Ask These 5 Questions to Weed Out Bad Clients Early On

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I know the scenario well:

You get a call from a potential client and set up a meeting. You spend at least 2 hours prepping, traveling, and actually meeting. Then you spend more time carefully preparing the proposal.

Then you wait. And you don’t hear back.

So you follow up and still get nothing.

Finally, you hear:

  • “We’ve decided to work with another firm” or
  • “The department head didn’t approve the budget” or
  • “The project has been put on hold” or
  • “We’ve decided to do it in house”

Heartache. Wasted time. Inefficiency.

Can you do better? Can you waste less time on prospects that aren’t a good fit for your business?


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Ask these 5 questions to become more efficient and weed out the prospects that aren’t going to do good business with you anyway.

The preamble

The next call you get from that prospect you met at a networking event last week starts out like this:

“Hi, this is Sally Smith from ABC Company. We’d like to get a quote for some design work.”

In the past you might say:

“Okay, when would you like to meet?”

Now we’ll handle the same call very differently.

  • Your goal is to make a connection, have a meaningful conversation, help them in achieving their goal, and see if you’re aligned to work together on the project.
  • You have to let go of any attachment to getting the project. This takes a tremendous amount of stress off you and changes the whole energy of the conversation.

So back to the conversation.

Sally has called you and said she’d like to get a quote on some branding work. This leaves many holes to be filled in. We don’t know who she is, we don’t know what her position is in the company, and we don’t know if she’s just collecting information or is actually ready to start the project.

Now you’re going to have a conversation with Sally and ask a series of 5 powerful questions that will reveal all sorts of information AND it give her clarity on what she is looking for. So you say:

“Sally, I’m so glad you called, there are some things I’d like to know about the project before we meet.”

Question #1: What prompted this project?

You are asking them for the story behind the project…how they got to where they are now.

You want the inside scoop.

  • You may hear how another firm completely screwed up their website and they’re calling your firm to save it.
  • Or how they’re looking to take advantage of a digital media and want to create a marketing campaign on social media.
  • Or a whole variety of stories of how the project happened and how they got to you.

You need to know what you’re dealing with before you make a decision to take it further.

Question #2: Who are the decision-makers?

You want to know what Sally’s role is in this project – is she the admin assistant or the VP of Marketing?

Find out who the decision makers are and push to meet with the group. You want to know who they are and that they are in the loop on the project…and how many of them there are.

Because the last thing you want to happen is to have the entire project halted in the 11th hour! (Been there.)

Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions until you are confident this is a good fit. Do a gut check here. Your gut may be screaming “walk away from this one” and you often don’t listen.

Question #3: Can you give me a ballpark budget?

Gulp. This is a very tough question to ask.

They often won’t answer it or will say they aren’t sure. This often prompts the question:

“What would you charge for this?”

This is a great opportunity here. You can give them a big ballpark range.

“You’re looking at anywhere between $5 and $10,000 for a basic identity program for a small company”

Just be quiet and wait for a reaction…this will feel like torture but it can save you hundreds of wasted hours.

They may say:

“Okay, sounds great”

or they may say:

“That wasn’t really what we had in mind – we were thinking more like $1,500.”

If you get the latter, you know immediately that you are not aligned to work together! How great would it be to have this information up front before you go to a meeting or spend hours on a proposal.

Whatever you do, don’t panic for the work and say:

“Okay, I guess we can do something for $1,500.”

Instead, you might say something like:

Sally, I don’t think we’re well aligned to work together. I’d be happy to refer you to another designer who might be able to do it for that price.”

Remember it’s about a good match. Of course, you have to know how much you should be charging in the first place for this to work in your favor.

Now, assuming you get past this question satisfactorily, let’s move on…

Question #4: When will you be ready to start?

Another key question. The response might be:

“We’re committed to launching the new identity in the next quarter so we’re very serious about moving this forward as soon as possible. We’d like to make a decision in the next 4 weeks.”

Or you may hear something like:

I’m not really sure, my boss asked me to get some quotes.”

Which one would you rather spend time on?

If you get an answer like the second one, ask more questions. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but you are actually helping them get the clarity they need to get a better finished product in line with their goals. Keep asking questions til you’re crystal clear what’s going on.  You may even ask them to find out more details and get back to you before you make a decision.

“Look Sally, I’d really like to help you get some clarity on this project. From what I’m hearing, we’re not clear on your objectives or timeline. Can we reconnect in a day or two when you have more information?”

Again, don’t be attached here. You want to feel confident that you are helping them and that you’re aligned for the work.

Set up another call. Make her accountable to you (you’re already helping her).

Question #5: Who else are you talking to?

(Often they won’t answer this one either.)

The standard from my experience is 3 designers in total. If they say they’re talking to 8 designers and then narrowing it down, that’s a red flag for me in a number of ways:

  • They may need to see 10 concepts before they can make a decision.
  • They may have a committee of decision-makers who don’t agree.
  • The left hand might not know what the right hand is doing.

There’s a lot of reading between the lines here and you have to put on your intuition hat to make a decision.

Additional tips for success

Business development can be THE biggest challenges for creative entrepreneurs, but it doesn’t have to be. When you use these questions and the bonus tips below, sales become easier and even fun because you’re meeting new people and making a connection.

More tips for success:

Do more listening than talking. Don’t give your mini-credentials presentation and talk about how many awards you won this year. Have REAL and meaningful discussions.

Focus on how you solved a similar problem for someone else and what the results for them were. For example: “When my client Dianne launched her new identity, she doubled her sales in the first 6 months because people understood what she does and how she’s different.”

Passing on the project is not a bad thing. If you need to walk away, that’s okay. Taking a pass leaves open space to find the right freelance clients for you and your business. If you’re busy with energy-draining, bad-paying clients, there is no space for the good ones.

In summary here are the 5 questions again:

  1. What prompted this project?
  2. Who are the decision-makers?
  3. Can you give me a ballpark budget?
  4. When will you be ready to start?
  5. Who else are you talking to?

YOU can do this! You can learn to do business development in a whole different way and be a lot less stressed about it. And with some practice, you can confidently walk away from the wrong work.

It took some practice for me but in time, I’ve nailed it and you can too!

Got a great story or tip to share? I’ve love to hear it! Share in the mastermind FB group.

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Millo Articles by Rhonda Page

Rhonda is an international speaker and published author. She began as a graphic designer and evolved to brand strategist and business development professional, bringing hundreds of thousands in new business to the various design firms she worked with. She's worked with the biggest global brands such as Kraft and Coca-Cola and been client side too. Her Business Accelerator Program teaches freelancers how to spend less time on pitches and close new business more easily.
Read more from Rhonda.

  1. I liked your recommendation to wait even through an awkward pause to see what their reaction is after we provide our ballpark. I know sometimes I keep on talking and don’t give them room to properly comment on it.

    Great article!

    1. Rhonda Page says:

      it’s not always easy to just pause and wait for a response!

  2. TheBigSauce Design says:

    Great advice! Here’s one from my own personal experience just recently. A potential client wrote a short email requesting for a logo design quotation. I emailed him back requesting for some additional information so I could create a more accurate proposal. He replied right away. I then thanked him for his response and informed that I will be sending him my quotation proposal by the end of tomorrow. But I also need his personal information to be included in the document like company name, company address, company telephone number, etc. It has now been 3 days and he never replied back. Saved me a lot of time!!

  3. Actually, I never thought about asking this questions before this post. Thanks a lot. It makes a lot of sense.

  4. webetdesign says:

    This post is awesome! One of the best I read, and did just search for it again, to check the questions again. Will hopefully save me a lot of time in the future.

  5. christian s ncube says:

    Hi Rhonda, I appreciate your post cos it totally relates to the situation I was in over the weekend – Friday, I was asked to travel out of town the following Monday by a client (Ministry of Health) I had done work for before (6 months ago) – with which they were really impressed. They asked me to travel out of town as they were having a get together to come up with designs for posters for a family planning campaign, I agreed, because of our past interaction. But on Monday, an hour before my planned departure, for some unknown reason, I give them a call to ask if they were already at the prearranged venue . . . and their reply – “Don’t come today, we have designers from within the ministry, come on Wednesday so that you can put your ‘professional touch to what they come up with.

    ” ALARM BELL #1: They cannot afford (or DO NOT want to pay for) my total input.

    ALARM BELL #2: My contact is not making the final decision.

    My reply when questioned about my absence on Wednesday – “I had to stay for my great grandmother’s birthday party – she could die any time from now”. (I’m 53).

    My advice: YOU WON’T DIE if you walk away from some clients – misers will always want to milk you out of every second they can get out from you.

  6. Kristen Schwartz says:

    Excellent framework for a productive conversation. Thank you!

  7. Ruel Maxwell says:

    I love this article. How many times have I ignored my gut feeling countless. No more this article was pretty insightful I definatelcame away a better person

  8. Awesome article and very helpful. Nothing worse than wasting my time or client’s when they aren’t ready to progress with a project. This will help definitely help on future calls.

  9. Guillaume says:

    Thank you for this !! It will help a lot of us !

  10. Aarefa Tayabji says:

    Awesome Article. Many just want the job and rush in sending a quote or a proposal without really asking the right questions. There are some great advice for designers here. Thanks!

  11. Leah Sullivan says:

    Great tips! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Good Stuff…

  13. Nate Stitt says:

    Excellent article, Rhonda! I really needed this advice. Thanks!

  14. Debbie Campbell says:

    Very helpful, thanks! The part about the budget is always awkward. Your list will give me a good basis for an outline to discuss in that first call.

  15. Exelent Post! I would like to read this six years ago! 🙂

  16. I think this is a FANTASTIC article and will come in super handy. Definitely very well written. That being said, here are my 2 push backs:

    1. While, I agree, you don’t want to be desperate for work and willing to drop your price just to get the client, it’s important you don’t seem uninterested or like you have better things to do. Cockiness isn’t going to earn you any longterm business if word gets around that you are too high and mighty to work with new people. So while you reiterate not getting too attached to a potential client, it’s also equally important that you aren’t too cold and distant.

    2. In question 4, if a potential client is calling around to get quotes, I don’t see anything wrong with that. You check the local flyers to see which store has a sale on groceries before you leave the house, don’t you? I’m not saying you have to or should dish out every detail and every dollar right then and there, but to expect to work only with clients that have contacted you and no one else is a little self-important. If your work and price are what the client is looking for then it won’t matter whether they considered other designers or not.

  17. Mark Coster says:

    Great advice Rhonda, I am going to have to make sure I follow this with the next enquiry I get!

  18. Sarah Simpkins says:

    Fantastic article! Thanks for sharing!

    We do a lot of this but not as consistently or structured as this article lays out.

  19. Henry Kaminski says:

    Awesome post! I sometimes do TOO MUCH talking lol which ultimately talks me right out of the sale altogether hahah! I’ve learned that asking questions is the best way to learn what the customers “hot buttons” are… Once I know their “hot buttons” it’s easier for me to understand the emotions behind what makes that customer “tick”

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