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What to Do When Faced with Competition for a Consulting Project

Sometimes the behavior of prospective clients is inexplicable. Like shelving a suggestion that would solve their burning problem, or promoting an incompetent person, or rooting for a hockey team from a city that has no natural ice. Or, perhaps, considering consultants other than us for their project.

Three times in recent months I’ve thought I was the only consultant involved only to find out “my” project had been put out to bid or my prospect was discussing their issue with multiple firms. Four times if you count a proposal I’m helping another consultant pull together for a potentially huge, state-funded project. So, what do you do when a prospect lets you know other consultants are in the mix? What don’t you do?

Do: Focus on the client

Don’t: Worry about the competition

Fixating on—or even contemplating competition won’t get you anywhere. Your competition isn’t important. But I’ve got news for you: you’re not so important either.** Your prospects are important. Devote your energy to understanding their needs and wants. Build stronger, trusting relationships by focusing on them.

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In a recent “bake-off” the other consultant requested extra meetings to demonstrate his approach in more depth; I asked for extra meetings to interview each stakeholder in more depth. I got the gig.

Do: Excel

Don’t: Differentiate

As soon as consultants hear there’s competition they start asking, “How can I differentiate myself from other consultants?” That’s a natural, understandable response. It’s also the wrong one. Clients don’t want a different consultant, they want an excellent, reliable solution.

You practically sweat excellence and reliability from every pore when you’re supremely responsive and you give clear, direct answers to their questions. Rather than taking extra time to come up with an answer you hope is impressive, be first in the door with an answer you know meets their needs.

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When prospects ask me how I’m different from other consultants I respond, “Frankly, I’m not focused on whether or not I’m different from other firms, I’m focused on how to help you achieve your goal.” It’s hard to beat that.

Do: Reframe

Don’t: Be attached

When you reframe your prospect’s thinking, there’s a darn good chance you become the obvious solution. The reason you reframe, though, has nothing to do with competition. Altering their perspective demonstrates deep knowledge of the prospect’s situation and creates a more valuable outcome (and project). Knocking other consultants out of the race is a delightful, side benefit.

A prospect who wanted consultative sales training already had someone else picked out by the time he made a “courtesy call” to me. After some insightful questioning I helped him see why sales training wouldn’t work. He needed a larger, broader effort. Two weeks later he signed on.

But here’s an important adjunct to reframing: don’t be overly attached to your view of the world. Odd as it may seem, your prospect may not agree with you. Or, egads, another consultant’s perspective may be better than yours. No big deal. Show some flexibility in your thinking and remain equanimous no matter the outcome. You won’t win every deal, and that’s okay.

Those are just a few suggestions. What else works or doesn’t work when you’re faced with competition for a project? Share your thoughts below.

A related article that may interest you is: 7 Reasons Clients Choose My Firm


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14 Comments
  1. Robin Goldsmith
    March 2, 2016 at 7:38 am Reply

    David, I’m not sure which is better, your cartoons or content.  I’d love to learn how you make your cartoons, freestyle or some pre-built images, or what? Re this article, have you noticed the Republican competition for their Presidential project?

    • David A. Fields
      March 2, 2016 at 9:27 am Reply

      Robin, many moons ago when I was in consumer products marketing we hired a political consultant to teach us the whys and wherefores of political marketing. It’s an interesting perspective, to say the least. Attacking the competition is an (unfortunately) essential part of competing for a political “project.” The candidates certainly aren’t a model for winning consulting business. I agree with you that some weeks it’s a toss up between the “Darwin” cartoons and the text. I’ll post a picture of me creating a Darwin cartoon at some point–an action shot capturing the intensity of drawing stick figures.

  2. Bob Sabath
    March 2, 2016 at 8:41 am Reply

    In fact, you are differentiating but doing it the best way. You are differentiating by listening, observing and understanding better than any competitor.

    • David A. Fields
      March 2, 2016 at 9:29 am Reply

      Totally agree, Bob. We do differentiate in exactly the way you say.

      • Kymberly Tindall
        March 2, 2016 at 1:50 pm Reply

        The cool part of this type of differentiation to me is that there is no tooting of your own horn. The value here seems to be that you stay so dang focused on the prospect that they no longer have use for the question of differentiating. My prospects don’t care about me and why I am so great, they want to know how I can support them in being great.

        • David A. Fields
          March 2, 2016 at 2:08 pm

          Kymberly, I love that line. May even start using it: “Prospects don’t care about you and why you’re so great. They want to know how you can support them in being great.” Very well said.

  3. Steven Feinberg
    March 3, 2016 at 12:28 am Reply

    David…if you don’t have a differentiator then your recommendations are spot on…isn’t being spot on a brand differentiator?

    in any event i am looking for a consultant who is equanimous…

    • David A. Fields
      March 3, 2016 at 7:42 am Reply

      Exactly, Steven. That’s the irony. By not trying to differentiate and, instead, focusing squarely on the client’s needs you end up differentiated.

  4. Tim Kist
    March 3, 2016 at 6:54 pm Reply

    David,

    I try and use the word and approach to be “distinct” rather than “different”. You described excellent ways to be distinct from your competitor and position yourself to be selected.
    Yet another terrific post and a true insight.

    • David A. Fields
      March 4, 2016 at 9:39 am Reply

      I agree with you that whether you are distinct or different, as long as you’re focused on the client you’re more likely to be selected. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience, Tim.

  5. Jaime Campbell
    March 4, 2016 at 12:13 am Reply

    Bonus points for “equanimous,” David.

    Some of the biggest competition we face is a business owner deciding to use the people already on staff (who may or may not be accountants and who definitely don’t have the accounting and/or technology skillset) to do the accounting work.

    The owner thinks that without paying them any more, more work can be produced.

    Which is odd, because we don’t do cold calling. People come to us.

    I can’t say I’ve been terribly successful with these situations.

    • David A. Fields
      March 4, 2016 at 9:45 am Reply

      Jaime, your experience is, unfortunately, common. Prospects call for outside help then decide to use “less expensive” internal staff. You say that owners think that more work can be produced without more pay. My guess is that the issue is capability, experience and skill, rather than remuneration, and that’s the true error employers make. But costs and expenses are concrete, whereas value and risk and capabilities are slippery notions. Thank you for sharing your experience, Jaime.

      Also, you may find this post helpful: Four Ways to Overcome Clients’ DIY Mentality

      • Jaime Campbell
        March 4, 2016 at 1:48 pm Reply

        Thank you, David. Just read the other blog post. Right on point.

        The line that hurt me the most was:
        “The more your prospects believe the path to success is a series of straightforward tasks, the more they will see their goals as attainable through internal resources or inexpensive help.”

        My core skill in life is creating clarity: making complex things look easy. So the next part of the blog was gold for me.

        I also love “deliverable” vs. “outcome.” Yes. Got it.

        • David A. Fields
          March 4, 2016 at 2:12 pm

          Jaime, another quick distinction may help: you make complex things understandable or clear, not easy. There’s an important difference. We want clients to clearly understand what we’re doing… and realize it’s not so easy that they can do it themselves.

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