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The Mistake that Costs Your Consulting Firm Winnable Projects (and How to Fix it)

Consider reality talent show contestants for a moment. Many have modest talent (at best) and are, nevertheless, shocked when they fail out of the competition.

They exhibit what appears to be an inexplicable overestimation of their own talents.

You and your consulting firm occasionally suffer from the same lack of awareness in a particular area that is absolutely critical to winning (and successfully completing) projects:

Listening.

Effective listening is like consulting pheromones—rendering you irresistibly attractive to prospective clients.

Listening reassures prospects on all three points of the Trust Triangle. It demonstrates you’re paying attention to your prospect’s needs, you won’t hurt them (by ignoring them) and you’re likely to help them.

And, of course, listening allows your consulting firm to conduct effective discovery, which is how your consulting firm becomes the obvious choice on a consulting project.

Yet, despite a lifetime of practice and heightened awareness of its importance, you employ listening imperfectly and inconsistently.

For good reason.

Listening requires active use of attention and short-term memory, both of which face low, cognitive limits. Your brain prioritizes urgent, dangerous, personal and unresolved issues, and deprioritizes nice-to-know information.

Hence, if an unsettled question preoccupies you (“I can’t believe Sheila ate my cocoa-dusted pomegranate seeds again. Should I mention something to her?”) then it’s nigh on impossible to listen to the non-threatening, unremarkable prospective consulting client in front of you.

How can you ensure you’re paying attention to the important person in front of you rather than internal issues?

By recognizing signals that you’re not listening.

My team and I assembled a handful of signals that you’re not listening or, at least, you’re not demonstrating to your consulting prospect that you’re listening.

If you notice any of the signs below, your consulting firm is at unnecessary risk of losing the project. Bring your attention back to the client.

10 Signs You’re Not Listening Well to a Consulting Prospect

You interrupt your prospect repeatedly.

Your prospect repeats something s/he said earlier.

Your prospect grows frustrated during your conversation.

Your prospect answers the wrong question twice. (When a consulting prospect doesn’t understand your query twice in a row, you’re not connecting with them well enough.)

After you restate what you heard the client say, they respond with something like, “No” or “Not exactly,” or “Yes, but…” rather than “Yes, that captures it exactly.”

Your prospect is reluctant to share the information you need. (This is more often a listening problem on your part than a recalcitrance problem on their part.)

Your prospect appears to contradict themselves when you reframe their statements.

Your prospect becomes apathetic or disengaged.

You’re imagining what you’ll do or say after your conversation with the prospect is over.

What else?

What are some other signs you (or someone else) isn’t listening well?


20 Comments
  1. Dan Monaghan
    March 23, 2022 at 6:00 am Reply

    The “deer in the headlights” eye contact. The “bobblehead” head nod. Failing to take notes.

    • David A. Fields
      March 23, 2022 at 9:28 am Reply

      Three excellent signals, Dan. It’s easy to imagine them all running together, too… being caught mentally napping by a question, you look like a deer in headlights, then bob your head inanely while you hunt futilely for help on your pad with no notes. Yeah, that’s a good sign you’re not on track to win business!

      Thanks for the clever additions, Dan.

  2. Matt Fox
    March 23, 2022 at 7:40 am Reply

    I’ve been on both sides of this dynamic: as a client engaging consultant teams and as a consultant myself.
    As the client, the worst thing you can hear too quickly is “let me tell you what we see” or “this is how companies like yours are” comments from a consulting team.
    As the consultant, I’ve been keen to engage early and show I understand the firm’s situation or problem (especially if it fits a trend/pattern) and have tripped over myself to try to communicate my appreciation or understanding of the client’s position.
    Its hard to hold back, as it feels like a lack of engagement, but I think clients want you to ask:” what do you need me to understand/who do you need me to talk to?” longer and more often than sometimes feels natural.

    • David A. Fields
      March 23, 2022 at 11:03 am Reply

      You are so right, Matt, that many consultants rush into the breach. I’ve seen consultants walk out of an initial conversation with a client and remark, “Well, we know exactly how to solve that client’s problem.” Maybe they do, but maybe they don’t. They don’t have enough information and haven’t dug deep enough to strut with that level of confidence/arrogance.

      Your encouragement to hold back and listen, even past the point that you’re itching to start showing off your smarts, is good advice. Thanks for sharing it, Matt!

  3. Ruth Winett
    March 23, 2022 at 9:36 am Reply

    Another sign that consultants are not listening is that the consultants talk about themselves. They summarize their bios or their companies’ successes.

    • David A. Fields
      March 23, 2022 at 11:05 am Reply

      Good point, Ruth. If you’re talking about you, you’re not listening to them!

      Excellent addition to the list of signals, Ruth. Thanks for chiming in!

  4. Sreeram Dhurjaty
    March 23, 2022 at 10:17 am Reply

    Often, a client can detect inattention from the body language of the consultant. Active listening should employ proper body language to indicate to your client that you are, fully, engaged with your client’s problems.

    • David A. Fields
      March 23, 2022 at 11:08 am Reply

      Totally agree, Sreeram. Where you look, in particular, indicates whether you’re paying attention. Even in a web meeting, if the client sees your eyes wandering all around, they’ll assume you’re looking at programs, and browsing the web for a good deal on cashew bars rather than listening to them.

      I appreciate you raising that important signal for me and other readers, Sreeram.

  5. Tomaž Vidonja
    March 23, 2022 at 11:15 am Reply

    Consultant not taking notes is another clear sign he or she is not listening.

    When writing messages from the prospect can be later properly processed, and consultants can’t memorize everything said during the discussion.

    • David A. Fields
      March 23, 2022 at 3:35 pm Reply

      You may find some consultants have different viewpoints on this one, Tomaž. There’s an argument to be made for attending fully to the person in front of you rather than attending partially so that the remainder of your attention can be on the act of note-taking. That’s particularly true if an interaction can be recorded.

      I, personally, am an inveterate note-taker; however, I respect those who focus fully then jot notes afterwards.

      Whether you’re taking notes or not, pay attention to the person you’re talking to! That’s my takeaway from your smart comment, Tomaž!

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