What is a discovery call?
Even though professional salespeople might refer to this step with the fun nickname of "disco" – it's not a party. The discovery call is a critical step in the sales process. It's the first call that you have with your potential new client to hash out their goals, needs, and requirements and it's your opportunity to explain who you are and what you have to offer.
One key aspect of a successful discovery call is that it helps you to suss out your prospects' needs while sharing about how you might work together, whether it'll be a good fit, and what that type of relationship/project would look like. Everyone from solo freelancers (like myself!) to the sales reps who work for large enterprise sales teams use the discovery call structure and a similar list of discovery questions to those that I'm about to share below because it's a tried-and-true format for moving through the sales process.
It's also likely to be the first time you've had real interaction with your potential new client, so it's your first and only opportunity to make that strong first impression and build rapport.
What happens during a discovery call?
Typically the flow of this very first call goes something like this: You call the prospective client on their provided phone number and after opening the call, you ask them to share a little bit about their business and then a little bit about their needs. You share an overview of who you are and what you have to offer – keeping it brief and high level but hitting any important points that you think could be worthwhile, like if you have industry-specific experience or you've worked with a client that's similar. Then you move to questions.
Again, brevity is important because thirty minutes will zoom by and most people will expect the call to only last thirty minutes. So stick to the point, be judicious about your conversation points and questions, and make sure the client does most of the talking!
Qualifying the potential client BEFORE you schedule the sales call
In The Discovery Call Blueprint, I hammer home the importance of qualification and here it's important, in a nutshell. Your time is valuable. Your potential client's time is valuable. The potential client doesn't want to waste time on a call with someone they can't afford to work with and you shouldn't waste time on a call with a potential client who isn't really a potential client. If they don't have the budget to work with you – they have no potential.
Pre-call research: why doing your homework is critical
After you've qualified the potential new client and you determine that booking a discovery call makes sense for both you and the prospect, the next steps you'll take will be to do some pre-call research.
Consider it your homework – yay! Now before you go down a rabbit hole and start researching for hours and hours, please know that you do not need to spend that much time to prep for your discovery call. All you need to do is to build a cursory knowledge of the client's organization, what they sell or offer (their products or services), who they offer it to and how they do that – is it online? In person?
This way you can demonstrate to the potential new client that you take them and their business seriously AND you have the information you need to be able to have a meaningful conversation about how your freelancer services can further the buyer's goals.
It's a good idea to take a good look at the potential client's company website, their personal and company Linkedin profiles, and any key social media channels that the company uses. Ten to fifteen minutes of research should be plenty of time to give you an overview of who they are and what they do so that you can have a good conversation with your potential client based on the most relevant information.
The list of discovery call questions to get you started
The following list of discovery questions you might use as a starting point for you to develop and customize your discovery call routine. Don't be afraid to move away from your scripted questions if the conversation offers some useful information that can help you better pitch and sell your services – or if you start to uncover red flags.
Tell me about your day-to-day role in your organization.
Goal: Determine whether the person you are speaking with has the authority to hire you or if they are an information-gatherer who is not making the final decision.
Follow up question: "Are there any other stakeholders or decision-makers that need to be involved in selecting a freelancer for this project?" is a great question because it leads the potential client to share with you whether they have what we call purchasing authority – or the power to sign on the dotted line, if you will. If there ARE other decision-makers, at the end of the call you can circle back to this discussion point and find out how the prospect and the other decision-maker(s) will come together to make a decision. If it's an especially big project, you might even volunteer to hold an informational call with those additional decision-makers.
What was it that prompted you to get in touch/respond to my introduction?
Goal: This question is self-serving and it's a teensy-tiny little bit of market research that can prove valuable to your future outreach efforts. There's always a reason that a prospective client is willing to take your discovery call. Either it's because they have a very immediate need -or- because something in your outreach to them really resonated with them. Finding out what that was is beneficial because it can help inform your future outreach. And of course, if they are connecting with you because they have an immediate need, then you can jump straight to discussing that project.
What is your biggest challenge for this project and/or in hiring a freelancer?
Goal: This question is designed to highlight your potential client's pain points AND surface any concerns they have overall about the project or the freelance hire they're interested in making. As always, you're in a better position when you are aware of these "objections" (sales jargon!) so that you can address them proactively. It also means that you can direct the conversation to those challenges and pain points rather than guessing at what matters to the prospective client.
Follow Up: "Are there any other needs or challenges that need to be addressed before this project can start?" is a great follow up question because it encourages the client to either be transparent about what blockers there might be -or- it encourages the client to let you know that there's nothing standing in the way of the project and there should be no reason why they can't start sooner rather than later.
How much budget have you set aside for this project?
Goal: You should have already pre-qualified the potential client for budget. That means you've either directly asked them their budget -or- you've shared your pricing (or at least a range of pricing if you custom quote your projects) to make sure that you're in the same ballpark. If you're willing to gamble with your time a little bit more and you feel confident in your ability to guess at the likelihood that a potential client has adequate budget to support your pricing, you may go ahead and schedule the discovery call anyway.
Sometimes I do this as a freelancer and I'd say it's a 50/50 chance that I've guessed correctly on their ability to support my pricing with their intended budget.
So whether you've pre-qualified the prospect for budget or not – you need to prompt them again on budget. If there is any hesitation in their answer, the discovery call discussion is the place you want to know about it so that you can delve into that hesitation and either address any concerns they have or cut your losses, wish them luck, and skip sending them a proposal so that you don't waste any more time on a sales opportunity that isn't really an opportunity. (Remember from above – if a potential new client doesn't have budget, they don't have potential!)
Follow Up: Does the client hesitate about your pricing when you share a range? Ask them what they are willing to spend. If you can cut down the scope of what you are offering so that you are providing less in terms of the amount of work, then you can shave the budget down. If the proposed budget they share is way too far off from what you typically price that type of service/project at, then you need to cut your losses, wish them well, and move on. Are we noticing a theme here? :-)
What is your timeline for moving forward with this project?
Goal: A potential new client might not object to your pricing but they can still slip through the cracks because they drag their feet and drag their feet and never actually want to sign a contract and get the project started.
In the sales world, we call these fine folks 'tire-kickers' because they're the type of people who head out to the car dealership on a Saturday morning just to kick the tires of a new ride that they would LOVE to drive, they can afford to drive, but they don't actually want to pull the trigger on purchasing. Maybe they're just looking for something to do on a Saturday morning or maybe they're just terrified of spending that much money. Either way, it's very hard to get them to actually sign on the dotted line.
The point here is that tire-kickers will suck the life right out of your soul because they will eat up your time like a papaw during the early bird special at the casino buffet. They will take up your time until there's nothing left. So the goal of this question, and don't waver on this one, is to get the potential new client to divulge whether or not they're serious about getting this project off the ground.
Follow Up: If the client gives you a non-answer like "as soon as possible" or "I'm not sure" then you can gently push on them by letting them know that you're almost at capacity and that you've got bandwidth to get the project done in the next 3-4 weeks, etc. How they respond to this information should give you a better idea about how serious they are about working with you and getting a project started.
What are the most important criteria in finding a freelancer for this project?
Goal: Your purpose in asking this discovery question is to better understand what your potential new client cares most about. That way you can speak to those specific points and make the call as useful to both parties as possible. Remember – thirty minutes goes by a lot quicker than you think after you've made some small talk and both shared some overview information, which doesn't leave you with much time for deep diving into questions.
Follow Up: This question isn't usually one that causes prospects to clam up like some of the other questions might so chances are you won't have to do much prodding to get to where their head is at. If anything, when they tell you what they're looking for in a freelancer, you might want to use this as a gut-check against your qualifications to make sure that your understanding of their needs and the project requirements fall in line with what you have to offer.
Last words of advice
Ask meaningful questions that help you get to the heart of whether this relationship could be a good fit in terms of your needs AND your potential new client's needs. Some freelance "gurus" might tell you to close them hard on this call, using high pressure tactics to convince them that you should work together. I'm not a fan of those tactics because I don't think that using persuasion tactics on a prospective client is a good way to start working relationship – I'm also a believer in the motto "underpromise and overdeliver" so that you don't get in over your head.
To that end, the ideal talk that you'd have for this call is one of examining the project or needs at hand and then working with the client to share information (both from yourself to the client and vice versa) about what success looks like for their project. Be confident, honest, and willing to go off-script as you need to in order to achieve those goals for your discovery calls.
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