I used to think that a ‘fair price’ was whatever the client was willing to pay.

I had always heard, “If they pay, they must consider it fair.”

So I made it a practice to shoot for the ‘whistle price’. (Except when I chickened out.)

That’s the fee where the client says, “Whew. That sounds like a lot. But let’s go ahead.”

I figured that meant I was getting the maximum possible, and wouldn’t be leaving money on the table.

But I discovered that is not quite right.

Pricing at the whistle point can work for one-shot clients and drive-by projects. (Provided you can deliver, of course.)  Maybe you can wring more money out of a project that way.

But if you depend on long-term opportunities, whistle-point pricing can backfire. As it did on me too often.  “Okay, go with him this one time, but let’s keep shopping around.”

For the frequent flyers, for heavy users, for pro buyers — the kind of clients you can build a career on — I found there’s a smarter way.

The idea is to aim for the sweet spot: the fee that the client feels good about, and would be happy to pay, over and over.

Which also happens to be a fee that you feel good about, and would be happy to take any day.

There’s no begrudging or grumbling on either side. They end up thanking you, and you end up thanking them.

You won’t always get there on every project every time. Sometimes those Venn circles won’t quite intersect.

But that’s what your aim for. Because that is where the money is.

That’s how you keep clients for years. Streams of work from avid buyers will buy you a beach house.

Oh. And here’s the big point.

Making the client feeling good about the fee doesn’t automatically mean lowering it. (It rarely means that.)

It’s more about raising their comfort with the project. Make them feel better about what they’re getting.

Which means, starting on day one, all your conversations are about client’s end of the project. What they’re trying to accomplish, how this moves things ahead, how things will be when this is done. They feel they are the center of the universe.

What counts is what they get.