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What's the Best First Question to Ask on the Phone When Selling Web Development Services?

What's the Best First Question to Ask on the Phone When Selling Web Development Services?

A client contacts you for a potential new project he wants to have developed. You've never talked to this client before and it's not practical to sit together in a live meeting (he lives in another city, in a galaxy far far away). In his email description the project looked like something you'd like to work on, but you can't be sure and there are many questions you need to ask before you commit to creating a proposal. What questions do you ask, in what order and what decisions do you make based on the answers you receive? This article deals with the best first question to ask a new client. This question dictates the course of the whole interview and can make the difference between wasting your time and successfully landing a profitable new project.

The question is: "Why this particular project and why now?"

I'm cutting to the chase here. There's a reason why your client wants to hire an agency for this particular project. Something is also different today than it was yesterday, something motivated your client or set him in motion to contact you. 

That something is either pain or gain

He might be experiencing a problem that has grown so big by now that the status quo is more painful than motion. That's motivation from pain.

Or, your client sees a profitable opportunity vanishing unless he acts now. That's motivation from gain (and also from pain. You probably heard that most people are motivated from pain.)

Why you need to know exactly how your client is motivated and by what exactly

Your client's true motivation sets the right stage for the remainder of the sales conversation. His answer also enables you to guide the client in the right direction. Asking it also differentiates you from the competition because the rookies are asking rookie questions (more on that below, follow the headings).

How not to start a phone conversation

After reviewing and quickly reseaching what the client sent you in his first email, you call him. 

First you say hello and introduce yourself (your first name, last name, name of your agency). You announce that you need 15 minutes of his time because there are important questions you need to ask before you can be of any service to him. The client can talk right now and has the time. So far, so good. 

And then you ask the wrong question.

"Tell me about your project."

No. No! 

This is an open-ended question, which means that you're letting the client take the conversation in the direction he thinks is appropriate.

Customers don't know what is appropriate. Maybe they never talked to an agency before. Guiding and controlling a sales conversation is your job, not your client's job. You're the expert on the subject, you should be asking more specific questions! 

Some clients will think that you want to know more about project's features. You do, but not yet. That's putting the carriage before the horse.

Other clients will begin by saying that they want the application to have a purple logo, and they'll make a big deal out of the choice of colors.

You don't want to be discussing the color of the logo right now. That's like discussing dessert before you've had the soup. Some clients are detail-oriented, and that's ok - but now you need big picture thinking and big picture answers. 

To get the big picture answers, you need to ask the big picture questions.

Ok, how do I ask the right question, exactly?

Mr. Client, before we can proceed to the technical details of your project, we need to discuss one important detail which helps me give you my best advice for which you contacted us. What is very important for me to understand is: what motivated you to start this project right now?

The first part of the sentence announces that we will be talking about what services and products need to go in the proposal to make it technically complete - but something needs to be discussed first.

The second part gives the reason why we need to ask what we're about to ask (because it helps me do the job for the client well).

In the final part, emphasize the words motivation and now. Practice saying that sentence in front of a mirror. Hear yourself say this out loud. 

(Complete sales geeks record themselves saying magic sales words out loud all the time - there is nothing stopping you from behaving like a total sales geek. I recommend that you do behave like that, in fact. Do it now. Go on, it's better that you do it a few times before you talk to a Fortune 1000 client.)

Don't ask anything after the 'right now' part, stop talking and wait for the answer. In their answer, clients tend to grab onto the last part of your question and dismiss everything you said before (they heard you say everything, but your voice guided them to concentrate on how to answer your direct question).

What to do with the answer you receive (with a few real world examples)

If you know why, and why now, you will be able to:

Decide whether you want to work on the project at all.

You're setting up a 'trap' here. The trap is your showstopper filter. You're actively disqualifying prospects because you should not be working with every client who asks you for a sales proposal.

(You do have a showstopper filter, do you? No? Ok, I'll write a story about a showstopper filter then.)

For example, let's say that you give the most value to companies who need custom software developed, and this client needs the most basic internet presence - because some crazy government regulation requires him to have a website. That's his only reason. He doesn't want ROI. He's not interested in generating leads. He barely wants anything more than a logo on a white background and a place to publish obligatory news for stockholders. 

You quickly realize that this client cannot possibly extract enough value from your services to justify your price. He's most likely to hire the lowest bidder and that's not how you roll. You decide not to accept the project and the both of you go your separate merry ways.

Assess the scope of the project, manage client's expectations and propose realistic solutions.

What we have here is a client exhibiting at an international fair - in 30 days. They want a gigantic website developed for the purposes of looking good at the fair. They have zero content ready and they won't be able to make a decision in the next seven days (boss is on a vacation). In another words: a project of high risk.

If you don't ask the 'why, and why now' question, it might be too late when you realize that neither you nor the client have the resources to pull this project off in such a short amount of time.

If you do ask the question, you can at least think about it and make a quick decision. I'm not saying that you should not sign a contract for such a risky project. Maybe you don't have any other projects in the pipeline. Maybe you can sell the project at  a higher price (you'll need extra cash to pay for your development team's night shifts and overtime anyway). Maybe you thrive at handling risky projects with crazy deadlines - hey, whatever gets you going. I'm saying that you need to know, and you find out by asking.

Determine the right services at the right price.

For example, your client is a newbie entrepreneur couple (incorporated only three weeks ago) with day jobs. They have limited business experience and all the passion in the world for this shoestring-budgeted world domination project with which they came to you. Before you dismiss them, you find out that they're building this project so that they could quit their jobs in 2-5 years and become independent entrepreneurs, together. Their world domination project at their set budget looked laughable in their email, but after talking to them for 5 minutes on the phone, you realize they're not unrealistic at all. They want to proceed slowly and they need your guidance on this journey.

Now we're talking :) This is a dream project for you: it starts slow and you get to both grow together. You decide to do the minimum viable website. The price is low because there's not much for you to do, and you make the client one happy camper.

See what a difference a question makes?

Decide which sales leads get higher priority.

Let's say that you have a client who wants you to run an internet marketing campaign for his new product line, but the product won't be ready before Christmas. Meaning: there's no rush. If you're juggling with multiple sales leads daily, you want to know who needs your attention today, and who doesn't. This client can probably wait (but you need to be 100% sure about it by asking him).

Why the client needs to hear you ask that question

Your goal is to get a certain message across to your client:

Every step you make must be and will be aligned with your client's wishes.

To you, client's wishes translate as:

  • his business goals
  • his expectations
  • his criteria for determining the success of the project

Find out about all of them!

Your client will sense that there's something different about you. He'll wonder why you were the only one to ask him those questions. At the end of the phone conversation, when you ask him about the criteria for choosing an agency for this gig, he'll probably say that they're looking for someone who is as nice, as professional, as knowledgeable and as specific as you were today.

If you hear them say this, congratulations! You've just gained enough leverage over your competition to close the deal with your beautiful, professional-looking sales proposal you're about to send. 

By all means, engage! :)

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