That first phone call with a new client is a nuanced maneuver that’s equal parts fact-finding, checking for professional rapport, and understanding the scope of the job. It’s kind of like a first date: What is each party hoping to get out of the relationship? Are they looking for something long-term, or a brief engagement? Does everyone have similar or complementary ways of operating and communicating? How much are they willing to invest in the partnership? And — most importantly—do you want to see each other again?
Like most things, this is an effort that gets easier with practice. And to that end, we’ve asked seven successful freelancers and independent workers what they’ve learned from their years of landing new business. Here’s what they had to say.
Get a good understanding of the commitment.
Melissa Liebling-Goldberg, founder, Bureau De Femme marketing and content consultancy
“In my experience, the most important questions to ask up front are around commitment, both in terms of what the client expects from you and what you can expect back from the client. Understanding who your contact will be and his/her availability will help you tackle the project correctly. Also, ask as many questions as you need to! Don’t feel you are bothering the client. Once you fully understand the scope of the project on the first call, I recommend codifying it in writing with deliverables, timeline, and cost so everyone is in agreement before work begins.”
Talk budget—it saves everyone’s time.
Annie Tomlin, writer and content strategist
“I’ve learned the hard way that I need to talk budget first. I’ve wasted too many hours preparing for and attending meetings, only to find out that the potential client is offering a small fraction of my usual rate. It’s a poor use of everyone’s time and it’s time that I’m not earning. Now, I’ll usually say something like “I’d love to meet with you! I just want to make sure my rates align with your budget. My rate is typically $XX-ZZ range. Does that work for you?” If it does, or it’s in the general ballpark, great! If not, then at least everyone knows and can move forward accordingly.”
Ask a lot of questions to thoroughly understand how they want your help.
Anne Gomez, product and program manager
“For me, the first conversation always focuses on trying to understand the potential client’s project, perspective, and what problem they’d like my help with. I generally ask a lot of questions and check my understanding along the way. This is for a few reasons: to make sure we’re on the same page and to see if we can have a real dialogue. I find that this approach sells. People want to know that you get them and will dig deep—not that you’re just going to apply a one-size solution to whatever project comes your way. And yes: talk about rates in the first discussion. Also dig into working style to find out how a client wants to collaborate.”
Diana Kelly Levey, writer, editor, and content marketer
“I can recall a few prospecting conversations I had with potential clients early on in my freelancing career where we talked about my background, what they were looking for, and the project they were working on. I’d take diligent notes and go as far as sharing ideas and strategies that would help them execute the project. At the time, I was doing it to ‘sell’ myself as a contender for the work, but I later realized that I’d actually been giving away my IP and experience for free! I was sharing services and ideas I could offer as part of the project proposal that a client would pay me for. Now I focus on listening to what the client wants and letting them know if the work is something I’m interested in and could execute. Then I follow-up with a recap email and offer strategy work as part of my consulting fee.”
Show that you care.
Rebeka Morales, freelance graphic designer and web designer
“To have a successful first conversation with a new client, I try to make two things very clear. One, that I care that the actual outcome of the project matches the client’s desired outcome, and two, that clarity = time, meaning the clearer the client can convey their vision for the project, the faster it can be achieved. This framework puts some of the responsibility on the client to streamline their preferences when speaking with me.
I limit the first onboarding conversation to one hour, and then I follow-up with an email including three attachments: Price sheet of services offered (some prices are negotiated depending on the project), contract draft outlining the scope of work based on initial onboarding conversation, and a design brainstorming form. The design brainstorming form is something I created to help the client, who’s likely never thought as a designer before, clearly convey their ideas. For example, one question is about fonts—it shows various font styles and asks the client to check which they prefer. This follow-up achieves both of my aforementioned objectives: that I’m striving to achieve their desired results and that I’m efficient in doing so.”
Be kind, be thorough, and ask for help if you need it.
Valery Rizzo, food, lifestyle and portrait photographer
“Always be positive, open minded, and kind. It’s a working relationship and they also have to enjoy working with you personally as well as creatively.
Since there are always different variables, I like discussing the details and scope of a project first, which then allows me to formulate an appropriate rate—and it also shows my interest in the work. Depending on the assignment, there may be travel, equipment rentals, assistant fees, and other various things to consider when discussing rates. Additionally, I will often ask what kind of budget the client is working with. Once I thoroughly go over all this information, I get back to them with a quote. And always put everything in writing, so everyone knows the terms and what to expect.
One more thought: The biggest mistake beginning freelancers make is low-balling themselves by not charging enough for the work, and that never feels good. If it’s something you are unfamiliar with, which is most often the case, reach out to a fellow photographer to help guide you in the right direction, which really, in the end, benefits the industry as a whole.”
Make sure the client feels heard.
Marcia Layton Turner, business book ghostwriter
“Make sure you sound interested and energetic when talking on the phone. I’ve had multiple people comment that other writers they interviewed lacked any kind of energy or enthusiasm. Sound like you’re interested in the work! Part of doing that means asking questions about the client, the project, the expectations, and anything else you want to know about. This demonstrates interest and shows you’ve done this before, which conveys confidence and experience. It also helps you evaluate whether the work is a good fit for your background. You’re also assessing whether you want this work, after all. So come prepared with questions. And on a similar note: Do not make it all about you. If they ask about your background or experience, answer the question but don’t go overboard talking about how great you are. I always try and ensure that I’m talking much less than the client, so that they end the call feeling like they were heard and that I was interested in their project.”
- It’s ok to talk money and budget—even before the call if needed. There’s no use wasting everyone’s time if you’re not in the same ballpark.
- Listen well. Make sure the client feels like they’ve gotten their point across—and that you’re not giving away the goods for free.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s important to have clarity.
- Understand the ask. Make sure you have a thorough understanding of the task at hand, your desired role, and key players on the team so you can plan accordingly.
- Get all the details so you can price accordingly. Are there many rounds of edits? How many contacts will you be dealing with? Is there travel or other expenses involved? And don’t underestimate yourself!
- Send a follow-up email that outlines the project discussed as well as next steps.