An effective discovery process helps you transition smoothly into a good working relationship with your client.

A prospective client discovery session allows you the opportunity to manage expectations before you enter a working relationship. By asking the right kinds of questions you communicate to your client your expertise and empathy, and your ability to solve their business problem with your creative solutions. In this episode I outline proven tactics for a successful discovery call and subsequent project.

So you’re going to meet with a prospective client, somebody you know a little bit about, they’ve already contacted you, and asked to ask. They’ve already contact you. They’ve already contacted you and asked you a few questions you’ve set up a discovery call to learn more about their project. So now what do you do. Certainly you should have a list of question prompts to be able to, that you’re going to use to guide the conversation.

And you’re going to use that to find out what the client really needs. And you’re gonna use that to find out what the client really needs.

And then, depending upon the size of the client or the value of the client. You’re going to come to terms in that discussion, and follow up with a confirmation and contract. Or you’re going to follow up with a proposal if it’s a larger client. So the thing is how do you come away from that discovery interview.

So the thing is, how do you come away from that discovery interview successfully? How do you actually win the client through having that discovery call?

The idea is that you will want to position yourself as a problem solver. So remember you don’t sell the thing that you create. You don’t sell a logo you don’t sell a website you don’t sell an app, you don’t sell an illustration. You sell the results of the illustration you sell the results of the design or the results of the photography.

That’s an important thing to remember because if you can keep that in mind as you are conversing with your prospective client. You’re going to end up with a client that has a little bit of a different mindset.

One of the things that I have learned through the years, working with clients, as a freelance creative, is that we have to educate our clients, and we can’t educate them in a didactic way, meaning we don’t just tell them. We don’t just give them information, we don’t just come with a solution to their problem, we don’t come at them and say, “Well, you’ve got this wrong this wrong and this wrong,” because they’re going to back off. They don’t want to be told.

Approach every conversation — every discovery call — with curiosity. You’re there to find out what the client sees is their problem, what they see their need is, and then you can take that and add your own take to it and guide them to a  decision.

Generally speaking, — and a lot of creative freelancers don’t do this — you need to guide the conversation. You need to control the outcome and you do that in a very subtle, friendly way.

In order to guide and control the conversation you have to set a goal for the conversation, what do you want to have happen. What is the result that you want to see from this conversation? Is it a new project?Is it to determine if this is a client you want to work with? Is it a good fit for you? And your goal can also include, What do you want to earn from this project if you take it on?

A successful discovery session sets the stage for a smooth transition to the project, and a more comfortable working relationship. In the discovery call you’re already starting to manage  expectations. You’re already educating your client as to what to expect from you, and what it’s like to work with you.

So for example when the client says, “I need a new website,” rather than just jumping in on features and contents and things like that, a better approach might be to say, “Why do you need a new website? What’s going on with the current site that’s not satisfactory to you? Tell me a little bit more about the problems you’re having with your current website and what you’d really like it to be doing for you.”

And it’s that kind of Socratic questioning that will lead the client to more detail and more disclosure about their frustrations. And if you ask questions like this, it’s more likely that the client will understand that yes you’re listening and you are seeking to understand their situation. And this will help pull their perception of your work out of the commodity, a product a thing category into a solution category into a result category. And that becomes very important this is how you level up, clients, this is how you attract, and work with higher value clients. This is actually how you’re able to charge more.

So going into the conversation. You’ll want to position is their problem solver. You will want to control the conversation. And that means you have to go in with an agenda up front. And you don’t want to be simply an order taker, you want to be somebody who is really concerned about solving their problem.

So again a good discovery conversation a good discovery session is going to set the stage for a smooth and comfortable transition from that conversation into a full on working relationship. So there’s a few things that you’ll want to do, to have a successful discovery call. First of all, prepare in advance preparation takes place between the initial inquiry the client calls you up and says, Hi, you know you were recommended by so and so and I need a new website. How much do you charge.

So you say, Great, I’d love to talk with you about that. When are you available for about 30 minutes to have a phone call, or however long I mean discovery for me is usually anywhere between 30 minutes and usually up to an hour depending upon everything that the client is concerned about. But usually no more than 30 minutes but there is a time I try to put distance between that initial inquiry, and a discovery session and that that can be, you know, a day it can be a week, but between the initial inquiry, whether it comes in by phone call or by email, and the discovery conversation, I’m doing research and this is what I recommend that you do. So find out as much about the client as you can in that intermediate time. In other words, do your research, look at their website, find out what they do find out their mission and vision, find out who their clientele is who their customers are. Are they a product based or service based are they a corporation, an LLC or a sole proprietor. How long have they been in business. How many employees do they have, is that a nonprofit organization or a for profit organization. What is their big idea. What is their industry who are their competitors, what are the issues in the industry that they’re in that they will need to deal with. What are the current issues in their industry that they need to deal with. What are their competitors doing that they’re not what are they doing that their competitors are not how are they positioned in relationship to their competitors in the minds of their customers. Do as much discovery as you can before you go into that discovery call, so that you come into that discovery call with the ability to ask particular questions. And that, so that so that you can give the client the prospective client, the understanding that you’re, you’ve already shown interest in who they are and what they’re trying to accomplish. So always go in informed never go in and wing it. So you’ve prepared in advance. You should also, so you’ve prepared in advance with research and discovery on your own. You should have a list of client questions have a list of questions that are going to allow you to mine for the information you need to make a decision. Is this a client that I want to work with. Am I excited about this project, are they funded, just going to be a good working relationship. Are there any red flags that I need to look out for. So write down a set of questions. I actually have a couple of lists of questions. One is for. Just very, one is a lot shorter, and I usually use it with lower value clients. But with higher value clients and more complex projects all use the longer set of questions and the questions are basically guiding me they’re they’re my outline for guiding the conversation. And a lot of the questions confirm information that I already know but also allow the client to flesh out in detail. Not all the questions are informational. For instance, the question what is the impetus, what’s the reason for doing this creative project at this time. What would what’s at stake. And another question is what’s at stake if you don’t do anything right now. What’s that going to mean for you.

So tailor your questions based on your research. And the questions will also show that you have done your homework as I’ve already mentioned. Another tip for another tip for the q&a process is to question it. Another tip for these questions is to frame them in a positive light. In other words, you can ask well what do you think is going wrong about this. Or you could ask, What would you like this design or what would you like your website to do better for you. So frame things in a positive light.

So the first thing was to prepare in advance. The second thing was to have a list of questions that you adjust as you need to. The third thing is to ask why they need the thing now. I’ve already alluded to that. But why now, what’s going on? That’s going to give you a lot of clues. And again that goes back to:  “If you don’t do anything what’s at stake for you?”

I had a recent client discovery call actually a series of client discovery calls. I had a recent client discovery call where they were ready at the end of the call to jump on the project and least get part of it done. And when I sent them the proposal, it’s a large, it’s a large project. It’s a major rebrand it’s a major brand extension. It’s a reframing of, not the mission or the vision but it’s a reframing of the actuality or how that mission and vision are going to be carried out. And so it’s a highly extensive project and so the client came back to me and said, because I had asked, you know, why now, and there was a building project and other things going on. And after I sent the proposal, they came back and said, you know, we’re gonna need to table this because we really need to focus on building out the physical facility. We don’t have the wherewithal or the manpower really to consider the branding. At this point, so we’re going to table this for a while, down the road. Now we’ll come back to you by the end of the year. So we’re staying in touch. But this is one of those things that if I hadn’t asked that question. The client may have jumped on the project, and it would have been detrimental for them because they’ve got this building thing going on there, they’re building out a new facility. Meanwhile, they’re, they’re serving their customers and to get involved in a rebrand, at the same time on top of everything else that they’re dealing with. Probably going to overtax the client. So, in order of priority they need to keep serving their people. They need to manage their staff. Well, they need to finish the build out. And then they’ll come back to talk about the branding project.

So based on that, the why now, it becomes very important because if client can wait and it’s better for them to wait. It’s not good for you to try to push it right now. Just something to think about we want to seek each. We want to seek the client’s highest good. Asking pertinent questions, getting them to think about their own priorities, and are they in a panic mode and they’ve come to you. Are they, or are they ready to roll, or are there things they haven’t thought about that maybe they need to consider before they are ready to work with you. Because the last thing you want is to have a project tank, because the client is unable to carry their end of that working relationship, because they’re taxed. They’re overburdened. So just some things to think about always consider the client’s highest good, as well as your own.

The fourth thing with a discovery call is to decide in advance what you want the outcome to be. Do you want the client to actually commit to a project?

Do you want them to sign the contract. Is it just a GET TO KNOW you call. You know what, what do you want. What do you want from the conversation. For me, a lot of times and I’ve learned this over the years it’s not just about finding out what the client wants and what they’re asking me to do, but also determining do I want to work with this client. So for me the discovery call is very much about is this client going to be worth my time and my effort.

The the earlier in the conversation I can determine that, the more quickly the conversation can close down if it’s not the right fit. I’ve gone on discovery calls and spent maybe 10 minutes, where I had allotted 60 minutes for the phone call. And in that 10 minutes, I realized this is not a client that I want to work with or they’re not ready to work with me, and therefore I ended the conversation because I don’t want to waste my time. I don’t want to waste their time either. So have an understanding of what you hope to get from the conversation, — what are the results you’re looking for.

However you’re meeting with the client, set the agenda up front:  “The purpose of this call is ______________ and  __________________.” Know what you want to get out of the call. I’m very direct, saying, “I really want to work with clients who are a good fit for me, and I’m a good fit for them, so if at any point I determine that this is not going to be a good fit, I’m going to shut down the conversation,  end the call, and wish you well. Is that okay with you?”

Be very clear how much time you have for the call. I was in a conversation with a fellow freelancer recently where they were saying that the client kept calling them wanting to know more and more about their business, and was getting far off into the weeds on details, but hadn’t committed to a project yet. 

One of the ways you can control the conversation is by saying, “We’re going to take about 45 minutes or so…” up front, so that the client has an understanding that there are boundaries and that you value your time as well as their time. 

Time is not a renewable resource. You don’t want to waste your time or their time. So begin the conversation by telling the client the purpose of the conversation and be very clear up front how much time the conversation will take.

Also share what you’ll be covering. For example, “I’m going to ask you a few questions about your business, how you got here, your history, what you want to accomplish. I’m gonna ask you about your budget…” 

And you also want to approach it in a way that explains why you’re going to be looking for certain information from them. I often share just a little bit about my design process and why I need certain types of information from a client, and then having that explanation, they’re good to go. They’re good to disclose certain information that they may have come into the conversation wanting to keep closely held in other words they don’t want to divulge certain things.

During the conversation, listen, take notes, (and let the client know that you’re taking notes,) mirror, and repeat back to the client what you’ve heard.

Mirroring is basically repeating the last couple of things they’ve said, not verbatim but in such a way the client knows you’ve listened. It could go like this:  “So you’re asking for a redesign of your website because your current website isn’t performing in the way that you expected it to. The way it’s not performing is this, this and this.”

Also, ask questions to clarify: “Okay, when you say when you say you want this type of thing, does that mean this, or is it more likely to be that? When you say your website’s not performing up to expectation in terms of conversion, is that the CTR (the click through rate). or are you talking more of the conversion from visitor into the purchaser? Are people clicking through but not purchasing are they leaving things in their cart?

 It’s these kinds of detailed questions where you’re trying to pinpoint exactly what’s going on. And what the client is concerned about. Listen, take notes, ask questions based on what you’ve just heard. 

If at any point a client seems to contradict themselves, then ask for clarification. Never assume anything. And if you’re not sure what they mean, ask what they mean. 

In the discovery call, you want to focus on the discovery. You want to focus on uncovering the problem. You don’t want to solve the problem for them during that call. 

You also want to get to what the problem is as quickly as possible. Keep the small talk to a minimum — you know… ” How’s your family…” “Do you have a dog?”… keep that out of the conversation. You can get to know all of that type of information when you’re working with the client. But for a discovery call keep it business- focused. The reason for that is you don’t want to waste time. 

And this is one of the things where creatives especially might have difficulty going straight to the point, because we want to be empathetic to the client, person to person. You can be empathetic to the client and personable in regard to their business needs and their problems, not in regard to how their family is doing. That’s a different issue that can come later on. Don’t waste their time or yours in the discovery session. If you’ve spent most of a 30 minute meeting shooting the breeze and not getting down to business you’ve wasted that time

End the discovery call with next steps — what you’re going to do next and what you’re going to ask them to do next. If they’re not somebody you want to work with, be really upfront with that, let them know it’s not a project that you can take on and be honest. There’s nothing wrong with being gently, firmly, graciously honest, but also offer to refer them if you know someone.

If you decide that you do want to accept the assignment then you should give them next steps. Also, tell them what you’re going to do next, and then follow up. You always want to follow up; it’s the professional thing to do, and it also helps manage expectations. It also provides additional communication and connection with the client, and it reminds them that you are there for them to work with them and to solve their problem. It helps build trust. 

In summary, to conquer the client discovery call, whether you accept or reject the client, you want to position as a problem-solver. You want to position as a listener. You want to control the conversation. And you want to come away with either a firm no, or a solid yes with next steps and a path to travel. 

©2021 Alvalyn Lundgren. All rights reserved.
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