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How to Overcome Your Consulting Prospects’ Fear (So They’ll Call You Back)

With a sigh and subtle shake of your head, you send one more outreach email to Pippi Burntkernels, the co-founder and COO of Plumper Popcorn, Inc. A few months ago, you and Pip had a great conversation about their operations, and you gave some advice on effectively instituting a better butter beater process.

You know that if you and Pip keep talking, there’s a consulting project at Plumper for your consulting firm.

But she doesn’t return your phone calls, nor has she responded to any of your emails. What’s going on?

Jangling between your ears is the fear that Pippi’s thinking:

“Isn’t it obvious I don’t need or want consulting advice? I wish he’d stop contacting me.”

That would bite. And that fear makes you hesitant to pick up the phone or to shoot Pippi another email.

It’s possible your fear is correct. However, it’s irrelevant.

Let’s go back to the most important, fundamental rule of consulting:

Consulting isn’t about YOU, it’s about THEM

“Them,” of course, refers to your prospects and clients.

That’s why your fear is irrelevant—your fear is about you.

Ignore the fearmonger in your head so that you can pay attention to the voice in your prospect’s noggin. That’s the important one.

Below are a handful of possible stories Pippi has been telling herself the last couple of times you’ve reached out. (I’ve also included my guess of the likelihood of each story.)

  1. Huh. Another message from that consultant. I’m impressed with his persistence I really don’t need him now. I’ll just delete this. (40%)
  2. Man, I can’t believe I’ve never returned his call. I really should have, and now I feel awkward and a bit embarrassed. (4.5%)
  3. Yikes, I never followed the great advice that consultant gave me last time we talked. If he asks about that, I’ll look like an idiot. (4.5%)
  4. We have too many blackened puffs… I have to get the fryers sorted out. (50%. Sorry, your outreach didn’t even register in Pippi’s head. She’s totally focused on her burning issues.)
  5. What a jerk that consultant is. I can’t believe he called me again.  (1%)

The chance Pippi has reacted negatively to your follow-up attempts is pretty remote.

Far more likely is that Ms. Burntkernels is so focused on fighting fires that she’s not paying attention to you. The other likely alternative is that she’s paying attention, has decided that further discussion with you isn’t warranted, but isn’t polite enough to let you know.

You can try to break through to a preoccupied prospect, of course, but unless your consulting firm solves her immediate problem, you’re puffing against a stiff wind.

Much more interesting is the roughly one-in-ten chance that Pippi’s not returning your calls because of her fears.

You can noticeably increase the number of prospects who respond to your outreach by addressing their potential discomfort and awkwardness.

Offer Pippi a safe space to overcome her reluctance to call you back by:

  1. Demonstrating that she is valuable, despite any minor missteps.
  2. Normalizing any self-perceived “failures” on her part.

Practically speaking, this means your email or follow up to Pippi should sound something like this:

“Hi Pippi. Can we connect for a few minutes? You’ve probably been insanely busy, which I totally get. Anyway, I hope we can grab a quick phone call because you always have interesting insights, and I really value them.

Also, you could give me an update on whether you were able to take any steps on the better butter beater we talked about or whether that fell by the wayside. (Everyday fires have a way of crowding out good intentions!)”

That entire message is Right-Side Up. It’s about Pippi, making her feel appreciated and useful, and excusing any lack of progress.

There’s still a good chance Pippi’s gone dark because she’s busy or disinterested. But by allaying her fears of looking bad, you’ve increased the likelihood of luring Pippi back into conversation.

And, as you know, conversations are where most, new consulting engagements pop up.

Have you ever hesitated to call someone back because you were embarrassed at what you’d have to admit to them?

  1. Terry Pappy
    February 26, 2020 at 6:52 am Reply

    David, I appreciate you distinguishing their emotional takeaways and “stories” the prospects have re early interactions. I have found that when I take the Right-Side Up approach similar to your example PLUS consistent/persistent follow up is often appreciated by the prospect, and they often acknowledge the follow up later on. In the end, being more “human” and realizing that there are emotional facets that impact our connection with potential clients (on both ends, honestly), is a good awareness to have.

    • David A. Fields
      February 26, 2020 at 8:04 am Reply

      Consulting is a person-to-person business, which means deeply personal factors like emotions and experiences loom large in our prospects’ decision-making process.

      You’re smart to combine emotional awareness with persistence, Terry. That’s a magic formula, and I appreciate you sharing your experience with it here.

  2. Dan Markovitz
    February 26, 2020 at 7:06 am Reply

    David, if you’re going to break out alliterative tongue twisters, you’ll have to reckon with the ur-twister: Dr. Seuss’s “Fox in Socks.”

    Here’s the text
    Here’s Marvin Miller reading the tongue twister at normal speed
    — And to really amaze you, here it is at unbelievably fast speed

    • David A. Fields
      February 26, 2020 at 8:31 am Reply

      Consultants’ consultants court clever clients with corny copy.

      And puns.

      Ted Geisel’s work is a staple in our household, as is the construction of word avalanches. (Our Storrs store-doors store story has persistently plagued us for a couple of decades already.)

  3. Kevin Dougherty
    February 26, 2020 at 9:10 am Reply


    Great article and suggestions.

    Thank you much,


    • David A. Fields
      February 26, 2020 at 9:22 am Reply

      You betcha! I appreciate you reading and giving feedback.

  4. Dan Janal
    February 26, 2020 at 4:08 pm Reply

    Great reframe! I can do this!

    • David A. Fields
      February 26, 2020 at 5:17 pm Reply

      Indeed you can, Dan. None of this is complex–it’s just a matter of remembering to stay Right-Side Up. (And that’s surprisingly difficult.)

      Thanks for chiming in!

  5. Ron Tracy
    February 27, 2020 at 9:10 am Reply

    Well put, David. I’ve got the persistence side down pat – haven’t we all. 🙂 Thanks for shining a light on the emotional side of the equation.

    • David A. Fields
      February 27, 2020 at 9:18 am Reply

      Good on you for being so comfortable with your persistence that you think everyone has that aspect of business development nailed. Plenty of other readers haven’t mastered persistence and will find your position inspiring. I’m glad you shared it.

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