The problem with questionnaires

I’ll be honest, no matter how many perspective clients reach out to me, I still feel strange defining the relationship. It’s not like there’s a moment where we look into each other’s eyes and say, “Wow, are we really doing this?”

The goal is to get on the same page asap and there’s no reason we should waste the other’s time pursuing a partnership that was destined to fail. Yet, it’s not as simple as announcing your intentions in the first email. I mean, you can’t just send out a questionnaire that asks for a timeline and budget, right?

Right??

Well, that’s sorta what I’ve been doing.

For years as an in-house designer, I was conditioned to assume I was on the hook for every request that floated my way. Part of the process for accepting a new project was nailing down the timeline and budget. I took a similar approach in my freelance work, which was a huge mistake.

I have a pretty standard 15-question survey that I use for all new projects. I ask things about the project that saves me a ton of back-and-forth with the client and becomes our shared reference for everything moving forward. It covers some of the more important elements like budget, timeline and scope, but it also asks more reflective questions like, “Why is this the right time for a rebrand?” and “How will you measure this project’s success?” It’s evolved over the years, but until I decided to focus more on qualifying my clients with intentionality, my survey served a larger purpose: it was my gatekeeper.

My survey is loosely modeled after one that Forefathers Group shared a few years ago, which they graciously encourage everyone to download.

While rethinking my questionnaire’s purpose, I read this paragraph from Brutally Honest by Emily Cohen (which proverbially slapped me right in the face):

By using my survey to save me time, I’d been ignoring prospects and only passively qualifying new clients. I was so focused on my current workload that I ignored potential new business.

I justified this by telling myself it was better to devote my time to existing clients than uncertain ones. There’s some logic there, but I’d also discounted a huge part of my company: growth.

In the past, I assumed every minute I spent pursuing a new client needed to be countered with existing client work. I could make up the hours by working late or skipping lunch. I still stress about chasing after clients and not signing them to a contract, but I’ve come to recognize the potential value of those opportunities is worth so much more than the explicit value of my time (ie: an hourly rate).

I’m far better at discussing a possible partnership than writing about it. Calls and handshakes result in way more work for me than my surveys ever did, and I’m becoming much more adept at scheduling meetings to qualify clients so that my current workload doesn’t suffer any decrease in quality. In fact, I’ve been able to mitigate wasted opportunities by building up a newer, more robust client qualification process. My confidence level and win rate continue to climb as I refine my methods.

A helpful question when considering how to set up a potential client meeting is, “What’s 30 minutes of my time worth today?”

If you’re really busy, it’s half your hourly rate. That’s your floor.

If you’re not too busy, it’s whatever the client’s budget happens to be. That’s your ceiling.

That difference will always favor the client.

Eventually, if enough leads are lost, these 30 minute meetings can add up and feel like a giant waste of time. Rather than revert back to the questionnaire, it might be time to rethink the qualification process in general. If I’m stressing over half an hour of my day, I probably shouldn’t be considering another client in the first place. (In her LinkedIn Learning class, Emily Cohen teaches that your win rate — the number of proposals that turn into actual clients — should be 70% or higher.)

Example: Experiencing Growth

I just wrapped up an awesome branding project for a health and beauty business (case study coming soon!), but it almost didn’t even happen because of my old qualification process.

I’d sent out my questionnaire and learned that the budget was modest and the timeline was tight. In the past, I would have dismissed the project (using the “Pick 2” method — cheap vs. fast vs. good) and referred them to someone a little closer to their price range; however, I was interested and decided to give the client half an hour of my time, knowing it wouldn’t be a huge loss if we ended up not working together.

We hopped on a video chat and discussed the project. I heard the client’s story a little differently than what I’d read in their questionnaire answers. I also witnessed their passion and determination. It got me excited and I began tossing out ideas about the directions we could go with their products — colors, packaging, photography, etc.

My excitement must have been contagious, because by the end of our time together, we were discussing all the things we were going to do, as if we’d already signed a contract.

At the end of our conversation, I circled back to the budget. I let the client know that I was genuinely excited and wanted to make the relationship work, but I was a bit outside their proposed price range. I shared my rates and we were able to reach an agreement that benefitted both of us.

The result was something a survey would have never been able to produce on its own.

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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.