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From Contact to Contract: Seeking a Mutually Beneficial Business RelationshipBy Patty Ayers
Potential clients are going to call you. They're going to email you. They're going to ask about having a web site designed and built. Sounds good so far, right? But are you ready to respond professionally and effectively? The way you handle communications after your initial contact with a potential client can make all the difference in whether or not you end up with the kind of business you need and want. And it's very much up to you to be prepared and to manage this part of the process.
You might answer that you're going to give it everything you've got and try to "sell" them on hiring you to produce a web site - and that's one way to look at it. But I think it's a short-sighted viewpoint, and I'm going to suggest a different approach.
Naturally, you want business. You want clients! But not every client is the kind you want to work with. So what do you really want?
Tell me what you want - what you really, really want!
Well, I can tell you, because it's the same thing we all want. You're looking for clients whose projects are within your areas of expertise and strength, who are willing and able to pay what it will cost you to give them what they need. You're looking for clients with whom you can communicate well. These are the projects that will allow you to shine, build you a great reputation, and pay your bills. These are the projects to keep your eye out for at all times.
Let's look at those three factors again:
Do you need to hold out for only this type of ideal client? Of course not - or, at least, most of us can't afford to. But the closer a project comes to this ideal, the more you and your business will thrive and succeed. If any of those factors are missing, I would strongly suggest that you are better steering clear of the client.
And so, I'm going to suggest that your goal during the pre-contract phase of a client relationship is to keep your eye on this question:
Is there some way that I can engage in a mutually beneficial business relationship with this person?
As I talk with a potential client, I focus on gathering information about their business and their plans and goals for a web site. I try to find out something about the organization itself - will the person I'm talking to be the one I work with on the web site, or would it be someone else - or even the dreaded "client committee"? If the subject of money doesn't come up naturally, I take a deep breath and bring it up, usually asking, "Can you give me a general idea of the budget for the web site?"
During all this conversation, I'm doing two things: (1) writing absolutely everything down, and (2) getting a feel for who this person is and what it will be like to communicate with him on a daily basis for weeks or months. And mentally, I'm trying to answer that crucial question: can I turn this into a profitable, positive exchange?
Most clients have some kind of idea of the web site work they need and want. But even if they are convinced they know exactly what they need, your expertise is still needed, and you should guide the process forward. For example: Susan Client may think she needs a web site she can update herself; someone has told her that web sites are simple and that she really should be able to do the maintenance. But only a small amount of further questioning reveals that she barely has time to eat lunch, much less update a web site, and further, that computers are definitely not her strong point. This might be a time when you suggest that a simple maintenance contract might very well be both easier and more cost-effective.
So this process of determining whether there's a potentially happy business exchange possible here includes not just information gathering, but actually shaping the client's vision into the best plan possible. He may contact you with a plan that initially appears to violate all three of the bullet-point-factors above, and yet you may be able to steer his plans towards something which turns the project into a winner for you both.
Make the process into one in which you and the client share information and ideas until it becomes clear whether or not you can be of service to him. Talk, exchange ideas, brainstorm, re-group, and talk again. Look for that mutually beneficial project amongst the thoughts and plans. There will be times when it just doesn't seem to be there, and that's okay. If you handle the communication well, the potential client will go away with a great impression of you, and may very well tell five of his friends that you're knowledgeable, helpful, and great to work with.