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Ever since I began advertising in the yellow pages, naturally, a number of calls result in "I know this is hard to do, but what would a ballpark estimate be?"
What do you do? Tell them that without a full and complete understanding of what their needs are, it's much too difficult to provide a proposal?
I think it's a lose-lose if you give them an amount. You can press and prod all you want on the phone and give them a solid ballpark, but if you overshoot, you don't hear back, and if you undershoot, then you're going to look bad when the real estimate comes in at much higher after your consult.
The scope-screep between the initial phone call and the signing of a contract can be significant. So, I am curious as to what others do? Insist on a consult?
What I came to understand is that callers who ask for the ballpark are generally "fishing." Many of them just never come back. The ones that are serious keep asking. I've tried it all ways: undershoot, overshoot, refuse to quote, qualify the pricing with value, you name it. The bottom line is if they're fishing, they're fishing, and it doesn't matter to them if you're their catch or not. People pick up the phone and just start calling, and what's REALLY important is that you make the impression that you can do the job well.
Sometimes it gets worse if you actually GET the job. They sure seemed nice enough when you first talked, reasonable . . . but often begin to task-creep on you, expecting more than what was originally estimated for the same price. I hate being put in that position.
So in the long run, all the time you spend worrying about it is not really worth a lowball bid. Shoot high to compensate for the unknown items that **you** know are going to develop, concentrate on why they should work with you, not the cost, and if it comes in way under in the end, then they're really happy. Most of the time, I'm just happy to get it in at budget. :-)
Hopefully now you have turned a tentative cold call into a more serious, formalized bidding process, where you have the client a bit invested in laying out his needs to you. You now have the information and the time to give a realistic, well-thought-out, and professional, attractive bid. (Throwing out ballpark prices on complex, varied processes is none of these!)
One special piece of advice: If you find that you don't want the project, remain professional. Spend a minute writing an email that your firm specializes in XXXXX type work, and is not able to take on this particular project at this time, but here are a few that may. If it seems like a good client but the wrong size/type project for you, you probably know a programmer who is a better fit that would appreciate the lead. If it seems like a lameish client, send him to a rival you dislike or a firm known for its incompetence, but with the same smile. If these fail, google "web development green widget site" or something and paste the first few URLs into your email without making it obvious that that is what you did. This will take you all of a minute when you get a system going, and sends everyone away happy. This is important if you plan to stay in this industry and grow. People grow and change and go on to different projects in life. Today's confused newbie with a penny-ante project may become quite the e-commerce mogul in a few short years. The grating, cheapskate guy might come back with some sense after a few rejections or false starts or slick-talking conmen. It happens all the time that people remember what you specialize in even years later when they bump into someone looking for exactly that. Sending away unwanted business nicely can send you tons of business you DO want!
Bottom line, develop a system to channel potentially pointless calls into an effective communication channel. Learn to manage the calls to be long enough to communicate and make a good impression without giving away the store (your time!) If you cannot meet the clients needs today, give them an outbound referral that they will tie to your "brand" and it is likely to pay huge dividends toward building a sucsessful business.
Oftentimes, even if you do spend 20 minutes or so going through the consultative process with them, the bottom line ends up that you're still too expensive. Another approach is to "dis-qualify" them first. You can do this by having a minimum project cost and tell them that nothing goes out the door for less than x. If that blows them out of the water, at least you haven't wasted time preparing a ballpark quote for the same end results. If your minimum price hasn't dis-qualified them as a prospect (meaning, that the price is within their budget), then move into the consultative process with them.
It is not binding, a final estimate is based upon a formal reciept of request.
I have a basic spreadsheet I enter the data as I speak to the client.
Most of the time, the original data is not even close to what they want, but I get more formal rfq's because I am able to deliver a ball park on the spot.
However, if you feel like they might be worthy of a go, and insising on a consultation is too much, I'd go with the other posters here in agreeing that you ask at least their deadline, short term goal and budget.
When people stare at me after I ask them their budget I throw out "ballparks" from other designers in my area (whom I know are too expensive) and then when the final cost is shown to the prospect they're over the moon. It's a 50/50 situation, I guess.
Keep in mind that everyone has a primary buying motivation. So I pay particular attention to the first few questions a prospect asks. If they start asking questions like, "I want to do such and such. Is that something that you can do?" then I know they are thinking about end results. Their buying decision will be based on finding an expert who can get the job done. Sure, they probably have some type of "budget," but if you can find a way to work with them, you'll probably get the job.
On the flip side, people whose first question is, "How much?" are most likely 100% price driven. Being completely clueless about costs, they are shocked when you quote them $5,000 when they expected $500. I met someone recently who, when he found out what I do, said, "I need a website for my business. How much would something like that cost?" When I told him my minimum price, he admitted that he was meeting with someone who had quoted him a third of that. So all he was doing was fishing to see if I were cheaper.
I think the key to deciding how to handle this lies in your ability to ascertain which type of buyer you're dealing with. I find that people who are unwilling or evasive about answering questions are the price-driven commodity shoppers. They find no value in a consultative relationship with you, so the less you really know about them, the better, in their opinion.
Part of the problem, IMO, is that, by advertising in the Yellow Pages, you are marketing to a primarily price-driven audience. I don't use the YP to find clients, but that's been the experience of other collegues I've talked to that have. One way to avoid this situation is associate with and market to value- and relationship driven people.
Hope that helps.
2. If they are difficult or impossible to work with while helping you to reach a ballpark figure they are probably going to be even worse as clients and you should blow them off before they waste any more of your time.
3. On the other hand if they are reasonable while describing their needs this is your cue: after demonstrating that you can work with them toss out some trial closes and try to get them to commit before arriving at a "firm ballpark."
4. They will resist commiting to you without an estimate and this is more opportunity for you to further demonstrate that you can listen to their need. You should be able to quote a ballpark figure by this point. Go to 2.