If you want to raise your fees on existing clients, but quiver at the thought of telling them, remember this: thousands of IPs before you have succeeded at raising their rates without loss of life, limb, or livelihood. They're now earning higher fees -- deserved fees -- and their clients are paying. If you plan and execute your rate hike carefully, your clients will pay too.
First, ask yourself if you can justify a rate increase. Are you filling all your available work hours and even turning away work? Do you have a reputation as a leader or expert in your field? Are you affiliated with an institution of higher learning or a prestigious research organization? Have you recently authored a book related to your profession?
If you answer "yes" to any or all of these questions -- especially the one about turning away work -- then you're probably in line for a rate increase. Some IPs, such as Toronto-based career consultant Barbara Moses, raise their rates every year. The result? Long-term clients accept the incremental increases with little objection, and the IPs' income goes up.
Others, however, postpone increasing rates until most of their peers have already made the leap. Then they follow suit like emboldened sheep. But using competitors' going rates as guideposts is a mistake, says Missouri-based consultant Ellen Rohr, author of How Much Should I Charge? "It's the blind leading the blind," says Rohr. "I've found that the going rate is usually set by people who've never kept track of their hours and who are not making a living. Then new business owners simply call around, find out what others are charging, and charge the same thing without analyzing their own needs.
"Basically the going rate is only good for going down the drain."
Matching competitors' rates without analyzing your own business operations and marketplace is a recipe for financial woe. Are you working in a city like San Francisco or New York where the cost of living is high? Don't try to underbid a competitor in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He may be renting an entire office for what it costs you to take a client to dinner. Do you have 15 years of experience in your profession? Don't throw a "fire sale" for your services just to match the new guy's prices. Remember, he may take three times as long to complete a job that you can do overnight.
Instead of following the pack, get out your calculator. If you currently put in about 1,000 billable hours a year, how much would you have to charge per hour to meet expenses and live comfortably on your income?
Let's take Connie Consultant as an example: Connie currently charges $55 an hour and bills 1,000 hours a year. This brings in $55,000 ($55 x 1,000). But Connie is finding that her overhead costs, out-of-pocket expenses, and taxes are leaving her strapped for cash. Because she has a lot of business -- more than she can handle -- she decides to raise her hourly rate.
To meet her expenses and live comfortably while working the same 1,000 hours a year, Connie figures she needs to earn about $80,000 a year. To determine her new hourly rate, therefore, she divides $80,000 by 1,000 hours, which equals $80 per hour. This means that Connie must raise her hourly rate by $25 (from $55 to $80).
Of course, the process by which you calculate your rate increase may be far more complicated than Connie's. Your billable hours may fluctuate each year, for example, or your expenses may vary wildly from month to month. You may even be depending heavily on two or three clients whose accounts are the difference between the red and the black.
Whatever your situation, force yourself to sit down and do the math. Pull out your records. (If you find yourself awash in illegible notes, half-completed balance sheets, and crumpled 1099s, consider hiring a "paid pencil" -- either a bookkeeper, accountant, or financial manager to help you with the deed.) Review your past years' invoices, time sheets, receipts, and tax records. (You have been keeping track of these -- haven't you?) Then estimate your previous years' income, billable hours, expenses, and desired annual profit as best you can. Imagine yourself the CEO of a public company. What would your shareholders demand to know about your business?
The billable hours you work and the fees you're paid are excellent indicators of your productivity and profitability, and therefore of your "natural" rate. Don't sabotage yourself by refusing to number-crunch.
Lowering the Boom, Gently
IPs who are considering raising their fees by more than ten percent may need to re-evaluate their current client pool. If your current customers aren't likely to afford you any longer, you may need to begin soliciting larger accounts, says business professor and consultant Charles Popovich. And if you're moving into the big leagues, you may have to become more sophisticated in your business dealings and marketing tactics.
Again, fear not. Whether you're raising your rates by $1 an hour or $100 an hour, there are ways to make your announcement more palatable. Your clients will want to know three things: how much money you intend to charge them, when your higher rates will go into effect, and why you're increasing your fees.
First of all, give your clients reasonable notice. Don't ambush them with a sudden fee hike. If possible, make the announcement in person -- or, at least, by telephone. This allows you to receive instant feedback from your clients about the planned hike.
Be firm. Don't over-explain. Don't apologize. Most of all, don't give the impression that you're raising your rates in desperation.
"I actually had one person say to me, 'I have to raise my rates because I don't have enough business," says Moses. "And I'm supposed to pay for her problem?"
Instead, explain the increase matter-of-factly. State when it will go into effect, and briefly inform your clients why you must take this action. Some explanations given by IPs include:
- The Annual-Rate-Hike Reason: "I raise my rates 10 percent each year."
- The More-For-Your-Money Reason: "I'll be adding extra services that will greatly benefit your company."
- The Rising-Cost-of-Doing-Business Reason: "I'm keeping my fees reasonable, but I'm making allocations for increases in my overhead expenses."
If your clients balk, immediately sit down with them and review what you've done for them so far, suggests Popovich. Ask if they're satisfied with your work. Inquire whether there are other tasks that you can do for them. If they say that your increase is too abrupt, consider offering a 90-day postponement. Then, draft an extensive proposal that outlines the services you'll be performing for them in the future. Market yourself like never before. Justify the fee hike, so that your customers are not only willing, but glad to pay it.
If potential clients object to your fees, consider offering them an "introductory discount rate." This way, once you lure them in and prove yourself invaluable, you can do additional business for them later at a higher rate.
Don't take objections personally. "Understand that it's not about your value as a human being," says Moses.
Despise Some Kinds of Work? Charge More
Some IPs scale their fees according to the nature of the service provided. Barbara Moses doesn't like speaking in public, for example, but she'll do it if asked -- at a higher rate than for a private consultation. In this way, Moses makes unpleasant work worth her while.
Some clients may accept fee hikes more willingly if you quote them flat rates. But don't pick a number out of thin air. Estimate how long the proposed job will take, based upon similar jobs of comparable length and difficulty. Also, don't forget to calculate your estimated expenses, travel time, and the potential profit you hope to earn from the new job.
"When I charged by the hour, clients tried hard to hold me to my hourly estimates," says Tammy Whitehouse, an Akron, Ohio-based publicist. "So I shifted to flat rates because it eliminated the surprises."
Popovich believes that savvy self-marketing is the key to smooth rate hikes. He makes sure his clients are aware of his achievements for them. He regularly issues them status reports, even when none are required. He sends them informal cards, which he signs "Looking forward to working with you again." He also encloses a summary of his accomplishments "to let them know what they're getting." Lastly, he periodically sends them interesting articles that are relevant to their work. He attaches Post-its to the articles, saying "Thought this might interest you."
"You can't go wrong giving your clients too many selling materials, because they may have to sell you to other people in the company to extend your contract and justify continuing with you," Popovich says.
If you still think you'll cut a pathetic figure when you tell your clients about your rate increase ("I'm, uhh, about to raise my, uhh, rates"), you may have self-esteem issues to resolve. If so, Popovich suggests you create a self-esteem file. In it, put awards, certifications, thank-you cards, recommendations, lists of achievements, courses you've taught, prestigious affiliations, articles, reviews, inventions, etc., that will remind you that you've accomplished great things and are worth the higher fee. Study your self-esteem file regularly. And before you make the call, practice what you plan to say, preferably in a gravelly voice: "I'll make you a rate-increase offer you can't refuse."
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