Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Don't underestimate your own value

Believe in Your Unique Value Proposition
Oral history and difficult design clients don't have much in common at first glance. Yet for Molly Joss, these two have paired up as unlikely teachers. The lesson: Don't underestimate your own value.

By Molly W. Joss
Thursday, February 24, 2005


The other day, I was talking to a friend who wants to expand his fledgling freelance writing career. He has a small business creating oral history tapes for families, and he wants to write about the process for a woman's magazine. He'd asked me to critique his article query; that is, the letter he'll send to prospective publishers of his story. During our conversation he told me about the tape he'd made of his grandmother in which she'd mentioned a personal relationship she'd had after her husband died.

As soon as he told me the anecdote, I suggested he change his query. The real story, I said, is your relationship with your grandmother and what made you decide to capture a little of her life on tape. "Any good writer who's done the research could turn out an article on making an oral history tape of a grandparent," I told him. "You're the only person who has shared that experience with your grandmother. You need to have faith that you've got a good story to tell."

That discussion, coupled with a recent decision to fire a client, taught me a valuable lesson these past few weeks. When you run your own company and all you have to sell is you -- whether you're a designer or an artist or a writer -- it's too easy to sell yourself short. You owe it to yourself not to do that.

A Client Not Worth Keeping
I fired the client because I realized finally that the company would never agree to pay me what I'm really worth. It's a non-profit organization with a small budget, so I agreed to an hourly rate that is much lower than my usual fee. Even though the work has grown more complicated over the years, I had never asked for an increase. Needless to say, they'd never offered one, either.

During the several years I worked with this client, I put up with snippy e-mails, demands for re-work, and, generally unacceptable behavior. The more I accommodated, the more the client figured I wasn't going to fight back, and their unprofessional behavior escalated.

I began to change my mind about the client when I started doing similar work for a new client at a much higher hourly rate. This company is happy to pay me the going rate and is happy with the results. Plus, their e-mails and phone calls are professional in wording and manner. The final straw was when I discovered that the problematic client was paying another contractor nearly ten times my hourly rate for comparable work.

I didn't bother raising my rates with the other client. I have learned over the years that clients who pay two contractors vastly different rates for the same kind of work think taking advantage of people is good business. This is not the kind of client you want to keep on the roster.

I'm not a Kenny Rogers fan, but I like his song The Gambler. It contains useful instructions for knowing when the game is finished and it's time to go. Like the song says, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run�" It was time to fold �em and walk away from the querulous client.

House Rules
Back to my friend and his article query. He didn't feel that people would want to read about him and his grandmother because he wasn't sure his experiences were more valuable than his information. I'm not sure he believed me when I said his skills can be duplicated but his experiences are what make him irreplaceable.

I can't say that I blame him; on the face of it, there's not much evidence that the world appreciates distinctiveness over information. Maybe what's truly precious is the understanding you gain from your experiences mixed with the skills you derive from knowledge. This is the unique value proposition that all creative professionals have. In other words, nobody can tell your story or do your job the way you do--nobody.

And nobody can take advantage of you without your permission--not for long, that is. It's possible to be caught unaware, and it's kind to give people the benefit of the doubt. Just don't repeat my error. If I had believed in what my work was worth and had been determined that good work is worth good money, I would have fired the client long ago.

Don't let a client bluff you. Believe in yourself and in the unique value of what you do. Then you'll be holding a winning hand.
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