Qualifying leads

One of my big goals this quarter is to get better at qualifying leads.

Maybe this is design business 101, but until recently I hadn’t ever considered vetting a client beyond a few choice qualifications: Do I like the client? Do they have money? Do I have enough time to get the work done? Even if just one of those were a “Yes,” it meant we were in business.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Obviously, I won’t partner up with anyone just because they have a huge budget (my values and beliefs play a role in business decisions); but I do think these three questions are a very reasonable place to start.

The way I determine if, how, or when I want to work with someone has always felt pretty natural — if I could do it, I would do it. I’m realizing now how little I’ve asked myself: should I do it?

I’m about two-thirds of the way through Brutally Honest by Emily Cohen and it’s already become my go-to for all things client related. I’ll be referencing it quite a bit in this article. She also has a class on LinkedIn Learning, which dives deeper into bidding and winning new work. You can enroll in that for free if you sign up for a trial of LinkedIn’s Premium membership.

What is a “qualified lead?”

According to Emily Cohen:

A qualified lead is a prospect or contact with whom you’ve completed some level of due diligence that ensures they are a solid, potentially winnable lead.

I used to think “due diligence” meant sending out a questionnaire (more on this later) and if I received it back with all the answers filled out, the lead was solid. This process still works occasionally, but as I’ve implemented more specific criteria for potential clients, I’ve noticed the quality and quantity of my leads improving significantly.

My original benchmarks — Do I like them? Do they have money? Do I have time? — still play a role, but they’ve become tangential to bigger concerns. It’s important to consider other lines of questioning that get to the root of why a client is reaching out in the first place and if I should be interested in their business. For example, here are some additional questions I’ve been asking myself lately:

  • Is the client looking for me specifically or will any designer do?
  • How does this project fit within the type of work I want to be doing long-term?
  • What will the approval process look like for this project?
  • Am I aligned with the mission/vision of the company requesting my services?

This process of digging deeper creates a stronger resolve for helping clients who fit the mold for my business. Additionally, it creates a far more objective filter by which I can effectively pick and choose the type of clients I want to work for, regardless of how we’re introduced.

Example: Qualifying clients

I’m currently managing two branding projects for local businesses. In my hometown of 4,500 people it’s been easy to bypass a lot of the broader investigation because I’m already aware of the clients. Referrals help with my qualification process since past clients usually vouch for future clients. It also helps that I’m doing a lot of face-to-face meetings, which are incredibly convenient for conducting business.

As easy as it was to see the value in bringing on these two clients, I took them through the same qualification process all my new clients receive. By being two of the initial recipients of my revamped criteria, our respective agreements feel more like partnerships than my past ones (which tended to result in a rigid, client-vendor relationship).

The qualification process

I don’t want to give too much away (seriously, go buy Brutally Honest and read it for yourself), but I think it’s fair to share how Emily Cohen breaks down the qualification process in three easy steps:

  1. Ask questions that determine if the prospect has qualified you. Asking how a client found out about you is helpful. It’s also good to know if they’ve been looking for you specifically, or if they just need a warm body that knows Adobe Illustrator.
  2. Ask questions to qualify the client. These questions are specific to you (see below) and will inform your process for accepting all new business.
  3. Ask questions to qualify the project itself. These would be questions that deal with the scope (budget, timeline, deliverables, etc). You can ask about the approval process, rights and any other specific elements that are dealbreakers for you.

To qualify the client (step two) and the project (step three), there are a variety of methods you can use. Most common is the well-known “Pick 2” system where you determine if a project fits two of three basic categories, which would result in a decision to accept the business (ie: qualifying the client). A common example is “Good, Fast, or Cheap.”

This is more or less the system I’ve traditionally used to qualify new projects, and for a period of time it definitely made sense — both in regards to the level of work I was doing (quality) and my eagerness to grow my business (quantity). To be honest, I still tend to think in these terms and I believe it’s a fair and effective 5-second litmus test for incoming inquiries.

In her book, Emily Cohen suggests developing a more personalized system. Her “Crystal Ball” method (my new preferred way of qualifying clients) lists out criteria and assigns the inquiry a value within each category. In essence, you develop a rubric and grade projects accordingly. Clients that receive a value higher than X will qualify and be pursued for new business.

Example: Rewriting criteria

To better illustrate her system, I’ll share my version of the crystal ball method. (Note: This is very much a work in progress; I alter my list and my grading scale almost every time I use it.) All of the bullet points below are assigned a value of 1–5, with higher scores increasing the likelihood a client will be qualified. Not every category is on equal footing, but each is important in its own right. These are my criteria (in no particular order):

  • Makes Sense at The Hideout
  • Potential for Future Work
  • Timeline
  • Budget
  • Excitement Level
  • Challenging/Learning
  • Approval Process
  • Awareness of The Hideout’s Style
  • Illustration-heavy
  • Opportunity for Collaboration

To me a “qualified lead” is someone that hits 38 out of the possible 50 points in my system. Most of the information needed to qualify someone requires more than one meeting, especially when you consider budget, timeline or approval process (even if I ignored those three categories, a client would have to score perfectly in all other areas to be qualified).

Keeping track of leads

Of course, it takes a lot of that due diligence I keep mentioning to get all the answers to those qualification questions. Tracking down a single potential client is time-consuming enough, but add a few more prospects to the mix and you’re gonna be drowning in proposals and contracts. No wonder agencies hire full-time account executives!

To better track my leads, prospects, and clients, I’ve started using a workflow in Notion (which I borrowed from my friend Ian Williams, found at the bottom of this extraordinary business report). It’s not perfect, and just like my qualification process, it’s gone through a few revisions. Here’s how it looks right now:

Swing by Notion for a closer look.

I’ve come to appreciate labeling potential clients like this. It keeps me organized and aware of multiple leads at once. Specifically, I want to call out two columns: Status and Confidence.

Dropping names and bids into a spreadsheet helps me quickly identity the level of priority each client requires at any given moment. It also makes note-taking a lot easier. The Status label includes old clients, leads, closed (impending) clients and lost bids. I track why and how I lose bids, for example, and I'm constantly checking on this column to make sure I'm connecting my methods to results.

Along those same lines, I recently started applying values to the amount of Confidence I feel with each lead. This monitors how I'm feeling about a proposal between the time I send it and the time a client responds. If I lose a bid when my confidence level is low, I might not sweat it as bad. Inversely, I like to follow up with clients when high confidence levels (usually, anything over 70%) don't result in new business.

Example: Tracking confidence

I recently sent an email that read, “I really thought this was going to work. Can you tell me what went wrong?” The response was simply, “The bid was too high.” Albeit brief, that kind of info is surprisingly helpful.

The client had been using language in our initial meeting like “cheap” and “premium,” which I never really followed up on. Perhaps getting a definition (or price range) for those words would have helped me better land within their budget. I believe knowing this will help me more-accurately price similar projects in the future, as well as teach me how to identify red flags earlier in my qualification process.

Conclusion

My methodology for pitching, bidding and signing new business can only be described as chaotic. I’ve spent far too much time crafting bespoke proposals and pre-planning timelines and with hardly a thought if I should be pursuing the work in the first place. Luckily, I have a little more insight now.

I have 2 more articles that follow up on this topic of qualifying leads. One is about questionnaires and the other is about turning away work. When you’re done with those, pick up a copy of Brutally Honest and start giving these new methods a shot!

I learned about Brutally Honest through Steve and Danielle Wolf’s newsletter. If you aren’t on their mailing list, I definitely recommend checking it out. They share a lot of resources for freelancers, most of which are super practical (like this book).

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Titus Smith

Design Dad. Running things at The Hideout Design Company LLC. If I were a typeface it would be something heavyset.