How to get your consulting fee upfront

I could make this article very short with the smug answer: “Just ask for it.

But I know from real world experience that the more accurate answer is it’s both exactly that simple and, at the same time, not just that easy.

How much do you ask for? When do you ask for it? How do you ask? How do you make it in the client’s interest? How do you deal with objections?

How much you can ask for:

  • A portion of the fee upfront.

This one seems obvious to me now, but I went several years before I moved beyond the “work a bunch of hours then send an invoice and wait” model. You can do this whether you are fixed fee or hourly, basing the latter on an estimate. It did wonders for my cash flow, for my scheduling, and for eliminating clients (or worse, prospects — i.e. folks I’d never worked with at all before) that would say “Let’s do it” then drag their feet or expect me to move quickly to do my thing for them, but then would take forever to pay me for my promptly completed work.

  • The entire fee upfront.

You’d be surprised how acceptable this becomes once you simply start making it your convention. And, really, it’s not all that strange when you consider that you can’t drive away with a car (or even walk out of Walmart) before paying for your purchase, as well as the fact that in most cases you are taking on greater risk than the client is by working on a project for a client for a few weeks or months with only the “hope” that you’ll get paid at the end. You are a freelancer, not your client’s banker/lender.

When can you ask for it:

  • After you’ve set your fee (but not a moment before).

When you get paid is a discussion about payment terms, but not about your fee itself. I learned this from Alan Weiss. I don’t discuss payment scheduling until at the very end of my full proposal. The easiest and most seamless way to do this is to require payment as part of proposal acceptance. That is, nothing means anything until a check is in hand (you can’t deposit a signature and people can drag their feet even after signing agreements).

How you can ask for it:

  • At the end of your proposal.

A simply line or two entitled payment schedule or payment terms, at the very end of the proposal (after fees have already been stated), right where they are expected to elect any options and accept the proposal. My favorite way to do this (and what is in every proposal I send out) is an approach I borrowed and adapted from Alan Weiss is to require signature to proceed and to make payment equivalent to a signature:

Upon your acknowledgement I will provide an electronic invoice once you’ve made me aware of which options you prefer and if you wish to take advantage of any of the discount payment terms, which may be paid online or by check. Once accepted, all payments are due in accordance with the payment schedule above.

Your choice of option(s) and your signature indicate acceptance of this proposal as discussed and described above (in the absence of your signature, your payment also will indicate acceptance of this proposal).

  • With a discount carrot.

I routinely offer a discount of 5% to 10% for receiving full payment upfront (sometimes up to a year ahead). And no discount (or a smaller one) for receiving no or only a partial payment upfront. As a bonus, some organizations are required to take these discount terms when offered.

  • Offer different payment terms depending on the option chosen.

In nearly all of my proposals I give the client several options for achieving the agreed upon objectives, each with varying levels of risk, speed, client involvement, etc. This makes it easy to also associate different payment terms which each option. For example, for lower end (and generally lower fee) options I usually require the full fee upfront. This is justifiable because part of the way I’m able to offer a cheaper option at all is because I get paid upfront for it — i.e. it offers lower risk for me so I don’t need to get compensated for taking that risk, while for higher fee options I am more flexible — i.e. 50% of the fee upfront and the balance in 30 days.

How to handle objections:

  • Offer a strong guarantee.

One of the biggest reasons clients don’t like to pay upfront is because they are concerned about their options if you mess up. Take that risk away:

The quality of my work is guaranteed. If you do not believe I have met the mutually established objectives for this arrangement, I will continue to work toward those goals with you for no additional fee. If, after such an additional attempt, you still believe I have not met your objectives, I will refund your fees in total.

  • Make sure it’s really payment terms being objected to.

I never negotiate fees. I only negotiate two things: payment terms and project scope (which for me primarily entails engagement objectives and implementation approaches). This makes it important to distinguish between whether the objective is about the payment terms or about project value. The former is a very different discussion from the latter.

  • Be willing and flexible when it comes to negotiating payment terms (but not fees).

It’s okay to negotiate payment terms. I suggest that if it seems like you can’t get anything at all upfront, that you tie the first payment to a meaningful, but fairly minor milestone. As soon as the first payment is actually received, the remaining payments are far more likely. And your only concerned with payment terms for two reasons: to manage your cash flow (i.e. sooner is better; some is better than none) and to minimize your risk (i.e. of non-payment, of slow payment).

If you enjoyed this, I suggest you check out the book Value-based Fees by Alan Weiss.