The way you handle the first verbal contact you have with any prospective client will make or break your chances of success so it's important to plan ahead.
There are some very important facts that you need to obtain from the client. Probably the most important of all is whether the company or individual concerned has already prepared a plan for the project. If they haven't, there's a reasonable chance that they aren't taking the process seriously and this could lead to trouble further down the line. You also need to know the exact scope of the project.
Once armed with this information, you should be able to give them a reasonable idea of how much you would charge. A good way to approach this is to say "Previous similar projects that I've worked on cost between 'x' and 'y'. Would that be in line with your cost expectations?" By giving a price range, rather than a fixed amount, you can charge the upper limit if you underestimated the amount of work required. It is not so easy to just up a fixed price. The answer to the price question will usually leave you in doubt as to whether it is worth continuing discussions. You may also wish to ask the client outright if a project budget has already been fixed.
Some potential clients might just be testing the waters and in such instances it can be useful to ask them to do something that shows they are committed to the project, and ultimately to you. For example, you could ask for a list of their competitors, or a list of sites that feature something similar to what they want to achieve. If you get a response, it shows that they are taking the project seriously. If they don't, you haven't wasted too much of your own time or energy flogging a dead horse.
Clients will probably want to check your references before they award you a contract, but be careful. Referees will soon get fed up if they are continually receiving reference requests. If you have case studies or testimonials on your website, then point potential clients to them in the first instance. Only give out your referees contact details once you are reasonably confident of securing the contract.
Finally, make sure that as well as sounding professional, you sound as if you actually enjoy your work. If you sound confident and enthusiastic, clients will think you're trustworthy and will be more likely to hire you.
A lot of freelancers don't like making 'sales' calls but if you heed the above advice, you should find they become easier and you could even find yourself enjoying them!
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