How to work hard and not get paid well (3 causes + 5 solutions)

If you’re a freelancer / consultant / solo-preneur and you provide services, you may have found yourself wondering at times, “Why is it I feel so free, and yet so encumbered? I have lost the chains of the office and a boss… but the income and freedom I imagined hasn’t quite manifested”?

Having served as a freelancer/consultant for almost 15 years, I can testify to having asked myself this question. Over many years, I’ve identified a number of key factors that can be at the root of this, and I aim to give you some solid, clear advice about them here. I’ve got 3 problems… and 6 solutions!

(Please note, before I get into it, that I have made all of these mistakes! And I still continue to make some of them! So we are all in process in this life—but the number of my own personal mistakes, and efforts to correct them, is what has made me feel I have something to say about this, and help others solve these issues!)

Okay—let’s get into them!

Problem #1: You’re trying to be all things to all people

I know how it feels to be in a desperate state to take whatever work you can, to keep the lights on. You work and work to complete whatever “word of mouth” business your friend’s cousin has thrown at you. It is very likely, however, that the friend’s cousin might not be your ideal customer.

In all of the pressure to get the work done, you simply don’t have time to think super hard about how to set up processes and attract your “ideal client”. Nope. Too busy. So you just keep going!

It turns out that the friend’s cousin has a friend… And on you go!

Solution #1: Decide where you want to specialize, how you want to work, and who you want to work for

There are always people willing to pay you less, and not really notice the quality of work that you give. Furthermore, when you don’t highlight what you’re really best at, or work from joy (and give yourself the time to stretch out and relax once in a while), then it really is hard for you to stand out from the crowd!

Clarifying your unique value will help you:

  1. Stand out from the crowd
  2. Get better faster at what you actually are really good at (play to your strengths)
  3. Design around your weaknesses
  4. Follow the joy and excitement about the areas you like to work in, the way you like to work, and the people you enjoy working with

The process I use with people is to create a Venn Diagram around these three items:

  • The kind of work you are happiest doing, and ways of working you love the most
  • What you’re strongest at (whether it’s hard for you or not!—sometimes it’s so easy you forget it’s valuable to others!)
  • The juiciest clients, types of clients, and relationships that you love

From this, you can craft an offer that’s clearer, juicier, and more fun. This will help you get out of a lot of the traps I just talked about.

It lets you design programs and packages that will allow you to emphasize your strengths. Then the customers can really see why you are valuable, and what is special about you. The 20% who really are good to work with you will be able to find you. You can start charging more, because your value and uniqueness are clear. You are clear.

Problem #2: You keep reinventing the wheel

You have no clear and systematized process for contracts, proposals, pricing, invoices, and packages. This means you have to keep reinventing your process. When you develop clear services packages, this allows you to:

  • Market more clearly to those packages
  • Budget your time better
  • Identify a target customer you want to serve, and speak/design to their needs
  • Create standardized forms and workflows, for client intake, invoicing, project management, and so on

This list could go on and on!

Solution #2: Create service packages

The way I work with people to help them create packages (after the Venn Diagram process, above) is to first come up with their “Gold” package. Pricing research will show you that the majority of people will pick the middle option most often, so you want to make the Gold package (you don’t have to use this naming structure, of course) the one where you can be sure to give your customer great value, but perhaps not with all the bells and whistles.

Now, you can just decide: “What will I subtract to create the Silver package? And what will I add to create the Platinum offer?”

The last thing I do is see what sort of add-ons you might want to include as package options.

Problem #3: You end up taking much longer than you budgeted for on projects

If you bid the project as a fixed fee, you can end up making minimum wage. If you bid the project as an hourly, you could have an unhappy client, or you could end up still eating a lot of the time.

I’ve done this many times myself. There are many reasons you might be doing this, but here are a few:

  • It’s possible you are compressing many offerings into one
  • You aren’t educating your customer to let them know all the work that’s really involved to do a great job
  • You’re not honest about how long things take
  • Your clients are not prepared for your work process
  • You are not prequalifying your clients

Solution #3: Break up and define the length of your services

When you provide a proposal with enough detail, and break things up, it’s going to show people what it all really takes to get it done. It will remind you of long it’s going to take, too!!

When you break things into packages (perhaps with some add-ons), it makes it far easier to estimate time; to illustrate the level of work involved (for both you and your prospective client), and to write marketing copy that “sells” the value of that part of your work.

Solution #4: Educate your prospective client all the way along

Everything from the tone with which you talk about your service; the questions you ask; the look and feel of your brand—all these things can actually subtly educate your client to think about the project in a certain way. Do this in a way that reflects who you are, and how you want to work.

Again, defining packages and clear offerings will help here. Having an on-boarding process that includes videos about how you work with clients, and a questionnaire, can help a lot.

Solution #5: Pre-qualify your prospects

It’s a ton of work to try to promote your business to people who really don’t fit your style. As above, everything about your tone can help to do this. Ask the right questions in your questionnaire to excite your ideal prospect; but maybe “scare” your not-right prospect to look elsewhere. For example, let’s say you’re a web designer who wants to build $10-$25k websites (but will be okay with the occasional $5k website). You could make your questionnaire have a drop-down for “budget” which starts at $5k. All the folks who want to pay $1-2k will be likely to stop there!

Would you like some help in putting together your packages, streamlining your workflow, or improving your marketing?

If you’d like more help, I will be conducting a free workshop that will take you through the process I’ve listed above, to start creating your packages with a little more help. Also, I provide consulting and automation services. You can get started with both of those right here!


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