The pandemic is doing odd things to people’s freelance businesses: something I’ve discussed in a pandemic roundtable podcast, and a blog post. About all that can be said is that some things are up and others are down. I’ve heard from multiple freelancers (translators and interpreters) who’ve never been busier, and from others who are considering a career change because their businesses have crashed. It really just depends on who you work for and how your clients, or your clients’ clients, have been affected by the pandemic.
In my case, what was true in June — direct client work stable, agency work slim to nonexistent, court interpreting work slim to nonexistent, online courses selling out as fast as I can get them posted — held true until this month, when I landed a large new agency client. More on that below.
Let’s talk about discounts in general
By far one of the biggest questions on freelancers’ minds seems to be: should I offer a pandemic discount? Former students have told me that their clients are pressuring them for pandemic discounts; others whose work volume is way down wonder if discounts might help it rebound. Let’s take a look:
- Most importantly, never give a discount unless there’s a business case for you to do so. Make sure you can complete the sentence, “I am offering this discount because…” It always irks me when freelancers say, “The client made me lower my rates (do extra work without extra pay/agree to be paid by the word for editing/etc. etc.).” No, sorry, the client didn’t make you do that, because you’re not even their employee, much less their indentured servant. The client asked for that, and you said yes, or at least did not say no. So first, make sure that you are intentionally offering a discount for a specific reason.
- Second, remember that there can be economic reasons for not offering discounts, and there can be non-economic reasons for offering discounts. Here’s what I mean: if your work volume is low, consider whether you’d in fact be better off raising your rates and looking for higher-paying clients, rather than offering discounts to your current clients. In my case, I offered a new agency client a discount for a non-economic reason: because, for a while, I’ve had a goal of landing a new high-volume agency client, especially since one of my main direct clients (a grant-funded NGO) is winding down their work on the project I translate for. My income this year will be almost exactly what it was last year, which I’ll put in the “win” column considering the pandemic and that I’m in grad school. I didn’t have an economic reason to offer this client a discount. But for various reasons, I’ve been interested in landing a new agency client with large international development projects, so I jumped at the chance to do that, and I offered them a rate that “split the difference” between their ideal rate and mine. In the end, I think both parties were happy.
- Third, remember that if you look for lower-paying work, you’re likely to find it. And then…you’re stuck doing that work, putting in longer hours for less money, perhaps resenting it, and so on. There are valid reasons to give discounts, but before you take a self-inflicted pay cut, make sure you’re clear about your reasons.
Is the pandemic itself a reason to give a discount?
Honestly, this depends very much on the sectors in which you work. If clients are approaching you, claiming that their own business has been affected by the pandemic and thus they want lower rates from you, that might or might not be true. If they’re in the hotel industry, or commercial real estate, or aviation, then they are probably correct (which still doesn’t mean that you have to offer a discount; it just means that the client’s revenue is probably down by quite a bit). If they’re in the medical supply or online education sectors, then it’s a different story. Yes, lots of businesses have gone, or will go bankrupt because of the pandemic. But it’s simply not true that all businesses are suffering: if you bought Zoom stock a year ago today, you would have paid around $50; today, over $400. Not every industry has been affected equally.
And again, the client’s financial situation is not your problem. Your financial situation is very much your problem. But it’s worth considering whether your clients’ businesses have actually been affected.
What’s your mental state right now?
This is a non-economic factor worth mentioning. The other day, a former student told me that she offered her biggest client a pandemic discount, because she’s homeschooling two kids, feels constantly stressed out, and needs a steady flow of work that she can do without too much extra stress. Her take: now is not the time for a demanding new client, even if they pay well. Fair enough. I’m on board with that line of reasoning.
Could some sectors have a delayed reaction to the pandemic?
This is something I think about a lot. For example, my international development work is relatively unaffected at the moment, and I’ve even landed a new client. But I wonder if, because NGOs tend to operate on long funding cycles — sometimes three years or more — there could be a bit of a boomerang effect next year or even later than that. I really don’t know.
Is it better to just look for new clients?
This is always the question: when are you better off sticking with a long-term client who is easy to work with and sends you lots of work (but asks for a discount), versus looking for new, higher-paying clients. Of course there is not a yes/no answer to this, but I’d consider factors such as:
- Is this client’s request based on their specific situation, or do you work in a sector that’s been hard-hit by the pandemic in general?
- What is your financial cushion like right now? Again, there’s a huge range: if your spouse has been unemployed for six months with no end in sight, now may be a time to stick with the bird in the hand. If you’ve been earning the same as before the pandemic but spending less because there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do (this is the case at my house!), perhaps it’s a good time to make the leap.
- How much time and energy do you have for marketing? Realistically, it’s a very tough time to be a freelancer if you have young kids doing online school from home. That’s a valid consideration right now.
- What new clients would you market to, and what’s your pitch? Here again, you want to think in a sector-specific way. With the recent news about highly-effective vaccine trials, it seems like there’s at least a shred of a chance that we might see the other side of the pandemic in mid to late 2021 (is that wishy-washy enough…I’m trying not to make predictions here!). So it might be worth doing some “get ready for the rebound” marketing to industries that have been hard-hit. Or those industries may be reeling so badly that you don’t want to rub salt in the wound. That’s something that you need to research and think about on an individual basis.
Readers, over to you: your thoughts on pandemic discounts?