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Increase your rates and engage your clients: an interview with Brennan Dunn

Thomas CannonThomas Cannon

Hello Frecklers! Today we’ve got an interview with Brennan Dunn, and it’s all about how to make more money and build better relationships with your past, present, and future clients!


You might know Brennan from his blog and newsletter, as the writer of “Double Your Freelancing Rate” and “Sell Yourself Online: The Blueprint”, as one of the teachers behind the Consultancy Masterclass, or the founder of Planscope. However you know him, you know how important customer engagement and good pricing are to him.

As a bonus for being a Freckler, Brennan’s giving a 20% off discount for “Double Your Freelancing Rate”. Just use the coupon code: FRECKLE on checkout!

Since you’re busy using all the extra time Freckle helped you find, we’ll get right to the interview without any further introduction. πŸ˜‰

Why don’t freelancers charge more? Why are their “excuses” incorrect?

Most people set their rates based on entirely selfish reasons: they reverse-engineer their lifestyle needs or their former salary, and come up with an arbitrary hourly figure. And while just about every freelancer would like to make more money, most are reluctant to raise their rates. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Lack of justification: “I’m not worth $XXX.” Most freelancers are absolutely horrible at figuring out what net benefit we deliver to our clients. We think of ourselves as “designers”, or “coders”, or whatever you’re particularly good at. When you begin to realize and quantify how you can improve your clients business, it’s a lot easier to justify β€” internally and externally β€” a higher cost.
  2. Working is better than not working. The majority of freelancers aren’t in high-demand. So when a new lead shows up, they’d rather win the contract (at a lower rate) than risk being out of work. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tends to trump business goals.
  3. Commoditization. If you label yourself as a “freelance Ruby developer” it becomes a lot more difficult to justify why anyone should pay your rates over a $5 an hour “freelance Ruby developer” who happens to live in a country with a lower cost of living. And this fear of globalization and commodity pricing keeps many a freelancer charging significantly less than what they’re worth.

What was the most important thing that helped you charge more as a freelancer?

When I started thinking less about myself and more about my clients. I realized that no one actually wants a website or a web app, but instead wants to solve some underlying business problem (e.g., the client wants more customers, more profit, less costs, etc.) This allowed me to re-shift my entire strategy β€” how I sold, how I communicated, and how I helped determine the scope of a project β€” around solving that problem. By increasing the likelihood that I would, in fact, solve their business problem, the client was willing to pay me more than my competitors.

How much more money was in the bank after you made these changes?

When I started freelancing full-time, I was at around $80 an hour. Now, depending on the type and length of an engagement, my rate ranges between $200 and $500 an hour.

The magical thing about charging more is that the caliber of client goes up, along with the respect and authority they show you. When you’re working with more serious clients who understand that you’re serving them as an investment vessel instead of as a commoditized expense (“my web guy/gal…”), you’ll be happier and will be treated with the level of professionalism you deserve.

How did you keep customers engaged with your business after the project was finished?

I once worked with a realtor who had me build software that would automatically setup a followup schedule after closing a client. He knew that in real estate, relationships and repeat business were everything. And he also knew that most realtors dropped the ball and never cultivated their past clients after cashing their fat commission checks.

Wouldn’t you know, consulting is another business where relationships and repeat business matter… a lot. I started setting up followup schedules for each of my past clients. Every few months, I’d call them up and see how they were doing and how our project was working out for them. Were they making more money? Had it offset the cost of hiring us? If not, is there anything we could do to fix this?

By taking a vested interest in the long term success of my clients, rather than just whether or not their invoices would clear, I ended up building a lot of trust. And because I was constantly talking with past clients, we were at the front of their minds β€” which came in handy should they be asked, “Hey, I’m looking to redo our website. Any recommendations?”

What do you think are the best ways to keep in touch with existing clients while reaching out to new ones?

I think newsletters are a fantastic idea for your past clients and your current prospects. What I don’t think is a good idea, however, is constantly touting your company.

If I’m going to be getting a newsletter from someone, I care about me and the time I’m going to invest reading these emails. I want to make sure I walk away from a newsletter having learned something that helps grow my business.

We’ve successfully reengaged past clients (and engaged active prospects) by promoting events we were going to be hosting. From “Startup Nights” to free business seminars, we were constantly promoting events that would help grow businesses β€” all the while, centering these events around our company.

One last type of event you might want to consider: Kickoff parties. When you successfully ship a project, invite your client, your past clients, your (future) clients, and the community at large. It’s some of the best money you can spend (beer and finger foods) for the return you’ll get. Dropping a few prospective clients right in the center of a celebration around your ability to get things done can be the sort of social proof you need to win someone’s business.

How should I approach contacting existing clients in order to sell them other products which might benefit their business (such as retainer agreements)?

I wouldn’t sell retainer products at scale, because there’s rarely a one-size-fits-all retainer agreement. You could try delivering a series of emails to your past clients that talk about ways to continuously optimize and mitigate risk, and include a blurb about how you could help them via a custom retainer. This way, you’ll let your past clients know why they should be considering an ongoing relationship with you before you contact them directly.

You could also think of ways that you can produce the sort of results your clients pay you for, but without the overhead of you physically dedicating your time and attention to their project.

Consider the following: You’ve worked on a number of different projects in the past, which gives you experience and know-how that other people might want. You could package case studies, industry trends, and step-by-step instructions on how to apply the knowledge you have into a transactional product β€” an ebook, screencast, or a paid newsletter. These products could be sold to your existing clients by providing them with additional understanding they might not have already. But more importantly, these products can allow you to sell to new customers and serve as lead generation and a steady stream of cash.

Not convinced? Think about it this way. When a client hires you, they’re buying your knowledge and your time to apply that knowledge. For every client who is willing to hire you, there are hundreds of people who might be interested in learning how to apply that knowledge themselves and are willing to pay to get there. And just because a business owner might want to learn a thing or two about design doesn’t mean they have the desire or the time to execute themselves β€” your product could ultimately be a sales vessel for you and your company (and allow you to justify a higher cost β€” clients who come to you through your products won’t want to work with anyone else but you!)

We hoped that you enjoyed this interview! We plan on doing a series of these in the future, each one focused on how to grow your business and earn more. Do you have any burning questions or a topic you need to read about? Drop us a line, we’d love to hear how we can help your business!