Unless you’ve limited your practice to responding to RFPs, winning new consulting projects involves asking questions. Many questions. Like, “What are your objectives?” “By when does this need to be completed?” “How many Navy Seals will I have to train?” and, “Can I negotiate free access to the ice cream machine in your cafeteria?”
Some inquiries are uncomfortable, and for them you need a particular “pre-question” which I’ll explain in a moment.
We’re told we “should” be able to ask about anything, even the most sensitive information. In fact, I’m guilty of instructing the consultants I work with to “Just ask!” How do you know the prospect’s budget? Just ask. How do you find out their personal gains from a project? Just ask. How do you find out who the decision maker is? Just ask. Yeah, right.
If it were that easy, you would have asked already. Clearly there are daunting, internal impediments preventing us from blurting out all our questions. Some part of the resistance is fear that our prospect will be offended or taken aback by our request. That we will be perceived as rude, uncouth, insensitive and not worthy of a project.
That’s a legitimate concern. Were we to blithely fire off whatever questions flit through our mind, unfiltered and unfettered, we could irreparably harm the relationship and eliminate any chance of winning the consulting gig.
The risk of offending a prospect with questions that are deemed inappropriate is particularly high in some Asian cultures; however, even in the brash U.S. of A., it’s doggone easy to pull the plug on your Likeability with a misplaced question.
It turns out there’s a very easy solution to this problem: first, ask for permission.
No matter how difficult, uncomfortable, awkward or sensitive the information is you’re seeking, if you ask for permission and give (or are assumed to have) a good reason, you’re likely to get it. Some variation of “May I…” or “Do you mind if…” is the question that can precede any inquiry.
Asking for permission demonstrates that you’re thinking Right-Side Up. That you’re putting your prospect’s interests first. It doesn’t always work, of course. For instance, a privately-held company may be unwilling to reveal their financial details, no matter what.
However, even if permission isn’t immediately granted, this simple pre-question opens the door for deep, trust-laden communication, and long-lasting consulting relationships.
Below are a few examples of asking for permission that I often use with prospects:
- Are you open to a separate discussion?
- May I ask a delicate question?
- I have to share some results today that are not altogether favorable. Is that okay?
- May I ask a personal question?
Text and images are © 2023 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.