10 simple steps to qualify your clients
Qualifying your clients is an important step that helps to keep you from wasting time on those suspects who will either never buy from you or be a poor fit for your business. Even worse are those suspects who will pick your brain, only to use the information you provide with another, often lower-cost, provider. I have a consulting client who is a startup freelance Web designer. When she came to me, she said her problem was spending a lot of time drafting proposals, but not closing any deals. After we talked for a bit, it became apparent that her problem wasn’t closing, it was qualifying, or, rather, the lack of it. In her eagerness to get work, she would invest a load of time writing proposals for whoever called or emailed. Now, she’s closing more sales because she’s taking the time to properly qualify prospects and ensure they’re a good fit for her business. Here are some questions to ask to start qualifying your prospects:
1. Do they need what you provide?
You may have found a hot prospect that appears to do a lot of Web work. But, upon further investigation, you find that the work is handled by an in-house staff. Or it could be that they’re completely satisfied with their current supplier and have no desire to change. The point is, before you invest a significant amount of time, find out if they really are a motivated potential buyer.
2. Do you have experience in the industry?
Have you done this type of work before or will you need to invest in training, buy software or other tools? If so, will you be able to recoup those expenses? Beyond this, using your client as a guinea pig can be pretty risky. Always be up front with them and let them know your situation. If you’ve built up trust, they may be willing to work with you.
3. Can they pay for it?
Just because your prospect, or rather suspect at this point, says all is well and seems like they have some money, do what you can to ensure their ability to pay. Ask around to see if any of your associates have worked with the prospect. Did they pay on time? Were there problems, or did everything go smoothly? It’s a good idea to open a Dunn & Bradstreet (http://www.dnb.com/) account and check your prospects’ credit ratings. D&B provides a variety of reports to help you assess your prospects’ credit worthiness and ability to pay. D&B offers a free 30-day trial with discounts on credit reports
4. Do they provide the opportunity for repeat business?
Working mostly, or exclusively, on one-off projects means you’ll need to spend a lot of time marketing and promoting your practice. Repeat business, on the other hand, is easier to sell, if it even needs to be sold. Plus, clients who offer repeat business help to ensure that a freelancer’s business has a more predicable cash flow.
5. Do they have a realistic budget? Are they hesitant to share their numbers?
[pullquote]…toss out a number. Their response is usually, “Wow! I wasn’t expecting it to be that much!” All of a sudden, they have a budget in mind.[/pullquote] Often, clients — and especially smaller clients — don’t have a clue what Web design and development costs can be or how time-intensive the process often is. Many think of it as an off-the-shelf commodity with a fixed price tag. As such, they may be hesitant or unwilling to share their numbers or thoughts about costs. The thinking is something along the lines of, “If I tell them my budget, I won’t get the best price.” This can be a red flag indicating that the prospect doesn’t trust you. It’s your job to educate them. Toss out some numbers and see what comes back. For example, you might try something such as, “Based on what you’re describing, a site could be as little as $5000 or as much as $8,000. Is that pretty much what you had mind?” Some prospects will tell you they have no idea what their budget is for a given project. Again, toss out a number. Their response is usually, “Wow! I wasn’t expecting it to be that much!” All of a sudden, they have a budget in mind.
6. Is there a realistic deadline for the project?
If the timeline to complete the project means you’ll need to reschedule other work or labor into the wee hours to complete it, you may want to consider passing. Taking on a rush project or one without a reasonable window can mean putting your other clients’ work on the back burner. That can result in upsetting them, missing a deadline and often both. Rush work can also open door for errors. Beyond this, the pressure to complete a rush project can make you angry with the client, even though it’s your fault for taking agreeing to the time frame.
7. Have they worked with a Web designer? If so, who?
If the prospect has never worked with a Web designer before, that means you’ll need to educate them. Can you afford to invest the extra time needed to bring them up to speed? Novice clients are notorious for not having a clear understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish with a site, and that usually means a lot of revisions. Will you be able to bill for those revisions?
8. Is the prospect the final decision-maker?
Here’s a lousy situation. You work hard to build a relationship with a client contact. They’ve implied several times that it’s their project and they’re the decision maker. You’ve become an important resource and demonstrated your value. Everything appears to be moving in the right direction. When the time is right, you submit a proposal, but while meeting with the contact, they tell you they’ll need to run your proposal by their boss, committee or others. [pullquote]It’s human nature to want to appear to have more authority than one really has.[/pullquote] Your heart sinks. You’ve invested time and resources wooing the wrong person. In all likelihood, you’ll need to start from the beginning with a new person or persons. It’s human nature to want to appear to have more authority than one really has. Your contact probably wasn’t trying to pull the wool over your eyes. They just wanted to feel important. All this could have been avoided with a spin on a simple qualifying question. Early on, ask your contact, “Who, beside yourself, will be responsible for giving approvals?” Asking in this manner provides a graceful way for your contact to save face while getting the information you need.
9. Does there appear to be a good personality fit?
You’ll be spending a lot of time with this person, and it helps if you can get along easily. Plus, people buy from people, and usually people they like. This doesn’t mean the contact needs to become one of your personal friends. That can happen, but the main thing is that your personalities gel enough to get through the project.
10. What does your gut tell you?
Gut feelings are often correct. If I had to gander a guess, I’d say it’s due to our collective, yet somewhat unconscious, experience in dealing with people. Look for all reasons why you shouldn’t work with the prospect. This may sound counterproductive, but it will keep you safer. Qualifying prospects is as important as the project itself. Take the time needed up front to save yourself headaches on the back end. Qualifying should be an integral part of your overall process. Sure, it takes a bit on time and research, but in the end, you’ll create a stable of qualified clients you enjoy working for and with over the long haul.