Marketers and Salespeople: Agents for Freelancers? [en]

[fr] Discussion à SXSW avec mon ami Thomas Vanderwal: existe-t-il des agents pour freelances/consultants? Je rencontre beaucoup d'indépendants (en plus de moi) qui ne se sentent pas à leur aise dans les négociations "commerciales" (préciser le mandat, le salaire, les conditions). Serait-il possible de déléguer cette partie-là du travail à un agent, contre commission, comme cela se fait dans le show-biz, ou comme on le fait avec un "book agent" ou un "speaking agent"?

Qu'en pensez-vous? Est-ce que ça existe?

Even though I didn’t play the social butterfly at SXSW, I had quite a few nice and interesting hallway conversations with friends I bumped into along the way (the way to where…? that’s another question). Hanging out at my usual haunt the lego pit, I had a chat with my friend Thomas Vanderwal about Going Solo (of course) and the highs and lows of freelancing.

One of the things that came up in the conversation was how much difficulty we had with the actual “sales” part of our job as consultants. Getting clients interested and finding contacts is not much of a problem. Convincing people we have something to offer and that we’re the right person “for the job” isn’t either. What is a bigger problem is actually negotiating the terms of the agreement, closing the deal, discussing financials. Sales. Selling. Personally, I consider that I really suck at that, and many of my freelancer friends have said the same to me.

Does this remind you of anything? It should. Head over to read Going Solo: A Few Words Of Advice on the Freshbooks blog.

Stowe Boyd wrote this nearly two years ago, and it’s been one of the starting points behind developing the programme for Going Solo (yes, he’ll be speaking about this too). I also mentioned it in my talk about being a blogging consultant at the end of last year. I’m telling you this to emphasize how much of an eye-opener Stowe’s vision of freelancing has been to me. To summarize very briefly, the skills one needs to be a successful soloist fall in three categories:

  • doing the work
  • networking/marketing
  • selling/business/money

So here we are. People who decide to go freelance, like me, are usually (hopefully) good at doing the work, good enough at marketing/networking, or they probably wouldn’t think about going solo in the first place.

And so, talking with Thomas, here’s the bright idea that came up (I honestly can’t remember which of us articulated it first): there are book agents, speaking agents, modelling agents — where are the freelancer/consultant agents? Where are the people who have strong selling skills, who will step in to negotiate contracts for us once we have got the client interested, who understand what we do and believe in it? I’d gladly give a percentage of what I earn for this kind of service.

There are communities out there for freelancers, but they seem to always focus also on “finding clients”. One always needs more leads, of course — but that’s not really the part of the job I need to delegate. I actually enjoy the networking/marketing part of my job. They also seem to have a pool of “agents”, and from the outside it doesn’t seem clear how personalized the service will be.

Is there anybody out there who does this? Do you think this kind of relationship can work? As somebody who would hire freelance consultants/workers, how would you feel about negotiating with an agent rather than the person you’re hiring directly?

8 thoughts on “Marketers and Salespeople: Agents for Freelancers? [en]

  1. I don’t know of any individual ‘agents’ as such, … but there are agencies around that try to aggregate freelancers, deal with contracts, and of course take a slice of the $. I guess the difference is whether the agent/agency’s name and brand take centre stage, and who the contract is actually with?

  2. I’m lucky because I’ve been freelance for just under 16 years now (mainly in television). I’ve had an agent (for tv work. I have one now, in fact) and have not had an agent. The years when I didn’t have an agent were my busiest years in television. I had to learn to negotiate. It was very hard, but in the end I became pretty good at it (in fact, it was a holiday in Egypt which made me learn the absolute joy and sport of haggling which helped most!). I also knew exactly what I should be getting for a particular job on a particular channel etc so ‘negotiating’ was merely having the confidence to insist on getting what I should have been paid.

    Since, I’ve moved into the online world, however, it’s a LOT more difficult. Should I have one daily rate that I charge everyone or is there a sliding scale? What is it? Where do I sit on it? Do I reduce my daily rate if there’s a higher guaranteed number of days per week? Do I charge the same daily rate if I’m consulting as I do if I’m writing? What if I’m producing video for the web? Do I charge extra if I’m taking photos for the site as well as writing it? What if I’m merely producing the site, but someone else is doing all the design and content? Is that even called producing? Do I charge for full days if I don’t actually do a full day’s work (in tv I do)? Do I charge for meetings (in tv I do)? What do I charge when someone just wants me to have ideas?

    For me, the negotiating isn’t an issue, it’s more a case of wanting to charge a rate that is right for me and the industry (I don’t want to undercut other freelancers nor do I want to rip companies off). If there was such a thing as a web freelancer’s agent who really knew inside and out what the proper rate are, that would help enormously… As it is I find myself bumbling around a bit not actually sure if what I’m about to say is too low or too high… (I actually tend to go for the high end and let them haggle me down 😉

  3. Thanks for your comments!

    Dan, I think an important issue for me, as a soloist who already has some kind of reputation or “profile”, is that I should retain my identity and freelance status. I don’t want to be a number in some kind of freelancer farm.

    Gia, the issues you raise are EXACTLY why I’m doing Going Solo. I think there is no easy answer to those questions, and we all have to figure out what is right for us. Learning from what others are doing and being able to share with our peers seems to be a very important element in achieving that.

    I lived in India for a year, but never got any good at haggling. I’m way too transparent 😉

  4. Good point, and I think one of the main difficulties of going solo.

    Selling oneself is always difficult. Selling is always difficult, but in the area we work, I can’t see easily delagating it to an agent. The deal we sign with a customer is quite specific, there are very precise requirements, there are the way we do things, our expertise. Discussing the price, in my experience, is still a part of building the deal and agreeing on the deliverables.

    An “agent’ would be useful for selling standard products, as your blog trainning session. But when you go to a specific prestation, tailored for the customer, then “if” agent, he should be part of the whole discussion, from the beginning. As do technical companies in sales force, where you usually have the “tech guy” and the “money guy”.

    I remember a time when they had the “sales team”, signing the agreement, and then you started to work with someone else who was doing the job, and the evolution went to a discussion including the person who would do the job after.

    But maybe, if you do’t find an agent, you could get yourself a sales trainning ?

    The comment from Gia raises another issue. The problem is not so much negotiating for her, it’s knowing the right prices.
    A friend told be once, about haggling in Morocco “the rigt price is the one that makes both parts happy”. The best way to get an idea about your price level is the number of customers you sign : none, and you’re either really too high or too low (and then they don’t trust you), a lot, more than you can handle, you could raise your prices a little bit, not enough but some, you should check with friends if the problem is in your prices or something else (and you could also ask a feed back from the person who refused to sign with you, clearly statting “I’m just doing that to improve, and not to try to get you in the deal another way”).

  5. Stephanie, I came here from Thomas’ post and have to agree wholeheartedly with everything you say. I am much better at the networking and getting people to declare interest in what I do. I can even get them to have that first free meeting. Where I fall down, and the bit I loathe is the sales. I’m not good at it and don’t enjoy it – I’m good at the things acidlabs does.

    A lot of my work comes through contract/body shops that dominate the IT industry in Australia. As such, it’s more the technically-focussed IA/UX work than the social networking consulting that I get as it’s the big consulting companies who largely get to do the consulting work (until you build reputation in that and begin to attract word of mouth referrals). The contract companies here usually charge the client 20 per cent on top of your hourly rate to act as broker. I’d rather pay a somewhat smaller fee and have someone who really gets my work to be that intermediary.

    That said, the contracting company I deal most with are very good and make a point of understanding the people they broker for.

  6. I used to use body shops years ago.. But now they are more trouble than they are worth. They have no idea what I really do (IA, UX,UI by the way). They have no idea the technology, the process etc. The concept of a sales agent could have the same problem.

    To often the sales end of an organisation undersells the skills of the the consulting / dev team and forces them to leverage the wrong solution in place for the price. Does the sales team have to the problem with this in the short term. No. This is where this type of idea may come unstuck.

  7. Gary: that’s exactly why I’m thinking “agent” as in “book agent” or “speaking agent”. A personal relationship, not just being part of a machine.

  8. Hi Stephanie,

    I did exactly the same constat after years in a big advisory group in France. That is why I decide to cofound a company where we propose to our customer a large variety of competences based on freelanders. I observed that experts are pretty good in the technic but not in the customer relation. I am specialise on customer relation, specially for sme customers. So I will propose to expert (freelanders) to list their competences and after if I need their competence to contact them. It is very easy now, with all the communications tools. I scheduled to build an online cooperative plateform where customer manage than me and experts (freelanders) could meet together and communicate for the benefit of the customer. If anyone interesting by this project, contact me.

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