It’s a thought that terrifies most writers.
From the security of your little writing hole you’re nothing short of a superstar. You can craft content that sells products, inspire audiences and entertain thousands. But when a prospect wants to discuss a project over the phone, it all goes horribly wrong.
That eloquence and confidence you pour into your writing disappears, leaving you sounding like a concussed drunkard.
Well, at least, that’s what happened to me. My first few client calls were terrible and resulted in me securing a whopping zero new clients.
I fluffed my lines, suffered from epic dry mouth and – I’m ashamed to say – even inadvertently insulted one poor chap (sorry!). It took me a while to get past my mental blocks with client calls, but it’s a damn good thing I did.
As soon as I’d managed to overcome my problems I started landing the kind of clients we all want to work for. Those rare unicorn clients who understand what it is to be a freelancer and also the value of good content.
So what happened? How was I able to turn my fat tongued, stumbling approach to client calls around?
It’s all down to the two Ps.
Acing client calls isn’t about feeling empowered, clearing your head or imagining you’re speaking to a friend (although that last one may help), effective client calls are down to two things. Preparation and practice.
That’s it. All you need is to know what you want to say and practice saying it in a real life situation a couple of times. Before long you’ll be looking forward to getting new clients on the phone. Well, perhaps not, but you’ll definitely look forward to the increase in earnings they bring!
The list you see below are the questions that I ask to every new prospect I speak to. It’s a list that’s not only helped me land higher paying clients, but has also helped me to appear more professional. Basically client’s think I’m someone who’s got their shit together so are happy to send a little more cash my way!
Anyway, here are the questions I ask to all prospective clients.
Can you explain the project to me? – This may sound a little too simplistic but sometimes the client really doesn’t know what they want. They know they need content, but that’s all they know. Asking this question gives you a better idea of how the project will shape up and the potential ease of working with the client.
What are you trying to achieve with this project? – Coupled with question one this helps define whether you’re the right writer for this project. Yes, there are jobs you won’t be right for and you should never take them on. Taking jobs far outside your skill set wastes your time and causes undue stress. You may not even get a kill fee if the project is canned.
When are you looking to get started? – There’s two answers here that aren’t likely what you’re looking for. If the prospect says immediately then it’s a potential red flag. It’s not always the case, but immediately can sometimes clue you in to a client who’s disorganised. This can be stressful for you and a real hassle to work with. The other answer you don’t want is a start date far in the future. It’s not bad, but it ain’t great either. Finish the call politely but as soon as possible. You want to end on good terms and figure out the best way to keep in touch with this client so you’re their first choice when they’re ready to get started.
What’s your expected turnaround time? – This will help you properly organise your schedule. If the client needs a 10 page, research heavy white paper in a week, you know you’ll either have to put a lot of time aside for them or turn the project down due to other commitments. If you do take on work with a very fast turnaround, be sure that your quote includes a rush fee.
Do you have detailed audience personae established? – Content is only successful when it’s tailored to a specific audience. Generic content with no clear target rarely hits the right mark. Ask your prospect if they have audience personae or, at the very least, a thorough break down and explanation of who they’re targeting. This will help you do a better job.
Are there any studies on your target audience? – If you can get your hands on industry studies that focus on the target audience you’re on to a winner! These will help the project you’re discussing and also be useful in future negotiations with clients in similar industries.
How does your service/product address those needs? – You’re just rounding out the relationship between your client and their audience here. This will give a better idea of the key points you’ll need to cover in your content.
The Content They Like
Can you send me a copy of your current [blog posts/whitepapers/brochures] etc.? – Having a good look through their current materials will save a shed load of time. You’ll see exactly what it is they’re after, the tone of voice you need to adopt and the kind of writing they prefer.
Can you share samples of work you like/don’t like and explain what you like/don’t like? – This really just builds on the above. I like to know if there are any other pieces out there that the client likes/dislikes as it just gives me a better understanding of what they’re looking for.
Has a budget already been set aside? – There’s two answers here that are huge red flags in my experience.
- “We haven’t really worked out a budget yet, we’re looking into it.”
- “It’s not a lot, but we have big plans for the future. There should be a lot of work with more money later down the line.”
The first answer is the sign of a client who isn’t ready to hire. The second is much worse. Never have I seen that work out. Politely decline and maybe follow-up with them later when they believe their rates will have increased.
Payment terms – If you want any chance of organising your finances you need to know when you’re going to get paid. I’ve worked with everything from payment on acceptance to 45 days after publication. In the Have a Word free contract download the payment clause is within 15 days of acceptance. This can change as some big businesses only process invoices once a month. You need to get this cleared up at the start to prevent any later misunderstandings.
Payment method – How will you be paid? Do they just need your email address for Paypal, your bank details or do they need a Swift Code for international payments? This also helps better manage your finances as certain payment methods like Paypal come with a merchant fee.
The Decision Making Process
Who’s the primary decision maker? – It’s always a good thing to know where the buck stops because that’s the person you have to please. If there is no one person in charge it can become a bit of a free for all which is a nightmare for you.
Who will be my editor? This is going to be your go to guy/gal. You’ll often be emailing them on a daily basis so it pays to get to know them. Get their Skype and organise a quick chat to iron out any potential problems or organisational issues.
Will anyone else be involved in the decision-making process? I once had an absolute nightmare client. I’d turn in work and it would go through three or four stages before hitting the final decision maker’s desk. Each piece was returned for numerous re-writes because at every stage someone made a minor change. They’d return my article for an edit and it was nothing like the article I’d submitted at stage one! In certain companies everyone’s going to try to leave their mark on your work. Push to find out who’s in the decision-making process and see if there’s a way to shorten the chain.
The Competition (Both Sides)
Are you speaking to other freelancers? – The more freelancers they’re speaking to the lower your chances of getting the gig. If you’ve been part of a mass mail shot and are competing with dozens of others, I wouldn’t recommend wasting hours and hours on the proposal.
Who are your major competitors? – This ties in with the audience research above. Knowing who their primary competitors are can really help you in both landing the job and offering extra value to the client. Check out the competitors, see what they are doing but also look for what they’re not. If you can answer a currently unanswered need in the industry your client will absolutely love you.
The Extra Details
Will I be required to sign an NDA – Find out if you have to sign an NDA and if so, what limitations that places on you. If it’s going to negatively effect your future work then it may be better to walk.
Will online published work include a link to my site? – This can be a great way to attract new clients but some clients will have you ghostwriting content behind the scenes. It’s just nice to know.
Will I be able to use this project in my portfolio? – Gotta build up that portfolio! A strong portfolio will help land future clients. However, some clients won’t let you use projects completed for them. It’s not a reason to walk away, but it’s worth finding out up front.
Don’t Forget to Follow Up With an Email!
I follow every email I send to a client with an email outlining the main points of what’s been agreed.
I do this for two reasons.
- It clarifies the main points and reduces the chance of any misunderstandings
- It’s a precautionary method against the client changing a key part of our agreement. I once had a client try to change our agreed fees when it came time to sign the contract. The only thing that saved me was an email outlining the fees which he’d acknowledged and confirmed as being correct.
Of course the email won’t secure you in the long run. It’s only useful during the negotiation stage. To really secure yourself you’ll need a proper contract.
If you’ve not yet got yourself a freelance contract (what the fuck are you doing!?) then you can download the free Have a Word freelance contract template by popping your name and email in the below.
A Few Final Considerations
The most important part to landing clients through phone calls is being very careful in how you talk to them.
Unlike the written word your tone of voice can change a seemingly innocuous question into something which is overly aggressive and off-putting. Be very careful in the way you speak to clients, especially with the more aggressive questions such asking about other freelancers or payment.
Don’t worry too much about approaching this confidently. In your first few calls stick to the questions and ask them in the most appropriate order. Sure you might seem a bit like a robot, but it should help lower your anxiety with it. Confidence will come in time, before you know it you’ll be cracking a few jokes and seamlessly incorporating the questions into your chats.
Oh, and be prepared to forget a few questions. Both on purpose and by accident. I’ve had calls where the client has literally answered 90% of my questions before I get a chance to ask one. I’ve also spoken to clients where it was like getting blood out of a stone. In those cases I tend to miss one or two questions.
It’s not the end of the world. Your follow-up email isn’t just to clarify the details but is also a great opportunity for you to ask anything you missed.
This isn’t a perfect screening method. You’ll reduce the number of shitty clients you have to work with but one or two will still slip through the cracks.
So there’s the list. It’s your job now to start asking clients in your pitches for a quick chat on the phone. Let me know what you think of the list or if you’ve got anything that you think really needs to be asked to new clients on the phone.