The client is being reasonable in asking for a ballpark figure; you and I do that within three minutes of walking into a store. Even less if the prices tags are pinned to the coat sleeves.
There are only two kinds of questions at these “First Meetings”: (a) Financial and (b) Non-financial.
Wasn’t that easy!
Unless the client broaches the subject by asking a question loaded with dollars, I don’t need to mention anything at all financial, especially likely-costs.
But when the client draws a breath, leans back and says “And how much is the likely to cost – Give me a ball-park figure”, I can either make a guess about the resale value of the stadium used by the New York Mets, or I can counter with a question or two of my own, in no particular order:
(1) Do you want the work done off-site, on-site, or a combination of the two?
(2) Do you want a figure for me doing the work by myself or getting an outside programmer to do the coding?
(3) Do you want me to include cost of delivering training to your staff?
(4) Should I include the cost of preparing user documentation?
(5) Should I include the cost of preparing system documentation?
(6) Shall we assume a two-weekly billing cycle?
(7) What length is your payment cycle (I am not a bank)
(8) What level and duration of technical support might you require.
And so on.
These questions are effective, for just as I need to consider what options I might take in preparing the system, so too does the client need time to think about the various methods of working.
Now is the time for the client to state whether or not they want documentation (in this phase). Now is the time for the client to decide how tight a rein they want to keep on me. Now is the time for the client to state whether or not they use me as a bank (“We pay invoices in 60 days” means that I am lending them the money).
Note that the client will find it difficult to specify a “level and duration of technical support” if the specifications of the process are not yet formalized; for the same reason I find it difficult to quote costs, so perhaps “The first step is to get the specifications written”!
In short, any discussion of finance is a two-way discussion.
Make it so.
But be gentle.