I’m testing an instant quotation service. Visitors to my website can click on the ‘Get a quote’ tab and choose the following:
Within 1 hour: preliminary quick-quote – this service operates via text messaging up to 10pm GMT, and via text messaging and email during office hours (Monday–Friday, 9.30am–4pm). The customer provides me with a short description, a deadline and a word count.
Within 1 day: confirmed quote – this service operates via email only. The customer is asked to supply a sample of the project and provide some additional information including word count, format, and which editorial processes the project has already been through.
The within-1-hour service is a relatively new development (a few months old). Ultimately, I want to learn whether providing a quick-quote service leads to an increase in the number of customers who contact me for requests to proofread.
This isn’t the only option. Potential customers can also choose to call me by phone, email me direct, or email me via a contact form.
Not everyone likes it
Spark up a conversation with fellow editorial professionals about providing quick-quotes and you won’t find a consensus on whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea. Certainly, not everyone in my profession is prepared to offer ballpark quotations, and some even consider the decision to do so as rather controversial.
So how do you know whether it would be good for your own particular business if there’s no consensus? I decided that the best way to answer the question for myself was to test it for a six-month period. Next year, I’ll report back with the results and let you know if I changed my mind, tweaked the service or stuck with it in its current form.
My time has a price
Some years ago, I arranged for a sales rep to visit my house with a view to quoting for some new windows to be fitted. I took the rep around our house to show him which windows needed replacing. After that, I sat through a 45-minute pitch about the company and the quality of its products. I was frustrated after five minutes and couldn’t wait to get the guy out of the door. While quality is important, and the fine detail would have been useful later, I didn’t want to spend my valuable time listening to someone selling a product to me that ultimately I couldn’t afford. I needed to have a ballpark price upfront.
Many of my customers are no different. If a self-publishing customer has a figure of £200 in her head for an 83,000-word proofread, and my ballpark quotation is £250, we’ll probably continue the discussion because the gap between what she wants to pay and what I want to charge is bridgeable. In reality, my ballpark quotation is going to be around the £570 mark. That’s nearly triple what the client hoped for. I’m certainly not going to come down by 65%, and I doubt that she’ll go up by 185%.
In other words, if my quote is too high, then it's too high.
My ballpark quotation (my preferred price) is created by estimating the time it will take to complete the proofreading project and then pricing that time in such a way that I earn what I want/need in order to make my business sustainable.
My client’s preferred price is based on ... actually, I have no idea what it’s based on. And it doesn’t matter what it’s based on. All that matters is that neither of us has wasted each other’s time having a lengthy email discussion about the value I bring to the table set against the financial pressures she’s under when, in fact, we’re just not a good financial fit for each other at this point in time.
My time has a cost to it. My customer’s time has a cost to it, too. The ballpark figure allows both of us to move on quickly and spend our time in ways that are more appropriate to each of us.
Says freelance copywriter, trainer and speaker Ed Gandia: ‘As a freelance professional, your most valuable non-renewable resource is time. You must use it wisely. So when you spend two or three hours “educating” a prospect on the value of your services (and why you’re a much better option than someone charging one-tenth of what you charge), you’re using up valuable billable time. [...] There are enough prospects who understand the value of what you offer to save you from wasting time with those who don’t. [...] Yes, it’s hard to see a potential client walk away because you won’t budge. But, let’s face it. If his budget is 75% less than your absolute minimum fee … what’s the point?’ (‘Why You Must Quote a Ballpark Figure’, Freelance Folder, 2010).
Copywriter Steve Slaunwhite concurs: ‘What if a prospective client is cheap and not willing to pay professional rates for professional work? Wouldn't you rather find that out right away instead of wasting an hour or two (or even longer) preparing and submitting a formal proposal?’ (‘Should You Give the Client a “Ballpark” Price Before You Quote the Project?’, American Writers & Artists, Inc., 2011).
And here’s another supporter, my colleague Adrienne Montgomerie. Montgomerie has a widget on her website than enables potential clients to ‘watch the time and cost estimate build before your eyes’ (‘Stop Wasting Time On Estimates’, Copyediting, 2014).
Montgomerie’s instant estimator is based on an average, ‘the mean of all projects I have ever worked on’. To offer a confirmed price, Montgomerie, like me, needs to understand the guts of the project – we need to see a decent-sized representative sample and know the full word count, the subject matter, what rounds of editorial intervention the project has already been through, the deadline, and so on.
Engaging with the client
Some customers simply want to know the price quickly. It’s not that they are trying to get our services on the cheap, or that they don’t value what we do for them. Rather, they want to be able to plan their budget as quickly as possible.
Consider, again, the author mentioned above. She has an 83,000-word novel that needs proofreading. She has no idea what proofreaders charge, but she does want to hire one and is prepared to find the funds necessary to secure the services of a supplier who instils confidence in her. She’s looked online and found a few suppliers whose websites she liked and who made her feel like she’d be in safe hands with them. To some extent, the value those proofreaders will bring to the project has already been acknowledged. At this stage, she wants to get a feel for what her investment will likely be – will she need to save up or does she already have the funds in place? Acquiring a ballpark figure prior to having a lengthier discussion about the proofreading process will help her to get the ball rolling.
In some cases, the ballpark price can enable you to engage with the customer and nail the deal before they’ve had a chance to search elsewhere. Here’s Slaunwhite again: ‘[W]hen you quote a ballpark price, some clients will be satisfied and give you the go-ahead right away. [...] I've had many projects where I quoted a ballpark price and the client said, “Yes, that sounds fine. When can we get started?” After that, the formal quotation I send later on is just that: a formality. The project is already mine!’ (‘Should You Give the Client a “Ballpark” Price Before You Quote the Project?’).
Tracking and evaluating data
Ideally, I want my ballpark quotations to come in close to a confirmed quotation. The ballpark price certainly isn’t a ‘trick’ designed to lure my client into a conversation, only for me to turn round and say, ‘Sorry, it’s going to be double the fee I quoted earlier.’ Rather, it's meant to facilitate a conversation that enables us to cut to the chase and decide as quickly as possible whether we’re a financial fit.
There may be times, of course, when the ballpark and the confirmed quotations are too far apart because, following an assessment of the project, the level of intervention required is either beyond my means as a proofreader, or within my means but will require more time. However, I’m pretty accurate with my ballpark quotations. That’s because I, like many of my colleagues, track and evaluate my data.
Here’s Montgomerie again: ‘Of course, the reason I can ballpark with confidence is that I have kept detailed records of my pace over the years. It also helps to work on the same kinds of projects again and again. And some types of projects are more consistent than others. I’m sure there are a thousand other reasons pessimists think this won’t work. But I guarantee you, it’s worth a try. If you know assignments typically pay $5000, there’s no reason wasting everyone’s time when the budget only allows for $500’ (‘Stop Wasting Time On Estimates’).
So, through tracking my data, I have come to know approximately how long it takes me to proofread different types of material, written by different client types with varying levels of English fluency.
And here’s what I wrote back in 2014: ‘My project data spreadsheet is Excel-based and tracks every project I’ve worked on in a particular financial year [see ‘Editorial Annual Accounts Template (Excel)’, Proofreader’s Parlour, 2012]. It includes information such as: month in which the job was carried out, author, publisher, invoice number, date of invoice, payment due date, date of actual payment, pages, word count, £/1000 words, £/page, words proofed per hour, pages proofed per hour, total hours spent proofreading the project, agreed total fee, and the (sometimes extrapolated) hourly rate. […] By recording different variables, I can, over time, extrapolate information that enables me to build a picture of where the financial value lies in my client base’ (The Proofreader’s Corner: Rates, Data Tracking, and Digital Efficiencies (Part I)’, An American Editor, 2014). I’m still using that same spreadsheet.
None of us knows whether our business is sustainable if we don’t know what an hour of our time costs us, or is worth to us.
Taking account of project variances …
You don’t have to have only one pricing structure at work if you want to offer ballpark quotations. Whether you’ve built a website-based widget (like Montgomerie) or a phone-based Excel spreadsheet (like me), the key to success is ensuring that your tool reflects the type of work you’re quoting for.
I’m a proofreader, so my ballpark-fee spreadsheet doesn’t have to cater for clients looking for structural editing, heavy copyediting or project management. That doesn’t mean, however, that I want to ballpark every client with the same rate per 1,000 words:
In Part 2, I’ll take a look at some of the concerns raised about ballpark pricing, and comment on how, after reflecting on these, I chose to ameliorate the potential problems for my own business practice.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and copyeditor. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
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