How Do You Know When A Project Is Real?

An Exciting Opportunity? Or a Complete Waste of Time?

Let’s say tomorrow you will answer the phone and hear this tantalizing introduction:

“Hello, I’d like to talk to your studio about a project…”

In this moment, you probably respond like Dug the dog (from the movie Up) who immediately stops whatever he is doing to zero in on the tantalizing sound with a shout, “Squirrel!!!”

What happens next? Well first, you do your best to contain your excitement. Then you calmly launch into a conversation to find out as much as you can about this prospective client and his enticing opportunity. A great new client with a great new project awaits, right?!?

Fool Me Once, Shame On You

Or does it?

Before you rush headlong into a lengthy conversation with this new prospect, think back and ask yourself: how many times have you had this exact conversation before?

And how did it play out?

It’s amazing how the rush of a new client with a new project obscures our memories. And causes us to rush the process. Because if you pause for just a moment and recall how these conversations actually play out, I submit many go through what I call The 12 Regrettable Steps:

  1. Get excited.
  2. Have conversations with the prospect.
  3. Guess the prospect’s budget.
  4. Submit a proposal.
  5. Wonder why the prospect went silent.
  6. Educate the prospect.
  7. Realize the prospect or project is not a good fit.
  8. Attempt to salvage your wasted time and energy.
  9. Accept the assignment which bears no resemblance to the original ask.
  10. Resent the client, the paltry budget and the resulting uninspired project.
  11. Send the receivable to collections.
  12. Regret you ever got your studio into this mess.

Does this sound like a familiar story? If you are an owner of a creative firm, no doubt it does, as you have been through this experience many times.

Fool Me Twice, Shame On Me

A few months ago in Los Angeles at one of our Creative Entrepreneurs one-day conferences, I walked the room full of studio owners through a qualifying process that I’ve taught many of my clients over the years. The good news is that you, too, can learn to curb your enthusiasm just long enough to properly qualify prospects and projects before too much time and energy is invested.

Using this technique, you can avoid being fooled again.

Qualifying the Prospect

[ If you have already qualified this prospect in the past, skip to the next heading.]

When a new prospective client calls you, first ask the person some questions to find out if they are qualified to be a client of your studio:

  • How did you hear about us?
  • Have you worked with a studio like us before?
  • Have you done this type of project before?
  • What sort of budget ranges do you work within?

Listen carefully to discover if this client is a new, uneducated and/or unsophisticated buyer. Pay attention to the warning signals.

Qualifying the Project

Next, grab a blank piece of paper and write three D’s on it.(I like to draw, so my top D has clock hands on it, the left D has a dollar sign, and the right D bears a face).

Remember, do this EVERY TIME you have a conversation with a new prospect:three-ds-1Now, as the conversation unfolds, use this diagram as a prompt to ask the prospect three critical qualifying questions:

  1. What’s your Deadline for the project, as well as the due date for our proposal?
  2. What’s your budget (Dollars) for the project?
  3. Who is the Decision Maker who will be awarding this project?

As you receive answers from the prospect, jot them on the diagram, like this:three-ds-2

In my example diagram here, the prospect has told me his deadline is May 7, his budget is $60,000 and the decision maker is someone named Mary.

If You Don’t Get Answers

If the prospect doesn’t have (or worse, refuses to offer up) answers to your Deadline / Dollars / Decision Maker questions, the project is not yet real.

That’s right, your prospect is just fishing. Should you decide to continue the conversation past this point, you are entering the realm of The 12 Regrettable Steps. Don’t do it.

Your best path forward is politely to tell your prospect you cannot have a meaningful conversation without all the necessary information. End the conversation with the suggestion that you speak again once the project has firmed up.

(Note: if your gut says the prospect actually does have a budget – but is simply reluctant to reveal it – you can cleverly extract that information… and even begin upselling. See my article on Uncovering Your Client’s Secret Budget.)

Once the prospect does share information on each of the Three D’s, you know the project is real. Now get ready to extract some fascinating information from the prospect.

The Shift

Let’s pause for a moment to notice what is happening here. If we examine this conversation, I want you to realize that you hold all the power: the prospect needs your studio more than your studio needs this prospect and his/her project.

At this point, I encourage you to wield your power and give your studio an even greater advantage. This next step – what I call The Shift – is a bold move, of which very few people are aware. Confidently turn the tables on the prospect by simply asking:

“Why do you think our firm is the right fit for this project?”

Your prospect may be somewhat taken aback. After all, you just put him/her on the spot! Resist the urge to speak into the awkward silence. Just wait to hear what the prospect says.

This question is so important because in answering, your prospect will unwittingly volunteer the exact ammunition you will need in the forthcoming negotiations and closing. Some example answers you might hear include statements like:

“Well, you guys do some great VFX work for a lot of big brands…”

“My friends say that your team is really great to work with…”

“I noticed that your studio has won a lot of Addy Awards, and we need a great commercial…”

Did You Hear It?

Before you move on, I want you to notice something amazing that was just said… and you didn’t even hear it. In addition to giving you valuable ammunition, the prospect just revealed your firm’s (perceived) positioning.

Does it line up with your firm’s actual positioning? You may like what you heard, or you may not. Regardless, jot it down on the diagram below the word “Fit,” like this:

three-ds-3

Each conversation you have with a new prospect is a rare opportunity to discover how your studio is perceived in the marketplace! Don’t waste it.

Before You Accept: The Three R’s

Now that you know this is a qualified prospect and (now thanks to the Three D’s) has a qualified project, congratulations. You can safely take the next steps towards discovery, scope, proposal, negotiation and closing.

But along the way, don’t forget to ask yourself, “Do we want this project?” If the conversation is heading towards the project being awarded, how do you decide whether or not your studio should accept? For that decision, consult The Three R’s early and often throughout the Sales Cycle.

Focusing On Opportunities

It’s time to get excited. Knowing the power you hold in the early stages of the sales conversation, you can avoid suffering through The 12 Regrettable Steps ever again.

Now you are empowered to quickly and clearly distinguish real projects from time wasters. The savings in time and energy will free you up to focus on better clients with bigger opportunities. And who doesn’t want both of those?

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