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It’s not a rehearsal. Wait… it might be

The first call from a big potential client can be flattering and exciting, but it is important not to assume that their current concerns amount to the need for a major project.

Question: My colleague and I head up a specialist engineering practice in a multi-discipline consultancy. We have a reputation for coming up with innovative solutions to a wide range of manufacturing problems. This week a senior project manager in a multinational client that commissions a great deal of work elsewhere in the consultancy has asked us to come and see him.

Normally, this would delight us, but it’s the second time we have been called in to talk to this guy. A few months ago he appeared very keen to talk to us, and we did a fair amount of work to put an outline proposal together, but then there seemed to be difficulties with the budget, and the matter disappeared into a black hole.

Although he didn’t give much detail on the phone, we know this is a fresh enquiry. He said nothing about the other matter when he called. My inclination is to ask him if he has budget for the project, and not take it further until he has. My colleague is concerned that this would not go down well with other colleagues, and we could get a reputation for being difficult. When I took the call, I bought some time by saying that we needed to check some diary commitments, but would get back to him shortly. Any thoughts on how we should approach this?

Answer: When we are under pressure to achieve, there is a danger that we reduce everything to a binary decision: is the client serious or not? If they were serious they would have a budget. They do not have a budget therefore they are not serious.

But it’s not as simple as that. Often the problem is that we don’t tune-in to where the client really is. The irony is that sales gurus are always encouraging us to hold ‘relevant conversations’ with clients before they have reached the decision to purchase, so that we are able to influence their purchasing criteria as ‘trusted advisors’. But when we are invited to do this, the hidden double-glazing salesman inside us tries to take over and turn the project into cash as soon as possible.

The result is that we treat the enquiry as a ‘sales’ enquiry, and assume the client is well advanced when, in reality, their enquiry is tentative. Clients are partly to blame for this. In order to get the information they need, they will sometimes talk up the certainty of the project.

So, as consultants, how can we avoid this trap? We can’t have our cake and eat it. If we want to be ‘trusted advisors’ we have to talk to people unconditionally. If we continually ask, “Have you got a budget for this?” we immediately become labelled as only being interested in one thing. On the other hand, we can’t just dish out help and information as if there was no tomorrow, in the naïve hope that some kind of karma will produce an order. (Although for what it is worth, my hunch is the more I give away, the more I get back – but I can’t expect you to rely on that.)

We need to try to get inside the mind of our potential client to find out what is really happening. Hunches are not enough; we have to make things explicit.

I suggest you arrange the second interview, but before you do so, see if you can find other consultants in the practice who have worked with this client. Find out how he likes to do things, and his pattern of consultant use.

When you meet him, don’t just dive in and try to solve the presented issue. Ask him how he first became aware of it, and what problems it might present for him. In particular, focus on what might happen if his area of doubt is left unresolved. Remember that one reason consultants are hired into existing teams is not to solve a problem as such, but to reduce the risk of one occurring.

Even if you have checked with colleagues, remember to draw out his views on his use of consultants in the past. If you have not already done so, ask him about his good and bad experiences and what he tends to look for. People will rarely tell you about their criteria for a future purchase, but their past experience is often a good guide. If you are lucky, this will prompt him to tell you what actually happened to your previous proposal.

See it as a positive if he expresses concerns about using consultants. Don’t immediately jump in with ‘reassuring statements’ like, “Oh, we would never do that!” Instead, translate his concerns into requirements. For example, “You would want to be sure that the consultants operated in a way that demonstrated respect for the experience of people that were already here”.

That gives you the opportunity to build the requirement into your solution: “It sounds as if you are looking for a way to reduce the risk on the project, by checking out the viability of your current technical approach. But you want to do this in a way that clearly demonstrates respect for the experience of people who are already on the project team.”

You might need a few goes at this before your client is satisfied, but that’s the point. You are making everything explicit in a way that he can sign up to. If you can’t supply a solution straight away – and sometimes it is wise not to – you will have time to think about it. The details of the solution are not important. Why he wants it is.

So ask him: “If we could do that, how would it help you?” And get him to flesh it out by telling you what would actually be going on – for example what his existing project team would be doing and thinking.

In effect, what you are doing here is redefining what you are offering. In the first instance it sounds as if you were offering a total solution. This time you might find the initial value to the client is an impartial opinion on whether a solution is needed. You can charge him for that, leaving him with the option to consider what to do next. That provides him with a clear break point.

If it turns out that a solution is needed, you will have positioned yourself as the people who are best placed to implement it. If not, you will have been paid for your time and enhanced your reputation as trusted and impartial advisors.

Some time ago, I was advising the mechanical engineering team in a reputable consultancy who told me a story. They too had been trying to break into a prestigious client. They attended many discussions and put everything they could into writing proposals. It was an expensive process, and they became disheartened when their first two proposals were not taken up. However, they were still asked back. The third time they explained that the proposals were expensive to produce and, in the light of what had happened, this time they would have to make a charge.

Somehow that changed the nature of the transaction for the better. Perhaps the difference was not so much the money, but that the client had to show commitment and do some work to progress matters. Perhaps it was because the consultants wrote the proposal in a different way because they were being paid to do it.

Whatever the explanation, your best course is to ask open-ended questions that encourage the client to tell you why you are really there. In the short term, it might only result in a small piece of work that helps them get their thinking straight. But this should be seen as an opportunity to get to know your client and demonstrate your ability to deliver value.Final