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8 Questions I Ask To Qualify Potential Writing Clients

The post, I Don’t Want These Clients! prompted some comments that got me thinking about how I qualify my clients.

That term, qualifying clients, is most often heard at sales trainings. In a previous career I sold and I’ve been to more than a few trainings. Fortunately I’ve brought some of what I learned into my freelance writing career.

Yes, You’re In Sales

Writers often hate to admit it, but each one of us is also in sales. That is, we are if we want to make money from our writing or want more than just our best friends to read what we write.

Every time you write a query or a book proposal you’re selling your writing. If you pick up the phone and someone says they want to hire you, you’re job is to close that sale, or decide you don’t want that client. When you answer an ad for a job, you’re selling your writing services.

Selling is not a bad word or concept. It’s how the world works. Sure, selling has been abused by people who for any number of reasons push and lie to make the sale, but you don’t have to do that. And if you stop and think, you’ll realize that most of the things you buy are the result of selling, from your groceries to the paper you put in your printer.

Qualify Your Writing Clients

When you qualify a client you’re working to find out if that client is a match for you. If they are and you’ve got time available for them, you can move on to negotiating the contract.

Once you start consciously qualifying clients you’ll probably be surprised how many people you decide you don’t want to write for. It can be scary at first, but I’ve found that when I let the non-qualifiers go, the clients I want to work with show up pretty quickly.

Generally speaking, properly qualifying a potential client means getting all your questions answered.

8 Qualifying Questions For Writing Clients

Here are the questions I want answered:

  1. What, exactly, do you want written? I want to know how clear they are about their project. If they can’t tell me succinctly I know we’ll have to get clear or it’s not worth starting. I can help with that, but I often charge for my time.
  2. Why do you want it written? I want to know their motivation; it helps me capture their voice if I understand what they are trying to accomplish, or what their dream is with the writing.
  3. When do you want it finished? I’m hoping for a reasonable time frame – too short and it’s a problem, so is too long. When the deadline is unspecified or way out there, their interest and mine is likely to flag.
  4. Why do you want it finished by then? Again, I’m trying to get in their head and find out how important this project is to them. Also this may provide an opportunity for me to educate them about how the writing world really works.
  5. How much, if any, writing on this have you already done? Remember, I ghostwrite books. Many of my clients have taken a stab at getting their book written and discovered they hate writing or don’t have the time. But, if they’ve written anything at all, I want to see it even if it’s awful. I suspect the same is true for almost any other type of writing.
  6. How much have you budgeted for this project? Often I’ll get a weasel answer here, or none at all. But somebody’s got to start talking about money. I find if I ask I get some answer that’s revealing one way or another. If they turn this question around and ask me how much I charge I always say “oh no more than a million dollars a day” then we both laugh and go on to a discussion of money that works.

  7. What questions do you have for me? This is important too because they always have questions as they should. The sooner I know what those questions are and answer them, the sooner we can decide if we want to work together.
  8. How did you find me? This is just for me as a way to track some of my marketing efforts.

No, I don’t run through these in order and yes I often ask additional questions. What I really want is a conversation. I do, however get these basic questions answered.

If I’m uncomfortable with their answer to any of these I’m likely to let them go, perhaps suggesting how they can find who they are looking for.

But it’s not a formula. By the time we’ve talked about all this we both have a pretty good initial feel for each other. If we’re both comfortable I’ll offer to go the next step, which may be a sample, or a contract, or a non-disclosure agreement. Or just another phone call.

What questions do you ask your potential clients?

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Recently, I’ve been approached by a few prospective clients who found me via Google. This is fine – actually good. But in three cases, it turned out that the person who contacted me was a very junior person who had just put together a list of possible writers via an internet search in response to a request from their boss. I have nothing against competition but this approach always turns into a question of price when I prefer compete on quality, reliability, understanding my clients and so on. The danger is that I spend a lot of time preparing proposals, going to meetings etc. only to fall at the last hurdle when the price comes into question.

    So, I’m thinking about asking these questions in future:

    * Are you the person who is going to decide whether or not to go ahead?
    * What sort of budget do you have in mind? (Or alternatively, I can send a link to a page on my site with representative prices and see if they still call me back!)
    * Who else are you talking to? (i.e. is this a cattle call)
    * Why did you contact me? (i.e. do you know what I do and the types of clients I do it for)
    * How did you find me? (i.e. is this a referral or just a Google search)

    Another big warning sign is when they say “we want you to do a (free) sample and then we’ll decide” or when they say “we want you to do this initial piece at a huge discount because we may give you lots of work in future.” This shows that they see writing as a commodity. Try either of these lines with your lawyer and see how far it gets you!
    .-= Matthew Stibbe´s last blog ..It’s not big and it’s not clever – how to avoid corporatespeak =-.

    • Anne

      Matthew, funny, I read this before I realized it was you and I thought “oh this person really knows their business!” Of course, you do. These are excellent… and each one is also a question I usually ask, although I have’t gotten the cattle call call in quite awhile.

      As far as the free sample, I sometimes do a page or two but only when we’re close to closing the deal and that’s more to help me price the project than for them. And no initial discounts! What a ripoff that turns out to be, even if that isn’t the initial intention. Thanks so much.

  • Anne, I have a “new client” form I used, I’ll remove my details and post it up on my site in the next day or two.

    Basically it’s a few details about the client to enable a simple credit check, and a couple of references.

    A prospective client who is not willing to fill it in should not be worked for except with 100% up front or full escrow service. A genuine client will not mind filling it in.
    .-= Karl Rohde´s last blog ..5 Benefits Of Case Studies =-.

    • Anne

      Let us know when it’s up, and how it’s working for you.

  • One more:

    “What is your credit score?” 😉

    Jokes aside, it helps to ask for business references when dealing with a new client. Most of us willingly provide such information either on our web sites or via separate cover. This step also demonstrates that writing is a business, and not a hobby.

    • Anne

      Actually, that probably is a good idea… not sure I have the guts for that. But business references for sure. Thanks Steve.

  • Since I ghostwrite prescriptive nonfiction books I always ask potential clients what the goal is for the book – what are their expectations. Are they hoping to create a bestseller or simply confirm their position as the go-to expert on a particular subject? Do they think they’re going to make a lot of money with book sales or is the book a calling card to get readers interested in their more expensive services and seminars? And most importantly, do they want to pursue traditional publishing or self-publishing? I am always amazed at the woeful lack of knowledge many ghostwriting clients have of the publishing industry and writing in general. Much of my initial consultation involves educating potential clients on the practicalities of developing a book.
    .-= Laura Cross´s last blog ..BOOKS FOR WRITERS: Publish Your Nonfiction Book by Sharlene Martin and Anthony Flacco =-.

  • Great post, Anne. I have recently taken to sending copywriting/blog clients a questionnaire to fill out describing their project. Helps avoid scope creep, misunderstandings and underbidding.

    You gave me a couple of new questions to add to mine!

    Thanks —

    Carol Tice
    http://www.caroltice.com
    .-= Carol Tice´s last blog ..Guest blogger: Bob Howells – Tie Up Some Packages =-.

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