Episode #103: What to Do When a Client Can’t Afford You

Find out how you should respond when clients can’t afford you, or they say it’s over their budget or you’re too expensive. Also learn why this happens in the first place and 4 things not to do when they say this.


Show Notes


In this episode, I’m answering the question, “What do I do when a client says they can’t afford to work with me”?

I remember all too well how it would feel when a client would say these things. I figured my price wasn’t right. I must not have said the right things. It must be me, not them.

Why was I giving them all this power? Why would I assume it was me?

I know a lot of designers feel this way and take it personally. It can feel like defeat, but the goal is not to win every client or every project. Some are just not the right fit, and that’s totally OK.

Don’t take it personally. They often say things like this as an excuse for something else, which is the real reason preventing them from working with you.

And you can’t tell them what they can or cannot afford, so if they want to shut down the conversation, that’s one way they can try to do that.

Why Clients Say They Can’t Afford You

Before I get into how to respond to these objections, I think it’s important to cover a few reasons why clients question your price, so you can lessen the chances of it happening again in the future.

Low perceived value

One is perceived value. Value is in the eye of the beholder. You have to make clients see the value. But you don’t do that by convincing them.

This reminds me of some crazy expensive pen that someone showed me that was on sale online. It was like over a thousand bucks or something. It had some particular brand name on it. I just thought, who would pay that much for a pen? I mean, who cares?

I also don’t go after $1,200 iPhones or whatever they cost nowadays. I am just fine with a pay-as-you-go phone. I don’t need it to do anything more than what it does.

I don’t care about any of that stuff. A pen is a pen. A phone is a phone. I would never be their customers. I don’t see the value in these particular products.

People spend money on what they want to and they spend it on what they perceive to be higher value than what they are paying for that product or service.

That higher value could mean getting more sales or it could be something like prestige, looking cool, showing off.

So when you’re talking to clients, are you talking to them about design work, or are you asking them questions about the results they’re looking to get and demonstrating you understand their needs and their industry?

Some clients are only looking for an order taker, someone to throw together some text and images because they can’t do it themselves. They don’t value the work that much. So it doesn’t matter telling them how much the work is worth.

If you focus on deliverables—what you’ll be providing them, they will just price shop.

If you want to charge more and stand out, you have to show how are you different from every other designer they’re talking to, that you have experience in their industry and that you understand their needs.

Or maybe you excel at a certain design style or type of design, such as logo design or publication layout.

The right clients are looking for someone with your skills who also has experience helping clients like them and also who can help them achieve certain results.

Lack of trust

Like I said earlier, there are often other reasons they have and they use money as an excuse.

Some may not trust you. If you’re trying to convince them to work with you, it comes across as pushy. It appears one sided, that you’re just looking out for yourself. This is why designers hate selling because that’s how it feels to you and that’s how it feels to them.

If you’re in desperate need of work, that will show. You’ve got to exude confidence. Confidence builds trust.

Lack of trust could also mean they don’t feel you are up for the work. They are not sure you’ll be able to help them get the results they are looking for.

Not a priority

Another reason could be that this just isn’t a priority for them. They need to be experiencing some kind of proverbial pain and need the cure.

Wrong audience

Sometimes you get pushback on price because you’re targeting the wrong audience.

Think about it. Someone who wants fast and cheap food goes to McDonald’s, right? Someone who wants healthy and organic buys that type of food and makes a meal at home or goes elsewhere to get it. Someone who wants Chinese food goes to a Chinese restaurant. Someone who wants a really unique experience for their dinner party hires a private chef.

These are all food related and they all serve people, but they all serve different groups of people, with different needs. They have different audiences and price points.

Think about how broad an audience for a graphic designer can potentially be. You’ve got to narrow that down.

Who is the best audience for what you do? Who can you serve well and who can afford to pay what you’re asking? I shouldn’t even use the word “asking” though, because:

Your price is not a question. It’s a statement.

When you appeal to the right audience, they will come to you and it will be easy. The wrong audience is the one that won’t see the value or you’ll feel like you have to convince. And you shouldn’t be convincing anyone to work with you.

4 Things Not to Do When a Client Says You’re Too Expensive

When a client says you’re too expensive, you may feel the need to:

  • reduce your price,
  • negotiate it,
  • justify it or
  • convince the client.

These are exactly what you shouldn’t do though. Doing any of these things will always put you at the whim of the client and their budget or what they want to pay or what they feel they should pay, which is usually an amount based on uneducated opinion.

Responding this way will also deflate your confidence and keep you stuck in an order taking position.

How will you ever get ahead, start making some real money and ensure you’re profitable, if you’re not in control of what you charge?

Your price is your price.

Like I said earlier, a lot of time price is simply not the issue, whether they say it is or not. So you’re assuming it’s the price and jumped to immediately lowering your price.

What to Do When a Client Says, “I Can’t Afford It”

So let’s get into some things you should do when a client says you’re too expensive or they don’t have the budget or can’t afford it.

Show empathy

First off, show empathy, that you’ve heard and understood their concerns. This can make it feel like it’s not you versus them. It takes the pressure off both parties, and it can actually build trust with them. You’re trying to understand and help them, not just take their money.

Now, their expectations may be so far off and it may not be worth your time educating them. So I’m not suggesting you work with a client whose expectations are so far off from your pricing.

What I am doing is suggesting some options for ways they can work with you and still pay your pricing.

Find out how much their problem is costing them

Ask them how much not solving their problem is costing them or how much resolving it could help them.

For instance, if their website isn’t accessible and they just got slapped with a $50,000 fine, that’s a lot. And they could get sued again by a different plaintiff.

How much in legal fees and fines are you potentially helping them avoid?

Now your $20,000 website shouldn’t seem so high.

What about disjointed visual branding? The branding looks one way on the website and different in emails. Customers don’t trust them because they don’t recognize their company. So they are losing sales.

What percentage of sales could you help them get?

Now that $5,000 logo shouldn’t seem so high.

Reduce the scope

If the client wants to work with you and you want to work with them, ask them what they are looking to spend or what their budget is—although I am not a fan of asking for the budget because it’s some arbitrary number.

Once you know their budget or expectation of cost, you can decide if it would even be feasible to reduce the scope, the amount of work.

Only then reduce the price. But never just reduce the price. It makes it seem as if it were inflated to begin with. It makes it seem they can negotiate your pricing and that it’s arbitrary.

It also keeps you stuck in that order taker position. It will always be a race to the bottom.

Extend the timeframe

Another option is to extend the timeframe. Just like rush projects should cost more, you could propose charging less to do the work over a longer timeframe. Let’s say they want it done in 2 weeks, so you extend that to a month or longer for a lower price.

Work in phases

You could do the work in phases. So you’d not just spread out the work over time but you’d only do certain things at a specific time and save some things until later.

That would allow them to spread out the costs over time.

If it’s a large website project, for example, you could say, “OK, we’ll start with the design and a simple build, and in 6 months, we’ll add in these bells and whistles.”

Of course, you’d want to be very specific about what you’d be doing and when it will be done.

So maybe it’s a simple website with a form for collecting email addresses but later you add on an email funnel or e-commerce functionality.

Offer a payment plan

You could offer a payment plan. If you normally ask for 50% up front and 50% before providing deliverables (which I hope you do), then you could ask for maybe 25% up front, then invoice again soon after, then send the final invoice before providing deliverables.

Ask them to budget for it

This may surprise you, but you could ask them to budget for it and come back later.

I had a prospect once call to ask how much it would approximately cost for a new website. When I told them, they said they thought it would have been a fraction of that. Like I said earlier, just because they don’t understand how much it should cost doesn’t mean you lower your pricing.

They told me they would try to budget for that amount because they liked my work. I figured I’d never hear from them again.

To my surprise though, a few months later, they called to say they had the money and were ready to go.

I hadn’t even given them an estimate at that time, just a verbal range of cost.

So I put into a proposal what I could do for them at the amount they had just saved, plus pricing for additional options to help them in case they wanted to also add on those things.

Walk away

Walking away is an option. You are not obligated to work with anyone. You do not have to take anything and everything that comes your way, and it’s usually not profitable to do that either.

Some people are just looking to haggle over price because they’re bullies and they feel the need to try to exert power over someone else to make themselves feel better.

Remember: the goal is not to win every client or every project. Some are just not the right fit. Let them go!

Be the Expert

If you want to know which questions to ask to help position yourself as an expert from the beginning, check out my video on YouTube called 3 Things That Will Change How You Get Treated by Potential Clients or download my free guide, 17 Questions You Must Ask During a Design Consultation.

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