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A Common Problem for Consulting Firm Rainmakers is Easy to Fix

Mentally transport yourself back in time 50 years to Princeton, New Jersey; a sleepy, college town that’s fertile ground for consulting firms. It’s easy to imagine yourself and a few colleagues walking off a satisfying, business lunch along the town’s shopping district.

You’re soaking in the crisp, spring sunshine, when the bucolic sound of birds chirping is pierced by the voice of a young child:

“Jeff!… Hey, Jeff! … Jeff!”

Involuntarily you and your companions look around. You briefly join the search for this Jeff, then turn you gaze toward the source of the continued, loud calls. That’s when you see…


Yep, that’s five year-old David, hanging out the window of a 1960s, wood-paneled, blue station wagon.

I’m shouting “Hi Jeff!” and “Jeff?” the entire length of Nassau Street (the main drag in Princeton), until my mother finally turns and inquires, “David, who are you calling to?”

“No one,” I respond, shocked as only a five year-old (or teenager) could be that my actions need explanation. “I want to see whether anyone out there is named Jeff.”

My short-lived experiment in gisilindigation** didn’t yield any concrete results; however, looking back I can’t help but be pleased with the consulting methodology.

When it comes to completing assignments, your consulting firm relies heavily on direct investigation. You interview customers, conduct assessments among employees, and pull data directly from offending systems.

Somehow, though, when wending through the business development process with a prospect many consultants abandon straightforward discovery.

They become shy. They’re not sure who the decision-maker really is, what the budget is, or what criteria the prospect is using to select a consultant. Yet, rather than asking the potential client, consultants responsible for winning projects keep their questions inside.

Consultants often stay locked into their emotional car seats, sitting silently with the windows rolled up, wondering whether there’s a Jeff outside.

It’s time to embrace your inner five year old. Better yet, since I’m not sure what you were like in your formative years, it’s time to embrace my inner five year old. Take that direct investigation approach you’re so comfortable with during your projects, and whip it out during the rainmaking process too.

Generally, the best way to acquire information critical to winning a consulting project is just to ask for it.

You’ll find yourself asking childishly effective questions like:

  • “What’s your budget for this?”
  • “What’s the decision-making process for bringing a consultant in?
  • “How will you decide among the consultants you’re considering for this project?”
  • “Why are you bringing in a consultant at all?”
  • “What concerns do you have about hiring us?”

Really, it’s that easy. Just ask. You may be surprised to find that your prospects are glad you inquired.

Then, when your Mom turns around and asks what you’re doing, you can retort in your shocked voice, “I’m winning business, of course!”

What childishly direct questions do you find helpful while you’re in the process of winning new consulting business?

  1. Terry "Doc" Dockery, Ph.D.
    February 20, 2019 at 7:43 am Reply

    Just a note to let you know that I enjoy reading your articles; informative, inspirational, fun.

    • David A. Fields
      February 20, 2019 at 7:53 am Reply

      Right back at you. The consultants in this community, like you, are endlessly interesting and inspiring. I appreciate you reading and adding a comment, Doc.

  2. Jamie Broughton
    February 20, 2019 at 7:58 am Reply

    As always, love how engaging and practical your blog posts are, David!

    • David A. Fields
      February 20, 2019 at 8:17 am Reply

      Theory and big ideas are great, but I like the sound of coins jangling in consultants’ pockets and the look of signatures on their audacious proposals.

      Thanks for your kind feedback, Jamie. You’re a terrific example of a consultant who’s built (and continues to build) a thriving business. What could be more engaging than that?

  3. Carol
    February 20, 2019 at 10:30 am Reply

    David, I really love the analogy of the inner child. And great advice on the questions, because you are right – we get bashful about asking those seemingly difficult questions of potential clients. But the reality is that the potential client wants us to ask questions…because only then can we truly identify the problem, their desired end result, and how we can help them achieve that end result. See you next week!

    • David A. Fields
      February 20, 2019 at 10:49 am Reply

      In this case, the analogy was real life. (Old-time residents of Princeton still report the scars from that traumatic day when youthful cries of “Hey, Jeff!” echoed all the way down Nassau St.)

      Seriously, you’re right that clients want us to ask them questions. They need us to. Questioning (i.e., Discovery), is the heart of consulting. Thank you for highlighting that point, Carol.

  4. Tristram D Coffin
    February 20, 2019 at 1:33 pm Reply

    Hi David,
    In this day when technology can leave some people in an unconnected state of mind, your comments are apropos and totally relevant. Thank you for keeping us on our toes! Tristram Coffin CMC, President of the Colorado Chapter of IMC

    • David A. Fields
      February 20, 2019 at 3:00 pm Reply

      Technology is cool, no doubt. However, technology is no substitute for personal conversations, human connection, or freshly-baked, chocolate chip cookies. Just sayin’.

  5. Julie-ann Pina
    February 20, 2019 at 3:22 pm Reply

    Thank you for this story David. You have such a knack for crystalizing issues that feel complex. You would make a good consultant!
    This picture will stick and continue to help us. Really appreciate your blog.

    • David A. Fields
      February 20, 2019 at 3:32 pm Reply

      You get bonus points for the subtle, stick-figure pun in your comment. (Trade those points in for a hot chocolate after dinner.)

      As consultants, we tend to see the deep complications in the world around us and in our clients’ challenges. Yet, our clients are generally looking for simplicity. I’m glad you touched on that point, Julie-ann. It’s important to keep in mind.

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