One of the biggest frustrations in freelance writing is doing some work for a client only to find out you’ve not understood what the client wanted. Or, as often happens, you discover the customer really has no real clarity on exactly what kind of writing they want.
Obviously, questions are the way you find out what a buyer wants or what they think they want, but the kind of question you ask is important.
For the most part, you’re being hired to solve a problem. Obviously the customer thinks a piece of writing will solve that problem. You need to find out exactly what problem the they are trying to solve.
In fact, I’d say it’s your job to do your best to discover what they want, and if you can’t figure it out, you may want to pass on the gig.
Ask lots of questions
Start simply, asking: What problem are you trying to solve?
The trick is to ask another question. Let’s say, for example, your client wants you to write an ebook. The conversation might go something like this:
What problem are you trying to solve?
I want to use the ebook to grow our mailing list.
Tell me more about that.
Well, we send out a mailing list every few weeks and we’d like to see more people sign up for it.
How do you see the ebook helping you grow your list?
I think people would sign up for a free ebook.
What do you want the ebook to say about you and your company?
Well, I’m not sure. Of course, I’d like them to come back to the site and buy one of our products.
Do you see what’s happening? You’re gradually getting to what is probably the real goal – sell more products. Knowing this you can begin to zero in on the ebook’s content, length, style, etc.
To a large degree the more you know about the problem the customer is trying to solve the more accurate your definition of the scope of work will be.
Sometimes it can seem as if you’re asking too many questions – you’re probably not.
You’ve also got to listen
It may seem obvious, but if you’re going to get real information from your questions you’ve got to listen carefully to the answers. Turn off any radio or other background noise. I actually turn away from my computer and write down answers with pen and paper. (The computer can be a terrible distraction for me.)
You want to capture as many details as possible – that doesn’t mean you have to take down every word, although that won’t hurt if you can do it. But you want the big and little ideas, in the client’s own words.
You’re listening not only for the actual words and sentences of the response, but for hidden meanings.
It’s not that the prospect is trying to hide anything, but often they have concerns they haven’t expressed. When you get a sense there’s something unspoken, just ask them to tell you more about the problem.
Feedback the information
The only way to be sure you’ve understood what your client has said is to rephrase and feed it back. You know, something like:
Do I understand that a 10 page .pdf including the cover will work for you?
You’ll discover either that you have understood which is great, or that you haven’t – at least not exactly. It’s surprising how often this happens. After all we know a great deal more about the writing process and results than our prospect and it’s awfully easy to assume we know what they are talking about.
When you discover you haven’t got it exactly right, just ask more questions.
By the way, these conversations can take quite awhile. If you have’t got at least 30 minutes, and maybe even an hour, schedule it.
This kind of conversation can seem awkward. Remember people do love talking about themselves and their problem. They will appreciate the fact you’re really hearing them and on their side.
You’ll also be in a much better position to deliver what they need and want.
What kind of questions do you ask about potential projects?