As a web designer or developer, you have a solid grasp of code and design. Your portfolio is stocked with impressive work. You’re ready for the freelance journey. Great! There’s still one skill you’ll need to master, though, and it’s the bane of many freelancers. It’s a simple, five-letter word. Yet it can strike fear and loathing into the hearts of web designers and developers everywhere.

It’s said that nothing happens until somebody sells something. It’s true. Sales is a process, just like design and development. Freelancers who consistently land quality clients are the ones who understand the process.

I don’t mean to offend anyone in the profession, but selling often conjures visions of the stereotypical used car salesmen — pushy, annoying and probably not too trustworthy. But sales doesn’t need to be that way.

If the idea of selling scares the heck out of you, relax. You’ve been selling your entire life. You just didn’t realize it. When you were a child and you tried to convince your parents why you needed a particular toy, you were selling. If you tried to convince someone why Italian was a better dinner choice than Mexican, you were selling.

Selling is nothing more than opening a dialogue and building a relationship.

In this post, we’ll look at how you can land quality clients — those who pay, are professional and provide repeat business — and not just any client.

Three Phases in Selling

Typically, there are three phases in the cycle: making contact, building the relationship and, finally, closing the sale.

During the first phase, you’ll start by identifying suspects. These are people or companies who may need your services. To find the ones worthy of further attention requires putting them through a qualifying process. Those who make the grade are usually called prospects. Finally, the sale is closed and the prospect becomes a paying client.

It’s the middle part of the sales process — qualifying — that trips up freelancers. How? The answer is simple in most cases. They don’t do it.

I’ve talked and worked with loads of web designers who take on whatever happens to come through their door or jingles their phone or inbox. Many told me their tales of woe: The client doesn’t pay or pays very slowly. The client nitpicks everything without any apparent reason. Projects are riddled with scope creep.

These designers experienced a litany of headaches. Some big. Some small. The really unfortunate part is that most could have been avoided if the designer or developer took the time to qualify the suspects before they morphed into prospects, let alone clients.

Play 20 Questions With Your Clients

The qualifying process isn’t rocket science — at least it’s not unless NASA happens to be one of your clients. It involves background research and asking questions. Here are some important ones.

Do They Need What You Provide?

You may have found a hot suspect that appears to need a lot of web work. But, upon further investigation, you find that an in-house staff handles the work. Or it could be that they’re completely satisfied with their current supplier and have no desire to change. The point is, before you invest a significant amount of time, learn if they really are motivated clients who truly need what you’re selling.

Do you have experience in their industry?

Have you done this type of work before, or will you need to invest in training, or buy software or other tools to get you up to speed? If so, will you be able to recoup those expenses? Beyond those, using your client as a guinea pig can be pretty risky. Always be up front with them and let them know your situation. If you’ve built trust, they may be willing to work with you.

Can they pay for your services?

Just because your prospects, or suspects at this point, seem they have money to pay you, do what you can to ensure their ability to pay. Ask around to see if anyone you know has worked with the prospect. Did they pay on time? Were there problems, or did everything go smoothly?

It’s a good idea to consider opening a Dun & Bradstreet account and check your prospects’ credit ratings. D&B provides a variety of reports to help you assess your prospects’ credit worthiness and ability to pay.

Do they provide the opportunity for repeat business?

Working mostly, or exclusively, on one-off projects means you’ll need to spend a lot of time marketing, promoting and selling your practice. Repeat business, on the other hand, is easier to sell, if it even needs to be sold. Plus, clients who offer repeat business help ensure that a freelancer’s business has a more predicable cash flow.

Do they have a realistic budget? Are they hesitant to share their numbers?

Often, clients — and especially smaller clients — don’t have a clue about web design and development costs or how time-intensive the process can be. Many think of it as an off-the-shelf commodity with a fixed price tag. As such, they may be hesitant or unwilling to share their numbers or thoughts about costs. The thinking is something along the lines of, “If I tell them my budget, I won’t get the best price.” This can be a red flag that indicates the prospect doesn’t trust you. It’s your job to educate them. Toss out some numbers and see what comes back. For example, you might try something like this: “Based on what you’re describing, a site could be as little as $5,000 or as much as $8,000. Is that pretty much what you had mind?”

Some prospects will tell you they have no idea what their budget is. Again, toss out a number. Their response is usually, “Wow! I wasn’t expecting it to be that much!” Now they have a budget in mind.

Is there a realistic deadline for the project?

If the timeline to complete the project means you’ll need to reschedule other work or labor into the wee hours to complete it, you may consider passing. Taking on a rush project or one without a reasonable window can mean putting your other clients’ work on the back burner. That can result in upsetting them, missing a deadline and often both. Rush work can also open the door for errors. Beyond this, the pressure to complete a rush project can make you angry with the client, even though it’s really your fault for taking agreeing to the time frame.

Have they worked with a web designer? If so, whom?

If your prospects have never worked with a web designer before, it means you’ll need to educate them. Can you afford to invest the extra time needed to bring them up to speed? Novice clients are notorious for not having a clear understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish with a site, and that usually means a lot of revisions.

It can also mean hearing the classic line, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Will you be able to bill for those revisions or the time required developing the site to their nebulous, vague specifications?

Is the prospect the final decision-maker?

Here’s a lousy situation: You work hard to build a relationship with a client’s contacts. They’ve implied several times they’re the decision-maker. You’ve become an important resource for them and demonstrated your value. Everything appears to be moving in the right direction. When the time is right, you submit a proposal, but while reviewing it with your contacts, they tell you they’ll need to run your proposal by their boss, committee or others. Your heart sinks. You’ve invested time and resources wooing the wrong people. In all likelihood, you’ll need to start from the beginning with new decision-makers.

All this could have been avoided with a spin on a simple qualifying question: “Who, beside yourself, will be responsible for giving approvals?” Asking in this manner provides a graceful way for your contact to save face while getting the information you need.

Does there appear to be a good personality fit?

You’ll be spending a lot of time with your contact person and it helps if you can get along easily. Plus, people buy from people they like. This doesn’t mean the contact needs to become one of your best personal friends. That can happen, but the main thing is that your personalities gel enough to get through the project.

What does your gut tell you?

Gut feelings are often correct. If I had to gander a guess, I’d say it’s due to our collective, yet somewhat unconscious, experience in dealing with people. Look for all reasons why you shouldn’t work with the prospect. This may sound counterproductive, but it will keep you safe.

The process of qualifying a prospect as a client that’s right for you can take some time. But, it’s time spent well. When a potential client meets your criteria, even if it’s lofty, the relationship that follows will be rewarding for both of you.