4 Questions to Figure Out If You’re Talking to the Buyer or a Gatekeeper

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While it can be flattering to be asked to quote on a project, it can also be a huge waste of time. When I started freelancing, I’d send a proposal as long as I figured that the person requesting it had blood flowing through their veins. This meant losing almost every proposal I sent, because I did no work to qualify them as a good client. A good client in the early days was anyone with cash to spend.
Most often initial clients failed because I wasn’t talking to the end buyer of the project. Instead, I was talking to the purchasing department, the marketing manager, or the IT department. These people were tasked with finding proposals for the end buyer to look over.
When you’re not talking to the end buyer of the project, then you’re never sure that you’re getting the correct answers about what is most valuable to them. If you’re not talking to the purchaser of the work, then you’re talking to a gatekeeper and all they can do is say no to the project; they cannot give the green light.
Here are four questions I go through as I’m talking to prospects to figure out if I’m talking to gatekeepers or buyers.

1. Whose Budget Supports the Project?

If you’re dealing with a smaller company, this may not reveal much. Smaller companies won’t have budgets divided up by department. They’ll often just have money to spend.
Larger companies will have budgets though, and those budgets will be divided up in to departments. If you want to make sure you’re talking to the end buyer of the project, then you need to make sure that you’re talking to the person who controls the budget.
People that don’t control the budget will keep referring to “the IT department” or “marketing” as they talk about the project. When you ask about budget you’ll hear “I’m not sure what marketing’s budget is for this”.
If they don’t know the budget, they are not the buyer. If they keep referring to questions they need to refer to their boss around the budget, then they are not the buyer. They’re a gatekeeper. Keep moving.

2. Who could immediately approve this project?

The second question to ask yourself as you talk to prospects is to ask who could green light the project right now based on a handshake or verbal agreement. No, I don’t ever recommend you work without a contract, but if the person you’re talking to can’t say that the project is moving forward right now, then you’re not talking to the buyer.
Even in a small business, it may be the case that one partner in the business finds some contractors to talk to, but another partner makes a purchasing decision. I had this happen and unfortunately only found out my mistake after three phone calls with the first partner. Once we got the second partner on the phone it was clear that they barely valued the project, and if they did move forward it would be at 10% of the pricing that we had been discussing.
I wasted my own time here because I didn’t insist that we talk to all the decision makers on our first call. I assumed that either partner could decide to move a project forward. Make sure you ask who all the decision makers are on a project, and that you get to talk to all of them before you put time and effort into a proposal.

3. Where did the request start?

One large company I worked for started by sending me a generic RFP. I reject all RFP’s because in most cases there is a preferred contractor, and if I didn’t help write the RFP then it’s not me. Just a sidenote: many RFP’s are simply a way to fish for the proper three quotes that companies wish to get. One RFP is from the preferred contractor, and the other two are a waste of time.
When I rejected the RFP, I got an email back from the head of IT at the large company. They had recommended me for the project based on following my work. After talking to the head of IT, I realized they weren’t the end buyer. All of their concerns were about the technical aspects of the project. It was clear their main concerns were the PHP versions and languages, not client-facing features for the intranet. He wasn’t going to use the project, so he was less invested in the client-facing features. His long term job would be to maintain the project, so he cared about the server specs we would be using.
If I had stopped there with the head of IT I would have had a proposal that focused on technical requirements, which barely mattered to the engineers that would be using the project. When I insisted on talking to the engineers I found that the whole project was about collaboration. They had so much knowledge, and needed to form (and reform) teams while sharing documents across teams. They didn’t care at all about the server requirements, so that took a back seat in my proposal. Almost the whole proposal talked about how we’d facilitate collaboration. I addressed the IT manager’s concerns with a call between the two of us that only focused on the severs. They were on my side before I ever sent a proposal to the engineers.
Lesson learned? By tailoring the proposal based on the end buyers needs (whose budget would support the project) I addressed all the collaboration features the lead engineer cared about without bogging the proposal down in sever configuration stuff.. This also meant that when they accepted the project and the payment terms were 90 days I was able to negotiate 5 day terms with a Fortune 500 company over one email.

4. Who Talks about the value brought?

Finally, who talks about the value being brought to the table? Who has a good guess about the dollar value that your work will bring in to the business? Who can say that the work will save an entire staff member and how much that staff member would normally be paid?
If the person that you’re talking to doesn’t have this information, they are not the buyer of the project. Buyer’s almost always understand that figuring out the value is important. If you don’t know the value then no one can say if the project is worth doing.

When They Won’t Talk Budget or Value

There is one final thing to look at because I’ve told you to dig fairly deep with the prospects about their budgets and the value you’re going to bring to the table. What if they don’t want to answer those questions?

  • You shouldn’t be talking to them until you’ve got some of these answers over email. That is the first stage in filtering our solid prospects from people that are only fishing around on prices. Establish that they are a valid prospect for your business before digging deeper with a phone call.
  • If they’re not willing to share budgets and value with you it’s unlikely that you’re going to win the project. If they don’t have a budget, they either don’t trust you, or they are seeing what something would cost before they decide to spend any money. If they don’t trust you, then you don’t want to work for them anyway. Prospects that don’t trust you will end up telling you how to do your work. They’ll second guess everything you do, because they don’t view you as an expert.
  • If they really don’t have a budget number in mind, it’s unlikely that the project will move forward for anything but a low budget rate. Prospects that are serious about their business at least have a guess at the value a project will bring in. They may not call it a budget, but they will be thinking of the dollar value on the project in terms of value. This means that if you were to propose some budget numbers so that you can make sure everyone is in the same ballpark at some point they’ll say, “Whoa! If it’s more than $10k we won’t be doing it”.
    I usually start out with three thousand dollar increments, but you need to tailor where you start to your market.
  • If they don’t trust you, or aren’t thinking about budget or value in a project: stop for a moment. You’re using your valuable time building a proposal with a very low chance at winning any work.

Conclusion

All of the questions we covered today were built to help you assess whether you’re talking to buyers or gatekeepers. Remember, gatekeepers can only say no to projects, so you want to make sure you’re moving past them to talk to the end buyer before you put effort in to building a proposal.
Next time, I’ll walk you through some of the best ways I’ve found to get past the gatekeepers at businesses so that you can talk to the buyer.

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