Tough Lessons I Learned about the Freelance Discovery Call

By Sheeva Azma

You’ve finally set up your freelancing business and you get a message from a client saying they’d like to learn more about your services. What do you do next?

The next step that many freelancers take is to set up a “discovery call,” or a call with your potential client to discuss their needs and what you can do for them.

If you’re like me when I first started freelancing, as a scientist turned science writer, you had no exposure to the business world. I founded Fancy Comma just a couple of weeks before the pandemic, and suddenly everything was done via videoconferencing.

.@SheevaAzma: Use your time wisely on discovery calls, and never tolerate bad behavior from potential clients!

I experienced the worst of people in my discovery calls. People would regularly waste my time. They would say they’d hire me, but then never get in touch. They would discount my experience, say I didn’t have any skills, or act like they were too important to talk to me. What the heck?

I wrote this blog to help other freelancers realize that they don’t have to put up with potential clients’ bad behavior. Just don’t do it. Do you really want a client who pays you enough to pay your bills but ruins your mental health? Just say no to these clients. Maybe they’re not a good fit, or they’ve got someone else in mind, or you had a personality clash. Whatever the reason, just say no.

Look at this happy bunny, eating a carrot. Don’t let potential clients dangle carrots of work, asking you to “hop” on a call. Photo by ierc on Unsplash

Here are a few things I’ve learned from my terrible two years of accepting every request to “hop on a call” that came my way.

Don’t “hop” onto calls

In retrospect, I think that I resembled a rabbit in 2020, when I founded Fancy Comma. I was powering through work like the Energizer Bunny, and I eventually got burned out. Discovery calls did not help.

Potential clients would dangle work in front of me like it was a carrot, and I would “hop” onto calls with them. Hop hop! Sometimes, they would blather on for an hour or more, promising me work. Then, we’d hang up, and I’d never hear from them again.

I once watched a YouTube video from a makeup influencer once who told a story about constantly “hopping on calls” with a popular makeup brand with whom she was doing content creation, and the fact that they ditched her after all of her hard work, popping on to calls, creating new drafts of the content, and so on. It’s true, I’ve learned as a freelancer: most of the time, having a client tell you to “just hop on a call” means that they do not value your time.

Vet clients before the discovery call

Usually, these terrible calls were on the potential clients’ terms, and always, they were for free. I spent a few years doing random, remote odd jobs as a freelancer without doing any calls, and in 2020, when I got more serious about freelancing, I assumed they were a part of the job. I thought that if I talked to the client one-on-one and was persuasive enough, they would definitely hire me. Instead, I learned that people just used the time to pick my brain for free, then hire someone else. One day, I realized that I was wasting my time on these calls. I decided to change my work processes to use my time more effectively.

The first thing I did was to figure out as much as I could about the project over email so I could see if it would meet my standards. I tried to figure out as much about the project and its scope, as well as the client’s budget, before a call. I also looked for red flags or signs I should not work with them. If something wasn’t a match, then I just said “no” to the client. I started saying “no” a lot more. Suddenly, I had a lot more time, and felt a lot better about life.

Say “no” to red flag clients

I don’t jump onto calls anymore unless I really feel like I could work with the client, and am interested in learning about their work. I keep calls to 15 minutes. As a freelancer, my time is valuable.

Actually, these days, when a client says something like, “Let me know if you want to hop on a call,” I view that as a huge red flag. While it’s convenient to do teleconferencing, it’s a lot more than just “hopping,” in reality. Actually, for freelancers, scheduling a call can be very inconvenient in one’s already busy life. Not only must you prepare for the call, but these days, with the popularity of videoconferencing, you have to sometimes look good, too. You have to also be in the right frame of mind to talk to a potential client, being friendly and professional, while also eager to learn about their needs. Add in the fact that, as a freelancer, you can be not hired for any random reason from whether you seemed nice and smart on the call to whether the potential client found your dog’s barking weird, and…it’s all a huge “no” from me unless I think the time spent would be worth it.

Use the discovery call time wisely

I like to think I’ve mastered the art of the discovery call. These days, I still don’t bill for them, but I keep them to 15 minutes. I don’t always need to schedule a discovery call with my client, but I view them as a service to my client to see if we might be a good fit. Sometimes clients are not a good fit, and that’s okay. Sometimes, they are, and that’s the best!

Here are a few things I try to figure out in discovery calls:

  • What is the project?
  • When does the client need this done?
  • What is the scope of the project – is it a small, one-off project or a larger project?
  • What are the deliverables needed?
  • How and when will I get paid?

It’s okay to interrupt the client if they are rambling. Don’t let them pick your brain, either. The goal is to get them to hire you to use your expertise to help them!

Say “no” to rude clients

I’ve dealt with my fair share of meanness and rudeness in the discovery call. Never work with rude clients! If they’re rude to you on the intro call, they are probably a nightmare to actually work with. So I say no! Why you would be rude to someone you would potentially hire is beyond me, but I’ve heard it happens a lot in the freelance world.

You don’t have to tolerate rudeness to succeed in freelancing; actually, by refusing to work with those clients, you are raising the bar for all freelancers.

Now, when a call starts to go south, I immediately tell the potential client I have to go. Then, I just end the call. That’s it! Once, I got on a call with the weirdest, worst, most condescending vibes I had ever experienced. A minute into the call, I politely said that something came up and I had to go.

You don’t have to tolerate rudeness to succeed in freelancing; in fact, by calling it out and refusing to work with rude and mean clients, you are raising the bar for all freelancers.

Consider working asynchronously

If the thought of getting on a call with a potential client is too much, you can work asynchronously. “Asynchronous” means not happening at the same time. Obviously, getting on a call is a synchronous type of work. It requires both parties involved to make time to chat. That might not be possible if you’re super busy or working in different time zones from your clients.

Most people who work asynchronously do so over email or a freelancing platform such as Upwork, but you can also use screen recording software such as Loom. I’ve also worked asynchronously over WhatsApp.

To work asynchronously, make sure that expectations, deliverables, budget, project scope, etc. are defined clearly on your communication medium of choice. Then, once you have all the details, you can just do the work and send it back to the client without having to schedule a call. I prefer working asynchronously when possible because most projects do not require a detailed call (though some do).

You don’t have to do a discovery call

Think about ditching the discovery call. Yes, I said it. Maybe it’s time to rethink the discovery call in the 21st century when so much work can be done remotely via asynchronous messaging. It can be soul-crushing to be rejected from a project on a discovery call, after you’ve done all the work to prepare to talk to a potential client. That’s why I find it helpful to keep these calls short and with minimal preparation. As I have told clients often, I don’t work for free.

As freelancers, our time is valuable, and we are busy people. I’ve gotten many jobs from the discovery call, but more often than not, I find that it is a waste of time. So, I prefer to work asynchronously.

What are your thoughts about the discovery call? What experiences have you had or tips do you have to share? Comment below!


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