Naturally Qualifying ‘Free Estimate’ Requests On The First Call

Finding leads and making sales isn’t easy. Not only do you have to generate the leads, but you then have to find customers who actually want to use your service.

Tell me if the following scenario sounds familiar to you.

Your phone rings, and on the other end of that phone call is someone who wants you to come out to their property to give them a free estimate on a job. You talk with them, hang up the phone, and your phone rings again.

What does that next person want?

Too often that next person wants you to come out for a free estimate, and then the phone rings again, and that person wants a free estimate.

If you’re actively doing content marketing, you’ll also find that mixed into the free estimate requests are a substantial number of folks who are just looking for free advice under the guise of a free estimate.   They want eyes on their issue but have no intention of actually hiring you, they just figure that since you give out so much free content online, that you certainly wouldn’t mind giving it out in person.  I discuss this more in this blog post on the problems of content marketing.

You see the problem here.

As we all know ‘free estimates’ aren’t free.  Besides the direct costs of time and travel, you have the opportunity cost of deferring your attention from operations and clients who are likely to hire your services.  Although you want business, many prospects (?) don’t understand that it’s not economically feasible to go out and visit every single person that wants a free estimate on their job, particularly those that have no intention of actually hiring for services.

That’s why you have to pre-qualify those customers on the phone to ensure that they are someone who is actually interested in your service and not just calling for another number to use for leverage with a different company, or to get your ‘professional opinion’ on an issue.

Here are a few of my favorite strategies to pre-qualify customers on the phone without coming off as being too salesy.

Avoid the Standard Questions

There are so many pre-qualifying templates out there, and it seems like they’re all just a variation of the same thing. From my experience, these questions almost always come off as too salesy, slightly, pushy, and are not conducive to natural conversation.

Questions like: Have you gotten any other bids? How soon are you planning on getting this done? What’s your budget?

All of these questions are pretty standard pre-qualifying questions that salespeople ask, but over the years I’ve learned that most people see right through these questions. They’re already prepared to answer them, and many people will lie or tell you what you want to hear just to get you out there for an estimate.

This is a waste of both their time and your time, and your customers deserve more respect than that.

That’s why you should be focusing on questions that lead to real, genuine conversation.

Using Questions That Work

When someone calls you up asking for an estimate, you should do your best to start a real conversation that doesn’t scream, “I’m trying to pre-qualify you to make sure you’re worth my time!”

That just isn’t very good customer service.

Instead, you should be thinking about questions that will lead your customers into a conversation about both your company and their project.

Just by talking and listening to your customer, you’ll get a much better idea of whether or not they’re serious about hiring your company for their project without directly asking them.

So, what kinds of strategies work?

#1 What Is Your Issue (that needs repair / replacement) or What Type Of Project Are You Looking To Have Done? Do You Have Any Plans?

This might seem obvious for owners and operators, but if you have staff scheduling appointments you need to make sure they are fully comprehending the scope of work the customer is looking for, getting clear details on it, and that the scope of work is among your standard services that you can offer efficiently.  I’ve (unfortunately) ended up at free estimates for concrete repair beneath a screen enclosure.  While my company does build screen enclosures, concrete repair is something we do not do.     I also once ended up at an estimate to build a garage…. we don’t do anything close to that.

Most prospects don’t have any plans (if applicable to the scope), but the question will also reveal details about where they are in the buying process and how serious of a plan they have in their head.  They might say:

“Well I don’t have any plans but XYZ Company drew a diagram for me with their bid.”  This give you an opportunity to discuss that bid and explain the value that your company can add over the competing bid.

“No but I want one just like my neighbor 2 houses down.”  This is a good indication that they’ve got a solid idea of what they are looking for an understand the value/benefit of what they are shopping for.  It will also give you an opportunity to highlight what your will do better.

#2 Who Were You Referred By?

One of my favorite questions to ask during the initial conversation is who referred the customer to my company.  The objective is to find out how they arrived at contacting us — regardless of whether they were a referral or not.  Rather than then asking “how did you find us”, which generally doesn’t get a candid detailed answered, “who were you referred by” always sparks revealing conversation.

No matter who I’m talking to or what the conversation is about, there’s always a point in the call in which I can work this question in.

And their answers to your question can tell you a lot about how serious they are about using your company.

For example, sometimes customers will tell me that they found my services through our website after reading through several of my blog posts. This tells me that the person has researched my company thoroughly and has interacted with a lot of my content. They liked what they saw enough that they wanted to give me a call and use my services.

Or, as another example, they end up telling you that one of their good friends used my service and loved it. Again, they have already done their homework on my company, have an idea of the prices that I charge, and are prepared to take the next step.

On the other hand, if the person really knows nothing about my company, hasn’t even looked at my website, and has no idea what types of services that I offer, it tells me that they aren’t as serious as the other callers.

The question itself, also indicates to the prospect that you are a reputable business that expects to get a good bit of referrals.

#3 Giving a Ballpark Figure

Even if a person calls, has read my content, and seems genuinely interested in using my services, they don’t always necessarily have an idea of what their project is going to cost them.

For example, if “Jane” calls me with a big idea (think pergolas, patio, pond, etc.), she doesn’t necessarily know all of the behind the scenes type stuff that goes into it like finding engineers and securing permits.

That’s why I like to make sure that the customer has a good idea of what they’re getting into. I’ll tell them that it sounds like an amazing idea and that I’m happy to work with them, but they need to have an idea of the price.

So, if I tell Jane that she’s looking at a $40,000 project, her reaction will tell me a lot about how prepared she is to move forward with my project. If she says that that number is a bit high but is still close to what she expected, that tells me that she’s done her homework and is close to being ready to get started.

However, if she’s shocked by the ballpark figure that I quote, it tells me that she hasn’t really done her research into what everything is going to cost.

That reaction lets me know how much I should pursue the project.

Let the Conversation Flow

The most important thing to take away from this is that you really want to let the conversation flow naturally when a potential customer calls you about a project.

When you fall back on the standard questions, you come off as stiff, robotic, and just like any other average company out there.

By having a normal conversation with your potential customer, you show them that you care about more than just the sale while also gathering important information that helps you determine how serious of a buyer they are.

Once you’ve established that, you can then make your choice.

Update 12/18/2017:

The feedback on this post has been great.  Its one of the most read pages on the page, and it gets a lot of readers outside of the home services spaces.  I’m glad so many are finding it valuable.  One thing that seems to be of interest is leads among home service business owners and contractors is… ‘generating leads’.  And generating leads without the words ‘free estimates’.

No secret, and obvious to anyone who reads this blog, I’m a big fan of online lead generation.  Particularly Facebook ads.  While there are many online and offline mediums for advertisement that can be effective, many are cluttered with ads for everything from leaky drains to kitchen remodels and everything in between.

For the last year Facebook marketing has brought in a large chunk of our leads at a low cost.  And they sell like butter.  I’m currently working on an in depth, 6 week online course, teaching the exact campaigns I run to generate leads at $10-15 a pop for services that average beyond $3000.  You can get more information and sign up for launch updates here.  I’m working to have the course ready in early 2018.

Corey Philip
President and founder of a home service / specialty trade contracting company (think patio's and deck) with a focus on customer experience. Data driven marketer. Runner. Currently working on a Facebook marketing course, exclusively for home service businesses. Want to be a part of it. Read more here.