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A Quick Guide to Discovery Calls

Silhouette of woman with headset on sitting in from of a computer

When you have a lead on a new client, what do you do to persuade the prospect that you’re the right person for the job?

We freelancers know we need to spend time marketing to build our businesses. We need to educate our audience, some of whom may become paying clients, on who we are and what we do. We need to help them define their problem and show them why our services are the right solution.

Freelancers talk less about “closing the sale.” Writers and editors especially seem to trip over the word sales. I know I do. It’s not my personality to be aggressive about who I am, what I do, and why you, yes, you, need my services. Urgently. Your future is at stake! You cannot afford to miss this opportunity.


No, that’s not my style at all.

Discovery Calls as a Sales Tool

But we must do something to help the prospect decide to hire us. Often that’s a conversation about what they need and what we offer. It might be through email, but often it’s done over the phone or via video chat.

Sales folks have a name for this conversation: the discovery call.

Discovery calls can be a quick 15 minutes to assess whether you want to work together, or at least talk further about the project. Or they can be an hour or longer, talking in detail about the project and the potential relationship.

Discovery Calls Aren’t Universally Loved

Some business coaches advise doing discovery calls. They give you the opportunity to connect more closely with your prospect, assess their needs, and see if they’re a good fit for your business.

Business coach Elyse Tager loves them. She urges us to invite our prospects to hear about our services, to choose among a few options, to book another call so they can consider the offer.

Tager doesn’t want us to push an action on our prospects. She encourages listening and then offering. The key, though, is to offer something so the meeting isn’t a dead end.

Still, even inviting your prospect can feel awkward at first, and it can still feel pushy to the prospect. It takes practice to find wording that fits your style.

Other coaches see these conversations as a “brain drain”: The prospect is getting your expertise for free. There’s no obligation for them to hire you, and they walk away with whatever you give them for free. If you never hear from them again, you’re out at least an hour of your time, not to mention any prep or follow-up time.

Ash Ambirge of The Middle Finger Project is set against them. She notes that “when you take your voice and put it on paper, in a podcast, in a container that live and breathes independently from you….those clients can hear you and read you and get you and make those decisions far before they waste your time on a call.”

That’s true. I write this blog, offer advice on my site, participate in social media, and so on. All of these marketing tactics help prospects get to know me. Before I take a call, I encourage prospects who haven’t checked me out online to do so.

What a Discovery Call Can Do

But some people need to hear your voice and/or see your face to build a connection, especially those who have never hired a writer or editor before. These creative services sound straightforward, but ask someone outside the industry what they mean, and you’ll soon see people are fuzzy on the idea.

A call is a way for them to get a sense of your personality. I have had many prospects say at the end of a call that they feel more comfortable now. They trust me and are ready to move forward. Not every prospect, of course. Those that don’t, though, it’s usually because our personalities don’t mesh and I’m feeling it too. That’s a huge consideration for any writer or editor. I’ll be working closely with my client, and for that relationship to work, we have to communicate well with each other.

A call is also an opportunity for me to learn more about the project. In my calls, I encourage the prospect to talk freely about their project, especially when it’s their passion. That gives me a better sense of what the project is and gives me context to understand it. The prospect often shares details they might not think to otherwise.

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Don’t Talk to Everyone

Ambirge is spot on that some people just want to grab your expertise for free and run. They use a lure of maybe hiring you “down the road.” I don’t take calls like that. I only take calls with prospects who have a project to offer. You want to pick my brain? That’s what my blog and website are for.

It’s your business. You decide who you do and don’t want to talk to. But do your homework first:

  • How strong a promise of work does there have to be for you to spend 15 minutes talking to someone? 30 minutes? 60?
  • Research the prospect. Check out their website and social media. Read a blog post or two, if they write them. Is this someone you want to work with?
  • Ask for more information before you book the meeting. Get some basics on the project and their budget. If their budget is nowhere near your base rate, why bother?

You Don’t Have to Finish a Call

The project sounds interesting and the prospect seems genuinely interested in you. Hooray! You schedule a 30-minute call to talk more about the project and get to know the prospect a bit.

The conversation starts well, but then the red flags start waving. Maybe the project isn’t quite as good a fit. Maybe the prospect’s communication style is wildly different from yours.

You can choose to finish the conversation, ending it without discussing any next steps.

Or you can end the conversation early, especially if red flags really start waving. A quick “I don’t think I’m the professional for you. Thanks for your time. Bye!” might be enough.

Some folks will go on and on, threatening to past the meeting end time. Especially if I’m still thinking they could be a good fit for my service, it’s hard to balance respecting my time and listening to them. But at some point, I do need to break in and either end the meeting or let them know they’ll be charged for my time going forward. We need to set the pattern early in the relationship if our time is to be respected.

What Discovery Calls Can’t Do

Discovery calls don’t always give you an accurate picture of someone. It’s a short amount of time, and everyone is on their best behavior. There may be red flags you don’t recognize until later. Or you ignore them, as well as do sometimes.

I ignored the red flags on a vendor I hired last fall. They had talked too much about themselves during the call and not enough about their services or their experience. They didn’t ask me a lot about my business or my project. The call went over time, and not because I was chatty.

I ignored red flags apart from the call, too. The result was a week into the project, I fired the vendor. And because this was during my busy season, I didn’t get the project finished. It’s still languishing on my to-do list.

Will Discovery Calls Work for You?

I don’t make discovery calls mandatory. I let the prospect decide whether they want a conversation and in what format. And, as I noted above, I don’t like the hard sell. I’m good at is listening and making someone feel heard and supported. So I don’t try to sell myself or the need for editing; I just listen, whatever the platform. But that, too, is selling.

It’s your business. You get to decide what sales process works best for you and your prospective clients. Consider these questions as you think about your sales process:

  • What actions result in the prospect saying yes?
  • What actions seem to push the prospect away?
  • What actions are hard for you? Do those actions lead to closing the sale?
  • What actions are easy for you? Do they lead to closing the sale?

When you find the right balance of sales actions that you and your prospect are comfortable with and that result in a sale, you’ve found your right sales process.

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