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How to Close Consulting Projects Even After You Lose Them

Some rejections are devastating. Like, “No, I don’t want to marry you,” or, “Sorry, your voice isn’t good enough to play the silent tree in this year’s Nutcracker.

Here’s another punch in the gut:  “We decided not to award the consulting project to your consulting firm.

But, could there be a silver lining or, at least, a project down the road after you lose a consulting project?


Let’s say a prospect decides not to hire you for their consulting project. After you console yourself with a giant bag of M&Ms, consider the likely results of your prospect’s choice, and the implications for you.

You can learn something. The fact is, you’re not the only smart macaroon at the consulting dessert bar.

When a prospect achieves an outstanding result without you, find out how they succeeded. Perhaps they (or another firm) found an approach you can incorporate to improve your offering.

You can save the day and win a project. Although the client may be gun-shy after their preferred course of action failed, they need you more than ever.

Offer to step in and potentially propose a success-based fee structure. That’s a golden opportunity for you to win a high-margin, love-you-forever consulting project.

Clients who achieve uninspired results harbor little urgency or desire to invest more into solving their problem. They have consulting fatigue. (For now.)

Offer advice on how to turn their mediocre results into strong performance. Your immediate reward will be minimal; however, you’ll emerge as the top contender for their next project.


In all cases, your action depends on follow-up. Follow-up is easiest if you set expectations with the prospect up front, when you lost the project. It sounds like this:

You: No worries on awarding the chocolate chips efficiency project to McBozo Consulting. Would it be okay with you if I follow up to find out how the project is going?

Prospect: Sure

You: Terrific. When do you think a good time might be. Maybe after three months?

Prospect: Yes, by then we should have our revised chips line fully in place.

You: Great. Let’s set up a time in May…

Three months later, at the agreed-to time:

Hi Jimbo. Back in February we set today on the calendar to follow up. I know you started the chips project about twelve weeks ago with McBozo Consulting, and I thought I’d check in to see how it’s going.

<conversation ensues>

Have there been any big learnings out of the project so far? I learn from my clients all the time, so I’d love to hear any big “Aha”s that have surfaced.

<more conversation>

When we were chatting about the project, I recall you mentioning that reorienting the liquor funnels was one of the major challenges. Has that turned out to be the case? And I know there were high hopes that reorienting the liquor funnels would deliver 25% throughput gains. Most companies don’t achieve those numbers and I’m really curious to find out how you’re doing so far.

To be successful with this approach, keep three points in mind:

  1. You’re not trying to sell.
  2. Take genuine interest in your client’s progress
  3. Diffuse your prospect’s propensity to become defensive. He won’t want to admit that his decision was wrong. The more you focus on sincerely learning from him, the more likely your prospect is to share openly.

Have you ever had an initial rejection turn into a project later on? Do tell!


  1. ramz
    February 21, 2018 at 9:30 pm Reply

    Dear Mr David, getting the client to share the progress of the project by a competitor would be a delicate matter. I believe that can only happen if there is high trust between the real user and us.

    Sometimes the real user may prefer our services, but sometimes there are higher forces within the organization which may dictate otherwise. And sometimes there are projects which we should steer away from due to resources loading schedule requirements which may not be possible.

    And sometimes some projects carried certain risks which we should avoid. For example, a BPR project may end with some personnel being made redundant. These can be quite risky for some.

    • David A. Fields
      February 22, 2018 at 7:40 am Reply

      You’ve brought up two interesting points, Ramz, both of which are worth considering.

      First, you’re right that conversations in which prospects reveal the good, bad and ugly require some level of trust. Fortunately, sincere interest in your contacts engenders trust! The very fact that you’re interested in him even though you didn’t win the project builds the bond between you. The key is having that sincere interest, not thinly disguising your wish to sell a project.

      Second, there are circumstance in which you don’t lose a project but, as you pointed out, you decline to participate. In those cases you recommended some alternate course of action to your prospect. Following up later to demonstrate your ongoing interest and concern reinforces your relationship, enhances trust, and sets you up to win the next project that you do want to take on.

      Great addition to the conversation, Ramz!

  2. Catrin Dancewicz
    February 22, 2018 at 10:02 am Reply

    Interesting article. I was naturally trying to do this follow-up thing after receiving a “no” back in November. It’s really awkward to follow up on this, but reading your post, I guess I didn’t set it up for follow up at the time to get up-front permission.

    Since then, when asking how it’s going, I get a brief “great” and there is a clear urge for the stakeholder to shift topics. I’m still touching base with them quarterly. Do you have any advice on how I can check in on that project more productively having missed the opportunity to set it up right in the beginning?

    • David A. Fields
      February 22, 2018 at 10:12 am Reply

      You’re right, Catrin, that setting expectations up front makes a big difference. Thank you for providing a case study on that point.

      As you said, your stakeholder may be somewhat reluctant to dive right in on a project you didn’t win, especially if you come at him out of the blue. Remember that prospects are always more willing to share if you ask permission, if you ask for help, and if you ease into it.

      This is one case where Right-Side Up thinking is more subtle. You’re playing into their desire to be helpful and that, on the surface, may look upside down. It’s not. Try something like, “Jimbo, I’m really interested in learning from your experience on the chips project. Would you be open to chatting for a few minutes about your insights, now that you’ve spent a few months solving the chips problem?”

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