Jeff Boyardi, CSO (Chief Sauce Officer) at a Stuphinacan Co. contacts your consulting firm to explore a potential project. You engage in a friendly discovery conversation (a.k.a. Context Discussion) and agree to a follow-up date to discuss next steps.
Alas, Jeff isn’t alone at the next call. He’s joined by his colleague Cam Bell, the CFO (Can Filling Officer), whose demeanor is decidedly cooler and less engaging than Jeff’s. Cam informs you that they’re considering a number of consulting firms.
“We’re also talking to McHighbrow and to Large Associates. How are you better than they are? What makes you different?”
Oh man, you’re in a bake off. That bites.
Whereas an RFP typically follows a formal process, with explicitly outlined selection criteria, a bake off is usually less formal and the decision criteria are a bit fuzzier.
You have three choices when faced with the bake off question: Fill the Circle, Square the Circle or Bow Out.
Remember, a client’s choice among consulting firms is driven almost entirely by Trust.
Trust is based on relationship strength (which can’t be super high if you’re in a bake off) and perceived credibility and reliability.
Rate your consulting firm on a 10-point scale on each of the four credibility/reliability criteria below.
1. Industry Specialization. Your consulting firm specializes in the client’s exact industry sub-sub-segment. To illustrate an industry sub-sub segment: professional services is an industry, consulting is a sub-segment, management-consulting is a sub-sub segment. Don’t confuse some experience in an industry with industry specialization. (The client won’t.)
2. Problem Specialization. You specialize in the exact problem the client is seeking help for, and can cite numerous completed projects with the exact same parameters and situation.
3. Outcome Experience. You have delivered the exact outcome the prospect is looking for based on the metrics the prospect specifies.
4. Other Requirements. Your consulting firm meets precisely any other qualifications specified by the prospect.
If your consulting firm scored a nine or ten on all four criteria, Fill the Circle.
Otherwise, either Square the Circle or Bow Out.
Fill the Circle
Filling the Circle means confidently demonstrating your consulting firm is a round peg precisely designed to fit the round hole.
“I can’t speak about other firms; however, I can tell you why you are extremely likely to achieve your desired outcomes when we work together…”
Don’t take the comparison bait. No matter how bad or ill-suited your competition is to work with your prospective client, do not disparage them or compare yourself directly to them.
Emphasize that your consulting firm fits Stuphinacan’s needs perfectly. You specialize in their industry, have solved their exact problem numerous times, and can reference case studies that illustrate similar clients achieving the desired results.
Square the Circle
Squaring the Circle is reframing the client’s perception of their problem from a round hole to a square hole—which, it turns out, you fit perfectly.
“I can’t speak about other firms. What I can tell you is that most companies in Stuphinacan’s situation think they have a circle problem. In fact, you’re likely to have a square problem…”
Bust out your compelling Core Model and your substantial evidence that the traditional viewpoints (implicitly, those held by Fill the Circle consulting firms) are missing “The Truth.”
“Because you have a square problem, you are most likely to achieve your desired outcomes when we work together…”
Emphasize your experience with square problems and, as much as possible, share case studies that align to their industry, reflect similar situations and deliver their desired outcomes.
Note that even if you’re great at reframing, you’ll lose more than 70% of the time to a consulting firm that can Fill the Circle.
If you don’t Fill the Circle perfectly and you don’t have a powerful reframe, your likelihood of winning the project is low, even if you firmly believe your consulting firm should win the project.
Consider gracefully exiting.
“I can’t speak about other firms. We are very good at what we do, and we can help you.
However, in full transparency we don’t specialize in Stuphinacan’s sub-segment. If you’ve found a specialist in your segment that solves your problem, that may be the place to start.
If you haven’t found a specialist that suits your needs, let me know, and we’ll pick up the conversation again.”
No matter which response you choose, speak confidently and let your consulting firm’s unique personality shine through. Confidence builds Trust and personality (ideally) creates Like.
How have you responded when you’ve faced the bake off question?
Text and images are © 2023 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.
perfectly put! I have a call today with a prospect to discuss how we are different and how we can help them through their regulatory nightmare (banking); your reinforcement of how best to frame the discussion is invaluable, especially problem specialization & outcome experience. When I filled in the circle, not only did I fill he circle, just like grade school I was beyond the lines!
Thanks David, looking forward to our upcoming session in March.
“Beyond the lines…” that’s hysterical, Frank. Your firm is a sterling example of a practice built on exceptional industry and problem specialization, and that sets you up to Fill the Circle when you talk with prospects. (You also have a very talented group of rainmakers and an inspiring leader who will appear on the upcoming season of this podcast.)
Let me know how your call today goes, Frank! I’m looking forward to our encore session too.
David, you are master at taking complexity and transforming into a clear, simple approach/message. Nice work. Well done!
Thank you for your very kind words, Jackie. Simplicity takes time and practice. And, for some of us, it takes effort–it’s amazing how difficult it can be to make a concise point then stop and say nothing else!
I appreciate your feedback, Jackie!
Nicely outlined, avoiding the comparison is the key staying focused on the values/insights/partnerships you bring and offer them. Whether filling in or squaring, I like to emphasize the listening component “we” bring to ensure the true problem is understood and resolved.
You’re absolutely right, Bill. The consulting firm that listens best and conducts discovery best (i.e., the Context Discussion) is set up to be the obvious choice. (That applies as long as the prospect is in their narrow specialty–90% of the Fill the Circle strategy is ensuring you focus on prospects whose problem is a circle!)
Thank you for highlighting the listening point, Bill!
Great article David!
Right timing for me today – talking to a potential client, will use some of these points!
Thanks for sharing these!
Perfect, Rachel! Good luck with the prospect today and let me know how it goes. (Remember, you don’t have to respond to “How are you better?” if the prospect doesn’t ask. Stay Right-Side Up–focused on the prospect, not on you.) Thank you for jumping into the discussion.
David, as always, great points!
I can give you an example that just happened to me. We received an email from a Prime seeking a particular skill set. Due to them sending it out to all in the directory, we were included even though it was not in our wheelhouse. I graciously wrote them a note letting them know their current need was not in our skill set however, it sounded like, in the future, they would need a firm like ours. I included our 2023 Capacity Brief and thanked them for reaching out. Less than 24 hours later, I received a phone call from their business research department stating that my message was forwarded to them via the marketing department. They would like to schedule a meeting to review some of our work as there was a need for additional business researchers and moderators for two other projects they were working on or starting this year. Love it!
Fabulous case study, Shay! You have defined what you do and you stick by it–that creates a powerful, lasting impression with clients and prospects. You’ve illustrated that small firms win more business when they are the best at one thing, not when they try to be good enough at everything.
Thank you for sharing your experience, Shay–it’s incredibly valuable.