As a freelance writer, sales-speak may not be your language of choice, but there are a few terms that you should understand when it comes to running your freelance business. There’s a thing in sales-speak called qualifying. It’s the criteria you use to determine if a contact is a good fit for you. Other terms in the sales vernacular that come in handy are suspects, prospects, and the ever popular, clients. Having an understanding of where each type fits into your sales process can make your freelance life a bit easier and, perhaps, more headache-free.
Creative types are often adverse to sales. It tends to creep them out, conjuring forth visions of a less than trustworthy salesperson smoking a big cigar, while making a fashion statement in a mismatched ensemble. It’s become a sales stigma that doesn’t match reality. At least the reality of a professional salesperson.
When managed correctly, sales is nothing more than a conversation. It’s the process of helping someone buy what he or she truly needs. It’s when a salesperson tries to sell someone something they neither want nor need that things can get dodgy.
Although they may be called by different names, there are three types of people when it comes to the sales process—suspects, prospects and, ultimately, clients.
These are folks you think may need your services. This designation is usually based on a highly scientific method—gut feelings and poking around. These contacts are hopeful “maybes” that require further investigation and qualifying.
Prospects are those contacts who have passed the basic litmus test. They’ve demonstrated they buy what you have on offer and meet your initial lofty criteria such as a steady stream of projects and the ability to pay your fees.
Clients are businesses that have graduated from the ranks of prospect by assigning you a project, signed an agreement and greased your palm with some dough.
…not everybody is a good fit for you and your business. Nor should they be. But, many indie pros, freelancers and small businesses take on whatever walks in the door, or rings their phone, every day. Doing so, however, can mean a constant reach for the antacids.
Why? Usually, it’s a subtle motivating factor called blind fear. It’s fear they won’t have enough work, resulting in the cascading effect of creditors ringing their phone or banging at their door, losing a roof over one’s head, going hungry and the implosion of the Universe as we know it.
But, taking on whatever rolls in can be equally as bad, if not worse. Aside from the fact that doing so is just letting your business happen to you, things going south midway through a gig can lead to mistrust, ill will, bad mouthing, late payment, no payment, court and, of course, the implosion of the Universe as we know it.
So, it’s critical to the safety of the Universe that you qualify your suspects. We’ll all thank you for it.
So, how does one go about qualifying suspects? There are a few steps. Odds are your process will be a bit different depending upon your specific needs and business model, but the following should lay the groundwork.
Scope out the suspect’s site
This is pretty much a no-brainer. Check their site to see if they use or could use what you offer. For example, if you provide ad and collateral copy, does the suspect’s site carry their ads, brochure downloads or literature request forms? If you provide public relations writing, does the site carry their news releases and, perhaps, a press kit? If so, is there a byline on the materials? Do they appear to be written in-house or by a public relations firm?
Check with your colleagues
If the suspect is local to you, check with your business associates who may have worked with them or know folks who did. For a writer, it can mean tapping into graphic designers, printing reps and photographers you know. Doing so can yield loads of useful information: “They’re a nightmare to work with …” “Those folks are a dream come true …” You get the idea.
Run a D&B report
Dun & Bradstreet provides credit and other business reports for a fee. But, it’s not too bad. At the time of this writing, their eValuator Plus report is just under $60 U.S. An investment of sixty bucks might just save you loads of time and aggravation down the road when collecting time rolls around.
Ask qualifying questions
Once you’ve done some general background research and have set up a face-to-face, you’ll want to ask some qualifying questions at the meeting and review the project specs. Here are some examples:
- Have you ever worked with a freelance writer?
If they haven’t, you might want to let some other poor soul train them.
- What is the project timeline?
If it’s unrealistic, you might want to politely walk away.
- What’s the budget for the project?
This is always tricky. If they say they don’t have one, that’s usually baloney, whether the prospect realizes it or not. Most aren’t deliberately trying to be coy. Odds are, they just haven’t thought things through. But, some will withhold this critical bit of information in an effort to get the best deal. They figure if they clue you in, you might overcharge them. But, not providing a budget or being coy can be a big red flag waving, “Hey, you know what? I don’t trust you.” For writers and most service businesses, mutual trust in a major factor. It kind of stinks to feel you need to always be looking over your shoulder. And, it goes both ways. So, strive to demonstrate trustworthiness.
For example, “I’ve worked on several projects similar to what you’ve described. They’ve been in the $2500 – $3500 range. Is that roughly what you were expecting?”
This opens the door.
Some may say something along the lines of, “Wow! I was figuring about half that …”
Suddenly, they have a budget in mind. If you have to pick them up off the floor, you’ve learned that it’s probably time to head for the door or reduce the amount of services.
Also, don’t give them, or imply, a firm price at this point. You’re just trying to see if they’re a good fit financially.
- Who, beside yourself, will be responsible for approvals?
You want to learn upfront if the person on the other side of the conference table is the true decision maker. People often try to appear as though they have more authority than they really do. It’s one of those human nature things. Asking the question in this manner saves face for your contact while learning whether or not others are involved. If there are, you’ll want to bring them in early on. It’s not fun to learn, after investing a load of time and resources, that your contact isn’t the final decision-maker.
Go over the project specs
Ensure you’re comfortable with the project specs. Have you done this type of thing before or will you need to invest time and possibly money getting up to speed? Does the project require you to shell out a load of dough for software, new equipment and such? Can you bill for that time and expenses?
Do things feel right?
Gut feelings are often spot on. It’s likely an evolutionary leftover from when our ancestors were on the menu for some predator’s lunch. If the prospect gives you the heebie jeebies, turn and run. If something doesn’t set well with you about the prospect, the company, the project, etc. there’s likely a reason.
Although it may sound counterproductive, during the qualifying process, while Julie Andrews is singing Getting To Know You in your head, you’re essentially looking for all the reasons why you shouldn’t work with the prospect. It’s something I’ve learned over the years and tends to keep me safe. Following these simple qualifying steps will help keep you safe too.
About the author:
Neil Tortorella is a graphic designer, writer and marketing consultant with over thirty years experience. He is the author of Starting Your Career As A Freelance Web Designer, Starting Your Career As A Musician and The Freelance Writer’s Business Book. Tortorella is a frequent speaker at conferences and business events. His writing and consulting site can be found at www.neiltortorella.com.
Also by Neil Tortorella:
1. How to Generate High Quality Referrals for Your Writing Business (article)
2. A Freelance Writer’s Guide to Using Public Speaking as a Marketing Tool (article)
3. How to Get Tantalizing Testimonials from Your Clients (article)
4. Avoid These 10 Common Freelancing Traps to Run a More Successful Writing Business (article)
5. Copyright and Usage Rights for Freelance Writers (article)
6. Money Management Tips for Freelance Writers (article)
7. Retirement Planning for Freelance Writers (article)