My ‘Sliding Scale’ Method for Quoting a Project

You’ve had your initial discussion with a new prospect.

They’ve described what they need. And you’ve had an opportunity to ask them more about their project, expectations and timing.

Now comes the hard part: working up an estimate or proposal.

Maybe you’ve given them a ballpark figure. (You DID talk money on the call, right?)

But for some reason, it’s still agonizing.

So how in the world do you arrive at a number to quote?

Over the years, I’ve developed a series of questions that guide me through this process. As I run through these questions and review my notes from the conversation with the prospect, I can start narrowing down my final number.

Here are the questions I ask myself:

    • Is the project well-defined?
    • Is it something I can do well (or am reasonably capable of doing now)?
    • Are the prospect’s overall expectations realistic?
    • Is this a realistic time frame/deadline?
    • Are there too many parties involved? If so, could this turn into a headache?
    • Does this sound like a reasonable person and organization?
    • Are they marketing-savvy enough to understand what I can/cannot do?
    • Do they sound like they’re shopping around?
    • Does it sound like they can afford me? Do they “get” the value?
    • Did they mention things about me they liked/were impressed by?
    • Can I fit this into my schedule?

I want you to then add a few more questions to ask yourself. The answers to these questions are naturally going to be much more subjective, because they’ll be based on your intuition. But they’re very important because they’ll enable you to temper the answers to the previous set of questions.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Where am I in my business currently? Does it make sense to pursue this prospect and this project opportunity right now, based on where I am today?
  • Is there an added prestige to be gained from working with this client?
  • How do I generally feel about this prospect and this particular project?
  • Even if they were OK with the ballpark figure I quoted them during the call, what’s the client’s apparent ability to pay me on time?
  • How difficult would it be to secure the business? Are they almost presold, or does it sound like they’ll need much more convincing?
  • How badly do I need the work?

At this point, you’ll probably have a good overall feeling about the viability of this opportunity. But beyond your gut feeling, you also have a series of “pluses” and “minuses” based on your answers to each question.

Questions that garnered a negative response get a minus. Questions that garnered a positive response get a plus.

And you can use these pluses and minuses to move the needle up or down in the fee range you quoted the prospect.

For example, let’s say you quoted the prospect a ballpark figure of $3,500 to $4,500 for a white paper. As you go through the questions above, you start getting a better picture of your final estimate.

Let’s assume that for the most part this looks to be a good prospect with reasonable expectations. Most of the responses are good to very good. There are some potential negatives, and they mostly have to do with the fact that the prospect is still trying to figure out what they want to say about themselves and their value.

You also know that the CEO will be directly involved in reviewing your white paper draft. You’ve been told that she’s very opinionated and changes her mind quite frequently about how the company should communicate its value proposition.

Based on your experience, those are all red flags. Not major red flags, but definitely indicators that this project will involve several revisions and some considerable project management.

Based on these factors, you might determine to quote on the higher end of that ballpark range — maybe $4,000 … or even $4,500.

However, let’s take a situation where the responses were also mainly positive and the only negative is that the prospect needs a first draft in 10 days. That’s a bit tight, but you’re confident you can manage it. Other than that, everything else checked out and felt good.

In that case, you might feel better quoting something in the lower half of the range — maybe $3,500 or $3,750.

Sometimes, the hardest part of this process is making that final decision and letting go of the feeling that you might be under-quoting or over-quoting. So my advice would be to run through this process and pick a number based on your answers to these questions.

Once you pick the number, write it down. If you have to send the prospect a quote now, do it.

And then try to let go of any fears about whether you did the right thing, because you’ve gone about “quoting the project” in a very logical and methodical way. Plus, you’ve applied your own instinct to the process. You should be confident about the way you’ve approached this.

If don’t have to send your quote right away, pick a number anyway — but sleep on it first. Look at it when you are fresh the next morning and run through the questions one more time. Then ask yourself: “Could I possibly be undercharging here?”

There’s a good chance you are undercharging. Most freelancers do!

So here’s my challenge: If you have a good amount of work at the moment (so you’re not forced to make fear-based decisions), raise your quote by somewhere between 10 and 20 percent.

Seriously! Try it and see what happens. I bet you’ll still get the project. And you will have just stepped out of your comfort zone and into a new, happier place.

What do you think? Are you willing to try this? Let me know your thoughts in the comments area below.



  • Diane Elizabeth Ihlenfeldt-Boe

    Great advice Ed! As always…

  • Karen Ingle

    Timely advice for me. Just had to walk myself through these questions to come up with a quote for additional work on a previous pro bono project. I’m in the “sleep on it” stage now. Thanks!

  • Lisa Rothstein

    This is awesome and I have a call with a new prospect on Monday!!
    One more question I’d add: who made the first contact (as in, did I prospect them or did they come looking for me)? The people I’m talking to on Monday reached out to me on Linkedin after being impressed by my profile. I’m feeling more confident about a price since they are doing the asking.

    • Lisa Rothstein

      Hey Ed, I arrived at an agreement with that client yesterday — we have a contract for a retainer at $6k a month! It is month to month, and open ended and anyone can exit with ten days’ notice so it’s up to me to demonstrate value… but given all the work that is required (they are reinventing their entire brand voice, which I’ll be facilitating and translating through a LOT of deliverables, as well as making it possible for them to hire cheaper writers to follow the script) if I can perform well and keep the relationship strong, I foresee a long partnership. I did quote them higher originally but it was for more work, and they changed the project a little (doing more of it in-house) so they could afford to hire me. I’m very happy where we ended up! Funny note: After I sent them my quote, I didn’t hear for days and I got nervous they were having sticker shock. I screwed up my courage enough to contact the client and ask if he had a problem with my quote, and he said he’d never even seen it! It had gone to spam. He thought I’d lost interest! Lesson: never assume anything and always follow up!

  • Robin Taney

    This is so perfectly timed as I have struggled with value-based pricing because I felt like so was making up a number. I am going to keep this list of questions with me at all times. Thank you!