In the SQLcommunity Slack #Consultants channel, Steph Locke (@StephLocke) asked if anyone was doing free consultations or office hours as a way of growing your opportunities. We had a good discussion in there, and I’d highly recommend that freelancers and consultants join that channel for help.
I’ve done a free 20-30 minute sales call for years, and here’s the process that works for me.
Let clients book the date/time.
I used to make folks email us first with a brief description of their pains. We’d read that, make sure our company was a good fit, and send back a reply with pricing and how to book a meeting with us.
When we let go of our salesperson, I made a conscious decision to make the sales process as frictionless as possible for everybody involved. That meant the pricing would be public on our web site, and people could filter themselves out faster. As long as they knew the pricing and could see sample deliverables, I figured they could just book sales meetings right then and there.
If that fits your style, there are online services integrate with your calendar to build a live web form where prospective clients can simply book themselves whenever you have open windows:
- YouCanBook.me (that’s the one I use, and you can see it at the bottom of our consulting page)
- Calendly (works with Google, O365, iCloud calendars)
- Microsoft Bookings (part of the higher-end O365 packages)
With YouCanBook.me, I set up “Available for Calls” windows on my calendar, set to free (instead of busy), and customers can book themselves during those windows. I can configure the meeting duration, plus have it automatically pad my meetings so that I don’t do two in a row.
Sketch out the call’s flow.
Here’s how mine works, and I have a slide for each of these:
- I introduce us (the company) and give a 60-second elevator pitch about what we do.
- I show a slide of questions asking about who the prospect is, what problems they’re having with SQL Server, and what success looks like to them
- I take furious notes while they talk, asking followup questions.
After about 5-10 minutes of listening and saying “tell me more about that,” I have a pretty good idea about whether or not we can help. At that point, I switch gears and cover:
- How we’ve helped similar customers in the past
- What a consulting relationship would look like
- What questions they would need answered before they would sign a contract
- Whether they want to move forward now, or talk it over internally
Now, look at that last and start to guess the time it’ll take to do justice to each topic. When you’re just starting out, expect to spend 30-40 minutes to cover that list, especially if you’re taking notes as you go. I’ve done a lot of these calls – a quick back-of-the-napkin guess yields 1k-2k over the last 6 years – so at this point, I’ve got it down to 20 minutes in total. (I can also type full speed as I’m listening and talking, so I was born for this kind of thing.)
Set limits on what you can cover in that time.
If I’m going to cover that list, then I can’t look at code, databases, or do screen sharing. It’s just way too easy to get bogged down in technical details. Having a slide deck with a specific set of talking points and questions really helps.
Every now and then, though, a prospect will say, “Can I share my screen, and I’ll show you what I’m talking about.” Here’s how I respond:
“Our lawyers and insurance agents won’t let us go near a system without a contract first. We just need to make sure everybody’s protected.”
At least in the litigious United States, everybody seems to understand that immediately.
If I was a BI or analytics person, I would actually be more comfortable sharing my own screen to demo work that I’ve done in the past, though.
Finish the call with authority.
If you let people talk about their problems forever, at no charge, they often will.
- 10 minutes before the call ends, I say, “Just so everybody’s aware, I have a hard stop at HH:MM to join my next call.”
- 5 minutes out, I say, “We’re in the final five minutes, and I want to make sure we cover the most important thing. Is there anything else you want to ask about working with me?”
- If they’re still talking at the end, and they haven’t said the magic words yet, then I say, “I really do have to bail for my next call, but this is a great conversation. Let’s handle it over email from here – go ahead and send me the list of questions you’ve got, and I’ll tackle them between my other client calls.” And close it down – even if you don’t have another call, you probably need to bail if they haven’t said the magic words.
The magic words are, “What’s the next step?”
I use an extremely soft sell, so I’m looking for the client to say those words to me. That means they’re ready to move forward with signing a contract. At that point, we talk about dates and contracts.
If the client doesn’t say those words, they’re not ready to sign yet. And that’s completely fine – some sales take weeks, months, or even years to close. You can speed it up if you want to take a harder sell approach by asking that question yourself, finding out what the client’s next steps are. You can also ask what their timeline looks like for making a decision and moving forward.