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A Simple Step that Wins Consulting Gigs

A number of years ago in Pittsburgh, a small group of onlookers (including me) collectively gasped. The slender, young man we were watching wobbled at the top of his ladder, briefly looking like he was going to fall. Then he deftly kicked out the ladder’s integrated platform and continued his home-show demonstration of the Little Giant ladder. Ten minutes later, every single one of us paid an impressive sum to own the Rolls Royce of ladders.1 That man could close! And so can you.2

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No matter how good (or mediocre) you think you are at winning gigs with potential clients, I guarantee you will close far more projects by incorporating a single question into your sales process.

The prerequisite for this question is that at least four of the six Pillars of Consulting Success are in place with your prospect: Know, Like, Need and Want. Ideally, the two remaining Pillars—Trust and Value—should be firmly established too, but you’re allowed a little wiggle room because this question is going to cement those for you. Note that you don’t need to climb on top of the pillars; we’re selling consulting projects, not ladders.

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As I’m sure you know, when it comes to selling, it’s extremely helpful if you can put yourself in your prospects’ shoes. Looking at the world from their vantage point you have a better sense for what they need, for what will fan the emotional flames of desire to do your project and, most importantly for this discussion, what their objections will be. How do you gain this perspective? First-hand experience helps and empathy is a necessity, but even if you’re lacking in the former and low on the latter, the tool you’re looking for is: questions.

I see too many consultants trying to bull their way through the selling process by extolling the virtues of their “unique” approach which, of course, reduces the clients’ costs, increases revenue, compels all employees to chant Kumbaya, and cleans the dishes without leaving water spots. They supplement the product pitch by grandly presenting their vision, values and pedigree, and rattling off testimonials of satisfied clients who have received extraordinary value (not to mention sparkling glassware).

There’s nothing wrong with pointing out the benefits of your services, but that shouldn’t be the centerpiece of your dialogue. Pitching works for ladders, but not for consulting. Take some time to inquire. That’s what consulting is all about. What’s changed? Why go to the outside? What does success look like? Why bother doing this project? (You can download a handy list of 20 questions designed to uncover higher-value projects at this link.)

Which brings us to the one question that will turn you into a closing monster: “What concerns do you have about doing this project?” That’s it. That’s the magic question. Simply ask your prospect that question and probe to get all their concerns.

Asking for your prospect’s concerns will improve your ability to win business for three reasons:

  1. It surfaces all the objections early in the process. Most consultants are blindsided when the prospect responds to their proposal with something like, “I don’t think my engineering department will go along with this” or the oh-so-common, “The fees are too high.” The consultant is back on his heels, defending his proposal.

But you’ll have already talked with the engineering department, priced the project correctly and anticipated other push-back, because you knew about those concerns before you submitted the proposal. You’re on the offensive, not defending.

  1. It builds trust. The old adage is true: clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. When you ask about their concerns then reflect those concerns in your Context Document and proposal, you demonstrate that you care and that you understand your client. Trust skyrockets, and so do your odds of closing the consulting gig.darwin_asking_concerns
  2.  It builds value. You can design your approach to obviate the client’s concerns, which reduces the risk and boosts the benefits. For instance, if the concern is the engineering department won’t cooperate, you could build a step into your process that co-opts engineering. When the client sees that your approach seamlessly addresses all their concerns, they feel like you are tailor made to help their company and that you will provide far more value than other consultants.

Many consultants are afraid to bring up concerns and risks during their early conversations with a prospect. Those consultants believe it creates an opportunity to lose the project.

Quite the opposite is true. Your prospect has those worries about doing the project and the only difference is when you find out about them—when it’s too late to recover and win, or early enough to use them to your advantage.

Ask your prospect the magic question and you’ll find yourself climbing higher on the Little Giant ladder of success.


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6 Comments
  1. Charlie Garland
    June 24, 2014 at 8:11 pm Reply

    David – This is an excellent piece of advice. It shows that you have one of the most important attributes of a consultant (sales adviser/coach), and that is empathy — thinking outside of your box, and thinking inside the box of the client (prospect). Thank you for making this valuable insight so simple…

    • davidafields
      June 25, 2014 at 8:21 am Reply

      Thanks for the kind words, Charlie!

  2. Stephen Barrett
    June 25, 2014 at 6:58 pm Reply

    Thanks for the tip(s), David. I am new to your way of thinking but I am beginning to like it! It seems that I have to start thinking in totally new ways and address topics which have often alarmed me yet when you suggest doing this it seems so obvious (at least the way you say it makes it seem obvious!). I’ll keep listening and trying. Thanks for the advice.

    • David A. Fields
      June 19, 2015 at 2:04 pm Reply

      You’re welcome, Stephen! There’s a lot of truth in the old bromide that if we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting the same results. Challenging our thinking and trying new approaches is how we all learn. Thanks for giving feedback.

  3. Jaime Campbell, CPA, CGMA, MBA
    June 26, 2014 at 8:17 am Reply

    When we used this approach with a prospective client inside of a context discussion, we were able to use that information to design the engagement radically differently than we would have otherwise, and the prospective client was relieved, excited, and is now anxious to move forward.

    • David A. Fields
      June 19, 2015 at 2:08 pm Reply

      Congratulations, Jaime! I find the exact same results. Just this week a prospect called asking for some work and I had a good idea how I would design the engagement… until I asked the risks/concerns question. His answer completely changed the approach. My original design would have left him unhappy, but I never would have known unless I asked. Thanks for chiming in.

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