How to tactfully answer awkward client questions

Published by Nela Dunato on in Business, Mindset

You’re talking to a potential client and everything seems wonderful. They love your work and are excited about the prospect of working with you, and you’re feeling confident and really enjoying the conversation.

But then they ask a question that stops you in your tracks. You get flustered. Your confidence drops. You’re no longer so sure that this project is in the bag. What if you say the wrong thing? Do you have to say “yes” to their request in order to get the job?

How to tactfully answer awkward client questions

I’ve been there, and I consider it a rite of passage for freelancers. The first time you get a challenging question will always feel uncomfortable, and you’ll probably say something you’ll regret later. But that interaction is a valuable lesson, and the trick is to get prepared for the next time someone asks you the same question—because there will definitely be a next time.

When people are taken by surprise (like in phone or in-person conversations) and don’t have a chance to think through what a fair response would be, we tend to give in to the other person’s request. It happened to me so many times! But each experience gives us a chance to prepare for future interactions.

Ideally, you would have your own authentic answers to all these questions that stem from your individual approach and how you naturally talk. Still, I’m happy to share some notes that you can use as a starting point, and improve your responses every time you need to say them out loud.

Why does your service cost so much?

Maybe they don’t state it in this exact way, but they make a comment that effectively says “I’m not sure that this is worth so much money”.

There’s a trap here to start defending your prices, and I would advise not to do that. There’s a number of ways to say “my price is what it is”, and let them figure out if they want to pay it or not.

My fees are on the higher side, but they’re not even the highest among my colleagues. If budget is an issue, it would probably be best if you researched some more. Perhaps some other [designer/copywriter/etc.] might be a better fit for your project.

There’s a few things happening in this, so let’s break it down:

  1. I acknowledge that the fee may be higher than they expected, even if it’s not at the top of the market, because they have a different frame of reference than I do.
  2. I show that I have their best interests in mind by urging them to look for more options. No hard sell here!
  3. I’m washing my hands of finding a solution for their budget issue. Their budget is not my problem to fix.

When a client states that your price is the cause of their budget issue, they might be (consciously or unconsciously) expecting you to propose an alternative that would make the issue go away, but that’s not your job.

If you have a special consideration for this client, you are welcome to offer a payment plan that would better fit their cash flow. However, you need to steel yourself against solving the issue reflexively.

Sometimes the budget is not really a problem, they would just prefer to spend that money on something else! Like when someone once told me they’re on a tight budget, I had given them a discount, and then they went on an exotic vacation. (Meanwhile I was not able to afford any kind of vacation, let alone exotic.) I solved their problem, but at whose expense?

Speaking of discounts, that may be something people ask for.

Can you give me a discount?

Usually the reason quoted for why the client deserves a discount is that they’re “just starting out”, and they will surely come back with more work later. I have a bulletproof response to that:

I don’t give discounts on our first project. I don’t know yet how working with you will go, and if I will even want to do another project for you.

If our first project is successful and we both want to keep working together, I occasionally offer a special deal to reward loyal clients.

So far whenever I said this, the client understood and accepted my regular rate.

But [another freelancer] charges less?

Great, maybe you should work with them.

Other people’s fees are not your concern. I’m glad that there are so many freelancers out there offering logo design services at wildly different prices, so clients can find a good match at any price point.

Can you do this project for free?

There are legitimate situations when pro bono work is acceptable, like volunteering for a nonprofit organization or a cause you support (where everyone else is volunteering as well).

Nonprofits that get funding or charge fees for their services should secure a budget for creative work. For-profit businesses and small “side hustles” definitely need a budget for any outsourced work.

If someone asks you to work for free and you don’t want to, it’s OK to just say no! But if you’re looking for a polite way to say it, here’s a script I offered in my article Real friends pay full price:

Unfortunately, I can’t give a discount for my services at this time without it seriously impacting my finances. I need to charge at least $X for a project like this in order to keep up with all of my expenses.

Let me know if you’d still like me to work on your project.

If they say they’re just starting out and don’t have a budget, here’s a way to counter that:

I understand, and I probably wouldn’t be spending money on this if I were you, either. My services are geared towards experienced business owners for whom it makes sense to invest in this service.

Yes, it doesn’t make sense for them to spend that money, and still that doesn’t mean you should work for free. Remember, their lack of budget is not your problem to solve.

If there’s an affordable alternative that you can recommend, doing that can make your message more helpful. For example, instead of custom design or illustration, I can recommend them to buy stock graphics.

But we can offer you lots of publicity!

If you’re quite experienced and already get plenty of publicity through content marketing or public speaking, this is a good retort:

At this stage of my career I’m getting enough publicity as is. I’d prefer to get paid.

If you can’t or don’t want to refer to existing publicity, here’s another one:

Typically when I work on a project, I get both publicity and money. I don’t need to work for free to get my name out.

Will you accept a barter?

If a business is offering to pay in kind, the most important question to consider is: would you willingly spend that much money on those products or services? If you would not, then bartering does not make sense. You thus have two options:

1. Partial bartering

My budget allows me to spend up to $X on your services, so I can only trade that amount. I need the rest of the payment in [currency]. Would that work for you?

2. No bartering

I’m afraid I can’t accept an in kind payment, because I [don’t need/didn’t budget for] this service at this time. I can only accept payment in [currency].

By accepting a barter, you’re accepting to spend the money you would otherwise be able to spend on other things. Do not feel pressured to pay for something you don’t want.

Can we use this idea I sketched?

The bane of almost every designer, illustrator, architect, or fashion designer is to get a doodle on a post-it with the client’s creative idea.

I appreciate that you’ve given this a lot of thought and have some ideas of your own. I have a methodical and effective design process that I always take my clients through, so we’re going to do that anyway, and see what we get from it. In my experience, we usually discover something surprising that neither of us have envisioned in the beginning! I’d like us both to stay open to an idea that may prove to be even more effective.

I’ve never gotten any push-back with this approach. It’s polite and considerate, and still reminds them that I am a professional they hired to do the creative for them. I don’t take orders—I have my own process that works.

In order for that to work however, you need to have a clear design process. I wrote an article that explains how to do that.

A variant of this question for logo designers can sound like:

Can you just make a vector out of this image I drew?

You could try the response above in this situation as well, but you can also add this (or say this if the client pushes back):

If you’re so committed to this idea that you don’t want to consider other potential solutions, I totally understand, but in that case I can’t accept this project.

I recommend that you find a design student who knows how to work in vector software and might be willing to take on a project like this. Or perhaps you can try one of the freelancing marketplaces (UpWork, Fiverr or similar).

I normally never recommend Fiverr for original logo design work, but in a situation where the client gives precise direction and there’s little room for the freelancers to mess up, that may be the most logical place to look.

Will you [work in our office/propose multiple solutions/work with different software…]?

If a client asks you to change your process in any way you don’t want to, the simplest answer is:

I can’t, that’s not how I work.

If they push with reasons why you should, just repeat:

I understand that’s your preference, but that’s not how I work.

I don’t apologize for how I work, so I don’t include any apology statements in my scripts, as you may have noticed. I’m not doing anything wrong, I haven’t made a mistake, so there’s nothing to apologize for. It’s just a statement of fact. I express empathy for their needs and desires by saying “I understand”, “I get it”, etc.

Can you make this change to the concept?

If the client gives feedback to my design concept that I think would make things worse, I would say:

I understand that you’d like the logo to be more [adjective]. I don’t agree that the changes you suggested would achieve that. That wouldn’t look professional. But I will figure out another way to make the logo more [adjective].

Here the key is to use the word “professional” instead of “ugly”, “tacky”, or another word that might call them out as having poor taste. They can’t argue with “professional”, since that’s something we literally do for a living and can judge better than any layperson.

What if I don’t like your work?

I wrote an entire article to address the often unspoken question: what if I don’t like your design?

Some clients may consider it “unfair” that you ask for advance payment, or don’t offer a money-back guarantee for your creative services. They risk their money if the project doesn’t turn out to their liking. It’s the nature of creative services that we can’t guarantee someone will like what we create, but if we’re good at what we do, the chances of failing are small.

This is the language I use to explain why I’m asking payment for something they can’t see:

My specialized skill is creating something that doesn’t exist, and that’s the real value of my service. If you could see it, then you could be doing it yourself, and my work wouldn’t be worth much.

Not everyone can do what we do—that’s the whole point! So own this wild nature of creative work fully, and project a sense of confidence and trust.

I’ve had a 99% success rate over my entire career, and a 100% success rate ever since I implemented my current logo & brand identity design process. If my clients show any sign of worry, I tell them about my previous success rate, and tell them to look over my portfolio again.

If you like what you see in my portfolio, you will surely like what I create for you as well.

If you can point to a successful track record, the client will likely calm down. You can also turn the anxiety into excitement by pointing out your own excitement about the process!

I love doing this work because the results are always surprising. I’ll do my best to make your experience fun and enjoyable.

I wrote about this topic in more detail in the article How do I know what I’m buying? – Logo design & spec work.

We need you to sign a non disclosure agreement.

If you don’t mind signing them that’s fine, but I no longer work on projects that require me to sign an NDA after that one debacle. My response to this is:

I work with many business owners who share proprietary information about their business with me, and we find that the confidentiality clause in my own agreement provides sufficient protection.

I generally do not sign non-disclosure agreements unless we’re talking about patents, blueprints, chemical formulas, and other very concrete information that warrants an increased level of protection.

Once a business owner wanted me to sign an NDA before they even shared their idea with me, and this is how I responded:

While your idea may be unique, I talk to lots of entrepreneurs so it’s quite possible someone else has shared a similar idea with me before, and I might hear about a similar idea later on. Signing off my rights to ever talk about other similar, yet unrelated projects would not work for me.

What my own confidentiality clauses guarantee is that I won’t share any information I hear from you personally (or your business associates) unless this information has been already published elsewhere. Let me know if this works for you.

Most business owners vastly overestimate the need for confidentiality, and the originality of their own ideas.

Do we really need a signed agreement? Don’t you trust me?

If a person you’ve never met before asks this question, it’s a serious red flag and I’d consider just dropping the project then and there.

If you’re asked this question by someone you know socially (an acquaintance or a relative), it’s understandable that they’re a bit taken aback because they assume there’s a degree of trust between you. But agreements are not about trust—they’re about clarity. So that’s the angle I’d use to explain why it’s necessary:

If I didn’t trust you, I wouldn’t even work with you, so that’s not at all what this is about. The agreement is here to protect both you and me, and to clarify who is responsible for which part of the project, and what we should do if anything unforeseen happens. That way, you have a chance to decide if you’re OK with all of this before we start working together.

Can you edit/update this work another professional created?

Assuming they’re asking about work they contracted (and not stolen from the internet), you may not want to work on “inherited” projects. It’s usually far less fun than creating something new. In more technical fields, the project may actually be a mess and it will be more difficult than creating something from scratch! (Every time I worked on another developer’s code, I regretted it.)

Whatever your reason for not wanting to do this, you probably want to say “no” in a way that will preserve the relationship, or open up the possibility to work together in the future.

Unfortunately I can’t help you with this project, since I don’t maintain or update other people’s work.
But if you decide to [redo this project from scratch/start a new project] in the future, I’d be very interested in collaborating.

Can we do this thing thatʼs beyond the project scope?

Usually the client won’t even ask if it’s OK to do it, they will just ask you to do it, as if it’s no big deal. This is well known in creative circles as “scope creep”.

If the client is asking for yet another revision after they’ve used up all the allotted revisions, remind them of it.

We’ve already used up all X revision rounds on this project. At this point, we need to make a decision. But if you insist on another round, I need to charge an extra fee.

If the client wants to tack on another service that wasn’t agreed upon beforehand, and you don’t have the kind of relationship where they expect you to ring them up for everything at the end, you need to warn them that it’s going to cost extra.

Since [new service] was not a part of our original project agreement, I’d need to charge $X in addition to the fee we agreed on. Let me know if that’s OK, and I’ll get started on it.

The most important “trick” to get these statements to work

When you say your response, shut up and wait for them to speak.

Don’t continue explaining yourself. That will only water down your statement and undermine your confidence. Silence is powerful. Let your message resonate, and give the client a moment to think about it.

It doesn’t really matter whether they accept your terms or not. The most important thing is that you maintain healthy boundaries and don’t get pressured into doing things against your best interests. Even if they refuse to work with you, you have succeeded because you stood up for yourself.

Walking away from a project because of one condition you don’t like may seem extreme, but it is actually very wise:

  1. This is the one red flag that you see, and you can’t be sure that more red flags won’t pop up later.
  2. Some projects are way more trouble than they’re worth. Sticking with them can actually cause long-term damage to your business.
  3. If you always cave in at the first push, you’ll never learn how to speak confidently. By enforcing healthy boundaries, you’re changing your own frame of reference for what is normal.

9 years ago when I left my last job, I was a total pushover.

I couldn’t get enough courage to write an honest email, let alone talk through difficult issues over the phone or in person. But through all of the challenging experiences I had over the years (any many, many moments of hitting myself on the forehead thinking “I should have said this, not that!”), I changed.

Last year a government agency sent me their agreement. I got a highlighter and crossed out every clause that placed an unfair burden on me as a contractor, and then I phoned the lawyer who drafted it and suggested several changes to make it fairer. I talked to a lawyer employed by the government on the phone and got them to change the terms of the contract like it was no big deal. When I hung up, I was like: who is this person? How am I doing this?

Even 3 or 4 years ago I would’ve felt entirely out of my depth with an important client who has a lawyer on their payroll. I would’ve felt like I was too small to stand up for myself. But somehow that insecure creative girl grew into a savvy business woman that takes no BS from anyone. I know it sounds cheesy to say “If I can do this, then anyone can”, but confidence is totally a quality you can increase by practicing standing up for yourself in small ways, and then in bigger ways.

And it’s much easier when you know what you should say, and have a chance to practice saying it before the opportunity arises.

I hope these scripts are helpful to you, and that you’ll breeze through any uncomfortable client conversations in the future.

Nela
Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

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