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Freelancers must strike a delicate balance when we attempt to wow new clients with our skills.

If we are not careful, we spend hours giving our best ideas and time to prospects who just pump us for information.

I call them looky-loos. Looky-loos often discover us via the internet, a friend, or other client, and they just want to talk to a real human being about what is likely a first time purchase.

But, I don’t resent looky-loos because at some point, we have probably all have been one. People have a right to change their minds or pursue other options that don’t even involve what you can offer them.

I have come to realize most looky-loos need our help in focusing their final decision.

As a standard practice, demonstrate in the very first encounter with all prospects you are a polite, busy, yet attentive professional who is perfectly qualified to take care of the needs of all customers who sign contracts with you.

1. Pre-Qualify Clients to weed out the prospects.

One way to do this is ask for the budget and the timeframe as early as possible in the conversation.

What if a prospect repeatedly declines to reveal either or wants to know why this information is important to you?

Tell them tactfully your clients always provide a budget range and timeframe so you can properly schedule resources to deliver the results. A business person will not be hostile to this argument, even if still shopping around.

If the prospect balks at answering after such an explanation, then there is a good chance the person is either trying to uncover your rates or snatch your knowledge without any intent of hiring you.

2. Resist the temptation to give extensive on-the-spot advice in an unscheduled encounter

If the prospect seems determined to pull you into specifics of their project, cap the communication at 10 minutes. Less if they do not want to provide the information in #1.

If you allow prospects to monopolize significant quantities of your time without a contract, you could get pumped and dumped for information or worse, you may send a message that you are desperate for work.

Remember, your knowledge is how you pay your bills.

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3. Do not get baited into giving specific how-to-advice.

Instead, prime the relationship with a generalized one or two sentence response and then remind the prospect delicately you get hired to for strategy and execution.

For example:

“Based on what you telling me in this quick conversation, we may explore _______ with your business. However, our clients hire us to provide a detailed analysis and develop a custom solution. Would you like to schedule a consult?”

*4. Schedule consults to get more complete information and request that the decision makers be present. *

I like the idea of paid consults, but not every freelancer will want to bill for these in the early stages of their business.

It helps to think of an unpaid consult as a job interview (and perhaps market research for your later use) but limit the free consult time to no more than 75% the time of what you are willing and able to do for free.

For many solo-preneurs and micro businesses, a good rule is a maximum of 30-45 minutes to gather the information needed for a proposal.

Complex projects, understandably, require more consult time.

Automate data gathering by sending a questionnaire to the client in advance of the meeting or use proposal building software. Consider putting a form on your website and send the client a link.

Some freelancers offer a hybrid of free and paid consult time, the price of the consultation is discounted from the invoice if the client ends up signing a contract for a project

5. Curb stale prospects

These prospects are more troublesome than standard looky-loos because they disappear and come back several weeks or even months later after a long period, without any contact in the interim.

Remind all prospects at the time of the initial consultation that proposals are only good for X amount of days and your business reviews costs on a periodic basis to keep pace with the industry.

Better yet, print the quote expiration date on the document. Thirty days is generally ample time for a prospect (and you) to ascertain whether or not the proposed relationship will be a good fit.

Beware that anything longer than three weeks without unprompted follow-up from the prospect could signal an even bigger problem for you.

The client could be disorganized or scrambling to come up with a way to pay your fees. If there is evidence of the latter, offer to pair down services from the original proposal to reduce the budget.

Overall, avoid giving “ghost” prospects too much more of your time. Because even if they do sign the contract, they could pull the same trick when you send the invoice.

Tasha Williams is a former investment banking risk analyst who became a strategist, project manager, and business writer for startups and non-profits. A New Yorker to the core, she writes these days from Paris, France. Tasha is a co-founder of the original #HarlemDemoDay. Fellow freelancers and potential clients can connect via Twitter: @ttwconsulting.