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Ask Qualifying Questions Early to Avoid Red Flag Prospects

Ryan Masuga Sep 13, 2016  ·  Updated May 19, 2021 Read time: 8 minute read
Blog Redflag Prospects

I find red flags with potential prospects early by asking basic qualifying questions about timelines and budgets. Reading between the lines helps everyone move on before too much time is spent on a project that isn't an ideal fit.

"Is this the guy that kicked us to the curb?"

That was the entire contents of an email I received today. I don’t think I was the intended recipient. I believe it was meant for a web project manager with whom I had been emailing back-and-forth, but it was sent directly to me. Why did I get this? What does it mean? Am I "that guy"?

This is a post about quickly qualifying prospects, and how easy it can be to see red flags if you know how to read between the lines. (And no, we don’t really kick people to the curb.)

Let’s go back to the start.

We got a referral from a person we know locally. A long-time business associate of theirs has a new web project and is looking for a developer. I thanked them for the intro via email, and invited the business associate to send along more info when they had a chance. He wrote back to say a woman named "M" was leading the "web site charge" and would be in touch. After a couple days, I got this decent introductory email (slightly edited down to show most important parts):

Hello, Ryan; nice to meet you. Here's a bit of information for you regarding our project:

We are requesting several proposals to create a website for a [THING]. We've reviewed many websites for like-kind entities, and really like the look and feel of these sites (in this order):


Furthermore, most of the content has already been created (using PowerPoint, just to give the partners an idea of what their site will look like), and professional photos … have been taken to be dropped into place on the site. There are a few "holes" that we're looking to plug in the content now, but I think we're far enough along in the process that we can begin requesting proposals from web designers.

Please let me know if this is a project that would interest you and if you'd like to review the like-kind websites and provide us with a ballpark of what it would cost to provide a site for us. As an FYI to you, we will be requesting a total of three proposals on this project.

This is a nice enough intro email - with a couple red flags.

1. "We are requesting several proposals" and then later "requesting a total of three proposals" - Not only is this irrelevant, it's also inconsistent, unless you consider three to be several. Either way, I know they're not calling us because they researched us or need Masuga Design specifically, but we’re "in the hunt" with other web shops, which indicates that this will probably be a price battle in the end (read: "race to 0") so already I’m a little turned off.

2. "to give the partners an idea of what their site will look like" - sounds like they already started on the site. I don’t know what that means, though. Design? UI? I reviewed the "look and feel" the sites they liked, and each of them was objectively terrible. If they gave the partners an idea what the site would look like based on those other sites (in PowerPoint!), this project would already be going down a wrong path for us.

At this point, there are a few flags, but I thought I’d at least get the couple critical questions out of the way, those being Budget and Timeline. These are basic qualification questions. You need to have them when you have a lot of leads to deal with. So I sent this email:

Hi -

Thanks for sharing that info,

Two questions:

  • Is there a budget?
  • What is your timeline?

In my opinion, that is a very quick, efficient email to get info that I critically need to know to determine if we can work on a project. I’ve learned that getting budget information very early can eliminate so much wasted time and effort dealing with people that don’t have any money. Further, we’re a small firm, and we're booked with good work right now. If their timeline won’t work, why would I waste their time making them think we could do the work?

Also note this email is very short because I’ve learned people don’t read emails, they skim them. The most successful people I know write the shortest emails. No offense, but why would I write a book back to them when, at this point, we have no formal relationship, have never met, etc. This prospect could be anyone!

This is the response I got from M:

Hey, Ryan:

Two answers:

1. I've not been given a budget since we've not been through this exercise before. Most of the creative parts are done so this should be a walk in the park.
2. Timeline, like everyone else who comes to you, is yesterday.

[More details about why the website is important to them]

Now there are just enough red flags for me to know this prospect probably isn’t worth our time. Here’s how I interpreted this response:

1. "I've not been given a budget…" There are two problems here. This email is from the person in charge of this web project, but apparently they don’t have enough authority to make a purchasing decision, because they weren’t "given" a budget. So, we’re going to play the telephone game. Instead of me talking with someone that can decide whether we can align on budget, I’m going to talk through a gatekeeper. The gatekeeper won't be able to talk about our value with the buyer as well as we could directly. They’re only going to share price. In my experience, this almost never ends in a worthwhile project.

The other problem is that they don't have a budget, because they haven't "been through this exercise before." Let me share a story that I think highlights how weird this is.

Last year my wife and I finished off the basement in our house. We’d never been through that exercise before. We didn’t know what it would cost, exactly, but we had an idea what we were willing to spend.

When we talked to contractors we were able to determine what we could get for that amount of money, and we settled on the contractor that we thought could deliver the most value. We have a fantastic basement now, and we were able to keep it right around the budget we were willing to spend. We knew what the basement was worth to us. How should a web development project be any different? They have to know whether they’re willing to spend $5,000 or $50,000.

2. "Most of the creative parts are done so this should be a walk in the park" - A walk in the park? There are some dangerous phrases in web development such as "can’t you just…" which serve to make it sound like web development is easy. If this project will be such a walk in the park, why not just do it yourself? You already started it…in PowerPoint. The rest is a breeze. Can’t you just finish it up?

3. "Timeline, like everyone else who comes to you, is yesterday." I was mildly offended by this. How could they possibly know what the timelines are for our customers? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this was a joke. It's hard to get "tone" from an email.

Guess what? We don’t have a single client that needs a web development project done yesterday, because we don’t work with those types of people. Maybe in their experience every web project has had a "get it done yesterday" timeline, but not in my world.

Even as a joke, I know whatever timeline they have won't work for us at this time. If they need this done right now, such that we would have to bump other projects out of the way, they’re probably not going to be able to afford to do so. Plus, they told me they have two other firms to get a ballpark from, so I'll make sure I don't waste any more of their time. So, I sent this email:

M -

Thanks for considering us. I don't think you'll have a problem finding a local developer to help you get this done on your accelerated timeline.

Best of luck with the project!

I thought that was a quick way to close out the conversation. It was short, had a "thanks," and hinted that I recognized their "accelerated" (read: probably unrealistic) timeline. Then I wished them good luck. Perhaps I could have helped them a bit by explaining our minimum engagement level. Something like "You should know we have a minimum engagement level of $xx,xxx. Do you see that as a realistic starting point to discuss budget for this project?"

I sent the "shut it down" email and didn’t think about this prospect again. I got back to work. Then, over the weekend, I got the email, presumably from the person who does have purchasing power, directly to me and not even copied to the manager of the web project:

"Is this the guy that kicked us to the curb?"

I could read this three ways.

  1. He meant to email "M" and accidentally sent it to me.
  2. I’m actually NOT the guy. Maybe someone else really told this person off.
  3. He did mean to email me, and is confronting me. I can see it now: he's rolling up his sleeves, preparing for fisticuffs, saying "Oh a wise guy, eh? You the guy that kicked us to the curb? Put ‘em up! Put ‘em up!"

Was this guy actually angry? Who knows? Who cares? Rather than acknowledge it with a response (wasting even more time on this prospect) I decided to file it and forget it.

Perhaps I should have told them the project didn't interest me (after all, she did ask me to tell her that in her first email), but they probably would have seen that as kicking them to the curb too.

If this is kicking a red-flag prospect to the curb, then so be it. I don’t see it that way at all. I see it as this: I wrote a couple quick email responses that tried to get the info I needed. I efficiently helped determine that this would not be a good fit for us, and probably saved them time, because now they could just go focus on their other potential developers. That is, unless they choose to spend their time emailing me, but how they spend their time is up to them!

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