If you’ve been following along in the Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer series, you’re familiar with how much preparation and set-up needs to happen before meeting with your first bona fide client. It’s time for that hard work to pay off!
Let’s assume that you’ve created a strong branding kit, and found a potential client from an e-Learning job resource (you’ll find a list of those in my “Sales Pipeline” post). After some initial dialogue with the prospective client, you perform a high-level qualification and determine that the client has the potential to be a “good client.” Best of all, they’re interested in hiring you! The next phase in the sales pipeline is “Meet / Discuss,” so it’s finally time to roll up your sleeves and get to know the details of the client’s needs and make a final decision about whether you’re a good fit for each other.
So this week, I’d like to talk about the steps you can take to make sure that your first in-depth discussion with a new client goes well.
The Meet / Discuss Phase
From the sales pipeline perspective, you’re at the “Meet / Discuss” phase. At this point, you haven’t won the deal yet, but you’re close, and your objective is to spend time with your client discussing the detailed needs of the project. This phase is incredibly important, because it’s where you’ll be defining and understanding the client’s expectations—and it’s also your last chance to decline working with them. Think of it this way: If this were a romantic relationship, the “Meet / Discuss” stage is where you would be deciding whether or not to get engaged to your partner—and if you do, the next step is a proposal!
Corny jokes aside, the reality is that a lot rides on the first meeting with a new client. Your objectives for the meeting are to find answers to two important questions:
- Am I confident that I can handle everything the client is asking me to do?
- Do I think that the client will be an effective business partner for me to work with?
For me, the key way I keep my “Meet / Discuss” opportunities focused is by remembering that this is a more detailed version of the “Qualify” stage. This is the point at which you’ll discover how much work is actually involved, how clear a vision of success your client has, and how quickly you’ll need to work.
As you’ve probably noticed, I prefer to work with repeatable processes to help keep myself consistent and on track, and this is no exception! There are three things I always do when meeting for the first time with a new client:
1. Research the client before the call or meeting.
This may seem like common sense, but doing your due diligence on a client is an easy step to delay or deprioritize. I always do at least an hour of research about the client before I meet with them—I try and follow the general rule, “My first meeting with them should never be the first time I think about their brand and their needs.”
Prior to the meeting, I spend time on their website, their social media profiles, and even reviews from GlassDoor.com. My goal is to learn about things like:
- What is their industry like?
- What changes are they introducing?
- What is their brand like?
- Who will I be talking with? What role do they play in their business?
- What do I have in common with them, or what relevant experiences can I bring?
The important thing to remember here is that you’re doing research for the purpose of better understanding their business context, and seeing if there are any opportunities to refine how and what you present to them. It’s OK to let them know that you’ve been taking efforts to learn more about them, and most clients will find this flattering and a sign of your interest. That said, you don’t need to repeat back to them anything from their website, you don’t need to review with them every piece of research you did, and you may not even need to mention to them that you did any research at all. Your objective is to send a message of “I have learned a lot as I have been preparing for this project,” and not “I decided to stalk you online before we met.”
2. Ask Questions
The “Meet / Discuss” phase is a lot like a job interview, because both you and the client are auditioning each other, and potentially forming the foundation of a working relationship. Remember, the first of the two questions that this meeting needs to answer is: Am I confident that I can handle everything the client is asking me to do? So you need to find out what problems they are trying to solve and how you can be part of the solution.
Here are some of the questions I use for my initial calls or meetings with potential clients:
- What is the business driver behind your need to create training?
- What business outcome are you hoping to achieve with this training?
- How will the outcomes be measured?
- Who are the learners you attempting to reach?
- What is their experience with the subject matter?
- Do you have existing material (e.g., documents, PowerPoint presentations, audio,video, photos, storyboards, scripts) that you can provide?
- Do you have a subject matter expert that will be available during the project?
- Who are the key stakeholders you’ll want me to work with during the project?
- Who will sign off on the project milestones?
- Who on your staff will need to review and sign-off on each revision cycle?
- Do you have a deadline in place for the project?
- Do you require a specific e-Learning application or format for delivery?
- Will the course need to be viewable on mobile platforms? If so, what type?
- Where will you store the final course (e.g., LMS)? If so, what version of SCORM will you require?
- Will you have internal staff who will load and test the content on your LMS?
- Will the courses require closed-captioning?
For more great “Meet / Discuss” questions, see David Anderson’s Project Kick-off Questions.
3. Take Good Notes and Always Qualify Your Answers
This is another thing that sounds like common sense—but you would be surprised by the number of people who don’t do it! As you’re conducting the call or meeting, make sure you’re taking constant, thorough notes. Don’t rely on yourself to remember everything: Write it all down! When you’re writing things down, your brain is translating someone else’s ideas and words into terms you can understand. If the client says something that you’re not sure how to notate, it may mean you need to ask them to clarify. If you need to ask the client for a moment to take notes during a meeting, that’s totally OK—most clients will appreciate that you care enough about what they’re saying to write it down.
As you’re proceeding through the meeting, make sure you’re pausing occasionally to repeat back your notes to the client. It’s important to make sure that you’ve understood correctly, and it may provide an opportunity for you to fix something you didn’t capture completely accurately.
In addition, throughout the meeting, the client will likely be asking you if you think a specific thing can be done. Be certain to qualify your answers, in a positive light:
- “That sounds possible, let me do some investigation and get back with you” is better than “Yes! I can absolutely do that without a problem!”
- “I’m going to find out” is better than “I don’t know.”
You never know if a client’s vision of their own needs is going to be accurate or not. For example, I once had a client who asked me to identify and set up an entire Learning Management System (LMS) to store and deliver their courses for them—after I had only agreed to create e-Learning content for them. In their mind, it was a simple request—in addition to building learning materials for them, they wanted me to set up a small site for users to access what I’d created. From my perspective, this was a significant amount of work that was out of scope both for their timeline and what I could complete for them! But when the client asked, I made sure to provide a qualified answer that was a promise to investigate, so I could later go back to them and explain why some of their needs were out of scope.
Remember that the second question you’re trying to answer is: Do I think that the client will be an effective business partner for me to work with? So as you’re answering their questions, think about the questions they’re asking. (When that client asked me to set up an entire LMS for them, I knew it would create a significant amount of new work, and push our deadlines out. After I explained this to them, sharing all of the steps and work involved, they still insisted on wanting everything within the original time frame—this was a sign to me that the relationship wasn’t going to be a good fit, given that their expectations were so misaligned with mine.) The questions you’re asked, as well as the answers they provide, will tell you a lot about whether or not the relationship is a good fit.
I’ve found that most of my successes as a freelancer in some way can be traced back to a repeatable process that I use consistently. The more that I make sure to always follow the same steps—even if they seem like simple ones—the more likely I am to find work that I’m suited for and enjoy. As you’re meeting with clients for the first time, I encourage you to use these steps, or create your own process that works for you; what matters most is that you use them every time.
What practices have you found most useful in first-time meetings with clients? What are the biggest things to avoid, from your perspective? I’m excited to hear from you and share insights about our best first meetings—as always, I invite you to join our private Facebook group, or chime in on the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #eLearningBiz!
Editor’s note: This post is part of my ongoing 2017 series, “Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer,” a comprehensive look at the ins-and-outs of working independently in the Learning and Development industry. All of the previous posts in the series can be found here.