Exploratory Talks: The Freelancer's Tool to Understand Client Needs

Stepping into the world of freelancing can be exciting and a bit overwhelming. Often, in the quest to build a client base, new freelancers are tempted to accept every project that comes their way. But as a freelancer, remember, you are a specialist, not a generalist. The trick to a successful freelance career isn't about quantity, it's about quality—finding the right projects that align with your unique skills.

So, how do you navigate this selection process? How do you ensure the client’s needs meet your expertise? Enter the power of discovery calls or exploratory talks. These are not just conversations but strategic tools to understand your potential client's business, assess their needs, and decide if you are the perfect fit for the job.

In this blog, we'll dive into the art of conducting effective discovery calls, providing you with practical and insightful tips. So, let’s explore how to harness these talks to shape your successful freelance journey.


Discovery Calls vs. Interviews: What's the Difference?

Let's talk about interviews. As a freelancer, you might think of them like job interviews - but they're not. You're not a job-seeker, you're a specialist offering top-notch services. You're hunting for the right client, not a job. The term 'interview' might make it sound one-sided, but in reality, it goes both ways. Sure, your client wants to find the best person for their project, but you need to know if this project fits you best. Is it something you can excel at? Does it align with your skills? We'll go more in-depth about this in a later blog post. Remember, not every project will suit you, and that's alright.

Imagine this scenario: In a job interview, you might feel like you're in the hot seat, answering a barrage of questions aimed at assessing your fit. But in a discovery call, the tables turn. You're now also the interviewer, asking your own set of strategic questions. This shift not only balances the power dynamics but also changes your mindset from a job-seeker to a service provider.

Now, let's get into discovery calls, or as some like to call them, exploratory talks. They might seem similar to interviews, but they're not. Here's how they're different:

What's the Aim?

In a job interview, you try to prove you're perfect for the job. In a discovery call, you're trying to do two things: figure out what your client needs, and see if you're the right person to give them that. It's about collecting info so you can make the best decision. The beauty of a discovery call is that it empowers you to make an informed choice, enhancing your likelihood of success in any project you take on.

Who Holds the Power?

In a job interview, the employer usually calls the shots. But in a discovery call, it's an equal game. Both you and your client are trying to see if you're right for each other. This equality encourages a healthier freelancer-client relationship from the outset, making your collaborations more productive and enjoyable.

What's the Endgame?

For a job interview, the goal is to get the job. Simple. But a discovery call can end in many ways. You might take on the project,  or realize it's not a good fit and say no. Either way, you're getting valuable info to help you make smarter choices in the future. Every discovery call is a learning opportunity that refines your understanding of your service niche and your client's expectations.

So, that's how discovery calls are different from interviews. Embrace this approach, and you'll find yourself more in control, more informed, and more successful in navigating your freelancing journey. In the next sections, we'll give you some handy tips on preparing for these calls and making them work for you.

Conducting a Discovery Call: Your Step-by-Step Guide

Going into your first discovery call might feel a bit scary. Don't worry - we've got your back. This guide will teach you the 'how' - how to make your discovery call a win-win conversation, where you understand your client's needs and decide if you can meet them. Let's jump in:

Preparation is Key

Do some digging about your client and their business before your call. Check out their website, understand their industry, and read through any project details they've given you. Having some background knowledge helps you ask insightful questions and shows your client you're serious about their project.

Set the Agenda

Kick off the call by letting your client know what's coming up. You could say, "In this call, I'd like to understand more about your project and how I could potentially help. I'll ask some questions about the project, then we can chat about how my skills might match your needs." This way, your client knows what to expect and you can steer the conversation in the right direction.

Ask the Right Questions

Your main task in a discovery call is to ask questions. But not just any questions. You want to ask open-ended questions that let your client tell you about their needs and expectations. Here are some examples:

  • Can you describe the project in detail?
  • What are the project's goals or desired outcomes?
  • Who is the project's target audience?
  • What challenges do you anticipate with this project?
  • What is the project's timeline?

These questions not only get you valuable info, but they also show your client you're a pro who's committed to understanding their needs.

Tailoring Your Questions for Different Freelancing Niches

Different freelancing niches call for different sets of questions during the discovery call. While some questions are common to all niches (like the project's goals or timeline), others will be unique to your line of work. Here are examples of specific questions you might ask in five different freelancing niches:

1. Content Writing:

  • How many articles are needed?
  • What topics will be covered?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • What writing style do you prefer (formal, informal, blog-style, etc.)?
  • How many words do you want per article?
  • Will you be providing materials or outlines, or am I doing all the leg work?
  • Do you need to have editorial control over the final content?

2. Graphic Design:

  • Can you describe the design style you are looking for?
  • Are there any specific colors or fonts you want to be used?
  • Who is the target audience for these designs?
  • Will you provide any materials (photos, logos, etc.) or do I need to create everything from scratch?
  • What formats do you need the final designs in?
  • Will these designs be used for print, online, or both?

3. Web Development:

  • What kind of website are you looking for (e-commerce, blog, informational, etc.)?
  • Do you have any specific features you want on your website (forms, sliders, etc.)?
  • Do you have a preferred platform or technology for the website?
  • Will you provide the content and images for the website or should I source them?
  • Do you already have a domain and hosting or will you need help with these?

4. Social Media Management:

  • What social media platforms do you want to focus on?
  • What is your goal for your social media presence (brand awareness, engagement, sales, etc.)?
  • Do you have any specific content themes or types you want to be posted?
  • How often do you want to post on each platform?
  • Will you provide content or should I create it?

5. Virtual Assistance:

  • What tasks do you need assistance with (email management, scheduling, customer service, etc.)?
  • How many hours of support do you need per week?
  • Do you prefer to communicate via email, phone, or a project management tool?
  • Do you have any specific tools or software you want me to use?

When you ask these niche-specific questions, you not only display your grasp of your specialized area but also your ability to provide a service that's in sync with your client's distinct needs. Remember, these are sample questions to get you started. As you listen to your client detail the project, you'll naturally formulate more detailed, task-specific questions that go beyond these examples. The ultimate aim isn't just to collect information but also to demonstrate your professionalism, dedication, and dynamic adaptability to the specifics of the project.


Practice Active Listening

When it's your client's turn to talk, really listen. Active listening means fully focusing on what your client is saying. Why does it matter? Because it helps you pick up on important details about the project and your client's expectations.

So, how do you actively listen? Here's a tip: when your client is talking, clear your mind. Don't think about your next response or question. Instead, focus entirely on their words. Jot down any interesting points or things you want to clarify. Active listening is about switching off any judgments or distractions and simply soaking up what your client is saying. It helps you better understand their needs and shows them respect.

In essence, active listening requires full engagement in the conversation. It means not just hearing but truly understanding what's being said. You can demonstrate it through non-verbal cues, verbal affirmations, deferring judgment, and thoughtful responses. It's not just about receiving information; it's about showing respect, building trust, and establishing a fruitful dialogue. Let's take a closer look at these steps in action.

  • Pay full attention: This means eliminating distractions and focusing solely on the speaker. For example, if you're on a video call, don't check your emails or look at other tabs on your computer.
  • Show that you're listening: Non-verbal cues like nodding, maintaining eye contact (if on a video call), and responsive facial expressions can show the speaker that you are genuinely interested in what they're saying.
  • Provide feedback: This could be done through verbal affirmations like "I see," "Interesting," "I understand," etc. This lets the speaker know that you are engaged in the conversation.
  • Defer judgment: Active listening means holding off on formulating responses or objections while the other person is speaking. For example, if a client is explaining a problem they're having with their current marketing strategy, don't immediately jump in with your solutions. Let them finish their point.
  • Avoid Making Assumptions: It's tempting to complete the client's statements or make assumptions based on what you think they mean. However, it's critical not to jump to conclusions. If something is unclear, it's always better to ask for clarification. This ensures you fully comprehend their needs and don't risk miscommunication. Remember, your understanding will dictate the success of the project, so take the time to get it right.
  • Respond appropriately: After the speaker has finished, take a moment to gather your thoughts and then respond. This response might involve summarizing what you've heard, asking for clarification, or providing insights or solutions.

Example scenario:

Let's imagine a client is explaining their challenges with their website's user interface. Here's how active listening might play out:

Client: "Our website isn't user-friendly. Users have been reporting that they have a hard time navigating through the site. The site's layout is complex and people often can't find what they're looking for."

You (practicing active listening): Nodding along, showing that you're engaged. You maintain eye contact (if on a video call) and provide verbal affirmations such as "I see," or "That must be challenging."

After the client has finished speaking, you take a moment before responding, demonstrating that you've really taken in what they've said.

You: "If I understand correctly, the main challenge is that the website's layout is complex, leading to navigation issues for users. They often can't find the information or functions they're looking for. Is that right?"

In this response, you summarized what the client said (showing you were listening), asked for confirmation (ensuring you understood correctly), and opened the floor for further discussion. This is active listening in action.

Reflect and Clarify (or Restating)

So, you've asked a question and your client has given an answer. What's the next step? Pause for a moment. Think about what they said, then make sure you've got it right. This is what we call 'Reflect and Clarify' or 'Restating.' It's a technique that customer service experts use a lot.

Try saying something like, "Just to be sure I've got this right, you want to make your website more user-friendly to give your visitors a better experience, is that correct?" By putting their answer in your own words and then checking back with them, you show you're really paying attention. Plus, you get to make sure you're both on the same page.

When you're doing this, keep your tone friendly and open. You're asking them to confirm your understanding, not challenging what they've said. Remember to ask more open-ended questions to let them explain more. Instead of, "You want a better website design, yes?" try something like, "Can you tell me more about what improvements you'd like to see in your website design?"

This technique might feel a bit weird at first, especially if you're worried about seeming like you don't get it. But, trust me, it shows you care about getting their needs exactly right. That's a big plus in your client's eyes.

If you get something wrong, don't sweat it. If your client corrects you, thank them and show you're keen to get all the details right. This will only underline your professionalism and dedication to the project.

Here are some more phrases you can use when you want to reflect and clarify:
  • "From what I understand, you would like to..."
  • "So, you're saying that your priority is..."
  • "It sounds like your main concern is..."
  • "In other words, you're hoping to..."
Remember, these are just examples. You can mix and match, or come up with your own phrases that feel natural to you. The key is to show you're engaged and ensure you understand their needs correctly. That's the secret to a successful discovery call.

Restating is all about double-checking and making sure you're in tune with the client's needs. It helps you avoid misunderstandings and shows you're a careful listener - a winning combo in any freelancer's book.

Discuss Your Expertise and Sell Your Services

You've listened, you've asked questions, and you now have a clear understanding of the project. Now, it's your moment to shine. It's time to discuss your skills, your experience, and how they perfectly match your client's needs. But remember, you're not just discussing—you're selling your services.

Start by aligning your relevant experiences to the client's project. You could say something like, "In a previous project, I worked with a similar company and improved their user interface, which significantly boosted user engagement. I believe I can bring similar results to your project."

While showcasing your expertise, be both confident and honest. If there's a part of the project you're not familiar with, acknowledge it, then show how you plan to overcome it. For instance, you could say, "Although I have limited experience with SEO, I'm known for my ability to research and learn quickly. In fact, I recently completed an online course on SEO basics."

You're aiming to reassure the client that you can effectively handle their project and deliver top-notch results. This is your chance to demonstrate not only your skills but also your problem-solving prowess and adaptability—traits that every client appreciates in a freelancer.

Remember to highlight any unique skills or experiences that set you apart from others. Maybe you have an industry-specific certification or have worked with a high-profile client in the past. Don't hesitate to mention it.

Allow me to share a personal experience. 

After a deep discussion about the project requirements, I got a clear picture of what the client needed. They were in the fitness industry and needed blog posts that could drive organic traffic to their website and convert visitors into subscribers. Understanding their needs, I decided to transition the conversation to discuss how my skills and services could fulfill their requirements.

Me: "So, based on our conversation, you need engaging, SEO-optimized blog posts to attract organic traffic and boost your subscriber count, right?"

Client: "Yes, that's exactly it."

Me: "Great, I'm glad I got that right. Your project reminds me of a recent one I worked on with a health and wellness brand. We targeted specific keywords with my content and the result? Their website traffic grew by 30%, and they saw twice as many new subscribers in just six months."

Client: "That does sound like what we need. But in the past, we've struggled with writers who don't really get our industry. How would you handle that?"

Me: "I totally understand your concern. While I may not be a fitness guru myself, I've been writing for over a decade and have mastered the art of researching to deliver credible, high-quality content in various niches. I'm confident I can immerse myself in the fitness industry to create the accurate, engaging content your brand needs."

Client: "That's reassuring. But what about SEO? Do you have experience with that?"

Me: "Yes, indeed. While I wouldn't call myself an SEO master, I have a good understanding of it. Over the years, I've continuously updated my skills to ensure that all my content is SEO-friendly. Given what you're looking for and my skill set, I believe I can create the SEO-friendly content you need."

Following this, I presented samples of my work that closely matched their needs and suggested the next steps. By showing how my skills and experiences aligned with their needs and addressing their concerns directly, I was able to convince them that I was the right fit for their project.

To further solidify your pitch, offer to provide work samples, client testimonials, or a brief outline of how you'd tackle their project. This can showcase your professionalism and dedication to delivering quality work.

Finally, as you discuss your skills and expertise, remember to tailor your responses to the specific needs of the client and their project. Avoid generic statements and aim to make each point relevant to the project's requirements. And don't forget, you might encounter objections or doubts during your pitch. Instead of getting defensive, handle these confidently by focusing on your problem-solving abilities and giving examples of how you've tackled similar issues in the past.

Once you've showcased your expertise and sold your services, guide the conversation toward the next steps. Whether it's scheduling a follow-up call to delve deeper into the project details, offering to send a proposal, or discussing contract terms, it's crucial to keep the momentum going.

So go ahead, confidently highlight your achievements and let your potential client know why you're the best fit for their project. Your expertise combined with a tailored and confident approach will give you the edge you need to succeed.

Guiding the Client to Commit

Now that you've showcased how your skills align with the client's project, it's time to nudge them toward saying 'yes'. Two handy techniques for this are 'assumptive selling' and putting questions into 'yes mode'.

Assumptive Selling

Assumptive selling is like treating the deal as if it's already done. Without sounding pushy, you speak as though the client is already on board and you're just discussing the next steps. This can work great once you've connected with the client and shown them your expertise.

Let's look at this with an example:

Me: "We've gone through everything, and I'm eager to dive into your project. I can get started on the content outline by next Monday. Sounds good?"

Notice here, I'm not asking them directly if they want to hire me. I'm just assuming they've made that choice and I'm moving to what's coming next.

Yes Mode

'Yes mode' means asking questions that are likely to get a 'yes' response from the client. This helps keep the conversation upbeat and gets the client into the habit of saying 'yes'. The more they say 'yes', the more likely they are to say 'yes' to your proposal.

Example:

Me: "So, you want your content to attract more visitors to your site, right?"

Client: "Yes, absolutely."

Me: "And you're also looking to boost your subscriber count, correct?"

Client: "Yes, that's the goal."

Me: "Perfect, I can help with that. Let's say I start on the content outline next Monday. Does that work for you?"

Here again, after confirming their needs (and getting those 'yes' responses), I suggest the next steps in an assumptive way.

Wrapping It Up

Once you've used these techniques, you can gently push the client to send you the project contract. But before that, summarize the conversation, reiterate your understanding of the project, and then propose the next step.

Me: "To recap, you're looking for SEO-friendly, engaging blog posts to boost your web traffic and subscriber count. I believe my writing skills and knowledge of SEO can deliver these results. Given our agreement, I'll await the project contract so we can finalize the details and I can start working on the content outline. Looking forward to getting started on this exciting project!"

Using these strategies, you're not waiting for the client to make up their mind. Instead, you're directing the conversation toward the commitment, boosting your chances of getting the deal.

The Art of Effective Follow-Up

After the discovery call, don't let the momentum drop. Your follow-up is as important as the call itself, as it can reinforce your professionalism and attentiveness. It's your chance to recap the conversation, confirm your understanding of the project, and set the stage for the next steps.

Summarize the Call

Start your follow-up email by recapping the call. List the key points you discussed, including the project objectives, their expectations, and the strategies you proposed. This not only shows you were actively engaged but also provides a written record for both parties to refer to.

Example:

"Dear [Client's Name],

Thank you for the insightful conversation earlier. I'm writing to recap our discussion about creating engaging, SEO-friendly blog posts to enhance your website traffic and increase the subscriber count..."

Confirm Your Understanding

After summarizing the call, affirm your understanding of the project. This shows the client you're on the same page and helps to avoid potential miscommunications down the line.

Example:

"From our discussion, I understand that you are looking for a series of articles around the topic of healthy living, each ranging from 800 to 1000 words. The target audience is young professionals seeking to improve their lifestyle..."

Propose Next Steps

Finally, talk about the next steps. If you're waiting for a contract from them, gently remind them. If there are additional details to be ironed out, suggest a date for the next conversation. This reinforces your commitment to the project.

Example:

"Once I receive the project contract, I can begin drafting a content outline for your review. Should there be more details to discuss, I'm available next week for a follow-up call..."

End on a Positive Note

End your email on a high note, expressing your excitement about the project and your willingness to contribute to its success.

Example:

"I am thrilled about the prospect of working on this project and contributing to your website's success. I appreciate the opportunity and look forward to our continued collaboration."

Leveraging Chat Platforms for Follow-up

On freelancing platforms like Upwork, rules prohibit freelancers from communicating outside the platform. But don't worry! You can still send a professional follow-up message through the platform's chat feature, following the same principles as in an email.

Example:

"Hello [Client's Name],

Thank you for our meaningful conversation today. Just to recap, we discussed creating SEO-optimized, engaging blog posts to boost your site's traffic and subscriber count. From our conversation, I understand that the articles will revolve around the topic of healthy living, targeted at young professionals seeking lifestyle improvements.

Once the project contract comes through, I can start drafting an outline for your review. If there are more details to iron out, I'm open for another chat next week.

I am genuinely excited about this project and look forward to contributing to your website's success. Thanks again for considering me for this opportunity.

Best, [Your Name]"

This chat-based follow-up, while still maintaining professionalism, also adheres to the platform's rules, keeping all interactions transparent and within the terms of service.

Mistakes to Avoid During Discovery Calls

Navigating the discovery call landscape can be daunting, especially for first-time freelancers. Unfortunately, missteps during this critical interaction can cost you the project. In this section, we'll explore common mistakes freelancers make during discovery calls and provide some practical alternatives to help you avoid them.

Over Promising

The eagerness to win a project can sometimes lead freelancers to promise more than they can deliver. Remember, it's essential to be realistic about your skills and time commitments. Overpromising and underdelivering will harm your reputation in the long run.

Alternative: Be honest about your capabilities. If a task seems beyond your skills or time, it's better to express your concerns openly. Clients appreciate honesty and transparency.

Dominating the Conversation

While it's crucial to present your skills and qualifications, remember, the discovery call isn't a monologue—it's a dialogue. Taking up too much airtime can come off as self-centered and not client-focused.

Alternative: Keep the 80/20 rule in mind. Listen 80% of the time and talk only 20%. This ensures you understand the client's needs and can present your skills in a manner that aligns with their project.

Avoiding Hard Questions

Freelancers sometimes avoid asking tough questions to keep the conversation pleasant. However, this could lead to misunderstandings later on.

Alternative: It's vital to clear any doubts you may have about the project, client's expectations, or terms of engagement. A respectful, direct approach will be appreciated by clients who value clarity and transparency.

Neglecting Follow-up

A discovery call is an opportunity, not a guarantee. Failing to follow up can lead to missed opportunities and even project loss.

Alternative: As we discussed earlier, a well-structured follow-up can cement your understanding, assert your enthusiasm, and outline the next steps. Whether through email or a chat platform, it's a critical step in closing the deal.

Lack of Preparation

Some freelancers dive into discovery calls without a solid understanding of the client, their business, or the project. This lack of preparation can lead to irrelevant questions and a disjointed conversation.

Alternative: Spend time understanding the project and the client before the call. Research their industry, their brand, and the project specifics. This helps you ask more relevant questions and display a professional approach.

Failure to Discuss Expertise

It's important to balance humility with the need to highlight your expertise. Some freelancers fall short in promoting their skills, which can leave the client questioning their suitability for the project.

Alternative: After understanding the client's needs, confidently align your skills and experiences with their project. Showcase relevant projects or experiences, and be honest about what you can deliver.

By being aware of these common pitfalls and implementing the proposed alternatives, you can conduct discovery calls that not only leave a positive impression but also increase your chances of securing the project.

Beyond the Call: Additional Strategies for Effective Discovery Calls

While the steps and guidelines laid out in the previous sections provide a solid groundwork for a successful discovery call, there are additional strategies you can employ to make the conversation even more productive and impactful. This section will delve into those tactics that can give you an extra edge and improve the quality of your client interactions.

The Power of Silence

Silence can be an effective tool during your discovery call. By strategically allowing pauses in the conversation, you give the client space to think, and often they will fill the silence with valuable information you might not have obtained otherwise.

Reading Between the Lines

Sometimes, the most crucial information is not explicitly stated. Look for the subtler clues that the client might provide - whether it's a passing comment about a previous freelancer or a casual mention of their challenges.

Using Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence can be a game-changer during discovery calls. Gauge the client's mood and adjust your tone and approach accordingly. If they seem stressed or in a rush, keep your conversation concise and to the point. If they are more relaxed and open, you might have a bit more room for an informal chat and rapport building.

Handling Objections

Objections are not roadblocks but opportunities to reassure the client and showcase your problem-solving abilities. If a client raises a concern, address it proactively and demonstrate how you can turn potential issues into beneficial outcomes.

Leaving a Lasting Impression

The close of your call is just as important as the beginning. Ensure you end the conversation on a positive note, summarizing key takeaways, confirming the next steps, and expressing enthusiasm for the project.

Integrating these additional strategies into your discovery call approach, you'll not only distinguish yourself as a professional freelancer but also create a more memorable and impactful interaction with your potential clients. Remember, effective discovery calls go beyond just ticking off a checklist; they involve a blend of active listening, clear communication, emotional intelligence, and strategic conversation management.

Stepping Into Your Power: Mastering Discovery Calls as a Freelancer

As a freelancer, you're more than just a service provider - you're a problem solver. Understanding this can transform your approach to discovery calls. These calls are more than just chats about a project. They're your chance to understand your client, their needs, and how you can help.

Don't feel like you have to take every job that comes your way. It's okay to say 'no' to projects that aren't a good fit for you. Each 'no' is really a 'yes' to a project that's a better match for your skills and interests.

Keep your discovery calls focused. Ask good questions. Really listen to your client. Show them you're interested in their project and how you can bring value. And remember, be confident. You're the expert they're looking for.

So, are you ready? It's time to make your next discovery call. Use what you've learned here and see how it changes your approach. Your freelancing journey is waiting for you. Go for it!

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