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.