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I’ll be honest with you: I’m not the best or cheapest designer in the world, and I have lots of incredible competition. But when I get the chance to talk with a potential client one-on-one, I almost always land the gig.
When the tables are turned and I’m in the position to hire someone, I have a chance to observe how they handle it — and I can tell you, a lot of people blow it. Common mistakes include:
- They take forever to get back with me
- They come across as too eager and it feels smarmy and inauthentic
- They treat me with suspicion
- They act as if they don’t really care one way or another and/or don’t take the time to understand my problem
- They don’t make any effort to tell me the reasons why I should choose them
- They don’t make the next steps clear or expect me to tell them how I want them to do their job
- There’s too much emphasis on the price, which feels transactional rather than personal
On the other hand, I’ve interviewed people who do the opposite of all these things and those are the people who almost always win my business. The most important touchpoint in the sales process is the initial conversation — it’s where you win or lose the sale. Here’s how to flip these mistakes, get a leg up on your competition, and make a great first impression:
1. Respond quickly
There’s no bigger turn off as a potential client than reaching out to someone and not hearing back from them for several days. It says, “I don’t really care, and when you work with me, you’re not going to be able to depend on me.”
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Respond to new business inquiries as fast as you can, and follow that through to the end of the project.
2. Qualify the client
Not everyone is your customer. The first step is to make sure you’re a good fit for each other, so instead of eagerly launching into a sales pitch, ask good qualifying questions instead.
Find out if they align with your definition of your ideal customer:
“Tell me a little bit about you/your business and what you’re ultimately trying to achieve” is a great opener. Then? Listen.
If it’s a great fit for you, tell them why: “This project is right in my wheelhouse, I’m excited to learn more. I have lots of experience working with [people like you who have similar problems].”
3. Act as if they’re about to be your new favorite client
Alternate title: Give them the benefit of the doubt.
I know there are a lot of crappy clients out there, but being cynical and viewing every potential client with suspicion is an energy they can feel, whether you directly express it or not.
You can’t really know for sure whether someone is going to turn out to be a great client, but you should treat everybody as if they are from that very first encounter right up until they prove otherwise.
Asking good questions, qualifying the client, and having contracts and systems in place — an exit strategy if you will — is your responsibility.
Having ground rules and a contract to protect you from bad apples slipping through, and knowing in advance how you’ll remove yourself from a bad situation if it happens, allows you to release this negative energy from the equation and approach new prospects with an open mind and heart. And they’ll feel that.
4. Show genuine interest in their problem
When people inquire about your services, they’ll say something like, “I need ____.”
A typical response is, “Yes, I sell _____, it’ll be $X.”
This is how you sell a cheeseburger, not a service.
Instead, ask the client about the outcome they hope to achieve, why they’ve decided to invest in this service, and how things will be different for them if your work together is successful.
When you show genuine interest and treat a potential client as more than someone you can do a transaction with, it gets the relationship off to a great start. Establish the relationship and the transaction will come. This alone will set you apart from most people, who only ever take the time to send over a price quote.
5. Give them the reasons why they should choose you
When you’re selling a service, you likely have lots of competition for the bulleted list of things you do. A lot of potential clients are unfamiliar with the reasons one service provider different from the other — it’s up to you to tell them. Even though they’ve inquired about your services as if they’re buying a cheeseburger (“I need ____, how much will that cost?”), take the opportunity to sell your value.
Answer the question, but tell them what it’s like to work with you, how the process works, what makes the experience unique.
If at all possible, do this face to face — either in person or on a video chat. Without eye contact, it’s very difficult to form a human connection and establish trust.
6. Tell them how it works to work with you
When your customer has to ask a million questions to figure out how it’s going to be when they work with you, you’ve failed to take control and missed a gigantic opportunity to position yourself as an expert (instead of an order-taker).
Make a list of commonly-asked questions and create a script to walk potential clients through your process. Make a list of common objections and address them in advance.
They will probably still have some questions, but they’ll be impressed that you read their mind about a lot of it and addressed their concerns without them having to drag it out of you. This makes you look like you’re going to be in control of the project and that’s what good clients want.
In a nutshell, be prepared to take the initiative: “Let me tell you a little bit about my process and what it’s like to work with me…”
7. Assume they’re fair and generous rather than cheap and petty
I recently interviewed somebody for a job. We talked about services and pricing, but never once was there an expressed interest in my business, whether she even wanted to work with me, or any information about the value of her services. She quoted a price and then a few days later, asked whether I would be okay to pay $10 more. I was a bit surprised at that because I hadn’t made any attempt to negotiate a lower rate.
I understand that we all have to make a living and asking for money is a part of that, but for me, it was clear that what was important to her was the money and not the work itself or the potential relationship.
No client wants to feel like the only thing that matters is how much money you can get out of them, just like you don’t want clients who only care about how low a price you can offer.
I understand some people will haggle with you over nickels and dimes — but these are shitty clients who view your service as a commodity; you don’t have to play that game if you don’t want to.
Figure out your pricing and give them a quote with integrity and stand by it. Treat your customers as if they’re fair and generous rather than cheap and petty. This is the way to kick things off with mutual respect.
Did I leave anything out?
Please let me know in the comments below if you have advice for making a great first impression!
Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.