Not All Clients Are Worth Pursuing: How to Pre-Qualify Prospects

When a prospective client requests a proposal, do you excitedly hop right on it? Many veteran Solo PR Pros have learned that the best course of action is to take a deep breath and carefully probe for additional information first. In this guest post from Solo PR PRO member Karen Swim, she shares her approach to pre-qualifying clients (Solo PR PRO Premium subscribers: see below to download a full questionnaire).

Karen SwimIn my corporate career I spent a few years in sales before moving into marketing. I learned valuable lessons that have helped me in every facet of my career. One of the things I learned is how to pre-qualify prospective clients.

The language you use in your marketing collateral and website, and how you educate your referral sources helps ensure the right prospects become interested in working with you. But that alone is not enough – once a prospect makes contact, it’s important to fully vet the opportunity before you even put together a proposal.

Gathering information on the front-end is critical not only to winning business, but to determining if that business is worth being won. Far too many consultants waste their precious time on dead-end proposals – an ability to spot these in advance is a key to long-term success.

I pre-qualify every opportunity to:

  1. Evaluate if there is a real opportunity
    Sometimes a prospect is on a “fishing expedition,” while other times it's obvious they won't be able to get the needed buy-in internally. Are they trying to leverage information to get a better rate from a current provider? Are they gathering information to determine if PR services are something they may have interest in implementing someday (rather than now)? In the worst cases, a “prospect” has no intention of hiring outside counsel: they're hoping an unwitting PR pro will give them ideas in a proposal they can use without paying for them.  Asking probing questions initially will help you uncover a prospect's motives – if you're lucky, you'll find that they are very interested in hiring you.
  2. Determine fit
    Does the company culture align with yours? Are the expectations realistic? During this pre-qualification phase, prospects often give clues about how organized they are – both personally and internally within the company. You can also ask questions about their goals and how they are measured, which will tell you a lot about their internal culture and what will be expected of you.
  3. Identify if there is a budget
    Many independent consultants feel intimidated to ask this question, but don't be! Budget signals a commitment and allows you to determine the scope of work. “Do you have a defined budget for PR /Communication Services?” is a professional question to ask.

If the opportunity qualifies, and a proposal is requested, I move to a more in-depth pre-proposal interview — this early step ensures that a written proposal is merited. Using this process has allowed me to write fewer proposals, but with a much higher close ratio.

Solo PR PRO Premium Members: Download the full 18-question Pre-Qualification Questionnaire for your use with prospects.

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Karen Swim, Words for Hire, is a writer and marketer with 20 plus years of sales, marketing and management experience. With a unique blend of business expertise, creativity, coaching and cheerleading, she develops marketing communications for organizations and career professionals.

  • Great tip sheet, Karen.

    I do the same thing for the same reason and for more. Since I work in mainly the book publishing and music entertainment industries, it is important that I field out sources for my media outlet clients.

    A few years ago a potential client contacted me about what seemed to be a great book that had the potential for great media outreach. When I submitted this person my questionnaire the responses I received back were vague, long-winged, and vain. At first I thought this person has no media training. Perhaps the client needs some brand management coaching, too. Because the product was good. I was so wrong. The client was an utter fail, botched every media opportunity and constantly paid me late.

    No matter how brilliant the art is. If the artist has the personality of a cartoon snake, then that personality will become broadcasted as such. And… your PR company will be tainted and you could lose credibility. (broadcasted is a verb in this comment)

    So now I have stricter guidelines for taking on new clients and keeping the existing ones. The industries I support and I have little time for poor behavior and scam artists. Moreover, a client represents me in public. They have match me and the brand I have built for my boutique. Otherwise, I will refer them to someone else. Not Karen though…lol

    Dee Stewart

  • Thanks for sharing your personal experience, Dee — and such a great point about how our clients impact our own credibility! Our reputations with the media and the industries we serve are hard-won and worthy of protecting.

  • Thank you Dee! I have learned a lot from you and the great processes and systems that you have in place. You have so much experience and I’m so glad you shared the importance of fit. Lol, yes, do not refer the bad fit ones my way!

  • Dora nikols

    Great tips. I’d love to know what sort of qualifying questions I should be asking? Would really appreciate your help!

  • Hi Dora- As Karen notes, “do you have a defined budget” is a big one. Ask what their goals are, and how the success of the program will be measured. To determine if they’re “for real,” ask if they’re talking to anyone else, and when they want to get started. Those are key!

  • Hi Dora – As Kellye said asking about “defined budget” is critical. Your questions may differ but you want to establish budget, commitment (looky-loo or real interest with timeline for moving forward), and needs. Ask, listen carefully for the information, ask follow-on questions and verify what you’ve heard.

  • LaShaunda Hoffman

    Karen these are good tips. As I grow in my business I’ve learned to ask if a client has a budget. Most don’t and are contacting you for freebies. I don’t mind freebies but you can’t expect me to stay in business if that’s all I do.

  • So true, LaShaunda. A few months ago, a prospect that seemed very promising revealed that their budget was less than $500 for an entire program. You just never know unless you ask!

  • LaShaunda, you have already internalized one important lesson. Always ask about budget and never, ever feel guilty about charging for a service. Trust me your mortgage company and utility providers will never cry because they had to bill you!

  • It’s funny, this tire-kicking part of it. Some clients get incensed by it all, others start giving assignments and making you sit through meetings and request very detailed proposals that require a lot of work, give away a lot of detail – only to say that you really weren’t hired yet. Sigh. (Yes Karen I’ve wasted too much time.)

    The budget question is a killer; you’re struggling to get a fix on what the project really is – so you can determine how much work you’ll do and what it will really be worth in order to answer that question. It’s ok if they don’t know, that happens – but I never fully believe that. They’re spending money to build their business, so someone, somewhere knows a budget.

    If they’re wanting to hire, looking to promote or buy or sell, they’ve got some discretionary numbers in mind. One way to get at it – see what’s being covered, what ‘else’ is going on. Ex. Are they advertising and if so where/how? Will this “PR budget” include photography, printing costs, etc.? If they’re only dedicating budget to ‘stuff’ and not to strategy, then yes there’s a mismatch. You can also try to find off-sets; pull from the SEO they’re overpaying for your blogging/content marketing campaign. And of course, leverage shared assets across the board. FWIW.