Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 4, 2002.

Consultants can’t expect every contact to result in a contract. Clients may take the legitimate route of choosing another contractor or may be unable to proceed with a project. Even when potential clients contact you first, they may not always be serious about using your services.

Rarely, an unethical client may waste your time fishing for solutions they have no intention of paying you for. On the other hand, a client may be eager to get you in the door as soon as possible.

The more you learn about the legitimacy of a prospect’s interest, the sooner you can make appropriate business decisions about how much time to invest in winning their business and when to shift your efforts toward projects that are more likely to produce income. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to pin down which kind of potential client you’re dealing with.

You also want to avoid dealing with those who, although they might want to use your services, lack the signing authority to make it happen. I’ll give you specific questions you can ask to determine whether a prospect is serious about using your services. I’ll also point out some red flags that should alert you to trouble.

Pinpoint these qualifications

To qualify your prospects, you must look for intention, money, and authority:

  • Does the person you’re talking with truly intend to do business with you if you are the right person for the job?
  • Does the company have the money to fund the project?
  • Does the contact have the authority to proceed with the project?

The most important questions you can ask

So how do you pin down a potential client? You can’t just come out and ask clients if they’re serious about engaging your services, or if they’re just fishing for free advice. However, you can ask legitimate questions in a tactful and business-like manner.

You can start by addressing what the prospect has just told you about the project. You don’t want to propose a solution to the client at this point, as you have no commitment to each other. Don’t spill all your ideas. Instead, summarize and reorganize what the client has told you in a way that lets the client know you have a handle on his or her needs. Part of your goal is to establish your credibility and pave the way for asking the necessary questions. Ask at least a couple of the following questions to learn about the client’s intentions:

  • When do you expect this project to begin?
  • When would you need me to start?
  • Has your company committed to proceeding with the project?
  • Has your company budgeted for this project?

Vague or evasive answers to any of these questions should be a red flag.

Next, qualify the client by asking questions such as the following:

  • Who would be signing off on my work on this project?
  • What’s the approval process for my work?
  • Is anyone other than you in charge of this project?
  • Who in your company needs to sign off on this project before we could get started?

Phrasing these questions in terms of approval of your work instead of the project itself makes them sound less intrusive, but be sure to ask that last question. If several other names emerge, ask about your contact’s relationship to those other people and whether they’re all aware of and committed to the project.

When you’re tactful, it’s legitimate to ask any or all of these questions. If your contact gets indignant or refuses to answer any of them, that’s another red flag. Either your client isn’t conducting this discussion in good faith or isn’t willing to disclose information, neither of which bodes well for your relationship.

Take the next step, or get off the hook

If the answers you get indicate that you’re talking to the person who has oversight of an approved, budgeted project, or has access to and approval from the people who do, then you can discuss setting up a meeting to learn more about the client’s needs. If the project seems promising but isn’t ready to start soon, it probably isn’t time to meet yet. Instead, show interest and suggest that the client contact you when start-up is more definite. If you want to be a little more aggressive, you can also establish a set time to check on the project’s progress.

If the client is evasive, defensive, or doesn’t answer in ways that demonstrate commitment and authority, then it’s probably best to head off the relationship now instead of after you’ve provided several hours or days of free consulting. You can exit gracefully by saying that you’re too busy to take on such a project right now or that your skills aren’t a good match for the client’s needs.

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