The No-Nonsense Guide To Getting Paid For Your Expertise

The No-Nonsense Guide To Getting Paid For Your Expertise - Brass Tack ThinkingI get at least a half-dozen emails a week from fellow consultants and freelance professionals wanting help charging appropriately for their services. When I do office hours, it’s by far the most common topic of discussion.

They’re dismayed that they aren’t getting paid for their time, or that they feel like they’re spending too many hours giving away free advice and not nearly enough time actually providing the paid expertise that they built their business around.

I’ve responded with varying forms of the following advice so many times that I thought it was time to put it in a post.

It’s not for the faint of heart. Tough love up in here, but it’s honest and comes from me really and truly wanting you to be better at this. Because when we all improve how we position ourselves as consultants and professional service providers, it’s better for everyone.

I’m only qualified to tell you any of this because a) I own a services firm and b) I make money doing it. You’ll have to take from it what you will, and while your mileage will almost certainly vary, my caveat is simply that this is what works for me and many of the professionals that have given me advice and guidance over the years.

Cool? Cool. So here goes.

1. Get better at qualifying your prospects.

You must. Ask. Questions.

Lots of them.

Especially at first. No one is born knowing how to qualify a prospective client for their business. You learn it by asking lots of questions, then keeping track of what you wish you’d known ahead of time during the course of each project or engagement.

This can be anything from a few questions via email to a 30 minute phone call or coffee if you’re up for it. But you need to do something important.

Take these meetings with the express understanding from the prospect that you need to know a bit more about them before you can give them a whole lot more input. The outcome of the meeting needs to be about information gathering and discovery for you, not a session for them to pick your brain.

Make sure those roles are understood. There are plenty of ways to do that politely, and a savvy client will thank you for doing it so that they’re sure you’re a good match for each other.

2. Learn to package offerings.

Think beyond hourly rates.

What are people charging for webinars? Conference passes (and thereby individual sessions)? Look at offerings outside your industry and vertical to understand how people are packaging and selling what they do.

Offerings should be as concrete as you can make them, as straightforward price-wise as you can manage, and very clear on the deliverables.

There are such things as long-term, open-ended consultative engagements that are on retainer. Those are not usually where your clients will start with you, since those kind of relationships are very much dependent upon trust and proven outcomes before they’re a comfortable arrangement for either side.

Can’t get that clear around a project at the start? Propose a finite consultative agreement for 60-120 days, the sole purpose of which is to provide some on-the-ground guidance and help define a future project that can be more accurately scoped.

3. The market will decide whether you’re pricing in the ballpark. Listen to it.

Do your research.

Then price something and attempt to sell it. To your existing clients, to your new clients, it doesn’t matter. But the one and only test for whether something is priced right is whether it sells.

Pricing strategy is the most difficult thing in business.

If people don’t buy, either the offering isn’t right or the price isn’t right or both.

Ask for input. Keep track of it. Watch what people say, and pay even closer attention to what they do. Are they cool with spending a few hundred for an assessment of their situation but scared of some big, open-ended agreement with lots of dollar signs? Then your pricing needs to be somewhere in between, with offerings that are scoped to match.

If, after a while, people aren’t buying what you’re offering, it’s not them or their unwillingness to pay or their disrespect of what you’re “worth”.

It’s you.

4. Quit doing work for free.

This is your responsibility. If you don’t want to work for free, stop doing it.

Tough love: 90% of the people that are writing me concerned about how to get paid what their time is worth are making one fundamental mistake. They keep taking work that provides “exposure” or “opportunity” thinking that next time it will be different. Or they get so desperate to get any business that the bar for what constitutes a business development opportunity slips endlessly until anyone with a pulse seems like a viable prospect.

You are the only person that can stop this pattern.

If you think your time is valuable, you must determine how to evaluate opportunities and when you will move the discussion to money.

See #3 for how that strategy will course-correct if you pay attention and respond to the patterns that you see.

But if you want to get paid for your expertise, you must be very clear that that’s the business you’re in, and build accordingly.

5. Learn how to respond to requests for your time.

Practice these.

“That’s absolutely a challenging problem, and I work with several clients on just that sort of thing. I’d be happy to send you a quick overview of what I have in mind to help you, and the costs.”

“I’d be delighted to meet with you on a one-time basis. I have a half-day, single shot offering for just occasions like this. I’ll come in, do an education session for your team on a topic we choose together, and then we can do open Q&A for the remainder of the time. That’s a flat fee of $XXX. Is that something that could work for you?”

“I certainly have some input about how you could approach that problem. Here’s a couple of blog posts/ebooks/whatever I’ve written that tackle that topic. If you’re interested in some more specialized guidance where we can get into more depth about your particular situation, I’d be happy to talk about setting up a learning session. They’re usually about $XXX and there’s no commitment to work together, it’s just a chance for us to brainstorm on the spot about things that could help you.”

Get the idea?

Stop being afraid to state unequivocally in the conversation that your time is something you earn money from. It’s a perfectly valid business model that people have been using forever and ever.

If you’re surprising someone with the idea that your knowledge is your product, are they really the kind of educated client that you think you can establish a respectful and mutual partnership with for the long term?

6. Deliver a valuable product or service. But know what “value” means.

Value in a knowledge market is determined by having expertise and experience that will help someone improve their life or work more effectively than they would be able to do on their own.

Sometimes it’s about speed of execution. Sometimes it’s about making better decisions with more comprehensive knowledge. Sometimes it’s about sheer depth of expertise and specialization in an area or on a project that would make hiring a full-time staffer prohibitive for someone.

And you know who tells you what’s valuable? Your prospects and customers. No one else. You can think and say you’re “adding value” all day long but if your clients don’t perceive it that way, your fees are always going to be too much no matter what they are.

You don’t get to say what’s “value added” until your clients are willing pay for it and they’re glad to do it. It’s that simple.

The super secret bonus answer: if you care — really and truly — about delivering something of worth to someone else, you’ll find your way. Giving a shit about the success of your clients is still the ultimate differentiator.

Now Let’s Hug It Out

Here’s the thing.

You didn’t become a knowledge worker for no reason. There is nearly an endless market for expertise that people have. The limitation is what people are willing to pay to have that knowledge for themselves. But there is value in knowing things, inherently.

Truth is that I think you know what you need to do. The gap is always between knowing it and doing it.

Yes, you’re going to screw it up. Sometimes you’re going to give away too much and eat your shirt. Other times you’re going to hold back and miss an opportunity because you were too protective of your time. You’ll get walked over. You’ll get alienated by someone who can’t believe you had the audacity to quote them a price. It happens to all of us.

This is more art than science, but the beauty is that none of it is permanent. You test, you adjust, you test again. You change things up. And you find what works for you.

But you have to do it. No one is going to do this for you.

We never said that being in the knowledge business would be easy. If you want it to be worth it, you have to make it worth it.

Now then. Go forth and conquer. We’ll be waiting.

  • Jan Minihane

    Love this, well said (as ever) – I was guilty for too long of undervaluing what I did or doing freebies. No more, I have a business model that works.

    I don’t want worldwide domination or to be a millionaire, that isn’t what drives me, just for clients that value what I do and are willing to pay for my time :-) As a result, I love my clients, I’m atrracting the ‘right’ kind of people/businesses which means I get to enjoy what i do even more!

    • Amber Naslund

      Attracting the “right” people to your business is everything. Do THAT, deliver a great service, and the rest falls into place. Best wishes!

  • clarestweets

    Excellent summary of a complex subject. I especially “value” #6 and the comment that you can say you are “adding value” all day long but if clients don’t perceive it that way. It’s over. Thanks Amber.

    • Amber Naslund

      Thanks, Clare. We get really myopic as consultants, assuming our idea of “value” is the same as our clients. And I find that people get it wrong more often than not. Thanks for commenting!

  • Patrick Healy

    I feel like you wrote this specifically for me. Thank you. It’s a problem I’ve been dealing with – and getting better at – for some time now. I have far too many friends in this business that can’t get out of this rut.

    • Amber Naslund

      It’s the age old mistake. “I can be a consultant, I’ll just charge for my time. It’s easy.”

      Professional services is, bar none, one of THE hardest businesses to do WELL. Anyone can sell an hour to someone, anyone can give it away. Building a sustainable, scalable business with services in a way that’s positive for the proprietor AND really a worthwhile investment and partnership for the client?

      Now that’s something.

      • Patrick Healy

        And that’s where the fear comes in. Are you charging too early before the trust is built? 9 times out of 10 once you bring up money they are gone. Chances are, they were never going to pay you…’s a hard discipline to learn.

        • Amber Naslund

          This is a very simple truth that we struggle to accept. The people that are averse to spending money once will NEVER warm to that idea. The client that wants truly good guidance for free is NOT the client that will pay a substantial invoice and invest in a partnership down the road.

          I have never met a true exception to this rule. If someone has only been able to invest in non-capital ways to start with, they’ve at least *acknowledged* that the value of what they’re receiving is deserving of financial investment and articulated a desire or, better yet, a plan to make that happen in the future.

          The rest is wishful thinking on the part of those of us that want to see “opportunity” in every curiosity.

          • Patrick Healy

            Spot on my dear, spot on! I often tell people that “Free is never Free” and you get what you pay for. I could do my own taxes, yes, and probably do a pretty good job of it. OR I can pay my accountant a few hundred bucks and spend 15 minutes on the process enabling me to earn a heck of a lot more with that time. Some never see it and wind up spending their days doing things that are simply a waste of their time.

        • Lori

          I work full-time for a software company but have a website up for some side work. To avoid a conflict of interest, I focus on non-profits. I advertise lower rates (I know the industry in my city fairly well) but I also explicity state that I’m not able to volunteer my time.

  • Dan Gershenson

    A mentor of mine had a wonderful thing he said to me: “Aspire to be the most expensive.” I had to stop and think about this. It had less to do about trying to turn people away and more with valuing myself, my knowledge, my time. It has been intensely clarifying for me ever since.

    • Amber Naslund

      I understand the sentiment even if I don’t totally agree with the way its said. I think we also have an overcorrection problem as consultants, as in everyone thinks that they’re high end, worth a ton of money, and that they provide extraordinary value.

      I’m sure that’s true in a lot of cases, but you don’t just magically create worth, of course. But how to be a consultant that’s WORTH a premium is an entirely different post. :)

  • Seth Goldstein

    Amber, as always great tips. I know it’s hard to get past these hurdles. I too suffer from some of these from time to time. But you’ll be better off.

    • Amber Naslund

      Oh I’m past them! Trust me on that. :) But I get asked a lot from other people how THEY should get past them, so this post is for them.

  • Kim

    Awesome information and advice. I just started my own business and have already wasted about 5 hours of my time by giving it away for free. Not that every single minute has to be billable, but I’d forgotten that my time is valuable as well. Thank you for the great advice.

    • Amber Naslund

      There are lots of very good reasons to give your time away for free. See this post:

      But the problem is not being able to draw the line between ok, that was a good time investment and now we need to move into something more concrete or decide that we’re not ready to work together. I find that’s the line in the sand that lots of professional services folks can’t seem to draw well.

  • mindofandre

    So. Much. Good. Stuff. Here – so very much needed Amber!! I’ve been embarking on this journey for almost a year now and have learned a ton. This is exactly what I needed to put some perspective on smashing 2013.

    • Amber Naslund

      Thanks, Andre. Hope 2013 is your best year yet.

  • MicroSourcing

    Great tips. A lot of freelancers do unpaid work, hoping it will translate to better prospects and actual money in the future. It rarely works that way. Unfortunately, there are clients who may take advantage of their free offer.

    • Amber Naslund

      Sometimes it does translate into better opportunities. Sometimes it doesn’t. You take the good with the bad in business, and that’s a calculated business development risk that EVERY freelancer or consultant must make (that’s why we track things like conversion rates, because 100% is what we aspire to but never achieve). The problem is that many of us are unwilling to apply the discipline and discernment it takes to draw a line in the sand between something that we KNOW isn’t a good investment but the thing we don’t know how to say no to. You have to be willing to sacrifice some opportunities and business to realize others, plain and simple.

  • Nicole Leedham

    This is all such good advice – I wish I read it before I ranted about freeloaders just yesterday :) Also, I think I might cut and paste your response for people who want to “pick my brain”!

    • Amber Naslund

      Freeloaders are everywhere. There is *always* someone who has ill intent and will take advantage of a situation given an opportunity. But the truth is that people treat us PRECISELY the way we allow them to, for better or worse. When we’re ranting about people picking our brains, what we’re really uncovering is our own inability to set boundaries and expectations. And that’s our own fault.

  • FAT Media

    “Quit doing work for free.” Yes. 1000 times yes. I don’t know how many times I’ve been approached with offers of potential money, exposure, and god knows what other BS buzzword people can think of. We work for cash, not potential.

  • Benjamin F. Barnett

    Great post. It’s important to add context of your value based on your experience when you are pitching. It’s also crucial to have references for your claims. It’s very important to do what you say you sell in a lot of cases, especially true when selling marketing and media strategy. Good to see this filed under Brass Tacks.

    • Amber Naslund

      Value is ALL context. Anything who says differently has a bridge to sell you, too.

  • thatbookkeeper

    Wow! Amber, that was a great post, and clearly one that I was meant to read today. I have been toiling over these problems for the past couple days, and suddenly this shows up. Thanks so much for the insight. Now I have some work to do.

    • Amber Naslund

      I’m glad it was helpful.

  • carrie dils

    This > “Giving a shit about the success of your clients is still the ultimate differentiator.”

    Thank you for this, Amber. I’ll be coming back to this to remind myself…

    • Amber Naslund

      I hope so! It really matters.

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  • Michelle

    Not only do I know all this, but I regularly preach this myself. Nonetheless, I need to hear it myself. Thank you.

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  • Jo-Lynne Shane

    You rock. This is an awesome post, and one I needed to read today.

  • Kelly Orchard

    Great advice! I’ve been a consultant for 13 years, and have had many successes and failures! It’s always great to read some great info. I saved this for future reference!

  • Jill P. Viers

    Great article. I think I get better at sifting through the opportunities and clients each time I work on something. Lately, I’ve gotten lucky. I could tell almost immediately from the rapport I had with clients that I would enjoy working on their projects, be paid accordingly, and establish a relationship for future benefits for both parties.

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