The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
In Part 1, I looked at why I, and some of my freelancing colleagues, have embraced ballpark pricing. There are, however, some valid concerns about the ballpark quotation that need to be considered before rushing into offering such a service.
Here in Part 2, I take a look at some of these and share how I tackled these for my own business. I do so, however, while respecting the fact that not all of my colleagues have editorial workflows that look like mine. Caution is therefore urged when necessary.
Taking account of project variances …
Wrong focus – money over value …The argument goes that this type of quote focuses on the money rather than the value that editorial professionals bring to the table. When we offer ballpark quotes, it’s just a figure.
Says Celine Roque: ‘It’s incomplete. Your quote is just a number. Your clients can’t surmise all the information they need from that number. Apart from the primary services you provide, you should also give them your advice. Oftentimes, what a client really needs is different from what they think they need. In this case, an assessment of a client’s business and project, followed by a proposal, is the better approach’ (‘Why You Shouldn't Just Give a Quote to Potential Clients’, Gigaom, 2008).
Regarding Roque’s concerns, giving advice takes time (see Part 1). Furthermore, what a customer needs is not always the same thing as what a customer wants. Giving advice to someone who actually just wants a price isn’t good customer service (even if you know that your advice, value, etc. would, in reality, be in their best interests). It’s just aggravating. Personally, I prefer to give my advice later, once I’ve provided what the client asked for – the price.
However, see the section below headed ‘The gap between the ballpark and the actual price – the problem of accuracy’. Adin’s comments are insightful because they remind us that what works for me might not be appropriate for you. If, like him, the kinds of clients you specialize in working for have such complex requirements that a detailed response is the only option, then offering ballpark fees might not be as easy for you to implement as it is for me.
Missing the opportunity to add value …
In ‘Sales 101: Don’t Get to Price Too Early, Even If You’re Asked to “Ballpark”’ (Sexton Group Ltd, 2015), Steve Payne discusses ‘the number one rule of quoting prices’: ‘Don’t quote a price – any price – before you have sold the client on your ability to do the job. If you haven’t convinced the client that it’s you they want to work with, before you quote a price, it’s like you are swinging at a baseball too early. In the case above, you made no effort to tell the client, through testimonials, through photographs, through stories, about your firm. How it operates. What makes it different. How delighted past customers have been with your work. How you have many repeat clients who will never work with another contractor as long as you are in business.’
In other words, you’re potentially shutting the door to negotiation, especially if your price is perceived as too high.
To ameliorate this, consider other ways to emphasize your value at the point where customers are likely to contact you.
I decided to add a list of testimonials to my ‘Get a Quote’ page. You might try this, or make a splash about a particular tool or resource that you offer potential clients.
Furthermore, there’s nothing to stop you responding to ballpark-price requests with not only the estimated fee but also brief information about your relevant unique selling points – imagine you offer a ballpark price to a self-publishing author and that you’ve proofread for many other such clients. You could respond to the ballpark-pricing query with something along the lines of: ‘Thanks so much for getting in touch – a ballpark price for X,000 words is £Y. I’d really appreciate the opportunity to evaluate a sample of your novel and have a more in-depth discussion about how I can help you. I have extensive experience of working with independent writers in your genre – you can see what some of them have said about my work here [link to testimonials page on website]. I do hope we can continue the conversation.’
Payne’s point about using value to make you a more hireable prospect is a good one, but I still believe that when a potential client asks for a price, we need to listen to that request and act on it. No one wants to hire a proofreader who can’t follow a brief. If I can’t listen to a client’s request at the very first point of contact, how can I expect them to trust me to listen further down the line?
The gap between the ballpark and the actual price – the problem of accuracy
Rich Adin (personal correspondence) pointed out that accuracy can be a huge problem for some editorial freelancers when it comes to ballpark pricing. One simply cannot offer anything like a realistic price without seeing at least a sample of the work. For those editors who offer complex services to clients, this is a valid criticism of the ballpark mechanism.
The kinds of projects that Adin is often asked to quote for are very different from my own. I don’t copyedit ‘2,800-page biology text[s] with thousands of references’ and I don’t have the added complication of negotiating based on ‘whether the required level of editing is “light,” “medium,” or “heavy,” the subject matter, and the number of references and reference style’ (‘The Business of Editing: The Standard Editing Workday & Workweek’, An American Editor, 2016).
A client asking for a ballpark figure for editing one of Adin’s ‘13,000-page medical manuscript[s]’ might fail to mention that they need the project completed in an eye-watering ten weeks, or that all 5,000 references are in a mish-mash of citation styles. For that reason, Adin doesn’t offer ballpark quotations because, without knowing the detail of what’s involved, it’s impossible to build a price, or justify it, in ways that make sense to, and can be respected by, the client.
Says Adin: ‘Even if after a detailed explanation I do not get the current project, I do not consider having given the detailed explanation a waste of time because the client can see that I have reasons for my positions and am willing to offer solutions. Clients are also made aware that there needs to be a balance between schedule, fee, and quality. Based on past experience, I will be asked to undertake a future project, perhaps even one where the client has already preapplied my analysis’ (‘The Business of Editing: The Standard Editing Workday & Workweek’).
In my rather less complicated proofreading business, these problems aren’t evident. I’ve tracked my data, and my workflows are relatively straightforward, so I have a pretty good idea of how much time it takes to provide a thorough proofread for a client. I’ve not been stung yet by offering this service. But the maximum number of words I’ve ever worked on was 250,000. And that project had been edited before it came anywhere near my desk.
Would I be able to bring accuracy to the table if I was offering more varied and complex levels of editing? Would I falter if I offered indexing or translation services? I honestly don't know because I don't do those things. My response is therefore to ask you to consider whether there are parts of the editorial service you provide, or particular client types with whom you work, 'where fewer complexities are involved, making them more appropriate for testing ballpark pricing.
You may be enthusiastic or concerned about offering ballpark quotes. You may have fifty colleagues who offer ballpark quotes, seventy who steadfastly refuse to, and twenty more who are thinking about the issue. All of that will be interesting and help to guide your thinking. Ultimately, though, what’s good for you will not necessarily be good for me or any of those 140 colleagues who have already made their own decisions or who are in the process of making those decisions. The only way to know whether ballpark pricing is good for your business is to test it.
You could set up a trial and design the service in a way that, to the best extent possible, you ameliorate some of the concerns you have. Then you would track the results and see how the experience works out for you. You’re in control so you can end the test whenever you wish. Or you could tweak the way in which you present the service. Or you could amend the maths behind the construction of the ballpark quote so that the figures you’re presenting change. It’s up to you.
Other colleagues will have opinions, and those will be useful – not in regard to whether you should or shouldn’t offer ballpark quotes, but in regard to the issues you consider and the challenges you ready yourself for should you decide to undertake the test itself.
Think about the types of work you are asked to quote for. Are they complex projects that require an in-depth evaluation in order to even begin working out a price? Or are you generally asked to work on projects whose parameters are more clear-cut? Ballpark pricing may be more applicable to some types of editorial work than others.
Are there questions that you can ask your client to answer as part of the estimation process that would help you to build a ballpark-quotation tool? For example, level of edit required (including links to descriptions), type of work (academic, novel, thesis, webpages etc.), number of words, figures, tables, references.
Are you tracking your data so that you know how long it takes you to carry out a particular level of editorial intervention? It may be that you are a new entrant to the field and so can’t confidently estimate how much time a project will take you. If that’s you, start tracking your data now so that, further down the road, you can use it to help you decide whether ballpark pricing is appropriate for your business (or parts of it) and how you might use this tool to increase customer engagement.
If you are curious but nervous, consider testing the use of ballpark quoting with a particular client group or specific type of editorial service.
For some of you, the ballpark price may not be appropriate – ever. For others, it might be a useful tool for some types of editorial work (for example, proofreading for students, businesses or independent authors). For yet others, it may be a mechanism that you can implement universally.
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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