How to respond to clients who have no idea what they want

First acknowledgement: you can't control what the other person does.

Second acknowledgement: you CAN control what YOU do.


I met with a potential client just the other day and asked some questions (diagnose, not prescribe) to figure out what problem they're actually trying to solve. I also wanted to get a feel for their budget which helps me craft an affordable solution that addresses the business challenge they are faced with resolving.


My two objectives during these initial conversations:

1) what the real problem is (diagnose)

2) estimate of budget.


Let's say I sell cars.

I can give you this McClaren, it costs R6m. I don't know what to offer you (in terms of a solution to your problem) because you don't tell me what you want. Yes, I know you want a car, but do you want a supercar or a daily driver? You have to tell me what ballpark you're in. Let's say I design websites. Some clients spend R50 000, some R100 000, even R1m!


When the client is talking to you, they have a picture in their mind of what the solution is going to look like. Your job as the one asking the questions about the idea is to try to figure out what that picture is. Generally speaking they've seen or heard about something they like. So ask them: Tell me what you like, what have you seen or heard that reflect on this idea of yours. It can be anything. Then you can show them references of your own or what YOU have seen or heard. Now all of you have the same picture in mind and the conversation can go from there to agree on what is expected in terms of the work to be done, and to get closer to what their budget is so that you know what to charge them and most importantly what you can create for them for that amount.


Be mindful that the person you're talking to is most probably way down the list when it comes down to making decisions, they're not god. There are many people involved, the execs, accountants, and so on. They know how much they need to spend to get the work done. If the person you're talking to doesn't know the answer then let them go find out.


The budget conversation goes something like this:

Look, we have done similar work for clients for close to R100k. We've also done some good ones for R50k. Under R50k to give you what you need is going to be tough. Give me some idea of where you think you fall. We can do good work for you for what you're looking for and if you need to spend less than R50k then let us take a look at it and maybe we can come up with a different solution to the one you're presenting, one with the same outcome.


DO NOT WORK FOR FREE.


Remember, the money conversation happens after you have asked some questions to get a basic idea of what it is the client says they want. And, the money conversation should happen early - it is not a final commitment, you want to get an idea of whether the client can afford you and how serious they are about getting the job done. And, of what solution you can offer them based on their budget.


Helping clients figure out what it is they actually want, is the start of the creative resolution process. Yes, it's a creative process. We can all walk out of it enlightened. Importantly, you leave the client with a piece of you and how your business creatively problem solves. If they resonate with your approach, they will likely resonate with your ways of work throughout your engagement and hopefully long term relationship. Client relationships start here.


* Extracts from Kier McClaren