Consultants frequently (and unknowingly) mishandle proposal discussions with prospective clients. As a result, they take on projects that were improperly scoped. Or they set their consulting firm up to disappoint the client, leave opportunities on the table or, in some cases, lose promising engagements.
Imagine you submitted a proposal to Sara Noé, CEO of Bean-Free Holays, Inc. to enhance customer satisfaction with their lineup of dinner products. It’s a center-of-the-plate project for your meal optimization consulting firm.
If you handle the proposal review discussion well, you’ll win a year-making project and, potentially, a long-term client. On the flip side, if you butcher the conversation, you’ll spoil your chance to work with Sara’s team and leave a bitter taste in their mouth.
Sara kicks off the discussion with a seemingly simple question: “You’re recommending a mole sauce in phase 1 of the engagement. What color mole?”
Since you were planning on a mole rojo. Should you blurt out, “Red”?
During project negotiations, clients frequently mix approach and intent in inconsistent, confusing, and sometimes misleading ways.
Your prospective client may pose a query or make an assertion. Behind either one could be a desire to clarify downstream impact, to change an undesirable aspect of the consulting engagement, or to determine whether to raise an objection.
Unfortunately, not all attempts to understand impact are phrased as questions, and not all objections are asserted directly.
“Phase 1 doesn’t seem like it should take 3 weeks” is stated like an objection, but it may actually be a request to clarify when the tasting panel should be assembled.
“Could you explain why you’re charging $3M extra for the chocolate tostada option?” may be Sara’s polite way of pointing out that your fees are too high.
So, when Sara asks, “What color is the mole sauce?” she could be hinting at a potential objection—she doesn’t like tomatoes, or she could be thinking that she likes to color-coordinate the rest of the meal.
If you miss her intent, you could lose the project or lose an opportunity to expand the consulting engagement.
Your first step, therefore, whether a client makes an assertion or asks a question is always the same:
Ask for clarification.
Always, always, always.
Even if the question seems obvious or the assertion appears direct, ask for clarification.
If your consulting client is raising an objection, employ objection-handling best practices, including the Strategic Delay.
If, however, your consulting client is looking for understanding or, more likely, deciding whether to raise an objection, respond using distinctions.
When faced with what appears to be a clear-cut request for understanding, consultants often give an insufficient answer. (“The sauce is red”)
Conversely, many consultants unhelpfully provide definitions, case studies and examples. (“It will reflect light with a wavelength between 620–750 nanometers.” “It will resemble the color of a baby’s cheeks outside in December.”)
Instead, point out what the subject of confusion is and what it isn’t.
“Our red mole is the color of Santa’s suit after he’s gone down the chimney, not a pristine Santa’s suit, Satan’s suit, or redlines on a lawsuit.”
Distinctions are more effective than simple explanations at creating understanding. They also resolve potential objections effectively.
Common requests for understanding, such as duration (“How long will this take?”) and resource requirements (“How much time will this take me?” “Who needs to be involved?”) can all be answered optimally with distinctions.
“Up to three weeks, but definitely not more than five.” Or “We’d must talk to the C-suite, we’d like to involve the VPs and we don’t need Directors or below.”
- Always ask for clarification, whether facing questions or assertions
- Use objection handling best practices to respond to objections
- Use distinctions to clear up any confusion or gaps in information
What’s a common request for clarification you encounter? (Optional: How do you provide clarity?)
Text and images are © 2023 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.