9 Questions to Ask Potential Clients

Whether you're used to taking on freelance clients or just considering getting started, there are 9 questions I like to ask in order to get a clear understanding of the project. The responses to these specific questions often provide me with enough information to make a decision as to whether or not I should get involved with the project. Speed up your decision-making process by asking the right questions and knowing why. Are you asking any of these crucial questions?

1. Would you mind giving me an overview of this company, its goals and progress toward those goals so far?

Understanding the vision of your potential client is a good indicator as to how serious he is. The better planned out the client is and the more money he expects to make with what you're designing is key to understanding how eager he'll be to spend money on your services. If there's no real plan to monetize what you'll be designing, don't expect to be able to charge as much for your services. Your client needs to feel that he's justified in hiring you. 


2. Summarize a successful outcome of my involvement in this project?

This is a key question to ask in order to understand what the client expects you to do and what will make her happy. One major challenge I faced early in my consultant career is that the project end points weren't well-defined. This lead to project-creep and lots of unhappy late-night edits to my work. Basing your project end-points on what your client expects will help you both get onto the same page. 


3. How soon do you need to have this project completed?

The sooner you know your deadline, the sooner you can understand if this project is even an option for you. Sometimes your schedule won't allow you to meet a client deadline. Determine that right away so you don't waste any more time chasing down a project that you'll have to decline or abandon. Also, if the deadline can be met but seems aggressive and will require after-hour work, this provides a reason to charge a 'rush fee' if you feel up to doing the job. You're a business just like the fancy suits and ties, which charge extra to expedite a project. Take care of yourself. There's a price to pay for premium service.


4. Have you already budgeted for this project? 

You need to understand if this potential client has funds to pay you with well-before you begin working. Some of your clients will own a business, represent a business, be part of a start-up or have investor money to spend. Understanding the situation will help you gage the likelihood that you'll be paid and in a timely manner. This also gives the client a chance to disclose how much they have available or budgeted, which will help you make the decision of moving forward.


5. Have you or has anyone on the team worked with an industrial designer before?

We designers are very comfortable visualizing in our head and discussing abstract ideas and approaches to a challenge. Others like to discuss based upon hard data and need to see sketches to understand. Some are right-brained dominant, in which case he might like to ask open-ended questions, discuss general-to-specific or 'big picture' goals. Left-brain dominant clients may rather discuss details, function and engineering and they often rather write than draw. In either case, the more you know about how comfortable or familiar your client is with collaborating with designers, the better you can predict how the working relationship will go.  


6. "This project will require some electronic and mechanical engineering, do you have any engineers involved yet?"

Now, the above question is just an example. Obviously, this isn't the case for all projects, but I have run into situations where I was expected to be able to handle EVERY aspect of the product design process including engineering and manufacturing. Mechanical and electrical engineering and design for manufacture aren't areas I have loads of experience in. I rely on specialists to work on those challenges whether I need to sub-contract to them or my client uses connections of his own. This is good to bring up in case your client assumes you'll take care of everything. 


7. Who would I be working with or communicating with on this project?

The habits and manners of a potential client affect your work life and your personal life. If you're around encouraging, pleasant and helpful people, your mood will be pretty good. If you're getting emails and calls from a client is rude or sometimes worse--chooses to ignore you, you're likely to get a bit grumpy. Nobody likes a grumpy designer. Avoid being a grumpy designer by avoiding working with very difficult clients. I should also note, that most people are better off working with someone who speaks the same language. Don't assume everyone you'll work with is fluent in the language you speak. 


8. Who's the decision-maker for product and hardware development within the company?

This is an interesting question. Your client will likely assume this is your attempt to learn who you will be working with. The real goal of this question is a bit more sneaky than that. The goal here is for you to learn how functional this business or venture is. For a client who works in a small business, this may not matter so much because most of the time you'll be working for her. However, if you're being approached by a company that employs more than 5 people, you're trying to figure out how this company operates. 

If you're lucky, you'll be reporting to a designer or creative director or chief marketing officer or something similar. This reveals structure and some sort of process that this company uses to delegate important tasks to upper management. When the CEO or president is making executive decisions in areas he or she is not an expert in, things get messy. It becomes stifling and it creates a massive pinch point which slows down processes. In addition, decisions get made that are often emotional because a CEO or president is often more heavily invested in a company. When a company's performance directly affects a manager's ability to feed his family, in times of market stress, he'll often make fear-based decisions, which aren't always conducive to growth and success. 


9. How did you find me, and what made you decide to contact me?

This one's a bit of a bonus question. If you're freelancing, you're responsible for all your own marketing, leads, P.R., etc. This means that you need to understand where others are learning about you. Is it referrals, social media, LinkedIn or your website? Knowing where the traffic (and the right kind) is finding you is a huge advantage. Once you know this, you can focus on increasing the traffic that makes it to you through that same channel. 

There you have it! These 9 questions, either asked over a phone call or in an email will help you separate the potential clients from the tire kickers. These are good questions that will show your intelligence and experience. A good client will understand that you're not too eager to jump and that you have standards that need to be met before you will work with her.