What Should You Do When You’re Asked to Work For Free?

“This project will be HUGE for your portfolio. And if this works out, it’ll lead to a bunch more work in the future.”

Have you ever had a client who’s tried to lure you into doing some free work for them?

If you’ve been consulting for a while, you’ve inevitably been asked the question at some point. To be fair, it’s not delivered as bluntly as “give us something valuable for nothing.” Instead, the question is framed with you in mind: do this simple thing now and for free, and you’ll be met with rewards on the other side.

If you’re a new freelancer, you might go for this. After all, it’s a chance to build your portfolio – even if that promised future work never happens, right? Right.

But if you’ve been doing this for a while, you might scoff. “Silly client,” you think, as you post the exchange to ClientsFromHell.

In this article, I want to objectively look at why this question is asked (there’s often a valid reason), and what you can say and do in response.

Are these people just total assholes?

I don’t think they are (most of the time, at least).

In fact, I think there are a lot of valid reasons some people make these demands.

Many business owners have been burned in the past by freelancers. And I don’t just mean freelancers have flaked out on them; they’ve been delivered the wrong product. The client spent money, and didn’t get a sizable (if any) return on their investment.

So it’s understandable when a business owner wants to protect both their business and their budget, and often times this is expressed by them wanting to “sample the waters” — to determine whether you’re capable of giving them what they need.

Each prospect assigns us a score. This isn’t usually consciously worked out, and it’s by no means scientific, but it’s the risk that we’re likely to fail them. I call this your risk score. Think of it like your credit score: multiple factors combine to make you either likely to succeed or likely to fail.

Factors include:

  • Your history — have you done projects like theirs before? How extensive is your portfolio? Have you worked with brand-name clients?
  • Your confidence — do you have command of the situation and leave them thinking you’re capable?
  • What you’re offering — are you responding directly to the business need they have?

And when you’re deemed high risk, a responsible client is going to try to mitigate that risk. They’re going to want to spend as little money as possible, and might even try to get a trial offer or guarantee. This is why banks offer higher interest rates on the same loans to riskier customers, e.g. people with lower credit scores — they want to hedge their bets.

Instead of writing off a client who wants to mitigate their risk by lowering their exposure, you should instead try to decrease your risk.

Let’s now look at how you can lower the risk that you bring to the table without working for free or at a reduced rate.

How you should respond when you’re asked to work for free.

When a client tries to haggle you on your costs or attempts to convince you to work for free, they’re signaling that they’re worried they aren’t going to get the payoff they’re looking for.

Let’s say you talk with a prospective client who runs a retail business that is looking to expand online. In their mind, they’re hoping to generate enough cash flow through this new website to afford opening up a new brick and mortar location across town.

They then take the logical next step: They seek out web designers who can build their online store (this is where you come in).

After meeting with a few candidates, they’ve been pitched on a whole bunch of things that don’t make much sense to them. Responsive design. HTML5. This or that ecommerce framework. They’re wondering how this will help them expand their business, but so far, they’re trusting that what they’re being told will somehow get them that additional revenue.

And then the proposals start coming in, and they’re now being sold on responsive WooCommerce-powered websites. They’re unsure about whether spending $10,000 on building a new website will get them the money they need. Will their offline customers like their online presence? Will they even know it exists?

The poor client is trying to piece together how what they’re being sold relates at all to what they really need, and doubt starts to overcome them. They’re not that comfortable spending $10,000, because they’re half-sure that the work they’re being pitched on will give them what they need. Maybe they’re willing to spend half of that. Again, they aren’t too sure what they should be spending.

….The above example happens thousands of times every day. A business is pitched by a web designer, developer, or whoever, and what’s being sold isn’t inline with what the client is actually seeking.

Prospective clients are quantifying the risk of failure – not just the risk of “will this website actually work?”, but also “will this website do what I’m paying it to do for me?” And it’s because of this disconnect that doubt and fear, haggling and free work come into the picture.

As a consultant, it’s your job to mitigate the risk of failure for your clients.  And the way to do that isn’t by lowering your rate or agreeing to work for free. The way to do this is by slaying any objection your clients have to you being capable of solving their problems. This means that you need to get into the heads of your clients, and figure out what actual problem lies at the root of their project request (for example, “enough sales that I can safely expand my business” and not “an ecommerce website”). If you need some help in getting started doing this, my free 9 lesson email course spells out exactly how to do this.

By speaking and selling to the clients needs, you effectively lower your risk score. And the lower risk you are, the more likely the client is to pay you what you want and hire you.

If a client wants you to negotiate your costs or convince you to work for free, then they have objections that are keeping them from hiring you on your terms. The way to counter these requests isn’t by agreeing or writing off the client as a lunatic. Instead, try to figure out what doubts they have and counter them. Counter their objections. Raise your risk score. Stick to your guns and assert your professionalism — because, remember: you ARE a professional.

So act like one 🙂

Share this post on Social

Picture of Brennan Dunn

Brennan Dunn

Brennan Dunn is the founder of Double Your Freelancing and helps teach freelancers and consultants how to earn more money and work with better clients. His best selling course Double Your Freelancing Rate has helped over 5,000 students increase their freelancing rate. His free pricing course, Charge What You're Worth, has helped thousands of freelancers and consultants charge what they're worth.

Tell us where to send your Prospectus

Now is the time to double down on growing your digital agency.

A Free Training Series For Web Designers and Digital Marketers

Learn how to get clients.
Deliver amazing projects.
Create recurring revenues.

Download our Proposal Template Package

Start winning better projects with bigger budgets now.


High Ticket Sales Funnels

Three things you need to know before you can start scaling your business with automated high ticket sales funnels

Join the discussion!

The Agency Hour Podcast: Guest Application