A reader asks…Dr. Freelance: Yesterday I had an extended (almost 2-hour) meeting with a potential new client. The good news is that they have a project for me, assuming the estimate is acceptable, and they said there would be more in the future. The bad news is that the project is small enough that I can’t possibly recoup the costs for my time, because it would basically double the estimate. I know you believe you should charge for meetings, but how do I do that in this circumstance? I don’t want to price myself out of a freelance job!—Time Is Money (i.e., you can call me “Tim”)
This is always a tough one, Tim, and it’s safe to say every freelancer will experience this situation at some point. You’re right to hesitate about simply doubling the client’s cost. So let’s discuss for a moment why your intuition is spot on—not just from a financial perspective, but a business one.
The Businesslike Way to Charge for Meetings
While you’re correct that it’s smart business practice to charge for meetings, a first conversation with a client can be a different animal. Whether in person or on the phone, it’s an investment in a relationship. If it’s brief, I’m more interested in the goodwill than the money. A longer call, as you’ve described, requires some deeper consideration:
- An initial meeting probably isn’t 100% about a specific project. Both parties are getting value. The prospect is informing you about their business, needs, challenges, etc. You’re answering questions, talking about your business, processes, etc. You’re likely playing the name game or chatting about hobbies and outside interests to build rapport.
- If you never sign a contract or do a project, you can’t bill for the time. This is reason #1 why you should be cautious about about solving someone’s problem too soon. Hint at your brilliance, but leave ’em wanting more.
- Whatever portion of the meeting is actually about project specifics is billable. In a circumstance like you’ve described, I might amortize the business portion of a long meeting over the first few projects, not just lump it into the first. This assumes, of course, that future projects materialize, which brings me to my next point…
There are two red flags in your situation:
- First, the promise of future work. This can be legitimate or it can be a ruse, and there’s no way to be certain. The more specific a prospect is about exactly what those projects are, the more comfortable I am accepting that it’s legit.
- Second, meeting duration. In sales, the longer you talk or otherwise connect with a client, the better. It’s an indicator of rapport. Still, you need to be wary of conversations that last a long time without a guaranteed outcome. Early on, you need be qualifying the prospect on items such as whether they even have the budget to afford you.
What About Future Meetings?
When you charge for meetings in the future with an active client, the math changes. Time for meetings—and travel time to get to them, when applicable—needs to be incorporated into your estimates. Once you’ve established a relationship, the fluff and chitchat should become a much smaller percentage of the conversation. (Should!)
But (and this is a big but) I personally do not break out meeting fees as a separate line item. In my experience, there’s no benefit to calling attention to that as a specific cost. Within the estimate and final invoice, I’ll build time into the project fee and list “meetings and communications” alongside research, writing, editing, revisions, etc., as the services performed.
If a client happened to be ultra meeting-happy and I wanted to curtail wasted time, I might consider noting a cost. Or, if I wanted to make it clear that there wasn’t a charge for a particular consultation, I’d list it on the invoice with an “N/C.” Otherwise, meeting time is something that I prefer to integrate as part of the creative process, not separate from it. As with all freelance business practices, there’s no single right answer…except for what works for you and your client.
Update 8-1-18: My friend Elizabeth d’Anjou made a comment on Twitter that’s also worth throwing into the strategic mix: “When working for government/large organizations, building it in as a line-item cost *in the quote* can help reduce the number of unnecessary meetings I’m required to attend.” Excellent point—thanks!
Good luck with the project, and I hope that there’s a stream of others ahead for you!—Dr. Freelance