Selling the discovery phase as a deliverable

This is part one in a three-part tale. (see part two and part three).

Being a freelancer in the web-making business is no easy feat. You have to keep your technical skills sharp, grow your business sense, and constantly put yourself out into the social sphere in order to keep interesting work coming through the door.

No problem. You’ve committed to “the life” and you do all of the above. So when a client reaches out or gets referred your way, you’re chomping at the bit, ready to dust off your graphics software or text editor and finally dive in.

Not so fast, you forgot the map!

I like to think of web projects like a road trip. You and your client hop in the car, put on your shades, throw on that smooth trippin’ with clients playlist, and hit the gas. Thing is, you’re not going to get from A to B by putting your finger to the wind and following the sun. You need a map.

Your “client-to-be” (more on that later) is coming to you with a problem. It may be related to sales, membership, readership, community building, or a hundred other reasons that entrepreneurs, businesses, and organizations need to have projects built and rebuilt. There are four main steps to your role:

  1. Fully understand their problem — point A
  2. Help them identify their goals — point B
  3. Propose a plan — the map
  4. Execute the plan — start driving!

Let’s wing it on the open road!

If you’ve been at this for a short while, you are probably familiar with this scenario:

  • You get an email from a lead telling you they need a website/app.
  • You get on a call in which they share the list of things they want while you stay mostly quiet mustering up the courage to ask for their budget.
  • You get through it, hang up, sift through your hurried notes, and cobble together a proposal, which is essentially the bullet list of tasks and features they dictated ending with a price tag.

You just blew right past the first two steps of your job.

You haven’t taken the time to fully explore your client’s stated problems, possibly uncovering new ones through additional exchanges. Examining these pain points will help clarify their end goals which also need to be hashed out.

If your point of departure (point A) isn’t clear and you make assumptions about the destination (point B), how can you confidently assess the project’s requirements, timeline, or budget?

That amazing road trip is likely to end up being you and your client doing donuts in a parking lot Tweet

I filled the tank. What do you mean you’re not coming?

Perhaps you’ve been at it a bit longer. By now you have learned that taking time to really figure out what goes into a project is critical to a successful outcome. So you make the additional phone calls and emails, maybe even a meeting or two, to really get to the heart of the project. You brainstorm strategy and do some research on possible platforms and frameworks.

Two, five, maybe even ten hours later, you’ve come up with a map that’s like a route buffet for your client and you can’t wait to hit the road! Then it happens. They cancel the trip.

Oh they like the options, it’s not you it’s them, it’s just unfortunate they can’t move forward. You were all in, however they had never committed. They were only ever a “client-to-be”, and you are left uncompensated for the valuable work you did (work which they could take to another designer/developer). Yup. Been there too.

So what’s the solution if the only obvious choices are a) quote blindly, or b) do all the research and roll the dice, hoping your client will commit?

Would you go on an extended road trip with a total stranger?

Laying a deposit in your lap is no small thing for a client. What if you can’t meet deadlines or you leave them hanging all the time when they email/call? What if you disappear before the project is complete? What if you can’t deliver?

On your end the stakes are just as high. You might discover that the client is quick with requests, slow with payments and feedback, blocking your ability to move forward. What if you just can’t deal with their all-caps emails or the way they fill up your voicemail before you can even return a call?

There is simply no history of trust, nor is there a foundation upon which it can be built. There is no way to determine if you’re a good fit for each other before you dive in.

What if you could both commit to a smaller chunk of the project and then decide to move forward? Tweet

But what if you could both commit to a small chunk of the project, evaluate its success, and then decide to move forward? What if you could go for a shorter drive up North and then decide if you’re willing to embark on the cross-country journey?

I’m selling the map

We can see there is an inherent catch 22 in the common approach to closing the deal.

Clients want us to offer the most creative and compelling solutions for their problem before they sign. We want them to commit before we pour too much time/effort into their problem… it’s a silly dance rooted in fear, and it serves no one.

Recently I have changed my process with regards to steps 1 and 2 (a.k.a the discovery phase). I have extracted this phase out of the larger project, making it its own mini project. I use the proposal (map) as the deliverable.

The benefits are many:

  • I am no longer doing what could be considered mental “spec” work. This helps cement my clients’ perception of me as a partner and consultant, rather than a technician.
  • I get to feel out the workflow and communication patterns with my client on a smaller scale. If it makes me sad to imagine a long-term relationship with this person, I can deliver the plan and refer them to a colleague whose personality may be better suited to execute it.
  • As I am being compensated, the time pressure is off. I can be more spontaneous and creative, focussing on my client’s needs rather than wondering if they will sign in the end.
  • This approach weeds out clients who can’t see the value in reflecting and planning. If a client balks at paying for this work they will balk all the way through. I prefer to pass on that kind of relationship.
  • By the time we officially start the project, a huge chunk of work has been done and we can really hit the ground running.

While these benefits are obvious from the freelancer’s perspective, each one of those points are also a direct win for clients and their projects.

When proper resources are allocated to discovery, we can team up with our clients to conceive the most creative solutions to their problems. We will not only identify roadblocks but discover alternative routes we might have otherwise missed.

When proper resources are allocated to discovery, we can conceive creative solutions to client problems Tweet

I would argue that this initial phase represents the highest value to the client, but it’s up to us to educate them on that value.


In part two, I explain how I help clients see the value in this approach and happily come for the ride. Questions? Tweet at me!