By John Tabita

Stop Wasting Time with Prospects Who Aren’t Serious

By John Tabita

Over the past two weeks, I’ve written about how we allow clients and prospects to mistreat us and shared my seven steps to a having well-trained client. During that time, I’ve read well over a hundred comments from web designers and developers eager to share their experiences. While some didn’t have a problem saying “no” to clients who pushed the boundaries, others found themselves caving into unreasonable demands, agreeing to do additional work free of charge, or waiting indefinitely to receive payment because of clients who never sent content. Many feel justifiably mistreated or abused.

Yet, focusing exclusively on how frustrating or upsetting this is only serves to keep you victimized. If things are to change, you first must take responsibility for allowing clients treat you this way, and then take the necessary action steps to stop it. After all, if you continue doing what you’ve always done, and you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got. Here are some actionable steps you can put in place tomorrow that will change your situation immediately.

Action Step #1: Attempt to “Disqualify” Prospects Early-On

What this Solves:

Wasting time with prospects aren’t serious, have no budget, or expect a lot of work for minimal money

It happens all the time. You get a hot lead or a referral, so you pick up the phone, set an appointment, then drive across town to meet him … only to find out he’s not so hot after all.

My top pet peeve is ‘prospects’ who want to talk web design with me for what seems like hours on end but don’t actually have a budget. I don’t mind talking about how I do things or advising people without a budget how to get a good web presence for free. What I don’t like is prospects who tell me they want me to create them the best website possible, perfectly tailored to their business, and are then shocked that I want to charge them more than the price of a pizza. If the whole process is over quickly then it’s no big loss, but those who need to make sure you understand their whole vision for their business before they get to the bit where they don’t want to pay, those people waste time and energy I don’t have to spare. – Richard Coates, owner of web firm Anatomy of Restlessness

Save yourself that 45 minute drive and a fruitless two hour meeting by having a preliminary telephone conversation first, to determine if there’s even a reason to meet.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but actively attempt to “disqualify” him as a potential client by looking for show-stoppers—reasons why you can’t do business together. What qualifies as a show-stopper? Discovering the prospect thinks $300 is a lot of money for a website when your base price starts at five times that amount. Or someone who pretends to be a buyer but only wants a price quote to reassure themselves that their current developer isn’t overcharging. I can go on and on.


Ask Probing Questions to Uncover Needs and Wants

You need to have a sales process in place, one that includes asking the right questions. I have a list of questions I ask during the initial phone conversation, and a set of more detailed ones for the face-to-face meeting. One of those initial questions is:

“A basic site starts at $XXXX. Are you prepared to spend that much?”

Follow me on Twitter and I’ll send you my free guide, 27.5 Must-Ask Questions for Consultative Selling.

Overcoming Obstacles

When it comes to selling your services, there are two things you can’t overcome: ignorance and poverty. A preliminary phone conversation should weed out both, so by the time you actually meet with the prospect, you’ll already know what he’s trying to accomplish, and that he wants it, needs it, and can afford it.

Inquiring about both want and need may seem redundant, but they’re not the same thing. He may want it, but he may not need it badly enough to be willing to pay a fair price for it. He may need it, but not want the type of solution you provide. Or, he can need it and want it, but if he can’t pay for it … well, we both know how that’s going to end.

I’ve found that a preliminary conversation before a face-to-face meeting helps get the process “over quickly.” Remember, if you’re going to lose, lose early. Once you do actually meet, continue looking for show-stoppers. Once all of these have been eliminated, there’s no reason not to do business together, is there?

Yes, it really is that simple.

Next week: Action Step #2: How to stop giving away too much free information

This is Part 3 of the series Putting a Stop to Abusive Client Behavior:

  1. Stop Client Abuse of Web Designers Now!
  2. Stop the Abuse! 7 Steps to a Well-Trained Client
  3. Stop Wasting Time with Prospects Who Aren’t Serious
  4. Stop Giving Away So Much Free Information!
  5. Stop Writing Proposals to Win Business
  6. Stop Doing the Same Things and Expecting Different Results
  7. Stop Waiting to Get Paid! How to Collect Even when Your Client Delays
  8. Stop Getting Walked on and Set Some Boundaries Already
  9. Stop the Slippery Slope of Scope Creep
  10. Stop Making Endless Design Changes
  11. Stopping Abusive Clients: The Complete Process

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  • Brian


    Just wanted to say thanks for another great article. I really appreciate you sharing your expertise. I’ve read your 27.5 questions but have to ask – where is the .5 question? I just have to know! Thanks again, your articles are helping me be more successful. BTW, I’m a twitter noob but am following you now.

    • Glad I could help. And about the .5 question: it just sounded catchier.

  • That was helpful. Good article. Thank You! :) The next week article about giving away too much free info also sounds very promising – it’s always been my huge problem, so I can’t wait to read some advice :)

    • It’s the nature of how we sell our services; we need to discuss technical details to demonstrate our expertise. But oftentimes I’ve lacked the discernment to know when someone’s out to take advantage of me.

  • Wonderful topic that’s on my mind. The few clients that wasted my time over my young career really drained my time and energy and glad I stumbled upon this series. The initial phone meeting and asking the right qualifying questions are a good point. I’m interested in finding out more on how you handle clients that lag on giving the final content to avoid final payment-any tips coming would be appreciated.

    BTW I followed you on Twit so hopefully I can get your free guide.

    • How to get paid even when clients delay … yes. I’ll be covering that in some detail in an upcoming article.

      You should have already received a dm with a link to the guide. If not, let me know.

  • john

    Nice write up. I just have to say that i almost did not take you serious, considering you quoted Anatomy of Restlessness’ owner because their website is thoroughly bad looking!

    • Be nice; we’re all one big happy family here, right? :)

  • Very Reasonable point mentioned John !! you cannot push any client until he/she have the desire to have the work done from your side…

    • Yes, you’re much better off finding clients who already have a desire, rather than trying to convince those that don’t why they ought to.

  • Another amazing read-up. Can’t wait to read your next article.

    I disqualified one person last week from a meeting just by the phone call. The person was aggressive and wanted a website which would prob. get me in trouble with the law. I refused and did not meet him. He wanted to know why, this is where I froze for about a minute or so.

    The other person did something quite bad. I met the person, and they asked me to give a proposal. Anyhow, from the proposal given they replicated my solution (or attempted to replicate the solution) on their own. It appeared the entire notion of the meeting was a setup only to get a proposal of some sort and then copy what’s said by one of the internal employees.

    I’ve found bad clients to always know somebody who does my job, or who claims to know how to do something similar to what I do themselves, attempting to devalue what you do. Another problem client is the ‘no budget’ approach. I got tricked once on one of those.

    Whenever a client says they have no budget it’s always ended badly. Not sure why. So far I’ve dodged so many bullets, but I feel happier for it as it’s not worth the hassle. I find myself nowadays getting less and less tricked as I now spot bad potential clients easier.

    • “… they asked me to give a proposal. Anyhow, from the proposal given they replicated my solution (or attempted to replicate the solution) on their own. It appeared the entire notion of the meeting was a setup only to get a proposal of some sort and then copy what’s said by one of the internal employees.”

      I’d like to believe this doesn’t happen very often, but based on what others have shared, I have the feeling it’s all too common. It’s on my list of topics to address in this series.

  • Great article John! Thank-you for sharing.
    Ironically enough the night before I read this, I had sat down and made my own little set of “new rules” which resemble closely what you covered in this article and is now taped on the wall in front of my computer!!

    I look forward to your next article on “How to stop giving away too much free information” – cuz I know I am guilty of that one (it’s on my list). I just watched a prospect take some of my ideas and run with them. Did they really think I wouldn’t notice??

  • Another great article John. You obviously have a great grasp of how to approach the many problems developers are facing.

    Awesome work!


    • My “grasp,” unfortunately, is from making most of the mistakes I’m writing about.

  • Great article. It’s hard to get people that are not freelancers to understand the frustrations that we go through when looking for work. Looking forward to your next article

  • Websites start at 4 digits?!?!?!
    Lol… seems like a good business to get started in… Maybe I shall do more in this!

    • It depends on where you’re located. In Southern California, I didn’t have a problem getting $1,500 – $2,000 for a basic 5-page, custom-designed static site. If there were extras, like copy writing or an image gallery, I’d charge even more.

  • One day I got talking with the owner of a small “mom+pop” pizza restaurant where I happened to stop for lunch. (Delicious food, but the restaurant was obviously struggling.) He was really friendly, and I took an immediate liking to him. I offered to build a website for his restaurant at no charge, purely for my own experience and enjoyment. All seemed to go well for a while. He sent photos but never any content, and I did a fair amount of work organizing the site based mostly on a copy of his menu. We kept in touch by frequent e-mails. Then these suddenly stopped, and he hasn’t replied to a couple of inquiries since. (Best as I can tell, he still doesn’t have a website.) So even for free, it seems you’re not immune to perplexing client relationships. Makes me wish I knew some psychology, to know whether to blame him or myself, or both or neither.

    • We discovered the same phenomena when putting on concerts at church. Advertise the concert for free, and we’d get a small turnout. Charge for it, even a minimal fee, and tons of people would show up. The perception is, if it’s free, there’s no value.

    • White Ash

      What I have found is that often a client thinks that throwing $ at you (or in your case scoring a freebie) is enough to get their website done. What they don’t realize is that they will have to COMMIT to who they are, what they offer, and how they want to offer it ~ most of which is outside the realm of their site’s design and production. And many small business owners are terrified of the “C” word.

      Also, my guess is that this person does not have the skills to generate the written content. In such cases, I have interviewed the client myself and written the content for them (for an additional price).

      If they are struggling, they may be overwhelmed, or they may be getting ready to throw in the towel, in which case, why bother… Hopefully your kindness will be repaid some other way.

  • Tom

    John, I am following your posts even though I am not in the web design business because I find that most of them apply to any business. I am worried about your suggestion : One of those initial questions is: “A basic site starts at $XXXX. Are you prepared to spend that much?”
    Don’t you think that you could lose a good customer that might think you are worried about invoicing them than doing a good job for them? Maybe you should first ask some questions to find out who they are, etc?

    • Tom, I’m not suggesting that be the first question out of your mouth. In fact, it’s one of the last I’d ask.

      • But I’d have to agree that it isn’t an unreasonable question to bring up at the appropriate time. Being unashamedly confident & upfront about what your time & effort is worth is a good way of sorting out those who are serious.

  • John,

    I’ve been reading your columns here for a long while… your advice has saved me lots of wasted time, money and angst.

    Our business covers a range of communications services, from translation, editing, report writing through to design and prepress, and your advice is relevant for clients from each of these areas.

    We are based in Vanuatu in the south Pacific: being a developing small island country, we often have to do a lot of client education just to get to a foot in the door, and more often than not buying decisions here are based on cost alone.

    But not everything is difficult about doing business here: word-of-mouth counts for much more, so a well-executed project is more effective at promoting the business than an advert, and prospects are usually familiar with our business and what we do.

    Is anyone else working in a similar environment? I’d be really interested to hear about other people’s experiences working in a similar context.

    • “…more often than not buying decisions here are based on cost alone.”


      I’ll venture to say that this is probably more of a perception than the reality. I’ve read a number of studies that rank price as number 6 or 7 down the list of buying criteria. People do not buy for a single reason. There are emotional intangibles that drive those decisions. The trick is, discovering what they are. How do you position yourself in your market so that price becomes less relevant?

      If a “well executed project” is the most effective way to drive in business, can you use satisfied clients as case studies? Try asking them why they hired you (other than price) and use their answers to weave a marketing message that will resonate with other potential clients.

  • Thank you, thank you for this article. It is an accurate description of the [former] potential client I last spoke with on Wed., who said I was charging too much. God bless you for it.

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