How do I get potential clients hooked?
August 8, 2007 8:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm a software development consultant and am getting frustrated at the number of potential clients slipping through my fingers. I get a good number of interested leads through my website or through referrals (thanks guys) but the ratio of potential clients to paying clients is too low. What might I be doing wrong and how can I help gain these clients?

The sequence generally goes like this: I get an email from a lead introducing themselves and the problem they want help with and asking about my availability. I email back and explain that I am available, and that the project sounds interesting and would love to talk more with them about it. At this point one or two more emails go back and forth, with them describing the problem in more detail and me describing my relevant experience and skills. Frustratingly, more often than not this process dies when I don't hear back from the client.

I'm an experienced developer, with good skills in my field and a good track record behind me. I don't think my rate is unreasonable (in fact I think it might well be low for a developer with my experience). I understand sometimes the client isn't ready to hire a consultant and was just looking fore ballpark rates that he can budget for. I understand that there can be a tonne of valid reasons for a client abandoning the process. Its always possible the client has found a better developer elsewhere, and so forth. But I'd like to know what I can do to help prevent this from happening and what I could do when a potential client goes cold on me.

Any advice?
posted by schwa to Work & Money (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
"This is an idea of the relevant experience and skills I can bring to your problem. I'm available on XXX to discuss this in person/by phone with you and work out how I can best address your needs. Is that a good time for you, or would there be a more convenient time?"
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:45 PM on August 8, 2007

What might I be doing wrong and how can I help gain these clients?

I think what you might be doing wrong is that your expectations may be too high. I doubt there is much you can do to change this.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:54 PM on August 8, 2007

I do freelance PowerPoint, and have a pretty good rate of conversion from potential client to paying client. When I get an email, I give a written response briefly addressing their needs and then saying something to the effect of, "I look forward to discussing the specifics of your project with you by phone. Please contact me at (xxx) xxx-xxxx, or forward your information and I will get in touch with you."

The point is: I get them on the phone as soon as possible. Otherwise, it will sort of peter out. On the phone, I believe they hear that I am capable and ready to go. And I think actually talking makes it more real. Furthermore, the ones that are just "feeling it out" generally won't make the call, saving you time and effort.
posted by SampleSize at 8:57 PM on August 8, 2007

I have a close rate of 80-90% on leads. This is extremely high. I believe it has a lot to do with the website for my consulting business. I make my skills, experience and services clear. I don't spend much time explaining myself to potential clients. Do you have a good website? Is it targeted to the work you're doing, so that you don't spend time on irrelevant contacts?
posted by acoutu at 8:58 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Is it possible your rates are too high for the clients you're attracting? That is, is it possible that the way that you're marketing is bringing in clients that are low-budget who aren't prepared to pay real market rates, and thus are scared off when they find out how much these services actually cost? If that's the case, you might want to experiment with other kinds of marketing that might bring in higher end potential clients.
posted by decathecting at 8:59 PM on August 8, 2007

I just went through this process, of turning down bids from outsourced developers, so what I have to offer is merely anecdotes. But the common thread among the people I said no to was that they wanted to do the work their way, the way they were most experienced with and would find it easiest to meet the letter of the deal, but it was not a method that was usable by me over the long term.

For example, some of them wanted to do the project via Ruby on Rails, and when I explained that we had no experience with Rails and would therefore have no way to support a Rails-developed system after they completed the initial phase of the project, they responded by telling me what a wonderful thing Rails was.

It was as if I said I wanted a pickup truck, because I have lots of stuff to haul, and they gave me a hybrid Prius instead, because the hybrid engine is better for the planet and the trunk space should be enough, in their esteemed opinion, for all the hauling someone like me would ever want to do.

Ultimately, I would say that you need to ensure the solutions you offer really are matching the clients needs today, tomorrow and next year, and you're not promoting your experience too much at the expense of your flexibility. You don't want to leave anyone feeling as if you're just going to try to shove your square peg into their round hole.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:04 PM on August 8, 2007

From what you're saying, I am concerned about your prices --- someone out there may be underselling you.

The other thing is this: when you work for yourself, it's necessary to become a good salesperson of your own work. It's unfortunate that the bullshitty sales skills are necessary, since we would prefer to be doing the thing we're actually trained to do, but you've got to be good at sales.

When people come in to hire me, I don't have patience for a lot of back and forth, and I don't like to hand-hold the indecisive prospective client. I explain what I can do, what my experience is, and perhaps tell them a little bit about what I anticipate I can do about their problem, and then I ask them, "Are you ready to hire me today?" If they are not ready, I quickly hand them a business card, show them the door, and as they're walking out, I invite them to call me if they decide they're ready to sign a contract. You can develop a little five-minute pitch that highlights your qualifications and your professionalism and successes ... and if that doesn't reel them in, get rid of them.

I think if you keep it brief, sometimes that makes a good businesslike impression on a client ... it communicates efficiency and professionalism.
posted by jayder at 9:18 PM on August 8, 2007

You're a good programmer, right? Maybe you're crap at sales. People have different skill sets. If you find after a while that you have a hard time selling yourself, you might want to consider getting a job programming for a company that can take care of the sales for you.

You might also want to get in touch with other programmers in your field/geographical area. Sometimes you can set up a sort of consortium of programmers or something, to help each other out with leads and stuff.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:19 PM on August 8, 2007

Get them on the phone or (much better) meet in person. A string of emails is likely to fizzle out.
posted by unSane at 9:26 PM on August 8, 2007

Consider getting an agent. I'm not sure how that works in the programming field--others will know--but it should help. That way the agent, who is trained in the task of selling you, fields all the tire-kickers and you only hear from the ones who are serious.

(Is it just me or does this whole thing sound remarkably like advice to the lovelorn? :) )
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:27 PM on August 8, 2007

I'm not sure email is the problem. I've closed a lot of deals over email. But I quote my rates in the very first email (getting rid of people who have unrealistic budgets) and I offer to send over a contract. Second email usually includes the estimate/contract.
posted by acoutu at 9:41 PM on August 8, 2007

if it were me, by the time the client has described the problem in significant (well -- more than cursory) deail, i would be sending them a breakdown of what you would do and how much it would cost. it's not clear to me from your initial description of the typical scenario that this exchange happens, and i believe that it's important that it happen as near to the beginning as possible.
posted by moz at 10:00 PM on August 8, 2007

As well as promoting your skills and experience in the initial email exchange, make sure you put in a few good ideas for their project or things to be wary of (literally a few minutes of free consultancy); I find that's what usually hooks people, as they start getting the feeling that you're already becoming indispensable, and ultimately it's about their project not you.

I don't think you need 'sales bullshit' unless you're attracting the kinds of clients who are impressed by patter (and they're often to be avoided), just be clear, helpful, knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
Bringing in the phone at the right point can help close a deal, but too early and it may seem pushy to some clients (and you probably want clients who are happy to primarily communicate via email/IM/web?).
posted by malevolent at 12:16 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Enthusiasm. I want to see that you have read and understood my spec, have something interesting, unique, competent, and concrete to say about it, are confident that you can complete the project, and are eager to take ownership of it and get started.

I wonder what would happen if you said something like "This is so interesting to me that I've already started working on it, so I really hope I get the job!"
posted by trevyn at 12:46 AM on August 9, 2007

Oh, and I agree that quoting rates first thing is a good idea if you're looking to cut down on time spent with dead leads; it wastes less of everybody's time in many different situations.

Also, when it's clear they're not going to write back anymore, you might want to be humble, acknowledge the situation, ask if they chose another developer, and if so, what led them to that decision so that you know what you should focus on improving.
posted by trevyn at 1:00 AM on August 9, 2007

First - nthing the recommendation to set up a meeting (on the phone or face to face) and taking the discussion out of e-mail ASAP.

Observation: As a solo consultant, you are also a sales and marketing guy in addition to what you "really" do.

I was a solo practitioner for years (technical writer, instructional designer, information architect) and discovered that there was apparently something deeply wrong with me :-), and that I liked the sales process enough that I switched over to business development... I do business strategy and proposal management now (for a company.)

There are any number of books out there about how to sell services, and some of the ideas in them may be helpful to you in figuring out how to improve your win rate.

The two I like best are Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants and The New Solution Selling.
posted by enrevanche at 2:50 AM on August 9, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. There's some really invaluable feedback here that I need to read and re-read.

I think part of the problem is that I wasn't engaging them in a meeting (generally phone, face to face is usually impractical) soon enough. I should have a lot more time to do that now, so will make that a priority. I know my website is long overdue for a refresh, so that might help clarify what I can do for the client.

I'm not keen on quoting the rate up front, it smacks of arrogance to me... But I might just need to get over that.

Once more thanks for the info. Lots to think about.
posted by schwa at 4:31 AM on August 9, 2007

You already know what the clients are doing after they talk with you: they're calling your competitors and asking for bids. Apparently they're undercutting you (or you over-value your own work).

Don't try and compete on price, especially when someone's kid will do the work for free just for the "experience." You need to sell your expertise, make the clients understand that with you they get the whole package. Explain your costs to them so they understand what they're getting.

And to repeat what everyone else has said: the earlier you establish a real relationship (real meaning "the real world" as opposed to "the digital world") the better. Phone is good, but meeting in person is better. They'll want to size you up in person before handing over a check to you.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:15 AM on August 9, 2007

Take it for what it's worth, and it's just an opinion, but I don't think the name of your business is helping you much.
posted by DarkForest at 6:09 AM on August 9, 2007

I'm not keen on quoting the rate up front, it smacks of arrogance to me... But I might just need to get over that.

Yes, you do. A key component of selling yourself as a consultant is having enough confidence to say "I cost $X an hour" without apology and giving the impression that you're a mild bargain at that price.

The reason you don't want to be a major bargain is that customers rarely choose the cheapest provider of consultory services. If you have no rational basis for selecting among providers, you're going to choose the one you have the greatest comfort level with -- and being cheaper than your competitors is a red flag for comfort. As such, you may be losing sales because you're charging too little for your services. You may want to raise your list price and see if that changes your lead conversion, even if your actual rate stays about the same.

(Easier said than done to experiment with such things, I know.)
posted by backupjesus at 7:45 AM on August 9, 2007

If you're in to podcasts check out Bill Caskey's Advanced Selling Podcast for a selling approach that is the opposite of used-car hucksterism.

His book is good too.
posted by Mick at 9:08 AM on August 9, 2007

Once you get to the phone conversation, you need to hit only 4 points:

1. What you can do to solve their problem. (Rough plans, not

2. Why *you* are the best choice (lots of experience with their existing tools, easy to maintain code, flexible payment options, you take credit cards, you're more available for questions/tweaks/further dev projects (note: do *not* bring price into point number two.))

3. How soon the work will be complete/ what it will cost.

4. Where can you reach them with an agreement / phone number to follow up.


It's tough to not end up like Comic-Book Guy, jaded at all the penniless kids who come in to look at the super-rare Radioactive Man comic. So you can either reduce the number of leads, or you can better qualify your leads.
posted by Wild_Eep at 9:39 AM on August 9, 2007

that is, Rough plans, not details of what libraries and function calls (unless they ask that stuff specifically).
posted by Wild_Eep at 9:40 AM on August 9, 2007

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