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I am in this situation where people inquire about my web development services asking for a meeting. The problem is they are not giving giving any details on work needed and their budget. I receive vague emails in the lines like "I need a web developer who is able to develop an e-commerce website for me, I see you are based in city X, can we meet up to discuss this?". If I simply reply explaining that they should start by sending me a short document explaining the work to be done, most of them just do not contact me again. The others would tell that is too difficult for them to put their ideas on a paper or the ideas are too sophisticated for emailing and require an eye-to-eye type of discussion (like their Google, Facebook + Twitter network idea).

In past, when I was in my first years a freelancer and desperate for new work, I would go to talk to every one of them. My experience was that these people

a) would have a tiny or absolutely no budget and were trying to con me into free work ("this will look good in your portfolio" or "we will pay you a lot if this project turns out well, however we think a legal agreement is not necessary")

b) were looking for a free consultant explaining basic internet business things to them, so they can teach themselves before finding a cheaper vendor.

Most of my work comes from larger agencies or referrals, therefore I will not starve ignoring these inquires. However I don't want to miss a single oppurtunity since some of them may turn out to be people with great ambitions with a budget to match them.

I don't see myself as a sales representative. If people agree to work on my terms from the very beginning, like making a short spec before going into a live discussion, most of the time the whole thing turns out well and everybody is happy in the end. However, clients like that are rare.

I would like to ask how do you effectively handle these potential clients in your freelance business ?

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In my experience, it's absolutely reasonable to expect that the client should be able to put down on paper what they need.

A client who is unable to communicate clearly to you over email/phone/carrier pidgen/any method is sending a big red flag. No matter how good their idea is, you cannot execute it if they can't communicate it clearly to you.

A client who only insists on meeting you face to face is saying:

1) They don't respect you as a professional. If you ask for a spec on paper beforehand, they should respect that this is the way you operate and comply.

2) They don't have the idea solid enough idea in their head. You can't read minds. They will need to get their idea on paper at some point in order to quote them. You want a client who knows what they want.

3) They don't have respect for your time. By withholding their idea, they're taking away your ability to decide if you want to spend time on their project. That's your choice, now theirs.

Even if the client has the best idea and budget to match, this is setting up a precedent for bad client behaviour in the future, because you are allowing them to disrespect your time and letting them determine how you operate. You are the professional, you call the shots. If they don't want to do things your way, then they're not worth your time.

Stand your ground and stick by your requirements. If you need a spec before meeting, then they need to deal with it or find someone else.

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OK, so telling them to send specs does not work in your thoughts because you think there are good clients who do not know what the specs are or how to write them.

Now, if you are sure that you do not want to meet each of them or they come to your office, why not try to see if a phone call will work. So instead of meeting with them, ask them for their phone number and call them via Skype. So if the client is not willing to provide a phone number, then there is something very fishy with him (low budget client, wants free advisory, not serious, etc.).

I think Skype call will quickly reveal good from bad clients. Later on you will have enough experience to filter them even more (but I cannot think of any good suggestion right now).

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The intake form, as described, or a Skype/phone consultation should do the trick. Face to face is fine, but make that client come to you if the client insists. Phone calls are cheap; fuel, road tolls, and parking costs are not and it's foolish to make these expenditures for a client that might not commit, UNLESS the pay makes it really, really worth it.

Don't expect a complete spec from the client as the type of specs you need aren't necessarily the client's sort of expertise. DO make sure to include time to generate specs into your estimation, and the sign-off of specs as a milestone before you start implementation.

Some clients are indeed fishing for quick answers instead of fishing for a vendor (and then they "mysteriously" change their minds about working with you!!!). Some will ask, "Exactly how would you solve this problem?" during your intake interview. Sidestep a direct answer. Go with something to the tune of, "Once our engagement begins, I can provide you with a tentative plan." You really must stick to your guns here as some people will do all they can to get free information out of you.

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Some good answers here already!

You could prepare a one or two page project brief form for clients to complete.

Email them the form asking them to complete it before you schedule a meeting. You can tell your prospective client that this will enable you to do some homework before the meeting and so that you can be better prepared.

In the project brief, you can ask what the approximate budget is for the project and any other information you might need to decide whether this project is suitable for you.

Depending on the completed information in the project brief, you can either schedule a meeting or let the client know you do not wish to proceed further.

If a prospective client can't complete a one or two page form in preparation for a meeting, then this is probably a red flag as Stacey points out.

A possible exception might be for clients with reading or writing challenges but you could still run through the questions on the phone.

  • Clients with reading/writing challenges: you REALLY want to be sure this is the right client before engaging. I mean, if the client can't get through a brief, what happens when it's time to sign a contract, or get you a check? – Xavier J Dec 1 '14 at 22:57

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