For freelancers and consultants, client interviews can be a major challenge, especially if you're shy or prefer to communicate via email. While job interviews are equally challenging for employees, they typically go through these once every few years or whenever they're switching jobs. For freelancers, interviews take place with every new client you bring in.
This means that apart from being proficient in your field, you should also know how to give a good first impression in interviews, build rapport with potential clients, ask the right interview questions, and how to turn those interviews into projects.
Some freelancers might see interviews as optional or as a minor step in acquiring a client. But, when done well, interviews can help solidify your position as a trusted freelance consultant, as well as help you catch some potential problems early on. This tutorial will show you exactly how to do that.
Do a Bit of Digging
When it comes to researching a potential client, leisurely browsing through their website isn't going to cut it. You need to know more than what their business does and who the key decision makers are. Here are other things you should look at:
What's Their Brand Voice Like?
Deconstructing their voice can hint at their company culture. Are they formal or casual? What kind of language do they use? If you were to personify their brand based on their voice, what kind of person would they be like? It might help to look at their social media accounts as well. Analyzing this on your own can be more accurate than reading their "About Us" page, since a brand can claim to be approachable but address their customers in jargon or formal language.
What's Their Role in Their Industry?
Are they a top performer in their field, or a mid-level player that stays afloat comfortably, or a potential disruptor with unique skills and technology that can change their industry? Or are they struggling unknowns? This can tell you how they perceive their business in terms of a larger vision, as well as the possible part you can play in executing that vision. This can also help guide you regarding any questions you might have about the company's future.
What Major Changes Have They Gone Through Recently?
If they're looking to work with new freelancers, this means that they are working on something they can't or won't handle in-house—and that signals some kind of change. Try to spot any recent changes that can give you a hint about the company's general direction. This can include new products and services, rebranding, or a change in leadership.
Apart from their website, you should also look into their press releases. Search for their business name in sites like PRWeb and PR Newswire. Digging through their press releases can give you an overview of the most important events in their company for the past year or two, as well as what they're currently working on.
Looking through customer review sites like Yelp and Angie's List can also help you see your potential client through their customers' eyes, giving you insight on what current customers love about the business and what needs improvement. To get an employee's perspective, you can use Glassdoor, Job Advisor (for Australia), or Rate My Employer (for Canada).
As you're doing your research, write down any key questions or concerns you have that crop up: What about their business, customers, or industry don't you understand? Is there anything about their business that feels like a red flag or rubs you the wrong way? Do you get any ideas about what role you could fill? Do you think you'd make a great fit with their brand, or would you have to modify your working and communication styles a bit?
Write down these questions and concerns as you research so that you can get back to this list later. The goal is to eliminate all these questions and address all these concerns before or during the interview.
Improve Your Interviewing Style
Another important way to prepare for your freelance interviews is to take your interviewing skills up a notch. This can help you approach new interviews with confidence and build rapport more easily with clients.
Find One Thing to Improve
Just because you're looking to improve your interviewing skills, it doesn't mean that you have to be the perfect speaker or negotiator before you start your interview. Rather than overwhelm yourself with many radical changes, simply pick one thing to work on. This is your "big win", the major fix that, once you've done it, can make the biggest difference in your results. This could mean removing "uhms" and "ahs" from your speech, slowing down how you speak, or speaking with more energy.
How do you find out what your "big win" is? One way to go around it is to get feedback from your friends, family, and colleagues. Ask them whether you sound confident and competent when you speak and, if not, what changes you should make.
You can also record yourself speaking and answering potential interview questions and send the recording to them for feedback (this was the approach I tried when learning public speaking). For practicing face-to-face interviews, record video rather than just audio. It might make you cringe to watch or listen to these recordings, but that's part of the process. Note which parts make you cringe and why.
As you're gathering feedback, don't lose sight of the fact that you're just going to improve one thing. That's it. Save the rest of your energy for preparing the content of the interview and the questions you'll ask. After all, you'll still have more opportunities to tweak your interviewing skills.
Plan Your First Impression
The initial moments of your interview are critical, because this is the point where you make a first—and lasting—impression. According to psychologist and author Sian Beilock, who specializes in the research of human performance:
"First impressions are important. Set the stage early on for what your interviewers remember about you by giving them a positive schema by which to encode your job potential. Even if you show nerves after the fact, this initial impression may help ensure your success."
From "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To" by Sian Beilock.
A "schema" is just a framework of preconceived ideas, essentially telling your clients what to expect. By making this schema a positive one, you're ensuring that clients will see their succeeding impressions of you based on their initial positive impression.
So what does this mean for your interview? Be prepared to start with a positive, confident declaration of why you're a good fit for the client and the project. For example, specific professionals can say the following:
- App developer: "Before we start, I want to let you know how excited I am about this meeting. I have an extensive background in creating engaging apps for the market you're targeting, so I feel like I have a lot to contribute."
Website designer: "Before we begin, I just want to say that I think I'll be a good fit for redesigning the site for your dental clinic. After all, I've worked for that industry for years
—I've worked on websites for twelve different clinics all over the country, so I feel like I know your needs very well."
- Wedding photographer: "I'm very excited to show you my sample photos. In your email you mentioned you wanted something 'elegant and romantic'. I think you'll be happy with my style, which fully captures the feel you're looking for."
An alternative to this approach is to get the clients themselves to verbalize why they're interested in you in the first place—but this only works if they were the ones who approached you, rather than you sending a cold pitch. From an interview with Robert Cialdini, author and researcher on the psychology of persuasion:
"Say something like, 'I’m very pleased to be here, and I look forward to giving you all the information you’d need to know about me, but before we begin, would you mind telling me why it is that you selected me to interview.' "
By leading the conversation this way, you're setting up clients to interpret the rest of the interview to support the reason behind their initial interest in you so that they can stay consistent with their initial beliefs.
Ask the Right Client Interview Questions
When it comes to client interviews, it's easy to fall into the trap of obsessing about your answers to your client's questions. But, if you are competent in your profession and have been freelancing for even a short time, you'd already know how to deal with questions like, "What can you do for me?" or "How much is this going to cost?" For freelancing, especially if you're approaching the project like a consultant, your questions to the client are even more important than your answers to them. Here are some questions you can start with:
Ask About Problems and Goals
We've discussed the "goal question" and the "problem question" in the past, including some example questions and why these questions are important. For a refresher, here's what these questions mean: "The problem question asks your target market about their problems, pains, frustrations, or any barriers or obstacles they are facing, or any reservations or hesitations that they might feel. The goal question, on the other hand, asks them about their aspirations, their desires, or the ideal scenario that they want to have in their lives or business."
When clients reveal their goals and problems, they are essentially providing the foundations for the entire project.
The "Walk-Through" Question
It's important to know how your client's entire business runs, especially from the end you often don't see—the customer's perspective. Ask your clients, "Can you walk me through your entire sales process? What happens from the moment a potential customer hears about you, to the moment after they make their first purchase?" The answer to this question will tell you in a nutshell how the business does marketing, how they make money, and how they handle customer satisfaction and retention. This will help you spot any potential conflicts or opportunities that might affect your project.
If your client is an individual, the above question might not be relevant so ask them to walk you through their ideal result or scenario instead. For example, a wedding photographer might ask a couple to elaborate on what will happen during their wedding day from the moment they wake up to the moment they leave for their honeymoon.
The "Typical Workday" Question
Ask your clients that in case you do end up working together, what do they expect a typical workday to be like? This helps you estimate if you are capable of meeting them or if the client should adjust their own expectations instead. If a client has unrealistic expectations of what it would be like to work with you, and you were unaware of these expectations, this can create a very difficult working relationship.
Previous Experience With Freelancers
This part can be scary, but it's also important to find out your client's best and worst experiences with previous freelancers. Even if a client needs to hire you, they could still have some hidden hesitations as a result of bad experiences with other freelancers. If this is the case, you'll know exactly which measures to take to make your client feel at ease. For example, if they've previously been abandoned by a freelancer mid-project, you can present them with a proposed schedule, a list of different ways to reach you, and be communicative every day. Or, if they're worried about being overcharged, you can frame your rates by comparing them with the value your clients will get in return, as well as the general market value of your expertise and experience.
Go Back to Your Earlier Notes
Remember how during the research stage, I recommended that you list all the questions and issues that crop up as you research your potential client? Go through this list again and spot all the areas that are still left unanswered. This ensures that you cover all the bases that matter to you, as well as address any red flags or issues that didn't feel right to you when you were doing your research.
This can help you spot red flags or simply gives you a realistic expectation of what it's like to work with this client. Covering all your bases in this way also helps avoid needless back and forth post-interview when you realize that your client hasn't given you all the details you need.
If you can, it's also a good idea to send the client a template questionnaire before or after the interview, just to make sure that you won't miss anything. There are some sample questionnaires you can use from the Envato Market, such as this questionnaire template for print designers or one a questionaire for web designers.
Getting Better With Each Interview
Like the skills you're selling to clients, interviewing is also a skill that you'll get better at over time, the more you practice it. If, with every interview, you do deep research, find one thing to improve, are mindful of the first impression you're making, and ask good questions, eventually the entire process will feel like second nature to you. Your first meeting with your potential clients will stop being awkward and anxiety-inducing. Instead, they'll be comfortable and productive.