Design Domination Podcast Episode #137: The Difference Between Consultation and Discovery

Many graphic designers give away their advice, expertise and ideas in the sales process for free. Learn what to stop doing on consultation calls and how to get paid for discovery calls, so you get more respect and are more valued as an expert.

Are You Giving Away Too Much in the Sales Process?

In this episode of Design Domination, I’m talking about the difference between a free consultation and a paid discovery session.

Stick around to find out if you’re giving away too much in the sales process, what to stop doing on consultation calls and how to get paid for your expertise instead of giving it away.

I wanted to talk about this because so many graphic designers give away so much of their time and expertise for free. I did this for years, and it really hurt my business and my confidence—and I don’t want that for you.

Sometimes you end up giving away too much because a prospect wants to pick your brain.

Sometimes it’s because they are shopping around.

Sometimes it happens because you feel the need to prove yourself to a potential client. The more you demonstrate that you know your stuff, surely they will see you’re the one.

You end up spending an hour—or more—talking to them, only to later find out they chose another designer, if you hear from them at all.

But they seemed so excited about your ideas and working with you!

Now you just feel taken advantage of, and that’s a huge blow to your confidence.

I get it. I have been there and I used to do this too!

So I want to explain the purpose of a consultation and a discovery call and when to use them.

When you understand these crucial differences, you will know what to do and when, so that you stop wasting time on deadbeat clients, get more respect and get paid for your expertise and ideas.

What Is a Design Consultation?

First off, an initial consultation with a potential client is typically free.

It’s an opportunity for you and a potential client to see if you are a good fit for working together.

Consultations are typically short—maybe 15, 20 or 30 minutes max.

This is where you want to ask certain questions to see if they’d be a good fit, so you prevent taking on a potentially bad client who doesn’t respect your expertise, who doesn’t pay on time, who wants to art direct and so forth.

It acts as a screening tool.

By the way, if you’re not screening clients before working with them, please check out episode 46: 6 Reasons Freelance Designers Should Screen Prospective Clients for why you should be vetting prospects and how to do it.

You also want to find out enough about the project to give an estimate and put together a proposal. You also want to talk money on the call, so you don’t waste your time putting together a proposal for a client whose financial expectations are too far off from what you’d charge.

You may also share your process—what they should expect when they work with you.

If a consultation runs longer than that, it’s usually because a potential client has turned the call into an interview of you about your skills and design background.

Even if a prospect approaches you with print or website specs, an initial consultation is not the time to start digging into the design details—how many pages it will be, branding, style preferences, specs, audience and competitors, etc.

They may just be looking for a price—and an order taker. When they’re looking for an order taker, they’re usually looking for the lowest price.

But the thing is: if you haven’t been hired yet, you don’t necessarily need to get into those details at this stage.

You have to turn the conversation around and ask them questions based on results and objectives.

If you’re talking to them to try to figure out what form a brochure or event invitation should take, for example, you are doing free work.

How many pages will it be? What size will it be? What type of fold will it have?

I remember having these conversations many times.

That’s what you should be paid to be doing—but only after you’ve learned more about what they’re trying to accomplish and helped them determine if this is the best way to do that.

Again, I used to do all of these things. I felt like I needed to figure out the specs of a project to price it properly, rather than focusing on their goals and results.

But if you focus on deliverables, the client will focus on price—not on your expertise and not on results.

In my experience, the longer the consultation, usually the less likely you are to get the work.

This sometimes goes back to perception—their perception of you.

If you have so much time to spend with them on a free call or so much free advice to give, your time and advice must not be that valuable.

They may not consciously think this. But a lot of people will get this impression.

There’s a saying:

People don’t value what they don’t pay for.

If you freely give away some ideas on the call, they may take those ideas elsewhere to someone cheaper to get them done.

You also want to avoid spending hours looking into a solution for them before you get paid.

I can’t tell you how many times I used to feel like I had to have all the answers on a call.

How could I possibly have all the answers at this early stage?

Or, worse, I would go and do a ton of research on some WordPress plugins or ask other developers questions about something I hadn’t done before, so I could figure out how much work was involved so I could even charge enough for it.

With a lot of new website projects at least, it seemed like there was always something new to figure out. It was so time consuming and frustrating!

Remember: Experts charge for their time. They charge for their advice and ideas.

This is where a paid discovery call comes in.

What Is a Discovery Call?

A discovery call can be the first step in the design process of a paid project, or it could be a paid consultation on its own. In a discovery call, you dive deeper than in an initial screening consultation.

When a discovery call is part of a paying project, it usually involves finding out more about the client’s audience, their branding, goals and objectives, and their competitors.

If it’s a paid discovery call on its own, you may be helping a potential client figure out where they have a problem or maybe even helping them figure out an approach to solving it, giving them a plan.

You’re looking to understand the problem and the best way to solve it. Clients may come to us with a preconceived idea of what they should do to solve their problem, before even talking to us.

That’s usually because they think of design as the end of the process—making it look nice instead of solving a particular problem.

For example, a client could come to you and think they need a new sales brochure to increase sales, but maybe their branding is really off and doesn’t resonate with their audience. Maybe that’s the real issue, and they need your expertise to tell them that, saving your ideas for a discovery call.

Discovery doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of a call.

For example, I have a particular client who I did a free consultation with once where we talked about one of their publications.

They mentioned a potential redesign. I asked a few questions as to the reasoning behind this and discovered that their sales had been stagnant.

I suggested a paid audit of their publication to identify issues and how to make it more reader friendly. I also created a report of our findings.

Some designers (including my previous self) might ask, well, why—how—could you charge for this?

The answer is because it is helping them solve a problem.

That, my friend, is the real reason why designers are hired.

Designers don’t always see it that way though, and that leads to them undervaluing their work.

Outside of that audit, providing the service to actually do the work—do the actual recommendations we included in the audit—was a separate, additional fee.

You may or may not have decided to work together on that work at this point.

Some designers prefer to be the advisor than the doer, so they might walk away after that rather than do the work. Some brand strategists, like Melinda Livsey, do the brand strategy but not the design work.

When it comes to doing website accessibility audits, my reports state what on the website needs to be fixed and how to fix it.

I typically don’t take on the remediation work—the fixing of the site based on my recommendations.

I am usually too busy with other projects to get involved with fixing a site that I am not familiar with how it was built, and it may not be in WordPress either.

But anyone can go do that work, since I’ve already advised on how to fix the issues.

If a potential client hires you for discovery, they are more likely to hire you to do the rest of the work that is needed.

So if you’re looking to get that work, it will be easier to get it at that point.

That’s because they already trust you and have invested time in solving their problem with you. You understand their needs.

You may not have enjoyed working with the client for this discovery, so you may decide to part ways for that reason.

I hope you now better understand the purpose of an initial consultation and a discovery session, so that you stop giving away your expertise for free, like I did for many years, and so that your expertise will be more valued by good clients.

How Designers Can Get Paid More for Their Expertise

If you want to know the exact questions to ask during a design consultation and which to save for a discovery session—and get a process for it—get my 42-page Brand Identity Builder for just $27.

It also goes into the branding and logo design process, but branding is really a part of every project. You can use these questions and this process for any type of design project.

You’ll get more respect. You’ll ask the right questions up front, so you’re taken more seriously and help your clients get better results. You’ll get money up front instead of giving away free advice.

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