gets an immediate response, allowing you to adjust as required or decline the assignment long before writing a proposal — saving you a lot of time and effort. If they push back on your summary, ask a few more questions, clarify, refine your approach, and summarize again until you both agree on what’s to be accomplished.

Let’s say they do state a number. How can you get them to understand that the $300 they had budgeted is not enough, and that they need to spend more?

Ask again:

6: “Can you explain how you arrived at the $300 budget?

Maybe it’s an appropriate figure and you could actually do something good for $300. Or maybe not. In any case, you want to know if $300 is all there is before, not after, you put in more effort.

What scope of project is worth $300 to both the designer and the client? I’m figuring two to four hours. Doesn’t a number that low start the relationship on the wrong foot?

My Photoshop tech routinely helps me make a photo glorious and prints it out large for $300. We have a great relationship. As a matter of fact, I’m heading out to his office this afternoon to have him add his touch to some giant wall prints. His fees for a couple of hours will be in the low hundreds.

When it comes to the larger projects that design firm principals need, are there general price guidelines that can be used as a reference?

The Graphic Artists Guild Pricing & Ethical Guidelines is the best source. I’ve used it for many years. Also, just Google, “What should I pay for…” Or ask anyone you know in the industry.

Seriously? I just googled, ‘What should I pay for a logo design?’ Site #1 said, “One should expect a simple logo design to cost approximately $200… a logo design with intricate patterns and fonts will cost twice as much as a simple design. Expect to pay around $400 for a design of this type.” Another site advises owners of startups to do it themselves by picking a nice font and a color. A third site has a chart with $200 at the low end and $1,000,000 for ‘world-famous designer.’

Yep, it’s all over the board. And yes, you can pick a color and a font all on your own. And if you have good taste you might do all right. It’s all a matter of context. If the client wants to design it themselves or pick an off-the-web solution, that’s okay. Because if they can’t see the difference between your work and the off-the-web design, they will never need you. Move on.

Back to the original dilemma, do you think there’s value to having a business Facebook profile, and that clients might be looking for designers on Facebook?

Yes, yes and yes! Just design your own page! FB, LinkedIn, Google+, Skype and Twitter are all excellent for getting the word out. I’m a fan and frequent user of all, and get a great response in return. Thanks to them, and to Amazon, Kindle, Apple and iTunes, I have connections all over the world and clients in South America, Europe, and all over the USA. And so do many of my consulting clients.

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Thank you, Ted. Let’s hope readers follow your advice, and that it works for them. Readers, let me know! I really want to get responses to this story, and I’ll keep talking to experts in order to offer more advice Medium readers can use.

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My career is designing and writing about design. Here, I can write about lots of things. My short fiction attempts to capture and evoke past moments in time.

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