The secret to selling a paid discovery session

4 min read
Ian Vadas
  •  Sep 6, 2017
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Can you give an accurate project estimate without knowing what a client really wants or needs?

Your answer is probably, “Of course not.”

But agencies and freelancers regularly quote on projects without knowing the full scope of what they’re getting into or what their client needs to accomplish their business goals. 

Here’s a pretty common scenario:

A prospect reaches out for a quote, you set up a call to talk about it, and later you provide an estimate for what they’ve asked for (a new website, brand redesign, etc.). 

But this is all very deliverable-focused.

They’ve self-prescribed the fix to their business problem without giving you insight into any of the reasons for the project. 

What the client wants isn’t the deliverable—they want what that deliverable will get them (more customers, more traffic, better brand recognition, etc.). 

But without having a more in-depth conversation with them, you can’t really begin to understand the real purpose of the project. 

Related: Getting started with discovery workshops

Without going deeper, you’ll also have a hard time figuring out the technical and strategic scope of the project and will probably underbid it by accident, since most of the time you rush through this stage just to get a proposal in front of your prospect.

Later, during the project, you’ll find out that you’ve committed to a lot more work than you thought you did. Sadly, by that time it’ll be too late to change the scope without pissing off your client.

All this can be avoided by doing enough discovery before jumping into a big project with a client. 

But there’s a downside to doing a bunch of research and presenting your prospect with a proposal: They might reject it—and you’ll have wasted a ton of time and effort for nothing. 

Enter paid discovery. 

Instead of giving away your expertise for nothing, you get paid to write the proposal after doing a discovery session. 

“Discovery sessions should never be free of charge.”

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A discovery session has a few main purposes:

  1. To establish the reason for the project by diagnosing the business problem
  2. To uncover hidden value for the client by understanding what making this problem go away is worth to your client
  3. To plot a path forward by prescribing a treatment plan to help end the prospect’s business problem

Number 3 is also the discovery session deliverable. You could give this to the client as a brief or a report or something similar.

You’re probably already giving your prospect some kind of treatment plan but you’re giving it away for free right now.

If you’ve already been doing discovery like this in your design business, what you need to do now is formalize and sell it as a standalone service. 

Make sure there’s a fit

The other point of a discovery session is to make sure there’s a “fit.” This is the last place in the process where you can safely back out of the project without causing some serious headaches and Client From Hell type moments. 

With a small “discovery” project, you can get a feel for working with each other before your client commits $20,000 on a big project that will be harder to back out of later when everyone finds out the fit was off. 

Instead, pitch them on this smaller “discovery” project ($1,000-$2,000), and at the end of it, they can take what they’ve learned to someone else who can implement it—or, you’ll execute the work yourself. 

Think of this as a smaller consulting project that’s separate from the larger execution project. 

Diagnose before you prescribe

Think about when you take your car in to find out what is wrong with it. A mechanic looks under the hood to figure out what’s making that loud clanking noise. 

They do a diagnostic.

That is what paid discovery is—or any kind of discovery for that matter.

It’s a diagnostic to confirm the client’s suspicions about what’s wrong. And then there is a prescription to fix the problem. 

It’s the same when you go to the doctor. You’ll go into the exam room thinking it’s X problem, but a doctor doesn’t just take your word that you’ve got X disease because you’ve stayed up all night looking on WebMD. 

They—like any true professional—do their own assessment to identify the problem.  

Here are a few questions to ask to help you assess their business:

When a client comes to you thinking they need X deliverable to solve Y problem, going through a discovery session makes sure that’s the case.

The last thing the client wants is to spend a bunch of money to work on the wrong thing—but it happens all the time. 

How to sell paid discovery

To sell your client on paid discovery, you’ve got to make them understand the benefit of the session. 

Pitch it as a way to end up with better outcomes because of a more accurate assessment of their business. 

Other designers aren’t giving accurate quotes without first understanding what the problems and goals are. You can use that to your advantage by putting that objection in the mind of your client. 

For example, you could say something like, “We do in-depth research and a 1-on-1 meeting with you to ensure we are a good fit and understand what your needs are. You’ll likely find a quote that is cheaper than us—one that sidesteps this part of the process—but will it be as accurate?”

“With paid discovery, you align your interests with your client’s interests.”

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To get your prospect to agree to the session, you’ve got to answer the following key points:


  • What is a discovery session?
  • What is the benefit of a discovery session?
  • What happens after discovery?
  • What do they get from the session?
  • How long is it and who’s involved?
  • Where does it take place?
  • How much is it?
  • When can they do it?

The script below is an example of how to sell the discovery session in a follow-up email after an initial meeting or phone call:

Subject: Next steps

Hi [Prospect],

Nice talking with you [earlier today, yesterday, etc.]. I’m confident we’d be able to help you [solve the problem they are having]. 

The next step is to schedule a discovery session.  A discovery session is a deep dive into your business to examine the problems you’re facing and gain a shared understanding of what success looks like to you.

The discovery session will allow us to chart a path forward and find out the quickest, cheapest, most effective, and least risky way to solve [the problem they are having]. 

After the session, you’ll receive a report that includes the detailed requirements of the project, ways to avoid any potential risks, and a plan of action to get your business from where it is now to where you would like it to be. 

The discovery session is a [length of session] meeting that includes me, my partner, and you along with anyone else on your team who needs to be involved in the project. The cost for the session is $[X].

Below are 3 potential dates for a discovery session. Please let me know which date works best for you. 

  • Wednesday, Aug 5th between 10:00–11:30am Pacific
  • Wednesday, Aug 5th between 1:30–3:00pm Pacific
  • Thursday, Aug 6th between 10:00–11:30am Pacific


[Your Name]

How much should you charge?

When you price the discovery session, you want to sell it at around 5%–10% of the overall project value. So if you have a rough estimate of $20,000 for the project, you’d sell it for between $1,000–$2,000. 

If discovery takes between 3–4 hours, you’ll want to sell discovery for at least $250. That should be the minimum amount to make it worthwhile.

So the smallest project you would want to be doing paid discovery on would be a $5,000 project where you charge between $250–$500 for the session. Anything less than that will be hard to sell to your prospect or won’t be worth your time. 

What deliverables are offered at the end of paid discovery?

My litmus test for whether you can sell a discovery session is this:

At the end of the discovery session, they must get a document they can take to someone else and say, “Here, build this for me.”

If that happens, it’s a valuable resource, and you should charge for it. 

Here are a few examples of what you could sell your client as the result of a discovery session:

  • A detailed brand brief  
  • A detailed website teardown 
  • A detailed marketing plan

The deliverable should be a step-by-step blueprint that gives the client the best chance at getting the business results they want.   

The client should be free to take it to another designer or agency to execute it if they want.

Or, if they feel comfortable with you, they can hire you for the execution of this strategic plan you’ve created for them. 

Is payment for discovery fair?

If you aren’t being paid, your incentive is to tell the client what they want to hear—to help you land the “paid” work—instead of telling them what’s right for them. 

“Sure we can build that new website for you.”

But how many times have you done work knowing it’s not going to get your client the result they want? By just doing what they’ve asked for, is that helping them or hurting them? 

With paid discovery, you align your interests with your client’s interests.  

Your focus is solely on helping your client succeed by figuring out the best way to solve their problems. 

“Getting paid makes it much easier to be completely honest with clients.”

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With a diagnostic or a discovery session, you’re saying, “Let’s find out if what you’re asking for is what you actually need.”  

You’re paid to test their assumptions and devise a plan to help solve their problem. 

If they walk away after the session, you’re still compensated for your work. 

Getting paid makes it much easier to be completely honestTwitter Logo and share exactly what you are thinking without holding anything back.

Start charging for discovery sessions. You and your client will both be better off for it. 

More on discovery sessions

Read about the 3 ways to strengthen your discovery phase, or chat with other designers about how you run discovery sessions in Community.

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