Have You Made This $45,000 Mistake?

As solo professionals, too many of us assume that we must quote every piece of business that comes our way, as long as it falls within our area of capabilities.

Why is that?

I mean ... who said we had to provide an estimate to anyone who asks? And who said we have to crank out quotes based on having only minimal information about the project or client?

I think many of us take cues from the wrong sources. We see other service businesses operating this way and we assume that's just the way it's done.

For instance, I recently had to replace the fence in my back yard. So I called two fence companies for estimates. Both of them came over to take measurements and give me a quote.

Interestingly, neither company asked me very much about the project before sending someone over.

Their salespeople just showed up. That's what they do. They quote projects all day long and rely on the Law of Averages to do its thing.

That may work for a fence company. Or for a kitchen remodeler. Or a software firm.

But not for a solo business.

I should know. Because not long ago, I made that mistake in a BIG way. I failed to ask the right questions during the quoting process for a large gig. And it cost me $45,000.

Here's the story ...

A $45,000 Mistake

Three years ago, a graphic-designer friend of mine called me with a potential web copywriting project for one of her clients. Before visiting the prospect, I took the time to qualify them, just to make sure that I was a good fit and that there was a budget in place.

Although the company was not exactly in my sweet spot, I was well suited for the work. Plus, I had a "champion" in the organization (my friend) who I believed would help me land the project - or so I hoped!

I met with the prospect a few days later to review the project scope. Everything went well. There were maybe a couple of dozen web pages to be rewritten and a dozen or so new pages that needed to be created.

Nothing huge, but certainly a good-sized project.

A couple of months went by. The prospect assured me that this was still a "go," but a few budgeting kinks had delayed the project. She'd be in touch as soon as they were ready to get going. (I've heard that before a million times, so I wasn't holding my breath.)

Two months later, she called. They were now ready to re-engage and wanted me to meet at their office to discuss the revised scope and provide a detailed proposal.

Once again, the meeting went very well. The project scope had changed considerably and had turned into a massive undertaking that including rewriting a huge corporate site, tons of SEO (search engine optimization) work, and lots of brochures and fact sheets.

I spent a couple of hours with the key decision maker, and we agreed on how to price and tackle the work. I provided her with good ideas and advice because I just assumed that I was basically her top choice. In fact, all the clues led me to believe that they had already decided to work with me - as long as my proposal was reasonable, of course.

I was salivating! A project of this size would not only be a lot of fun, it would also keep me busy for months. And it would add a very predictable revenue stream to my business (who wouldn't want that?!).

Two days later I sent in my proposal. It added up to a whopping $45,000!

Yes, it was a lot of money. But it was a very fair quote. And it would involve about eight months of work.

I followed up a couple of hours later, just to make sure that my proposal went through. I ended up in voicemail, which was no big deal. That happens all the time.

But then there was no word Monday. No word Tuesday. So I called on Wednesday and left another voicemail, followed by another email.

That evening, I received a voicemail from the client thanking me for my time and letting me know that they had gone with someone else who they felt was a better fit.

Wait a minute , I thought I was the only one they were considering?!

Obviously not.

Painful Lessons Learned

There are multiple lessons to be learned here, but here are the ones I want to emphasize.

#1: With new prospective clients, ALWAYS ask if they're considering other freelancers or firms. When you also explain the reason for asking the question (to make sure you understand how they're approaching the project), it will reveal a number of important clues.

For one, it tells you how the client operates. If they're talking to five other competing freelancers or firms, you can be sure they're shopping around. Depending on how you feel about that, this piece of information can save you a ton of time. It will allow you to walk away from what could end up being a fiercely competitive situation with no real winner at the end.

This question also will give you a glimpse into your prospective client's view of what needs to be accomplished. For instance, if they're going to compare you with a different type of service provider (one with a different skill set) or a full-service firm, this could be an opportunity to make sure they understand the differences. And depending on how they react to this explanation, you can then make a decision on how to proceed.

Unfortunately, I didn't ask this question. I assumed (incorrectly) that I was the only one they were considering. My friend didn't say anything, and I didn't ask. Bad move on my part.

#2: The bigger the project, the more reason to ask for the SIZE of their budget. I knew this company had a budget for this project. I had asked them this question during both my meetings. But I never asked them to reveal the SIZE of the budget.

Sure, that kind of question may seem a bit aggressive. In fact, I normally don't ask the prospect for their budget amount on standard, everyday projects. (Instead I quote a ballpark figure and ask if that fits within their planned budget.)

But when you're dealing with a project of this magnitude, it becomes much more important to know what you're working with. If asked with confidence, and if you explain why you need to know, it can unearth critical information.

If the client doesn't want to give you that information, or if you feel uncomfortable asking, give them a ballpark estimate early in the sales process. This will help reveal whether or not they can afford the level of service and quality you provide. It may even tell you whether or not you're approaching the project the right way, or if the client truly understands everything that's involved in getting the work done.

Here again, I didn't do either of these. I guess I didn't want to embarrass my friend (she was with me during both meetings). Or maybe I felt overly confident. Whatever the reason, I'm certain that this would have helped me address potential price concerns while I still had a chance.

#3: Always, always ask the prospect for feedback when you lose a deal. As painful as it may be, a "post mortem" assessment is a great learning tool. You'll discover what you did right and what you could have done differently - and you'll be better prepared the next time you come across a similar situation.

After several unreturned calls and emails to the decision maker, I tried my friend, who gave me some great feedback. It turns out that they decided to go with a full-service SEO firm who came in considerably lower.

She didn't reveal an actual number, but based on what she told me, I knew this firm had come in way too low. I figured either the quality of the content would be poor (these firms often hire junior or poorly trained copywriters) or the scope of work they quoted on was different. Or they simply made outlandish promises.

Or maybe all of the above!

This Week's Takeaway

I'm not proud of this big screw-up. But I know one thing: Considering the $45,000 price tag, I won't be making the same mistakes again.

My advice would be to incorporate the three takeaways above into your quoting and proposal process. One thing that has worked real well for me is to keep a list of questions handy. That way, when a prospect or client calls with an estimate request, I remember to ask all the key questions.

What about you? What helps you qualify your prospects better? What questions help you put together more accurate estimates and proposals?