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Lost a Consulting Gig? Here’s the Real Reason Why

You’d love to boast of 100% close rates—every one of your consulting firm’s prospects signs a contract for a lucrative consulting project. Alas, you and I both know that some great consulting opportunities have slipped away.

Think about a recent project that didn’t come through for your consulting firm. Let’s call it Project X. Did you do something wrong?


Then again, maybe not.

Understanding your consulting firm’s prospective clients is a bit like contemplating the walls of Bryce Canyon in the glare of your car’s headlights. Ribbons of rock appear.

Some geologic layers flash an iridescent response to your light; other strata remain stubbornly dark and unresponsive. It has nothing to do with your light and everything to do with the conditions present when each layer of rock face was created.

Similarly, your prospects’ reactions to your business development process reflect their differing pasts. The approach that resonates deeply with one executive may sound like fingernails on a chalkboard to another consulting prospect.

Occasionally you can—and should—stave off your introspective angst by realizing it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with your prospects’ history and environment.

On the other hand, if your process for winning clients shows consistent weaknesses, investing in a better business development approach is worthwhile.

But what cost you the Project X consulting engagement? Was it your selling process and capabilities, or was it something in your prospect’s makeup?

Below are two sets of post-loss diagnostic questions that will direct you to either improve your business development capability or to walk away from Project X without another thought.

These questions are a starting point for discussion, and I believe you can add a couple more, powerful diagnostics to the list.

Is It You or Is It Them? Diagnostic Questions

Are You Falling Short?

  1. Were you dealing with the decision maker?
  2. Did you say something along the way that caused your consulting prospect to stop hearing you?
  3. Did you conduct a full Context Discussion, walking through all six parts?
  4. Did you compellingly articulate the value of hiring your consulting firm versus other alternatives (e.g., other firms, internal staff, or doing nothing)?
  5. Did you manage objections well, and if fee objections arose, did you manage those well?

Is it About Them, Not You?

  1. Was your consulting prospect experiencing a real, urgent challenge, or was it a passing nuisance?
  2. Did your consulting prospect profess any inherent bias against consultants in general?
  3. Did the consulting project fall victim to internal politics and/or competing forces?
  4. Did your prospect use a sophisticated buying process, or a rigidly simplistic approach such as an RFP?
  5. Were your prospect’s expectations about the cost of consulting realistic?

What else should consultants ask themselves to determine whether their process, or the prospect, was the source of a consulting project that failed to close?

  1. Derek Fields
    January 17, 2018 at 6:19 am Reply

    Another “It was them, not you” question: Were you the obligatory alternative in their procurement process that allowed them to justify the decision they had already made before you showed up?

    • David A. Fields
      January 17, 2018 at 6:48 am Reply

      Yes, prospects call you in without any real intention of using you–it happens frustratingly often. That’s an excellent addition to the list, Derek. Thank you for adding it.

  2. ramz
    January 17, 2018 at 6:32 am Reply

    In my opinion, evaluating the emotional baggage carried by the potential customers would be one really difficult challenge. Perhaps one way is to have a team-building session where we can get the customers to open up during the flying fox or golfing.

    • David A. Fields
      January 17, 2018 at 6:57 am Reply

      In many cases it is unrealistic to expect that you’ll understand the political machinations of a client’s organization or the emotional tangle clouding the decision-maker’s thinking.

      A great discovery process will reveal many issues (hence, the Context Discussion); however, a consulting prospect who’s mostly unknown to you can play the Pied Piper, luring you on winding chase then abandoning you at the end. You may need to invest in a better discovery process and also recognize your prospect used a magic flute.

      Whether it’s worth investing in team-building with these folks is not obvious to me. It’s an interesting idea, though, Ramz, and I appreciate you tossing it into the mix.

  3. Sreeram
    January 17, 2018 at 8:34 am Reply

    I try to understand the lost opportunity costs of a company. It is important to deal with the decision makers. If the first contact with a company is its purchasing department, you need to understand that their metrics may be to minimize procurement costs. They may be missing the big picture, by only dealing with the trees and not the forest. Dealing with decision makers who understand, for example, that saving a month on a $12 million project can justify the high-fees a consultant charges and it becomes an easier discussion with the prospective client. I have observed, many who are new to consulting ending up as bottom feeders by haggling with purchasing. If the company has an annul report, I study it, to understand the pain-points of the company. It is always about understanding the unmet needs of a prospective client.

    • David A. Fields
      January 17, 2018 at 8:52 am Reply

      You packed a lot of good points in a short comment, Sreeram. Negotiating with the decision maker, understanding your prospect’s point of view (a.k.a. Right-Side Up thinking), and addressing your client’s urgent challenges are building blocks of a successful practice. As you’re suggesting, a consultant who neglects any of those can look internally to understand why more projects aren’t closing.

  4. Carl Roodnick
    January 17, 2018 at 8:43 am Reply

    So, I lost three major projects due to being unable to realistically calculate how long a piece of string is.

    Well, not a piece of string really. Rather how to accurately calculate a realistic costing for the time/cost inputs to research, design, and develop training course content, for extensive adult skills-learning programmes, via classroom lessons and hands-on workshops.

    • David A. Fields
      January 17, 2018 at 9:02 am Reply

      Interesting case study, Carl. Without having any depth of insight into what happened, I wonder whether the challenge was your ability to calculate realistic costing or whether it was the lack of an explicit articulation by your prospect of the value of the work they wanted.

      We rarely lose projects due to the cost; however, consultants frequently lose projects because their prospects don’t perceive sufficient value to justify the cost. The issue is magnified many-fold when the consultant allows his prospect to focus on the cost of the ingredients rather than the taste of the cake.

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Carl. You’ve provided a helpful example for me and other readers.

      • Marcie Green
        January 20, 2018 at 9:20 pm Reply

        Time out for a bit of levity? Your reference to “… the cost of the ingredients rather than the taste of the cake.” made me leave the computer screen and go get a tasty morsel of the scrumptious chocolate cake sitting on my kitchen counter!

        • David A. Fields
          January 22, 2018 at 9:50 am

          Wow, and to think that amidst penning those words I sauntered over to the sweets drawer myself… synchronicity!

  5. Jonathan Verney
    January 17, 2018 at 9:25 am Reply

    I would add another scenario, where the CEO-decisionmaker agrees to the fee and to the letter of agreement but then passes it along to his lawyer where it gets bogged down by redline revisions and the momentum stalls out.

    • David A. Fields
      January 17, 2018 at 9:49 am Reply

      Legal. The impenetrable, unforgiving layer of rock that blocks everything. Sure, I’ll go with that.

      (Though I have met some corporate legal departments that are truly partners in growing the business. They’re a rare breed, but pretty spectacular when you find them.) Nice addition to the list, Jonathan.

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