Take Charge of Unsolicited Client Prospects
It sometimes happens: You get an unsolicited inquiry by e-mail, phone, or in person out of the blue, a prospect at your doorstep who was neither recommended by others or pursued by you—a surprise prospect.
So, how do you protect yourself and make sure you don’t waste your time on unsuitable clients? You know what I mean: the under-budgeted, clueless, and teasers who just want to pick your brain and that most freelancers should ignore.
While there is no sure-fire way to assess the ideal client—one who’s serious and willing to invest in quality work—wasted effort doesn’t have to be a part of the freelancer’s game. Here are four screening options to help you weed out prospects that add extra hassles to your already busy and over-stretched schedule.
Establish the Right Presence with Your Branding
Branding goes beyond just having a consistent look and voice. Understand the basics of strategic branding for freelancers and consider your website, logo, and social media activities. What is the tone you want to set with your intended audience? Will your target clients immediately understand why you are different from other freelancers or creative businesses? Those unique qualities should come out.
In particular, freelancers should look at their website as the first qualifier for prospective clients. You want to attract the right clients and deflect those that aren’t the right fit so that you’re not fielding a lot of inquiries that just don’t fit and wasting your time.
Rates: The most obvious solution is to post your average rates for your services; this will set the bar on who can afford you and who can’t, and the type of clientele who comes knocking. But I’m not a big fan of doing this simply because there are so many factors that go into setting your price, such as client objectives, the technical nature of the work, the creative groundwork that’s required, your client’s audience, and so forth.
These can’t be predicted until you’ve talked to the client at length. If you do want to post rates, use the general rule of posting a price range that is high enough to deter under-budgeted prospects, but not enough to discourage others.
About Us copy: Don’t underestimate the power of the copy on your About page. Many prospects visit this page first when they are shopping around to get a feel for your personality as a business or independent. Make sure you give a short, professional bio and emphasize the qualities that your ideal client would respond to.
- Be authentic. If you veer toward the creative and unconventional, then you probably aren’t going to be the preferred choice for industries like finance or banking, which tend to stay on the conservative side in their approach. Play to the right choir.
- Show off your qualifications. You want to show your client how you would provide your services better and differently than competitors. Your website should address your style, approach, and strengths. Are you a writer with a blistering sense of humor and wit? Are you a graphic artist with a talent for retro, art-deco designs? A photographer who has 10 years of photojournalism experience?
Gather Intelligence on Your Prospect
Just as prospective clients will be checking out your website and social media presence, you should also do your homework on your potential clients. Sometimes a simple search on Google or LinkedIn will turn up a bio about them. If they have a website, check out their work.
A bit of research gives you a starting point on how to approach the client. It also might provide you a quick sense of whether you want to pursue the prospect or politely decline. Of course, we can’t all judge a book by its cover. Sometimes a bad web presence is the very reason why they are inquiring about your services.
Always thank prospects for contacting you, even if you just send a canned e-mail. If you’re more than just slightly interested, ask them how they heard about you, what they know about your work, and whether they have hired someone for this type of work before.
Ask them to explain the project they have in mind. Listen without judgment and follow-up with your elevator pitch. In your pitch, summarize what you do and similar projects you’ve done in the past. The pitch gives your prospect a chance to figure out again if their needs match yours.
Don’t discuss pricing over the phone or in-person on the spot. Let the prospect know that you’ll need time to draw up a more detailed proposal for them to consider. If they insist, artfully give a broad range, such as: “The type of work you’re asking runs about X amount to X amount (give a big, but not unreasonable range, and stick to industry rates), depending on a host of factors. Is this what you had in mind?”
Pick or Pass?
At this point, the conversation about the project and pricing should give you an idea whether or not the project is a potential opportunity. Two reasons to turn down an inquiry: First, the job is not the right fit for your services. For example, you’re a freelance editor that works primarily on fiction books, and the prospect is asking you to edit their nuclear physics textbook.
Second, the budget is way below your normal rate. For example, the potential client wants you to design a website for 800 dollars when you normally charge twice that. The turn-down should be professional and tactful, though be tough when you say “no.”
When there’s promise in working with a prospect, the next step is to come up with a killer proposal. Put together a proposal package within a reasonable time frame. Depending on the scope and scale of the project, this proposal can be simply an estimate letter or several pages. I prefer to keep my preliminary proposals succinct—within 2-4 pages only for most projects. This document will direct discussions going forward as you negotiate the final terms and conditions. Include the following sections:
- Project Overview: List the contact details (client point person and you) and project summary. Show your client that you understood their requirements inside and out. Stamp an expiration date on the proposal.
- Proposed Services: Go over the specific services you will provide. Use bullet points and action verbs.
- Delivery Schedule and Costs: Outline tentative due dates and your rate.
- Mode of Payment: Describe your payment terms (e.g. 50% of project costs paid upfront; remainder at delivery) and what your preferred payment processing is (e.g. credit card or Paypal).
- Next Steps: Keep up the momentum in the negotiation process by establishing the next “meeting” or conversation. If you need to provide supporting material in the next few days, indicate those items here.
Hopefully, these strategies will help make your time more efficient as you field inquiries from fresh prospects. As a freelancer you don’t want to waste your time on prospects that are just “much ado about nothing.”
At the same time, unsolicited inquires can be a goldmine of business opportunities and a way for you to establish your professional image as someone who is enthusiastic about new opportunities—but isn’t desperate.