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Columns by Linda  Formichelli:

Self-Promotion with Emotion

Obedience School

Momma Always Said

Sweet Talk



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Are Your Prospects Worthy?

When a potential client calls and haggles about your rates, solicits advice, asks for free samples, and requests your brochure, you think, "Oh boy! Another sucker -- I mean, someone else in need of my fine services." You scurry around the office like an ant in heat, leaving your current work to gather dust while you fulfill the burning desires of this enticing new prospect. Then -- nothing.

Don't feel bad. Odds are the caller didn't have the money, the authority, the need, or the desire to hire you in the first place. By qualifying or screening your prospects -- and culling out tire kickers -- you can spend more time with those who are serious about hiring you and less time with those who are merely lonely and looking for a friend.

Interrogate Them

The easiest way to qualify a prospect may be to come right out and ask. In his book How to Succeed as an Independent Consultant (John Wiley & Sons, 1993), Herman Holtz suggests asking such questions as:

  • Has this project been budgeted yet?
  • Who will have to sign off on this?
  • Has an official decision been made yet to go ahead with this project?
  • When would you need me to start on this?

The secret is to ask these questions in a neutral, non-ominous tone. The answers should tip you off on whether the prospect has an actual project planned and budgeted or is just wasting your time.

Rate Them

You can find out right away whether the prospect is serious by cutting to the chase: your rates. If you state your rates up front and the prospect reaches for the smelling salts, you know you should cut your losses and split. "Occasionally I will get the response, 'My (insert any relative here) has a computer and said the project could be done for $150,'" says Jeff Fisher, an IP graphic designer and owner of LogoMotives. "I have learned to be rather blunt with such prospects and will suggest they hire that relative if money is the primary issue."

Other danger signs: the prospect asks what he can get for one-third your quoted rate, offers you a cut of future profits in trade for work now, or proposes paying you off in backrubs.

Be Paranoid

A little sleuthing ahead of time can save you grief in the long run when you're pitching a new prospect. "When the time comes to pitch a new, unfamiliar client, I will contact the Better Business Bureau, Dow Jones, or industry organizations to find out about them," says communications consultant Carla McClanahan. "For example, if the prospect is in the food industry, I would contact respected vendors, chefs, other agencies, or even sales reps within the food publications to determine the prospect's reputation." Sound paranoid? Maybe, but it beats spending months slaving away for a bum client.

Be Up Front

Asking for a deposit before starting work is a good way to identify window-shoppers. Many IPs charge 50 percent up front with the remainder due upon completion of the project; another popular option is to charge a third up front, a third at some threshold stage of the job, and the final third upon approval of the completed work. Tell prospects that you have a deposit policy, and you'll see just how serious they are.

"I require a 50 percent deposit on work, as well as a signed estimate that outlines the scope of work," says Lori Oliva, an IP content strategist and public relations consultant. "A deposit tells me that a client is serious about the project at hand and is ready to move, and a carefully detailed estimate tells them exactly what I will do for how much."

Charge It

Charge for advice. Free work attracts bargain hunters, so attach a price tag to every syllable that leaves your lips. You can always offer to refund the money once the client hires you, or credit the amount towards the price of an assignment.

Some IPs go further, and charge for proposals or even for price quotations. "I charge up front for quotes that involve in-depth calculations and variables," says Mark Cappitella, an IP puzzle maker. "The potential client pays in advance by corporate or personal credit card for the cost of the quote ($50 - $100), which is credited in full if they actually place an order. If they don't wish to pay, I bid them good day."

Flash Your Contract

Want to find out if a prospect really intends to hire you or is just yanking your frank? Show him a typical contract (if you have one). If he runs screaming in the other direction, chances are he was unqualified to hire you.

Jeff Fisher includes a copy of his standard contract in his promotional packet. "I have found that including the project agreement is a very successful qualifier," he says. "It shows the potential client that I do mean business."

Trust Your Gut

Remember the time you had a bad feeling about that Girl Scout, and she turned out to be an escaped criminal in disguise, and you never got your cookies, and you said to yourself, "I knew I should I have trusted my instincts instead of giving her six bucks for Thin Mints"? Well, that same feeling will keep you from becoming a casualty of a poser prospect.

"I look for indecisiveness in that first critical meeting. If prospects make their creatives come up with a lot of ideas and don't give any hint as to what they're looking for, chances are they don't know what they want," says Oliva. "Also, if a prospect says they were unhappy with a prior freelancer or company, but don't give concrete reasons why they were dissatisfied, I take that as a red flag."


Qualifying prospects may seem like a pain in the wazoo, but think of it this way: when you were a wage slave, employers qualified you for jobs, raises, and promotions. Now, as an IP, you get to qualify them to determine whether they're worthy of being your clients.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Linda Formichelli if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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