The moment arrives: managing the call

Learn the basic rules and principles that will help your client interview go smoothly and comfortably as you navigate the hard but necessary questions and discussion.

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, you go for an interview, and you sit in the hot seat for an hour or so 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.

Here are a few basic rules to help any client interview go smoothly:

  • Try to treat the meeting as a casual conversation. It’s pretty easy to get people talking about what ails them, so you probably won’t need to say much at all. However, as we’ve already mentioned, it’s a good idea to have your questions planned ahead of time. Outside of that, just go with the flow.
  • Be aware that it’s easy to get off topic. If your client brings up something interesting, put a pin in it and come back to your planned question later on.
  • Please, please remember to record your meetings. Yes, I’ve mentioned this already, but it’s so valuable. If there’s a lapse of a week or two between your initial meeting and the time you sit down to write the proposal, chances are you’ll forget a lot of crucial information.

This recording 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.

That Sticky Question: Discussing Money

We’ve already looked at the subject of budget, but as it’s generally the most uncomfortable part of any client interview it’s worth repeating.

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. I often ask something like this:

What budget range did you have in mind? A ballpark 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 ballpark 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.

What about when your client asks how much you’ll charge? Should you give a quote during an initial meeting?

The simple answer is no, you shouldn’t.

Giving an indication of cost at this point can be dangerous. After a smooth, productive meeting with a client, it’s easy to be tempted to tip your hand a bit, but there’s still more work to be done.

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. 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, so don’t make promises too quickly.

Sorry to bother you, but…

Many consultants suffer from a common ailment: Botherance Factor. We worry that we’re annoying our clients with too many questions. We worry that they’ll get cold feet and have second thoughts. And sometimes you’re right to worry. 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 Deliverable”. It doesn’t work, believe me. The fewer surprises, the better. You and the client will be working together on this from beginning to end. So ask lots of questions now.

Can’t I just send a questionnaire?

Nope. It’s very unlikely you’ll make any sort of a personal connection with your client by sending a huge form. Business is about building relationships and creating 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. For the majority of us, 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 in person), it’s doubly important that we understand the needs of our clients. It’s nearly impossible to achieve this kind of understanding without a good old-fashioned chinwag.

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Final notes

There’s no way around the fact that client interviews are an essential cornerstone of the successful proposal writing process.
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