We all had a situation when the client sends a paper with questions where you have to spend a couple of hours replying. Then he replies back with more question, and again you spend a couple of hours replying. Even after that you have to spend some hours investigating technology he mentioned in order to give him a better proposal.

Now, where is the limit here? So far, I was unable to find a good way to tell him that I cannot do so much work during estimation for free. In such situations, I told my clients that such details will be discussed when he has awarded me the contract, and 98% of then never contacted me again. Maybe they were not serious, maybe they wanted free info from me, maybe...

The other cases finished in a way that a client stopped replying to my emails.

Either way, I feel abused without being able to find a way to deal with such clients.

What do you do here? How to satisfy the demanding client and get the job, and at the same time have all extraordinary work hours covered?

PS. I tried to find a question on this topic here, but I saw only similar ones. All similar discussed situations when you're already hired. None mentioned negotiation (estimation) phase.

2 Answers 2


I do design/development of web sites, mainly WordPress based, and generally estimate a proposal--including client meeting, research and a draft of a contract--to take 4-5 hours of my time. How much I'm willing to go over that time depends on a few elements:

  • size of project & budget
  • relationship with prospective client & likelihood of getting the gig
  • how applicable what I'm learning will be to future gigs

Also, in most instances, my proposals and contracts are not specific about the technology I'll use to achieve an end (WordPress being an obvious exception and also if a client has a prior preference for an e-commerce solution), but am instead specific about what the end result will be (e.g., I commit to the fact that there will be a contact form in the site's footer, but not to whether we'll need to use a specific plugin or service to achieve that). I do this to specifically avoid the situation you're describing because:

  1. It means either during the proposal process or the discovery process that follows I learn about what the client needs this project or element to achieve and we're not locked into a solution that doesn't meet their needs; and
  2. The client is paying, in part, for my expertise in translating their needs and evaluating and providing solutions, and it doesn't make sense to me to provide this up front.

Based on what you've described, I think you need to be sure that you're not shutting down conversation with clients by refusing to do more research or adapt your proposals. Instead, you need to be more clear about what your proposals are and what your services are (i.e., differentiating between paying just for you to implement solutions vs. paying for you to be someone who solves problems) and be building the prospect's confidence that you're the person for the job.


Affirmed graphic designers or agencies bill for drafts. They tell in advance there is a fee and what this fee is. It's usually small and implies three or four different proposals the client can choose from. It makes sense because customers might run away with those drafts and make third parties implement or finish them.

Also, big clients might have very slow and incoherent internal decision processes, so they might keep the drafts in a drawer for a years, then pop back up like nothing happened. And after all that time they might still be asking for some more draft proposals, because yes, they took a year to examine the previous ones.

So, billing for drafts, in certain cases, is the only alternative to bankruptcy.

Back to your case, what do your proposals look like? Do they look like a real project, with a customized graphic appeal, an overview of the necessary customizations, and a detailed cost (and time) estimate, maybe some presentation material, some graphs, some illustration, and some technology insight applied to your customer's needs? You can bill for that, because yes, you are delivering some value to the client, and that's what people pay for.

If, instead, you want them to pay you to research technologies they though you knew already, getting nothing out of it... well, are you a rockstar wordpresser, with a busy schedule, which they really really want to work with? Then your mere interest in their puny affairs might be the value they want to pay for.

Anyway, explain in advance why the proposals are not free, (you're good and too busy, your proposals are pieces of art the customer can reuse, or something like that) set some standard price for proposal, and make that price unequivocally clear upfront. You don't usually want to surprise customers with random bills.

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