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.
I’m a very black and white person by nature, and that’s probably why I became an engineer. If I know the answer, then I give it, and if I don’t know, then my nature is to say I don’t know.
And you are right. Sometimes a question is not best to be answered, but can be an opportunity to continue discussion. Instead of answering 0 or 1, as is my nature, I am learning to decide which version of grey between 0 and 1 is the right response for this particular discussion, with this particular individual.
Thanks for the thought provoking article.
Great point, Ken. We have engineers on our team, so the 0 vs 1 philosophy is very familiar to me! In addition to seeing the shades of grey in your answers, also consider that the question the client asked isn’t the question they really mean.
“How long will this project take?” sounds like a request for more information with a straightforward 0/1 answer, “Six weeks.” However, by asking for clarification, “Can you give me the context behind your question–is there something about timing you’re concerned about?” you may uncover that there’s actually an objection or some other real question. For instance, the client may be thinking, “If they’re not taking at least 2 months, they can’t be doing a good job and examining all the issues” or “I’m leaving for vacation in four weeks, and the project must be completed by then.”
I appreciate your perspective, Ken, and the opportunity to expand even further on the idea.
Ken, I’m also an engineer and completely agree. This article was a great reminder for me to engage in the gray of human interaction, particularly in conversations around purchasing a service or product.
Looks like the engineers are weighing in today. Woot! Edi, I appreciate you joining the conversation and seconding Ken’s viewpoint.
I don’t think that you can overstate the importance of asking for clarification. Without question, the most common problem that I see in customer interactions is confusion over terminology and unstated assumptions. There are many ways to get clarification, but I find one of the most effective is to tell the customer what I think they said, clarifying their terms and trying to surface their assumptions and compare them to my assumptions. “Is the mole red?” – I might respond with “When you say, red, tell me what kind of red you are thinking about?” or I might say, “I happen to be color-blind, so red doesn’t help me to get you the right answer, can you give me more details about what red means to you?”
The more I can get the customer to engage with me in a discussion, the better I can understand their objections and confusion and then meet them with appropriate responses.
Having said that, I have to say that I almost lost a customer recently by engaging in too much discussion. They decided that I asked too many questions. To recover, I had to bring in someone else who restored their trust that we actually did understand their business. Sometimes it is just about personality.
Well said, Derek, and very good point about assumptions. When a client asks, “How long will this take?” you don’t know whether he’s asking how many calendar weeks or how many person-days or maybe even how many people will be on the project.
And yes, there is a limit to the number of questions a prospect will answer–particularly, if they feel it’s unreasonably delaying progress. Generally, if your questions are showing deep understanding of the business and are advancing them toward a solution, prospects will be very accommodating and even appreciative of the queries.
Thanks for jumping into the fray, Derek!
Ken and Edi, I am a member of your choir as I started my career as an engineer! With focus as my #1 Strength I hear a question and I answer that question. One of the greatest gifts my bride gave me was the phrase, “can you help me understand”. That has opened up conversations that my direct response probably would have closed unknowingly so this post David is timely and valuable! Maybe we could collect some phrases to practice so we can extend the discussion and help develop the connection needed to be built with a potential client!
Awesome, Bill. It’s great when personal and professional best practices align, isn’t it? Sounds like you have a smart spouse! The “can you help me understand” phrasing is lovely in virtually all settings.
Thank you for adding to the conversation, Bill.
Great topic David! In my humble experience, empathy goes a very long way. Listen, ask questions. Sometimes the potential client does not have the same knowledge or depth in the subject matter. One thing that has worked for me on some instances is to send a proposal describing the scope and without the compensation part, this allows me and the to be on the same page on what they really need and expect and whether that understanding was correct o needed fine tuning. Only then send a complete proposal with the compensation proposal.
Indeed, Jaime, we’re in a very human business and paying attention goes a long, long way.
The proposal process you’re describing is very close to the best practice, 2-step proposal process, which starts by submitting a Context Document. There’s nothing wrong with adding an overall approach to the Context Document, though we typically wouldn’t recommend a fully fleshed-out approach yet. Gaining agreement to the context before spending too much time on approach will save time, energy and effort.
Thanks for sharing your insights, Jaime!