The first fifteen minutes of conversation with a new client will often tell the story of your whole business relationship.
Just gauge the difference between these opening ripostes from two potential clients:
"Hello, my name is [REDACTED] and I'd like to see if your firm would be interested in taking part in an RFP for Big Fancy Technology Client's new website redesign."
"Hello, I was passed along your name by our mutual friend Lorrie. She said that you create amazing websites, and since we're looking to overhaul ours, I thought I'd give you a call."
In both cases, the budget and timeframe could be exactly the same. You just don't have any context yet for how the conversation will progress—except in how business and personal relationships are already being cued from their tone and assumptions.
So, how do you conduct your first client discussion to set yourself up for success?
Immediately provide structure to the call. When you start any client meeting, you should be providing an agenda. The first client call is no different. If the client isn't savvy about purchasing professional creative services, casually relate to them a mini-agenda of what you'll be covering over the length of the call after you've made sure they have 30 minutes or an hour to chat.
Be fearless regarding understanding the competition. It's hard for you to focus on your strengths, in the eyes of a prospective client, without knowing the competitive landscape. "So, are you talking to any other designers/agencies for this project." Don't be afraid to say this. And don't be afraid to take it further. "May I ask which ones?" Guarded reply follows. "Oh, I don't need to know their names. I'm just looking for a clear understanding of what different options you are considering." Get any details that you can: size, type of work, and so forth. You can usually extrapolate names from that data, and have a rough idea of how to position your experience.
Don't let them escape the call without a budgetary range and rough idea of expectations around timeline. Waiting until the very end of the conversation to talk budget and timeline is hardwired into our DNA. But in this case, you need to be up front and firm about garnering that information at the front of the call. If they want a website in a week for $5, and they aren't willing to budge on their working assumptions, there isn't much reason to continue the call. And if the client says they really don't have an idea of how much it should cost—which happens often enough—still strive to pin them down to a budgetary range. This is where, if the client isn't talking, I use the line, "Do you have $5 for this project, or $1,000,000." If client expectations aren't clear from the start, especially with regard to the time necessary for designers to do quality work, then this is a harbinger of what the entire project will feel like for both parties involved.
Do as little talking as possible. Create a space for the client to immediately start sharing their true desires and fears. This is the dirty secret of any great designer: initiating what almost approximates "marketing therapy." All of the best client/designer relationships I've had have been predicated on the client being able to be 110% blunt with me, and vice-versa in a professional context. It can take some time for the tone of detente to fall out of daily or weekly client conversation, but if you don't hear a glimmer of client honesty in the first day of contact, it doesn't bode well for the long-term future of serving that business well.
Never, ever share your professional experience until you've heard the context regarding why they're calling you. This is smart salesmanship in action. You can't spin your work experience if you don't know why you're in the running for a project. This can be easily redirected in client conversation: "Before we talk about our relevant work experience, I'd want to explore some of the background details around why you're embarking on this website redesign. Then I can share with you some appropriate case studies." Or, if you don't have work samples that are a perfect fit for the assignment, you can redirect regarding results on projects that are tangentially related to their industry and need. You should also solicit the reason how they heard about you—I like to do this at the end of the call—to gauge the warmth of the referral. A personal recommendation from a friend will carry more weight than pulling your name out of the online White Pages.
Don't be afraid to say that your services may not be a good fit for the project... unless you need more information. If the client is considering you alongside a range of multiple studios and/or individuals, you don't need to sell yourself immediately as the right person for the job. A strategic thinker will observe, reflect, then act upon the information at hand. New business solicitations are the same case. Rushing into the opportunity full bore from the first second could have you miss out on critical inputs or subtext to conversations that, in hindsight, were the first warning bells of a bad fit for your studio.
If possible, try to meet in person before submitting the final estimate. Geography often doesn't permit this, but meeting face-to-face with an prospective client will expose much of the information that you need independent of the words that you speak. If the client is concerned that you're the right fit, they will often be guarded in conversation. If they are rooting for you to get the gig, they'll be truthful about where you stand in the running.