What to do when a client won’t tell you what their budget is

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Speaker Budget

I’m a big fan of former hostage negotiator Chris Voss, I love his book ‘Never split the difference’ and I totally agree with his advice of always ‘letting the other side go first’ in a negotiation.  You want your client or prospect to show their hand, to let you know what they have in their budget before you talk money.  You need to be sure that the discussion is worth having.  

But what happens when a client simply won't tell you what their budget is, how do you handle it? 

Let’s look at some tactics I have used in the past that hopefully will help you too.  Before we go into detail, I recommend that these negotiations take place on a call, in a meeting or on Zoom, not by email.  You want to have a discussion, a hostage negotiator would never negotiate via email, you shouldn’t either. 

Mirror Their Words

Let’s start with a Chris Voss’ technique.  Mirroring the other side’s words.  This involves repeating the last three words (or the critical few words) your client just said. This shows that you are actively listening and encourages the client to continue talking, often leading them to reveal more information, which could include their budget.


Show your client that you understand their perspective. By acknowledging their concerns about costs, you may encourage them to share more about their financial constraints. For instance, you could say, "It sounds like you're working with a tight budget for this event."

Use Open-Ended Questions

I know you learned this day one, just remining you to use what you’ve learned.  For example, ask, "How can we make sure this event is a success while keeping within financial constraints?" These types of questions can nudge them towards discussing budget.

Go High

This was always my favourite bargaining strategy, starting with a high price.  This only works if you have a service you offer that is genuinely a high price.  In the bureau it was easy for me to do.  I’m sure as a speaker you have premium services you can reference.  It would go something like this – “my fees vary from brief to brief they can go up as high as 50K, how far apart are we?”.  You’re going to get a reaction and often that reaction involves quoting a figure that they are more comfortable with, and now you can get down to business.  

Give them a range

This is a variation of going high, and one that I also used a lot.  If the client won’t reveal their budget, propose a range. For instance, "My fees typically fall between X and Y, depending on several factors." If they're resistant to your higher number, they'll likely lean towards the lower end, providing some insight into their budget.

This one might offend, so use it carefully

Instead of pushing for a 'yes', aim to get your client to say 'no' to a scenario they'd want to avoid.  Another Voss tactic.  For example, you could ask, "Do you want to risk the success of your event by not budgeting adequately for a professional speaker?" This could make clients more forthcoming about their budget but tread carefully you might offend.

Find out what they’ve done in the past

Instead of pushing for a budget you could ask “what did you pay for your speaker last year?”.  You’d be surprised how many give you an answer.  If they tell you they don’t know you can ask them “who spoke at this event last year?”.   You won’t have a fee but you can do a bit of investigative work and find out what fees that particular speaker charges, speaker bureau websites will often show a range of fees for speakers.

Ask them who else they are considering

In a similar way to the last question this will give you a very good idea of how much they are looking to spend, it also tells you who they consider your competition to be.

Who cares what the budget is?  

I can hear many of you shouting at your screens telling me that it doesn't matter what the budget is, your fee is your fee, and that is absolutely valid.   But I also hope that you have a portfolio of products and services at different fee levels, so knowing the budget allows you to offer a solution that will work for the client rather and that doesn't devalue your expertise.

I hope you’ve found this helpful and I’ll see you next time.  

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