Running a small company is a lot of work, particularly when you run a one-person shop as a freelancer or consultant. At that scale, every client counts. When a new prospective client crosses your path, it’s only natural to want to give them plenty of time. Meeting face-to-face, perhaps sitting down for an hour over a cup of coffee, seems like the right way to have an initial consultation. From a sales perspective, however, it’s absolutely wrong.
More accurately, it’s ineffective and inefficient. Spending an hour on your initial consultation, only to find that you’re a bad fit for each other, represents more than a sale that didn’t happen. It also represents an hour that you can’t charge for, and couldn’t spend finding new clients. When you bill by the hour, time is money.
It simply isn’t an optimized system to invest a lot of time with a prospect before you know anything about them. To make the most out of those initial consultations, efficiency is the number one priority. In this post, I’ll share my seven-step system for an initial consultation that will both save you time and increase your overall sales.
1. 20-minute phone consultation: As I mentioned in the introduction, the first meeting that many freelancers and consultants have with prospective clients is an informal discussion over coffee. While this does seem like a low-stress way to learn about the prospect, it’s also a significant investment of time make long before you know if this person represents a legitimate opportunity to make a sale.
Instead, limit your initial consultations to a 20-minute phone conversation. This not only saves time — you have have three phone consultations in the same window it would take to have one coffee meeting — but it also allows you to more easily focus the discussion. You can also block out time for several of these on a given day, helping to further focus the experience. (Allow 30 minutes for each conversation, just in case they go a little long.)
2. Define the goal: While the specifics of the call will vary depending on the nature of the business, the underlying goal is always the same. You’re trying to find out if this person needs what you’re selling, is serious about buying, and can afford what you’re charging. In other words, do they represent a legitimate sales opportunity?
This is much easier to accomplish when you set up that goal at the start of the conversation by saying something like: “Our goal for today’s call is to see if we’re really a good fit for one another. My clients really appreciate this process, because it really values both of our time.”
3. Discuss their experiences and their needs: One of the first things you need to establish is what the prospect’s needs are. Sometimes this is simple — they need a logo designed, a website built, or an event planned — while other clients might have a rough goal in mind, but only a vague idea how to accomplish it. Time is limited, so you need to quickly nail down what the details. One great way to do this is to focus on what has and hasn’t worked for them in the past.
As with the last point, it can help to ease the prospect into this phase of the consultation by prefacing it. “What I’d first like to do is get an understanding of you and your business. This will allow me to get a clear picture of what you need, and to make sure that I’m the right person to do the job.” With that boundary established, it should be much easier to get the conversation started, and to keep it on track.
4. Discuss your services: After the prospect has told you about their business and their needs, it’s time for you to talk about what solutions you offer. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to tell a few stories about how you’ve helped other clients with similar problems. This allows you to illustrate your services in a completely conversational, relateable way.
One way to easily work this into the conversation is to say something like this “What you’ve said actually reminds me about a couple of my clients.” It’s important to only bring up stories are relevant to the prospect’s situation or needs, and that the story ends with positive results for those clients. This can also be a great place to set up price expectations, mentioning how much you charged for similar services on previous jobs.
5. Explain how you work: At this point in the conversation, it’s time to talk about the specifics of your business. The goal here is to describe what you do in a compelling way that makes them both interested in what you do, and want to be involved with what you’re doing. You don’t need to go too deeply into the specifics, but you do want them to gain a clear understanding of who you are and what you do.
Another way of looking at this is as a form of business pitch. You’re outlining the problem your business solves, how you solve it, and the unfair advantages you have over the competition. I explain this concept in depth in my
Business Power Pitch podcast series, and I highly encourage you to check those out if you’re interested in learning more.
• 6. Qualify the prospect: One of the biggest objectives in this initial consultation is to determine if the prospect is actually a good fit for your business. The scope of their needs may be too large for your capacity, or their budget may be too small to afford your services. Generally speaking, a prospect is either looking for a low-cost provider or a high-quality provider. The only way to find out which they have in mind is to ask.
Asking about money is tricky for a lot of people, but there are some natural ways to bring it up in the conversation. For instance, “So I can understand what you have in mind, are you looking for something quick and inexpensive, or are you looking for something more comprehensive and strategic?” This will give you an idea what their overall expectations are, and to bring up the price discussion in a somewhat delicate way.
7. “How does this sound?”: As you’re wrapping up the conversation, you really only have one more question to answer: Does it makes sense to both parties to move forward? If it does, it then makes sense to invest more time doing things like creating quotes, providing samples, or even having a face-to-face coffee meeting to get more details.
If it doesn’t, now is the time to make that clear. This can be as simple as saying, “Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. It doesn’t sound like what you need is a good fit for what I do, but I might be able to help steer you in the right direction.” This is a good place to recommend colleagues who might be more suited for what their needs, or to recommend other resources. This adds value for the prospect, and it also allows you to build up referral relationships with other people in your field.
By using this approach, you’ve turned an hour-long process into a highly optimized 20-minute phone call that answers all the big questions. This not only saves you time on each initial consultation, but it also helps to maximize your overall ability to make sales — and make a profit.