Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour is a book that provides rules and tactics to help creative professionals charge more for new work and run a more profitable business. It’s by Blair Enns, the founder of Win Without Pitching, a training program that helps creative professionals win more business.
I’ve been a follower of Enns for some years, having paid for access to his materials, enrolling in his online course, signing up for his webinars, and listening to his podcast. I really enjoyed reading this book and found myself texting excerpts to my partners at Barrel, insisting that we ought to try X and Y approach the very next day.
Enns references quite a bit of the popular psychology terms that’s all the rage in business books these days, especially the different types of cognitive biases that shape our behavior. What I appreciated was how he tied these concepts to the everyday situations that creative professionals face when working with prospects and clients, and how, by understanding their biases, we can influence them into making decisions that can improve our outcomes.
This post isn’t a summary or a detailed overview of the book but thoughts on some of the takeaways that I found immediately applicable to my work at Barrel. Enns presents 6 “Rules” that make up something of a framework for pricing based on value and not by selling time. Five of those rules are represented in my takeaways below.
There’s a great deal of detail and practical advice that I don’t discuss here, including the emphasis Enns puts on “mastering the value conversation.” If you are in the creative services profession, I would highly recommend investing in the book, which you need to buy off of the website. One successful application of his tactics might net you 10X+ what you spend on the book.
Lesson 1: Price the Client and Not the Job
A principle of price negotiation is that the sooner in the sale you offer a price, the lower it is likely to be. Understanding the client’s context, and therefore your potential for value creation, takes time. If you find yourself offering prices early, you’re almost certainly short-circuiting the patient information-gathering that needs to happen in order to price based on value.
This wasn’t a revelation for us at Barrel, but it was a good reminder that taking the time during the information-gathering process to deeply understand the client and their business would help us form better ideas on the value of our services to the client.
In fact, when I think about one of the more significant changes a Barrel over the past 2-3 years, it’s been the shift away from seeing a new client as another project and instead, viewing them as a new relationship with the potential for several projects that may span from website redesigns to analytics and advertising work.
Lesson 2: Present Options in Your Proposals
One of the biggest pricing mistakes that creative professionals make is to put a proposal in front of the client that contains only one option. In such a take-it-or-leave-it proposition there are only two outcomes, 50% of which are positive and 50% of which are negative.
If you resolve from hereon to always put three options in your proposals, you will increase the percentage of positive outcomes by half.
Presenting options changes the question you are asking the client from, “Does this proposal represent good value?” to a better question, “Which of these proposals is the best value?” The brain is wired to answer the second question. In fact, it is incapable of answering the first question without first answering the second.
I’ve seen this work when it comes to our support & maintenance packages. It’s something we’ve been rolling out in more and more of our proposals.
I can recall so many conversations where I presented just a single price and the client, wanting a point of comparison, would go out and shop around only to get flustered because the prices were so vastly different from each other as was the understanding of what was and wasn’t included.
Lesson 3: Anchor with a High-Priced Option
“Anchoring is the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information received,” Enns writes. Combined with the lesson above on presenting options in our proposals, I really like the idea of having an anchor option that pegs the value of an engagement very high in the prospect’s mind.
For a client with a budget of $20k, for example, it might make sense to begin with a $100k case study, allowing the firm to show the depth and breadth of its work while leveraging a high anchor. By comparison, a second case study at the $50k investment level will look reasonable, and a $30k option might look like a bargain.
A lazy mistake we’ve made over the years is to find out a client’s budget and to craft an option at exactly that level or perhaps a little bit higher, hoping the depth of the proposal’s details would impress and encourage more spending. This, of course, rarely happened.
What I’d like to see us doing more, per Enns’s advice, is to anchor with something high that equates to a “deluxe / the works” version, have a floor at the client’s budget that achieves the bare minimum, and present a middle tier that inspires the client to spend more while also getting more.
In terms of coming up with an anchor price, I really liked the question Enns poses in this highlight:
Whatever your answer to this question of, “What would we do, and charge, if money were no object?” it’s a great anchor option. When you present your proposal, beginning with this priciest option, you can easily explain, “We began thinking about solutions with a hypothetical exercise of what we would do if you were not budget constrained. Indulge us for a minute while we share what we came up with. It might inspire some ideas.”
Lesson 4: Say a Price Before You Show a Price
By forcing yourself to state a price before you show it, you are committing to talking about money before you retreat to write a proposal. By offering pricing guidance in the forms we’ve already discussed in the previous chapter, you allow the client to become conditioned to the investment you will ask her to make and you create the opportunity to discuss any price objections that may exist.
The key principle of handling objections, of price or any other kind, is that early objections are your friends and late objections are your enemies.
I absolutely love this simple yet effective approach. I’ve been trying it out on certain prospects and it’s helped to surface price objections much earlier in the process. It’s especially useful for prospects that don’t want to reveal their budgets. They’ll typically say something along the lines of: “We’re not sure yet, we haven’t discussed our budget / we’re still exploring options.” But when you let them know that you’ll be exploring proposal options from the $Y to $X range (Enns recommends writing/saying high to low when talking about price), there’s often a reaction that sheds more insights. “Oh, $Y is crazy, no way we can afford that, maybe half of that at most…”
Lesson 5: Keep Your Proposal to One Page
Enns recommends coming up with a one-page proposal format that presents the pricing tiers and is less of a submitted doc and more of a guiding document used in closing conversations. I know that for certain types of engagements, we need to be a bit more in-depth with our proposals especially if the prospect is dead-set on having a committee review multiple proposals side-by-side (a situation we try to avoid participating in as much as possible), but I’ve been testing a one-page format for various prospects where I know I can get on a phone call or meet in person to walk them through the options and reinforce themes about value and process that we’ve had in prior discussions.
Lesson 6: Invoke Policies
We run into policies all the time when negotiating with clients, and when they use them, we always back down. Anytime a client invokes a policy, they seem to win. But we shouldn’t let them, not always. We lose because we come into the negotiation backed by preferences and inclinations. Policies trump wants every time. We need to use more policies in our negotiations, and we need to meet policy with policy when a client uses one.
My partners and I found this one very amusing but also so true. We’ve actually been more and more eager to invoke policies, especially when there are requests or demands that are at odds with putting our team in the best position to perform well. Some policy thoughts we’ve dreamed up or actually used recently include:
- It’s our policy not to participate in spec work unless we are able to publish it publicly and use it in our portfolio.
- It’s our policy not to kick off the engagement without first reviewing proper intake materials from your team.
- It’s our policy not to launch websites on a Friday.
- It’s our policy not to start work until the initial payment has been received.
- It’s our policy not to disclose our private financial information.
Lesson 7: Leverage Social Influence to Position Yourself as an Expert Practioner
Occasionally, you’ll be asked to sell to a prospect with requests like, “Tell me why we should hire you.” An expert practitioner should never accept such an invitation. Instead, counter with something like, “How about instead of trying to convince you, I tell you why our current clients hire us, and you can see if those reasons make sense for you?” By refusing the invitation to relegate yourself to vendor status, and instead, bringing your clients’ peers into the room, you have effectively swapped your own self-serving bias for your prospect’s bias to be influenced by others.
Oh boy, how many times have I accepted such an invitation only to fight an uphill battle? I really like the response Enns has written here, and it’s something that would play well to our strengths in most instances. In situations where I had the awareness to point at our body of work and to call out specific clients, the outcome was much more positive. When a prospect hears that you’ve successfully achieved something for a brand that they admire or have at least studied, they’re more likely to see you as capable and experienced.