Negotiating fees

  • Negotiation (film still) by Svein Moxvold (Sculpture, 2008)

You set the price for your work, but some clients may wish to negotiate with you. Some may even demand work for free. It is important to learn negotiating skills to ensure you get the best deal, neither losing your client nor losing out on money. To be a successful negotiator, you have to believe in yourself, carefully calculate costs and ensure records are kept. Max Comfort, one of the UK's first holistic business consultants, gives his advice on this crucial part of your professional life.

Your call

When you negotiate, make sure you are in control of the situation. The client will expect to beat your price down, so make your initial quote higher than the figure you want from the job. Do not be pressurised into charging less than you are comfortable with. If the client wants a special deal and you are prepared to agree, then make it clear it is just that: a special deal, never to be repeated. Remember, it is very hard to put your prices up!

Be specific about the task

It is really important to be clear about exactly what it is you are going to be doing for them. It is so easy for people to say, ‘Oh, by the way, since you are here, do you think you could just have a look at…?’ Be very charming and say you would be delighted to look at that ‘little’ extra, but be clear that you will have to charge extra for it. This protects the boundaries around your money and your time.

Get it in writing

One of the easiest ways to ensure the boundaries of the job are well maintained is to get your agreement in writing. You would be surprised how much is taken on trust, which is fine while everything goes well. But if things go wrong, then not having a record of what was agreed can be a real pain – and sometimes very expensive. Put the deal you have agreed in writing, ideally the same day, while it is fresh in your mind. Ask your client to confirm their agreement to it in writing. Do not feel reluctant to do this, even if you feel it is a bit aggressive and worry that the client will be put off. Believe me, you will come across as assertive rather than aggressive. As a professional, you need to be reliably firm, clear about the client’s needs and how you are going to answer them, and also clear about your own boundaries.

Writing the quote

Avoid giving a quote at the first meeting. You could get stuck with a figure which, on reflection, is too low or too high, resulting in the client going elsewhere. Instead, offer to work out a detailed quote and email it over the next day. However, you can give an indication of how you charge by citing an example of another job, what you did for that client, the general complexity and scope of it and – very roughly – what the whole thing cost. Do not give names of other clients or they will be on the phone the moment you part!

It is also a good idea to break down quotes into digestible chunks. If you present the client with a quote which says, ‘Develop design for new range of kitchen utensils: £26,000’, they could be forgiven for thinking that it is rather high. By breaking it down, you achieve a number of things:

  • the quote is more digestible
  • you can demonstrate how much you will be doing for the fee and how thorough you will be
  • you can illustrate the complexity and scope of the task – this often comes as a bit of a surprise to clients, who often have no idea what is involved, how long things take, what legislation there is to complicate the process or what technical checks and balances have to be gone through
  • you will establish clearly and in detail what you will be doing for the client and – very important, this – what you will not be doing for them

In producing a quote, it stands to reason that you need to cover all the aspects of the job: time, materials, travel and other expenses. Visualise yourself doing the job, day by day, little by little, and all sorts of costs will emerge to be included.

Accompany your fee proposal with an agreed job specification. Make it very clear in your quote that any deviation from the agreed specification or any additional work or major changes are not included and will be charged for separately on a pro rata basis. You might need to specify what ‘major changes’ would look like.

When you have got the client’s agreement to the initial quote, ask them to sign it off and confirm agreement to it in writing. Many companies will give you a purchase order (a legal contract). If they do not, get them to sign a copy of your fee proposal to confirm their agreement to it.

Most people will respect you more if your paperwork looks professional. They may be more prepared to pay you a respectable fee.


If you are ever in a situation where someone wants a piece of your work for free, consider carefully the advantages as well as the obvious disadvantages. There are times when it will be of long-term benefit to have your work in a prominent collection. This person could be incredibly well-connected. They may be persuaded to appear at your next show, with potential clients in tow. They may review your work in the media.

Make sure that if you give work away, you have an agreement to use it in any shows you may have in the future – in writing, of course.