First contact: How to survive your first call with a potential client

2 people on video calls

I recently asked some of our customers at Nusii how we could help them win more business. The quality of replies was amazing, but one stood head and shoulders above the rest. “How do you deal with that first client meeting? What do you say, how do you get the information you need to write a great proposal?”

Jumping on a call with a potential client can be an uncomfortable experience, by anyone’s standards. Nerves set in, the sweats follow and your mind goes into overdrive. But these first calls are crucial to your success as a consultant. Really.

When I first started out I’d jump on any “dear designer” email that came my way. Of course I did, I wanted the work. I needed the work. But of course, do this enough times and you soon realize that you’re throwing billable hours down the drain. If you’ve never seen a “Dear Designer” email, take a look at this example. Im sure they exist in other creative sectors as well:

Dear Designer,

I was searching for web designers when I came across your portfolio. I really like your work and I’d love to get a quote from you for my upcoming project. I’m looking for someone to help me redesign my current web site which is looking pretty dated. Here’s a little info about what I need:

  • Redesign of current site:
    • Should include:
    • Portfolio/gallery page
    • Contact
    • About
    • Home
  • Be responsive
  • Links to my social media accounts.
  • Be flat :)
  • Be live by the end of the month

I’m not sure what this should cost, so I’ll be talking to several designers. I’d love to get a price from you as soon as possible.

Thanks. A potential new client.

Back in the day I would have opened up Indesign, whipped out my snazzy proposal template and jumped straight in. I’d write a quick “job spec” (to look professional) fill it with line items and send it off before the day was out. I WANTED THAT JOB!

Back in the day I would have opened up Indesign, whipped out my snazzy proposal template and jumped straight in.

Of course, by doing this I was competing with all the other Joe and Janet Freelancers who worked the same way. Nothing I could do here would set me apart. I’d be judged on the sum total of my line items and little else. I was playing a numbers game.

You see the bar has, and continues to be set very low by freelancers. So low in fact that it’s actually quite easy to stand out.

How to stand out in a sea of freelance mediocrity

If most freelancers are willing to jump straight onto any new work that lands in their inbox, how can you be different? What can you do to stand out?

You can start by learning more about what your client wants, and then what they actually need. There’s no way on earth I could have enough information about a client’s project from the above email. It’s impossible. Even if I were to be chosen, there’s every chance the client would have been disappointed with the outcome. Why? Because I had no idea what the outcome should look like. A feature set won't hit any goals if you don't know what those goals are.

Get on the dog and bone, Skype, or Google Hangouts!

Businesswoman using headphones and laptop

It almost sounds too easy, right? But talking to clients is how all great projects start, not via email. I’d even say that 99% of your proposal is “written” in this very first chat. If you can spend enough time talking to your client and learning about their business, you will seriously increase your chances of writing a more compelling proposal.

But before we get to the first call there are a bunch of areas where we can streamline our client onboarding process a little. Why would you want to do that? Well, spending time with potential clients that don't work out can be a time sink, there’s no getting away from that. Luckily for us there are plenty of ways to streamline the onboarding process.

A feature set won't hit any goals if you don't know what those goals are.

Email Automation: Weed out the wheat from the chaff

It sounds terrible I know. You want to get all warm and cozy with your potential client, so you send them an automated email.

Not quite.

Screening clients can be done in many ways. But whichever way you choose to do it, make sure you do it! After all you can’t invest time in something that isn’t worth your while from the outset.

When a new client contacts you for the first time it’s wise to ask them a few some simple questions, just to see if there’s a potential fit. An automated email is a fast and efficient way to do this. As this process will be repeated over and over, be sure to save it as a template.

Some of the questions you might want to include in your initial email might be:

  • Tell me a little about your company and your project
  • What kind of deadline are you working with?
  • What budget have you set aside for this project?
  • How did you hear about me?

These questions merely serve as an initial barrier to entry. If they have a project, deadline or budget that just doesn’t interest you then you can send off the next automated response (Thanks, but no thanks). If on the other hand there’s something that pricks your interest, it’s time to bring out the pro-guns, and organize an initial meeting.

You may be asking why so few questions in this initial email…You can certainly make it more extensive, but you run the risk of A. Scaring away potential clients who don’t understand the necessity for all the questions and B. Reading a scripted answer to “Why we’re better than out competitors”. An in-person meeting will give you data that is impossible to gain from an impersonal questionnaire.

Setting up that first meeting. Heck, let’s call it a chat

There’s no bigger waste of time than a back and forth email conversation trying to book a meeting time. Especially if time zones come into play… So do yourself a favor and setup a Calendly account. Your client will even comment on how cool it is and you'll immediately score brownie points.

Just setup the times your available for meetings and send your personal Calendly link to the client. As soon as they choose a time that suits, you’ll get a nice little email notification and an updated slot in your calendar. This seemingly minor detail (of including an automated booking service for your meetings) gets you a proverbial tip of the cap from your client.

Make sure to include your Skype or Google Hangouts address before the meeting time. Those last minute “What’s your Skype name” email can lose you a couple of points on the client satisfaction scale.

The moment of truth. Breathe in…breathe out…

Yes, client meetings can be nerve wracking, and yes they can feel unnatural. But do you know what helped me overcome these nerves? Switching roles.

In the corporate world when you go for an interview, you sit for an hour in the hot seat and are subjected to a mild form of interrogation. However when you’re gauging the suitability of a client for your services, the boot is squarely on the other foot. It’s your turn to do the interviewing, it’s you who decides whether they get to work with you. This subtle shift in mindset can really help to make a difference.

But do you know what helped me overcome these nerves? Switching roles.

But remember, this is just a casual conversation, so you can treat it as such. It’s easy to get people talking about their businesses so you probably won’t have to say much at all. However it’s a good idea to have some questions prepared beforehand. Outside of that just go with the flow. If your client brings up something interesting, put a pin in it and come back to your planned question later on.

Record your meetings: If there’s a lapse of a week or two between your initial meeting and the time you sit down to write the proposal, you will forget a lot of crucial information. Having a recording to go back to is invaluable. It will give you unexpected insight into comments that were seemingly made in passing. You’ll notice changes in tone of voice when they talk about certain pain points and you’ll have the added advantage of being able to note the exact language they use to describe their problems. In short, a recorded client meeting is gold. Just make sure your client is onboard beforehand, you don’t want to upset anyone by recording sensitive data.

So what should you ask in your initial client meeting?

Here’s a list of some starter questions. If you want a more thorough look at the questions you should ask and why you should ask them then jump across to 10 questions to ask in your next client interview and then jump back again.


  • Tell me a little about your business. What do you do?
  • Why do you need this website/app/service?
  • What problem is this project going to solve?
  • What will happen if this project doesn't go ahead? How will it affect your business?
  • What are you hoping will come of this project. What do you want to achieve? Be specific.
  • Where do you see your business in 12 months after completing this project?
  • What are your goals for this project? Is it to make money, generate more leads, increase trial signups, increase brand awareness or simply annoy your ex business partner who's apparently doing s o much better than you?
  • What sets your business apart?
  • Why are you looking to start this project?
  • What sort of timescale are you looking at?
  • Did you have a budget range in mind? I don't want to waste your time with some crazy proposal.
  • How would you measure the success of this project?
  • Do you have any way of measuring your current successes or failures? (Analytics)
  • What do you think might be the hardest part of this project? What most concerns you?
  • What aspects of your current product or service work well? What doesn’t work so well?
  • What are the short-term goals for your business?
  • If this project could only achieve one goal, what would it be?

The scariest question of all. What’s your budget

We’ve all tripped over these words and we’ve all felt uncomfortable asking how much a client is willing to spend. But without a budget you have no idea if you can help your client, or whether you even want to. If you've managed to get this in your screening email then all the better, but it's worth touching on again.

Polite society says you don’t ask about money. We feel we’re being direct or just plain rude. To ease this sense of awkwardness you can soften the question by asking for a price range instead of a fixed budget. Something like the following…:

“What budget range did you have in mind? A ball park figure is fine. I don’t want to waste your time with some crazy proposal”

If they don’t go for that try asking for a range and offering up some starting figures.

“What budget range did you have in mind? A ball park figure is fine. Are we talking $5k, $10k or $25k”

Giving a range allows your client to place themselves in a bracket without firmly committing to a fixed figure. They might say, “Well, we’re probably between 5 and 10k, but it depends on X…”.

This is a great start. You now know they have the budget to work with you. You also know enough about the project to know that it interests you and that you can help.

Sometimes the budget question can be thrown back to you. If you’re not careful you can ruin an otherwise great first conversation.

Should you give an estimate on your first client call?

The simple answer is no, you shouldn’t.

If you think your client looked uncomfortable when you asked for her budget, you should see yourself right now! Which is why you need to practice being firm.

It can be dangerous to give any indication of cost at this point. While it may have been a great first meeting, it doesn’t mean it was your last before getting to a proposal.

Locking yourself into a price commitment now would be doing both yourself and your client a disservice. You still don’t know enough about the project and how you can help. This is why recording your meetings is such a great habit to get into. When you re-listen to past meetings you may well discover different problems, or even new avenues of interest that hadn’t occurred to you during the interview. Further digging may be required, along with another meeting or two…

The client botherance factor

Many consultants suffer from a common ailment; The Botherance Factor. We worry that we’re bothering our clients with too many questions. But hear this, any client who gives a damn about their project wants you to ask questions. They want you to learn about their business, their problems and ultimately how you can help them.

If, however, a client isn’t interested in taking this initial discovery stage further, you’re probably better off parting company. Any project is a collaboration, so forget about disappearing into your bat cave and surfacing two weeks later with “The Design”. It doesn’t work, believe me. The fewer surprises, the better. You’ll be working together on this from beginning to end. So ask lots of questions.

Any client who gives a damn about their project wants you to ask questions.

Can’t I do all this with a slick looking questionnaire?

It’s very unlikely you’ll make any sort of a personal connection with your client by sending a huge form, no matter how slick. Business is about relationships and trust. It’s difficult to trust a form, no matter how well designed.

And email is not much better.

Email is the best place on earth to lose all context. How many times have you lost your temper with a client after reading a request that used a “tone of voice” you didn’t appreciate? The same request made in person would probably have come across as courteous and maybe even sensible. Tone and inflection doesn't translate well into the written word.

Email, forms and questionnaires have their place in our line of work, they just don’t have any place in getting to know a client's needs.

Yes, your first meeting with a potential client can be scary, but the more you do, the easier they become. You’ll start to build a system and things will fall into place.

As technology advances, and we become more and more connected, (read, less and less connected) it’s doubly important that we understand the needs of our clients. It's near impossible to achieve this kind of understanding without a good old fashioned chin wag.

Ultimately, without understanding we have no way of knowing what a project's goals are, and without that, we’re all just Joe and Janet Freelancers.

Good luck

PS. No offence to any Joe or Janet freelancers out there, it just flowed.

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