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Past the Email: The First Prospect Sales Call

This week has been all about your first email interaction with a prospect.

Tuesday I talked about the basic format of your initial prospect email.

Yesterday I told you about 2 prospects I didn’t let past my initial email into a call because they didn’t answer my initial questions. Prospects who don’t take the time to answer the initial prospect questions don’t qualify as my ideal client.

Most prospects aren’t like that though. Most prospects give me stellar responses.

Freelancers who use my full set of email templates tell me they get way better responses to their first email and easily shave half the time off the initial prospect contact by not having to create each email from scratch. I’m also told they are way less likely to invest a lot of time in a poor match because my process helps them stay focused on finding ideal clients.

Then what?

Up to now, when I’ve provided the email templates to other freelancers, I neglected to provide much direction about where to take the prospect after they’ve passed the first “ideal client test” with their initial email response.

Today that changes.

I firmly believe that your primary objective when you’re “selling” to a client is to find the right fit — for you and your client.

Your goal is to find a client that you want to work with, and a client whose needs you can best fulfill. Every interaction at each stage in the sales process should be focused on achieving this goal.

You want a client you enjoy working with. Your prospect wants to find a consultant who will provide the best return for their business.

When you stay focused on finding the right fit, you increase the chances of meeting the needs of both you and your client.

This is the purpose of my first email, and honestly, the only goal of my first call with a client is to figure out if I like them.

Talk to the decision maker

When we went over my initial prospect email, remember how we asked who the decision maker was?

Your goal should be to talk to the a decision maker in your first call since they’re the ones that you need to feel comfortable with, and the ones who need to be convinced of your value. If you don’t feel comfortable with the real decision maker or they don’t feel comfortable with you then you’re likely wasting everyone’s time by continuing to pursue a working relationship. If the comfort level isn’t there, your best bet is to help your prospect find someone that may be a better fit.

While your initial interaction may be with the project manager or the point person, if the ultimate decision to spend money is in the hands of someone else, that person had better be on the phone at this stage in the sales process. Remember what I said about potentially wasting everyone’s time? You’ll respect your client by not keeping them involved in a sales process that’s not going anywhere.

Make sure you ask the decision maker all the same questions from the first email you sent. It’s amazing how many times you’re going to find that your prospect’s top issues will change once you get them talking.

Really, my whole first 30-minute call with a client is about getting them to answer all the questions from my first email over again.

Before you end the call, confirm everything they told you, and be sure you have a feeling for how the whole team on the other end of the phone interacts with each other.

After the call

After the call, if you still believe this is a good prospect, it’s time to work the prospect back through your ideal client worksheet. Here is what mine basically looks like.

Remember: The most important thing is that you’re a good fit for each other.

Can you actually serve their needs best or do you know someone else that’s a better fit?

If you know someone else then send them a referral, and no I don’t do referral fees.

You’re only going to do your best work with clients that are the best fit. When your work is focused on these clients, you will do your best work, which will help you build a stronger reputation. Staying true to this practice will bring you more of the work you want.

It’s not magic

There is no magic sauce to the first client call — just stick to the questions in your first email and make sure you get the decision maker on the phone.

Then, if the fit is there, shift your focus to the value you can bring to the client.

photo credit: eherrera cc


Why I require my initial questions answered

One of the best moves I made with my prospect sales process is building out a standard first email.

Yesterday I gave you my basic formula and explained each part of the email.

I left off asking:

But what if the prospect doesn’t really answer the questions?

Ranges are fine

The most common questions that prospects don’t want to address are questions about budget. Usually they’re worried that if they provide a number, you will charge them that amount even if your fee would normally be less than the number they gave you.

Yes it seems silly, but it’s likely that your potential prospect has been burned before by other web service providers.

They are understandably shy about giving away a lot of information.

So I’m happy with ranges.

After I ask about budget I include a paragraph much like this one:

I know the budget question can be hard, but it really helps me evaluate what type of solution is best for you. Maybe you have $1000 and we need to look at using existing solutions or maybe you have $50k (or more) and we can custom build stuff for you. Even an idea of what feels ‘expensive’ for the work we’re talking about is a great starting point

A typical response is “Well it’s not $1000, but I think that $15k would be a platinum solution.”

Now we have a budget range.

Some prospects aren’t even going to give you that much information.

Super super vague

A few months ago I had a prospect that got my initial email.

When I asked about what we were building they said

Something like a classifieds site. We prefer to talk on the phone, we’re a personal company.

When I asked who the decision makers were, my contact replied:

Me, the CEO and a few others. When we talk on the phone we can talk more about who the decision makers are. We are a very personal company.

When I asked about budgets:

Well we’re not sure and we don’t want to say anything via email. Lets talk on the phone, we’re a very personal company.

At this point you have no answers really.

Oh sure, they said they are building a classifieds site but I already knew that from their first email. All I learned is that they are a very personal company and they want to talk on the phone.

Unfortunately they haven’t qualified as my ideal client yet, since I really don’t know anything about how they work and I don’t know their budget.

You already know I don’t take calls with unqualified clients.

That means the prospect above doesn’t warrant a call, which means I refer them back to my questions and tell them I need more detail on the project before I can schedule them for a client call.

Straight up not answering

What if they simply don’t answer at all?

Another recent prospect responded to my first email with:

Hey is there a way we can share work and cut the cost down?

Remember at this point I’ve asked about budget and not said anything about cost.

We haven’t had a proper value conversation so I have no idea what the value of the work is. All I know is that they want a business listing site.

At this point I need to let the customer know that I can’t go any further in the sales process without having my questions answered.

So I did and got:

It’s a business listing site. Why do you need to know anything else?

I’m sure you see some red flags here and so did I, which means I told the prospect that if they were willing to sit down and answer my questions with some proper thought I’d be happy to see if we’re a good fit.

Until then they’re going to have to find someone else. At which point I figured it was done, but this is the response I got.

Yeesh what attitude. I found someone in South America that can do the job for 1/3 of the cost and 1/10th of the attitude. You obviously take your clients for a ride and lie to them.

Good for a bit of a laugh

Be aware that you’ll get emails like the ones above from time to time so just don’t sweat it.

With a reliable screening process, you save yourself a long ‘sales’ process on a prospect that was clearly unqualified for your services.

Developing your initial prospect questions and requiring them to be answered is how you’re going to save yourself from spending a bunch of time with leads that are simply a bad fit for your business.

Don’t let them get you down. Stick to your process and you’re going to talk with better leads because you qualify them before you dig deeper.

photo credit: wiredforsound23 cc


Components of your initial prospect email contact

If you’ve actually taken the time to specialize in your services, then at some point you’ll see your inquires dramatically increase.

I get between 5 and 10 a week, which includes prospects emailing me as well as referrals from other developers. These referrals are typically for work that I specialize in, that the other developer doesn’t offer.

These new contacts are on top of all the other regular stuff I do in a week like serving my current clients and new requests from existing clients.

For a long time I struggled to stay on top of this huge pile of emails.

Then I took some time to build out my standard prospect sales process.

Today I want to show you the basic flow of my initial email that all prospects get. My hope is that this will help you refine your process as well.

Section 1

I open with a greeting, making sure to address the prospect by name.

In my opening paragraph, I will usually tell the prospect that the project sounds interesting, but that I’m pretty picky about the clients I take on, so I have a few questions which help me figure out if we’re a good fit or if the prospect might be served best by someone else.

Section 2

Then I move straight into the questions.

I’ve crafted my questions to focus on some specific things.

  • What are we doing?
  • Why are we doing it instead of something else?
  • How do we measure success?
  • Who are the decision makers on the project?
  • What’s your timeline?
  • What is the budget allotted for the project?

These are not just random questions, but very specific things I need to know.

By asking these questions, you may learn that though the project is important, the prospect isn’t quite ready to get started.

For example, I had one prospect who wanted a bunch of custom stuff for Easy Digital Downloads and the Frontend Submisions extension to power an author marketplace.

What they didn’t tell me in their initial email was that they were still waiting on the EDD install. They also didn’t tell me that they were writing their own book which needed to be finished before they launched the site.

While getting the Frontend Submissions customizations going was important, it wasn’t as important as writing the book.

I realized the sales process was going to take much longer and maybe not even happen if they couldn’t get their book written. So I passed on the project until they had their book written or were actually ready to have the custom work done. It wouldn’t be an effective use of my time to walk through the full sales process with a prospect still in ‘random research’ mode.

Another key question is “Who are the decision makers?” It’s important that you know whether you’re talking to the employee doing research or the boss that’s coming to you with an emergent business issue?

If you’re not talking to the decision maker then you need to make sure that you get to talk to them very early in the process. Even if you’re compatible with the employee you may not be with the decision maker which means you’ve just wasted a bunch of sales time.

Section 3

Now that we have our initial prospect questions asked in the email it’s time to start telling the prospect you may not be able work with them. The next 5 lines only include one line that indicates I might be a good fit for a prospect.

The rest of it says we may not have matching time-frames, or matching budgets or maybe someone else is a better fit.

Can you guess why you spend so much time telling the prospect you may not be a good fit?

Outside of the obvious, that you may not be a good fit.

You spend time telling them you may not choose them, to draw them in to the purchasing process more. It’s called loss aversion.

They already feel like they might be losing you (yeah I know they haven’t even really started yet) and nobody likes loosing something they thought they would be getting.

That’s a big email

Does that sound like a lot of typing to do for every new contact?

Of course it does, but to keep my process efficient, I let TextExpander do the typing for me.

The TextExpander snippet has 5 ‘fill in’ areas for the client name and a few project details then I click send and I’m done.

Total initial interaction time is typically less than 60 seconds and the useful content I get back in responses from prospects increased by 5000000%. Or at least a lot.

But what if…

What if the prospect doesn’t answer the questions you sent?

Well that’s a post for tomorrow…

photo credit: huguesndelafleche cc


How Evernote took over my life

I grabbed Evernote when it first came out and even thought it was a decent tool, but it never found a permanent place in my software life.

The thing that really blew my mind when I first saw it years ago was the text detection in images. It seemed like something out of future science fiction.

I like the future and the promise of awesomeness it brings.

At the time it seemed like another awesome thing I had no place for. We all know that the Internet is full of awesome stuff that has little practical value in our day to day lives.

Part of being efficient with your digital life is knowing when you’ve found that item that’s cool, but not useful and abandoning it.

It’s not just trying out every little thing that comes along, but sticking with the tools that work and spending a week or two in a year evaluating possible new awesome tools.

So Evernote was awesome, but not a useful efficient part of my workflow at first.

Don’t forget to enter the contest at the end. I’m giving away a single 3 month Premium Evernote subscription.

Enter Yojimbo

My next introduction to an everything bucket was Yojimbo and Shawn Blanc’s post.

Shawn sold me on the notion of an ‘everything bucket’ and like Shawn I went with Yojimbo. I have no recollection now why I didn’t dive back to Evernote since I had some experience with it.

Possibly I was just in awe at Shawn’s writing, so I just used what he used.

You know I’d be awesome by association.

I dove in to Yojimbo but like it’s predecessor, Evernote, it never stuck. Much like Shawn’s later post I found better things to use like 1Password to store all my passwords and serial numbers and Yojimbo wasn’t really around on all my devices thus the overall utility was lacking.

If something isn’t around when I need it, then what real purpose does it serve?

I stopped keeping bookmarks, since I almost never ended up visiting them anyway. They were just more detritus being left behind by my quest to not forget anything remotely useful I found on the Internet.

Files and Folders

So many client files and so little time.

So many spots to keep those files.

Running a long term archive machine/hard drive that’s hooked up at my house when I’m at my office.

Struggling with getting a VPN solution setup to access those files back at home.

Needing to easily share some of those client files with other people I work with occasionally.

The realization that I had about 1 million things in OmniFocus that I simply shouldn’t have in there. References to books I want to purchase, movies I want to watch…This is all stuff for a GTD tickler file and that’s not what the real function of OmniFocus is.

All those pain points in my processes brought me around to Evernote again.

A painful process is one you won’t do. So make them easy!

I started dating Evernote again in early 2013 as a way to file client work and as my gtd reference and tickler file.

All my client projects ended up in a single Client Notebook and I heavily tagged each note with client name and other pertinent details that wouldn’t be exposed obviously in the note content.

Then enter Evernote’s amazing search functionality (which really is better with tags for each client than with a notebook for each client I found) and pretty much everything was at my finger tips again.

Upgrading to a Premium account means that I was able to get all my old stuff in to Evernote in a month or two using the maximum upload my 4GB/month account allowed.

That’s about where I sat for 8 months.

Put long term things in to Evernote and use the reminders feature to surface important content (like plane tickets) a few days before I needed them.

Lists of movies I wanted to watch and books I wanted to read became lists in Evernote and when there was a time to watch one I could search for my list then scan for a movie/book that interested me.

Getting back to some research

Earlier this year I realized that what I really loved reading was business research. Not the articles that summarize them with a single link to the article. But real psychology studies on business and the best practices you could use.

Funny, I love reading those studies now and I have a counseling degree which means I did lots of that in school.

The hard part was, once I’ve found a great study, how do I keep track of it? I don’t always write about the topic right away, but sometime in the next 6 months I’ll be writing something and vaguely remember an article I read that would make a good reference.

Unfortunately I found that my recollection of exact location of the article was buried under all the other new information gained since finding it.

This memory problem brought another use to Evernote. Not only can I clip web articles to a notebook but I can embed and search PDF’s.

I can even annotate PDF’s and the webpages I find with my own notes.

Leveraging all of this along with the kickass search made Evernote even more powerful in my day to day workflow.

Bless my accountant

After doing my 2013 taxes with my accountant I asked if I needed to keep paper copies of receipts still or if PDF copies were good enough.

Turns out in Canada PDF is great, so you guessed it…that gave me another use for Evernote.

Tie in Zapier and Scanner Pro and I can take a photo of a receipt which automatically uploads to a special Evernote notebook. Then Zapier takes over and pushes the note in to a task in Redbooth so that my book keeper can enter the receipt.

a few of my zapier workflows

a few of my zapier workflows

And I keep no paper at all. I just toss the receipt after I flip over to Evernote and make sure I see the note.

I have even set up my wife with Scanner Pro so she can scan the gas receipts for the car and push them in to Evernote without me needing to do anything.

Automation and long term storage in one is a powerful combination

Oh but Day One

I’ve been using Day One as my journal since it came out. When it added photo support I went back through many of my photos and added them to my journal.

Then I waited for video support.

I’m still waiting.

With kids taking first steps, and first bike rides and just generally doing cute kid stuff I was finding that more and more I had videos I wanted to attach to entries.

Day One was letting me down.

That had me looking for a journal application that did support video. Unfortunately after Day One the rest just looked terrible. Bad enough that I never even bothered to dig in to how they functioned.

Yes design is that important

I ended up stumbling across people talking about using Evernote as their journal and since I was already invested in Evernote…why not take that relationship one step further down the commitment path?

Of course the thought of converting 700+ Day One entries all by hand to Evernote entries was daunting until I found this python script that does a bunch of the work for you. I’m still finishing off adding images back and changing the dates to match properly, but using Evernote as the entry mechanism is slick.

Using an app called Video Slimmer you can slim and send videos directly to Evernote from your iOS device. If you really want the full size video, then the easiest way I’ve found is to to send myself an iMessage and then add the video from Evernote on my Mac.

My one niggle with Evernote and journaling is that it doesn’t automatically change the note entry date to the date of a photo like Day One can. Day One will also update the location of the note with location information in your images.

That means a bit of manual work if you add notes a few days after an event, but nothing terrible in my experience.

and Byword bites the dust

Yup I’m going to tell you that I’m doing all my writing in Evernote now as well, instead of Markdown files with Byword as my writing tool.

Listening to Triangulation Episode 170 I heard Phil Libin say that Evernote is going to be adding a new ‘context’ feature in the coming months. That means that Evernote is going to suggest more relevant notes to you as you write.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 2.41.30 PM

Not just notes you have (you get that with the Related Notes anyway though related notes aren’t always that related and it’s a premium feature) but other sources that Evernote has partnered with.

Context is simply going to enhance that related notes functionality.

That got me to move all my markdown files from Dropbox out to Evernote and let me drop another iOS app in Byword.

Unfortunately Evernote doesn’t have native markdown support, but you can of course just write in plain text and copy/paste in to your blog. There is at least one Chrome App I’ve found called Marxico that allows you to write in markdown and uses Evernote as a storage engine much like Byword uses Dropbox.

Marxico is a beautiful app, but I’m not a plaintext/markdown purist. Sure I like it, but lack of Markdown support doesn’t break any service for me. If it’s included, it’s simply another point of enhancement for the software or service.

Now there were still a few things that I missed from Byword and didn’t get in my Evernote workflow.

  • a pretty writing environment
  • publishing directly to my blog from the interface

Yes, Evernote is awesome, but let’s be honest, the text entry interface on Mac isn’t pretty. It’s sparse and utilitarian but not in that good way that leaves you in awe of the design.

In that way that says their focusing on other aspects of the application instead.

Enter Blogo

Blogo Web site
Blogo is a great writing application, but it’s more than just a pretty way to write for your site.

It uses Evernote as a back-end sync/storage for it’s files.

It publishes directly to your WordPress site (hosted or self-hosted) from within the application.

Where once having Dropbox sync was a need for any new application Evernote has taken the lead.

Evernote doesn’t beach-ball my computer or make my fan spin for hours as it tries to sync 2 files that are ‘stuck’ every 2 weeks.

Evernote sync just works without being a battery drain or requiring bi-weekly manual user intervention.

Syncing to Evernote also gets me full editing of text on my iOS devices.

Does Blogo have some issues?

Of course it does, just like most software has edges to stay away from. Before you publish make sure you go through and do a final edit for random lines that have been added to the document.

Skip that final point and you’re going to get a bunch of HTML you don’t want in your site, so you’ll have to clean it up.

Otherwise, Blogo is awesome and I can scan the post in Evernote to see what highlighted ‘related’ notes may be useful in the post I’m writing.

Since I had already moved all my notes in to Evernote it was trivial to move them again in to the special Blogo notebook and add a space to them so that Evernote recognized them as ‘new notes’ and pushed them through to Blogo.

Evernote all the things

So that leaves me using Evernote for…pretty much everything now.

More than just using it, happily using it, because it’s the choice that integrates into my life with the least amount of effort.

Like I mentioned at the top I’m giving away one 3 month free subscription to Evernote Premium for someone to try. To get a chance winning, leave a comment and tell me why you want to dive deeper into Evernote.

I’ll choose one person at random. The contest ends on Monday November 17th 2014.

133/365 - Rough times ahead

How do you respond to emails?

Lately I’ve been looking for an editor on my site.

Yes, I’ve had someone proofing my posts, but I really want a bit more than that.

I want grammar and spelling tips, and a second opinion on my content. Maybe some of it is bad or doesn’t make sense.

I want that feedback before you all see it.

My Questions

I’ve got a few names now and I asked all of them the same questions.

  1. What’s your process for submitting content?
  2. Do you provide more than just spelling/grammar checking? An example would be “This is not a great post, but if we added XXXX it could be” or “You should link to this post you wrote before”.
  3. How do you bill?

Now I know how I’d approach a response to the email but do you have a plan?


Way too many people treat writing an email the same way.

They start with some sort of intro, and then try to address any questions in the email, then write some sort of goodbye message.

That’s absolutely the wrong way to do it.

Step 1

The first step is to write an answer to each question asked.

In my email I gave them numbers, but unfortunately clients aren’t likely to be that organized. If they aren’t then you should copy/paste each question in to the body of your email.

Then write the reply to each question.

Step 2

Now you need to attach anything that is required to explain your answers.

It’s super easy to forget so I even right out @todo attach file… after any answer that needs an attachment to go with it.

Step 3

Proof the email and make sure that the main questions for the client have been answered.

Make sure you didn’t spell things wrong.

Read it out loud and make sure that it reads right.

Correct any mistakes.

Step 4

Now you can write your intro and ending to the email because you’re actually finally ready.

You actually addressed the main things that were important to the client first, instead of some mostly toss away intro.

Each interaction

Yeah that seems like a lot of work for an email, and it is.

Each interaction with your client can either be awesome or not. If you want clients to love you then you better make them awesome.

Making sure that you start writing by addressing their concerns is one way to help make your interactions awesome.

None of the first batch of editors I interacted with answered all of my questions. In fact a few didn’t answer any and I didn’t bother going any further with the interaction.

photo credit: kwl cc


It’s your fault your clients don’t pay

I recently came across this week. I haven’t linked to it, but typed it out to protect the guilty.

ALL INVOICES ARE PAID!! (Granted, I voided several, but eh) Yay, clients! Thanks for paying me mostly on time in October

I see a few issues here.

  • There are voided invoices
  • issues with timely payment

Can you guess how many invoices I void in a year?

About… ZERO.

Can you guess the average time an ‘overdue’ invoice goes for me?

1 day.

Last Friday I did a video talking about how you need to make it you’re clients problem if they haven’t paid. You can see that it’s not just an isolated problem, lots of consultants deal with not getting paid, and it’s your fault.

You didn’t vet the client

The real problem when you’re dealing with a bunch of late invoices is you.

You didn’t control how you run your business.

You kept working when you weren’t paid for the work.

You launched/released work before the client paid your invoice.

Your client vetting process let someone through that doesn’t pay invoices on time.

Hey I know it’s hard to hear that it’s your fault. We often want to find an external reason that something went wrong.

It means we didn’t fail.

You’re a business owner though so that means you need to be a grown up.

That means you can’t push off issues with your business to external failures.

Really good business owners look for ways to take the blame.

How to get paid on time

How do I get paid on time?

I get paid up front in weekly instalments.

If I’m not paid on Friday for work to start Monday I don’t work Monday.

That means we drop a day of the project and the client still has to pay me for it.

That means the project may take longer, which is going to cost the client more.

I make late payment the client’s problem, not mine.


Now the question is…how do you get paid up front?

Make it a requirement for any project you take on.

Tell potential clients that you don’t take a 50% deposit you break up the total cost in to weekly payments and they are required to pay each week before the start of the next.

If they balk at that because it’s different than ‘normal’ stick to your guns and tell them that’s your business policy.

If you don’t stick to your guns there, they are going to push to walk over you for the rest of the project as well.

That’s going to be a sucky project.

Once I decided to make that transition do you know how many people turned me down based on how I deal with payment?


It’s likely that will be your experience as well.

If you want to read more about weekly pricing here you go:

photo credit: daviddmuir cc


Don’t just say no, have recommendations

It’s been a few weeks since I talked about client calls. So far I’ve covered:

  1. Why you shouldn’t psych yourself up for a client call
  2. Why taking that client call is probably a bad idea
  3. Why I do take that client call

Today I want to offer an alternative to my ‘polite no’ email from the 2nd post above.

Why not polite no?

So why on earth would I kill more time on a client that doesn’t have the money currently, or isn’t a good timeline match by sending anything other than a polite no?

Someday that client may fit with you and you want to make sure that you’re still considered an awesome option by them.

Specifically with the client I was talking to, I simply didn’t have a good option to refer them to.

My normal recommendations

WP Site Care – they are awesome at handling the maintenance your clients need and taking care of SEO, backups…a bunch of stuff I just don’t want to do.

Grow Development – Run by Daniel Espinoza, Grow Development is a killer place to go for custom eCommerce plugins. I do that too, but some just fit Daniel and his team better. Payment/shipping gateway integrations I just send his way.

Zao – Run by Justin Sainton (lead dev of WP eCommerce) Zao actually works in all the WordPress eCommerce platforms. Justin has been at this for years and can build anything you need. When it’s not something I’m interested in I always ping Justin to see if he’s interested.

But in all that I still didn’t have a good recommendation for that client than had $1000 for an eCommere site. Then Cliff Seal reached out about Evermore.


I won’t dig in deep to Evermore because Post Status and Chris Lema have done a great job telling you all about it.

The short version is that Evermore is a great turn key WordPress solution. Think SquareSpace but WordPress.

So the next time I get that email for a $1000 eCommerce site I’m sending them to Evermore since that client will be in great hands.

photo credit: casaperlanonviolenza cc

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Curtis McHale

Helping you answer the hard questions about your business