As a working or aspiring freelance writer, it’s often hard to find traditional role models. When you’re your own CEO, there’s not necessarily anyone higher up the food chain to offer you advice.
Thankfully, that’s what blogs and books are for. But while many of the best sources for writing advice and inspiration are specifically created for writers, sometimes guidance pops up in unexpected places.
While powerhouse negotiator and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 bestseller, Lean In, is best known for its discussion of gender roles in the workplace, it’s also chock full of negotiating and business tips for writers. Here are three tips from her book that will help you negotiate with your clients.
1. Miscommunication is always a two-way street
As a freelancer, you get all the credit when you successfully communicate with a new client and a project falls into place.
But you’re also on the hook when it doesn’t work out so well.
In Lean In, Sandberg emphasizes that understanding this concept is essential to successful negotiating. If the client is confused, upset or unconvinced, there’s a good chance you can retrace your steps to a confusing phrase or unclear statement. (Of course, sometimes clients are just bad news and you should cut your losses.)
“I learned that effective communication starts with the understanding that there is my point of view (my truth), and someone else’s point of view (his truth)… When we realize and recognize that we can see things only from our own perspective, we can share our views in a nonthreatening way.”
When you’re a freelancer and you regularly take on new projects, it’s easy to assume you’re always on the same page as your clients. In reality, you need to spell out every detail.
For example, if you say you will edit to the customer’s satisfaction, what does that really mean? Does that mean back-to-back days of hour-long editing phone calls? If so, say it. If not, explain the details in black and white to make sure you’re as clear as possible.
2. To learn the right details, let your clients talk first
Sandberg emphasizes that in a traditional salary negotiation, letting the other side make the first offer is crucial to achieving favorable terms. But freelancers need to take another perspective: when you’re a freelancer, terms are not limited to your writing rates.
Terms establish the purpose of the project and the boundaries within which you’ll work your magic. They pin down heavy details like specific deliverables and deadlines, but also the finer details of the end goals of your work (e.g. improved SEO or a more polished Internet presence) and how you’ll get there (e.g. thorough keyword research or case studies from successful projects). They detail exactly what the client wants — and exactly what you’ll provide.
The popular anecdote of two children arguing over an orange does a good job of illustrating this concept. To be fair, the children decide to split the orange in half. One eats the orange fruit and throws away the peel, and the other zests the peel for a cake recipe and throws away the fruit.
When you begin to put together a project or negotiate an arrangement, you need to get a clear picture of what your client wants to accomplish: the orange peel or the orange meat. Sandberg argues that you need to ask questions about their goals and targets, and look beyond your listed “products and services” in this initial conversation. Only then can you figure out how to help them in the most effective way, and only then will you be able to clearly explain why you’re worth the rates you charge.
3. Negotiation is an opportunity, not an obstacle
Sandberg is unequivocal: freelancers (and employees) need to embrace negotiation as an opportunity rather than dreading it. The negotiation table is the only place in the world where you can build the perfect opportunity for yourself — sometimes based on an offer, and sometimes from scratch. She writes:
“There is no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around.”
Take this attitude into your next negotiation by focusing on the possibilities of the project and remembering your non-negotiable terms. Your deal-breakers won’t always be financial, and the client’s won’t always be deliverables. For example, writer Carol Tice doesn’t work on Saturday — not even for a rush assignment from Forbes.
Acknowledge the spots where your proposals don’t align, and use your mutual excitement about the project to find a solution that works for you and the client.
What’s your biggest struggle or least favorite part of negotiating with clients?