The phone rings—with a potential client on the line telling you he’s interested in your services. And, he’d like you come in and make a presentation. Beware! There’s a high possibility if you’re a consultant or sales rep you’re going to be disappointed. Very disappointed.
As often as not, the client has already made a decision and he wants to use you to confirm the decision he’s already made. You’ll be giving away your time, your planning, your intellectual software--and walk away frustrated by the fact that you’ve been used.
One frustrating learning experience
Quite a few years ago, one of my long-term clients told me that his boss--a person he just happened to have little respect for--had asked about my coaching services and been given my name. Shortly afterward, I got a phone call from the VP, asking me to come in and talk about my services. I walked into a conference room with him, and a few minutes later, in came his director of human resources. She immediately sat down and asked about my services, my coaching processes, my success/failure rates, telling me also specifically what “I needed to know.”
Being quite gullible at the time, I shared proprietary information and spent an hour answering her questions and listening to her analysis of the situation. As the meeting closed, the VP said he’d get back to me. A few days later the HR director called, saying she’d decided to work with another firm. The job was wired and I’d been screwed. It was obvious that I was used to confirm a previous decision.
I’ve learned a number of things from such experiences. For example, if a person tells me exactly what he wants without my analysis and input into the situation, there’s a high possibility he doesn’t know what the hell he really needs. Furthermore, if he knows exactly how I should go about the job, that’s another red flag. And if a client wants to know specifically and immediately how you’re going to solve the problem, there’s a high potential that you were brought in solely to gain free ideas for confirmation of decisions already made. All of these situations mean that there’s little possibility of a job--and that you’re being used.
Avoiding customers not ready to buy
As a result of these experiences, I’ve taken a number of steps to make certain that I never fall for them. Here are my strategies:
- Do a brief interview of the customer on the phone. Take the time then and there to start assessing the potential of the situation. Ask questions and get the person to detail his needs and objectives. Even ask who else he’s talked with about the service you offer. Pay close attention to how the client prioritizes his need. It can be a very long time from contact to contract. Depending on the size of the potential contract, the conversation may not be worth your time.
- Tell them you charge for the interview. Sometimes you’ll get a monetary offer for an interview without asking. Recently a marketing firm wanted to talk with me over the phone about a number of issues regarding senior clients, promising a $50,000 job with one of their customers and offering me $200 for my hour-and-a-half conversation. I knew very well that the promise of a contract is worthless, but I said I’d think about it. So they sent me a list of the information they wanted. I turned them down flat. The manager called me back, asking if I’d give them an hour for $200 and help them analyze a proposal they were making. First of all, I told them, I don’t work for $200 an hour and secondly, what you’re asking for is exceedingly valuable information. So unless you’re willing to sweeten the pot, thanks, but no thanks.
Problem solving for clients in an interview inevitably involves my proprietary, intellectual software. Let the client know he’ll be charged up front for the interview. Physicians do it all the time. Unless the client is one with which you’ve had a long-term working relationship, up front charges are fair game. I’ve never had that expectation dashed. Furthermore, the surprising consequence is that the majority of the 20 to 25 times in which I made the demand, I also received the job. I think, without looking at related research, that most business people appreciate a consultant who knows what he’s worth and will agree to the contract without discussion.
- Briefly discuss the client objectives and talk about tentative parameters before you commit to a presentation.
You may find it useful to talk about tentative solutions and objectives. But be certain the client understands they’re tentative.
- Be ready to undo the client’s decisions
Very often clients think they know what they need. However, you should always approach the first meeting as an opportunity to remake the client’s problem, solution and even objectives rather than merely respond to them. You’re brought into a situation because you have a product or service that a client needs and can’t handle with his staff. By seeking to undo the decisions the client has already made, you will find needs the client may be unaware of—and, of course, offer solutions you can provide.
- Plan for contractual revisions.
In some situations, the client will definitely want your services, but won’t like the intitial proposal. You may need to make several revisions, plan for several meetings and do quite a bit of joint thinking before you and your client reach agreement. Again, make certain that your client understands that an interview fee will be paid up front separately, and/or be included in the final contract.
- Be ready to walk away. Don’t be a wuss. If the conversation has gone nowhere by 30 minutes, get up and walk away. Otherwise you’re going to be the loser.
The more proactive your approach to the client’s phone call, the better the results for you. The passive consultant or sales rep who permits the client to make the bulk of the decisions, will find himself on the short end of the stick. You want seriously relevant information before you get into a decision mode. Clients who are resistant to these approaches are not worth your time. I’m aware that a great number of consultants, even sales reps, might find some of these protective steps gutsy. However, they’re quite realistic and very much to your advantage.
Flickr photo: by angusmci