Client Phone Calls: House Rules [en]

I have recently become aware that I am developing a certain number of “house rules” for my phone calls with clients (particularly first-contact phone calls). I thought I’d share them here with you in case they could come in handy to other freelancers:

  1. I don’t give rates on the phone
  2. I don’t agree to new things
  3. I don’t talk about what I’m doing with a contact to a third party within the same company unless my contact introduced me to them.

I’ll detail the whys and the hows of these below, but first of all…

Me and phone calls

I often describe myself as a phonephobic. There are situations where I’m perfectly comfortable on the phone (with friends, for example), but anything that hints of administrivia or relationship tension just makes me go ballistic if it needs to be dealt with by phone.

There was a time when I would walk into town to the offices so I could deal with admin stuff face-to-face, rather than pick up the call and get it done in five minues.

To be fair, I’ve had my share of traumatizing phone experiences (when I was a scout leader as a teenager, and all through my adult years). I also worked as a phone interviewer (surveys) for a couple of years when I was a student — so I’m not completely incompetent either. I’m not exactly sure why I am so scared of phone calls, but I am.

If you’ve had me on the phone you probably have no idea of this, because I cover it up, but it translates in me procrastinating a lot when I need to call people back, and agonizing for days — weeks — when I decide I need to cold-call somebody.

Still. I don’t like it, but I’m functional — however, I need to take into account that I feel under pressure on the phone and take steps to make things easier for me. (Less blunders = happier clients, in the end.)

Not giving rates on the phone

First of all, let me say that as a freelancer in a pioneering industry, determining how much to ask for the services I offer has always been a bit of a headache. From undercharging (way too often) to overcharging (a few times), I’ve done it all. Convincing people they need me is not too much of an issue, but actually asking for money is where I more often than not start sliding down into the pit of self-deprecation.

I’ve been doing this for four years now, and I’m much better at it than I was. I’m actually even starting to consider myself pretty competent, to say the truth. But even with the worst of the pricing-angst behind me, offering services for which there is no real fixed market-price to a wide variety of clients means that pricing is not simple. (Think Oracle and Intel on one end of the spectrum, and struggling artists and newbie freelancers on the other.)

Recently, I realized that I was much less likely to undercharge (or overcharge) if I had a little time to calmly think about my pricing, without the client breathing down my neck on the other end of the line. (Well, my clients aren’t actually that bad, quite the contrary, but given my phone anxiety, that’s quickly what it feels like.) I asked around a bit, and discovered that quite a few of my colleagues had a “no money on the phone” policy. By e-mail is fine, face-to-face is fine, but not on the phone. If your client is going to go green (or speechless) when he hears your price, chances are you’d rather it not happen on the phone. And if your prices are right, then that’s what’s going to happen.

So, unless you’re going to systematically undercharge, keep the money talk off the phone.

I make exceptions when the service is very well-defined and there is no hesitation about the price. For example, if a freelancer calls me up because he wants to spend half a day with me to make his website, I’ll give the price on the phone.

But even that is not without danger: I have given freelancer prices to small companies in this kind of situation, because I didn’t have enough information at that moment to realize what kind of client I was dealing with. And it’s always very unpleasant to have to send a follow-up e-mail saying “actually, it’s more expensive than I told you”. And it’s even more unpleasant to be stuck with work you’re undercharging for.

Not agreeing to new things on the phone

I’m easily enthusiastic about new projects, and that does give me a tendency to bite off more than I can chew. Again, as there are few things more unpleasant than saying “Oh yes, great, let’s do that!” and having to follow up with an e-mail the next day (or worse the next week or the next month) explaining that you overcommited and have to back out.

This can also help manage scope creep for existing projects.

When I was a teenager, my dad showed me these cards they were distributing students at his school. They were guidelines to help them decide when to say “no” to something. One of the guidelines was something like “If you feel under pressure to say yes, then that alone is a reason for saying no.” Taking a little bit of time to think about something on your own or by talking to a trusted friend cannot hurt. Don’t fall for the “now or never” ploy.

Third-party calls from the same company

I am not a fan of triangulation. I know from first-hand experience that it does not make for happy relationships, and do my best to not fall into that kind of trap with my clients.

If my client is a company, I usually have a single point of contact. If my contact puts me in touch with other people from the company so that I can do my job, that is fine. But if I receive a cold call from a third party from inside the same company, asking for information about an ongoing project, I will not discuss it without checking first with my contact.

In practice

These three guidelines I have are actually there to allow me to make decisions or deal with situations without being under the pressure of having to give an immediate response to something. I think the phone is particularly pressure-inducing because silence is less acceptable than if you’re face-to-face.

I think if you’re somebody who tends to be anxious in this kind of situation or agree too quickly to things, it helps to have these predefined guidelines for what to do in certain set situations — particularly with first-time calls with clients (and, I would tend to argue, for subsequent calls as well; can you tell I don’t like the phone?)

If you have other guidelines for your phone calls with clients, do share them in the comments.

Here are a few useful lines I try to keep handy. Do you have others?

  • That sounds really interesting! I’d like to sleep on it a bit and get back to you in a few days.
  • I’m afraid I don’t give my rates on the phone. I’ll send you an e-mail with my rates by tomorrow.
  • That sounds reasonable. Let me think about it and give you an answer by the end of the week.

And as a final note, yes, I know that my clients are reading this too. I don’t mind being comfortable about my shortcomings. And I’m not interested in entering professional relationships (or any, for that matter) based on power-play. Which is, let’s face it, the only kind of situation where talking about this kind of stuff in the open could be harmful for me.

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