Is That Client Worth Pursuing? How to Pre-Qualify Prospects

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Is That Client Worth Pursuing? How to Pre-Qualify Prospects

Is That Client 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 sometimes the best course of action is to take a deep breath and carefully probe for additional information first. In this post Solo PR PRO President, Karen Swim, shares her approach to pre-qualifying clients (Solo PR PRO Premium members: see below to download a full questionnaire).

In my corporate career I spent a few years in sales before moving into marketing, and learned valuable lessons that have helped me in every facet of my career. One of the most important things I learned is how (and why!) to pre-qualify prospective clients.

If you think you’ve found the perfect client for your services and want to send them a pitch, or someone is contacting you directly to form a working relationship, it’s crucial to fully vet the opportunity before putting together a proposal.

Gathering information on the front-end is critical, not only when it comes to winning new business, but also to determine if that business is worth being won. Far too many consultants waste their precious time on dead-end proposals — whether it’s a client that doesn’t have the budget to hire you or someone who simply doesn't have adequate need for your services. 

Having the ability to spot these in advance and determine if a new client is worth pursuing is the key to long-term success.

Why you should pre-qualify your leads

Pre-qualifying a prospective client means taking the time to evaluate them to determine if they are a good fit for your business before investing in a pitch. 

As a solopreneur depending on client work and growth to survive, it can be easy to jump at every new opportunity, be it for financial reasons or otherwise. But being choosy and setting standards at the start will help you in the long run. 

For my business, I pre-qualify leads based on the following criteria:

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 help; instead they're hoping an unwitting PR pro will give them valuable 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

One of the biggest reasons client relationships fail is due to a lack of culture fit. You may be able to avoid uncomfortable conversations later by doing some investigation upfront. 

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. Figure out how much work is needed

Your proposal, should you choose to send one, is likely to land much more successfully if you’re able to effectively estimate how much work a new client may require. 

Are they in need of a complete PR strategy overhaul or is this a one-off campaign? Are there other facets of their marketing program you may be able to help with? 

For clients on the needy side of the spectrum, take the time to evaluate if you have the bandwidth to take them on. 

4. 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, and one that can save you a lot of time and headache in the future.

Once you’ve adequately vetted a potential client and their needs, and think you’d like to move forward, I typically recommend starting with a more in-depth pre-proposal interview. This will allow you to put your best foot forward and tailor your proposal directly to them, should you decide to move forward.

Using this process has enabled me to write fewer proposals, and achieve a much higher close ratio.

Ready to start vetting your next lead? Download our 18-question Pre-Qualification Questionnaire for use with your prospects, exclusively for Solo PR PRO Premium members.

This post was originally published on September 18, 2012 and has been updated for 2021.

Written By Karen Swim

11 Comments

  1. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

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

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. We need to be stricter guidelines for taking on new clients and keeping the existing ones

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