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Why Your Consulting Client’s #1 Priority Shouldn’t Be Yours

Let’s say your consulting firm wants to lasso a few new clients. (Sounds far-fetched, but go with me.) You should search for companies whose number one, burning priority is addressing the problem your consulting firm solves, right? Wrong.

For instance, let’s say you’re targeting the Fortune 500 newcomer ThimbleCurry, Inc. to enrich your portfolio of clients. Intuitively, you maximize your odds of winning a project at ThimbleCurry by:

  1. Nurturing a relationship with Tim “Don’t Call me Red” Scarlett, the CEO;
  2. Solving Tim’s most pressing issue: how to increase the dimple count on their signature thimbles.

Alas, your intuition leads you astray on both counts.

Tim’s subordinates are more likely to be decision-makers on consulting projects than he is and, in fact, their subordinates may be even more likely customers for your consulting offering. Aim low. (See page 37 in this book.)

Further, in all likelihood, Tim is already pulling a Vin Diesel on his top problem; i.e., he’s working Fast and Furious on dimple counts.

In most cases, prospective clients are already in motion on their hottest issues.

Yes, prospects who call you out of the blue may be motivated by their most pressing need. That’s true for your current clients too.

But when you’re out prospecting for new clients, look for companies whose Second Circle priorities are the problem you solve.

Your proposition to Tim sounds something like, “Since we’re experts at digital metallurgy, we could take the thimble weight problem you mentioned off your hands. That allows you to focus more on the dimple density issue.”

In other words, “Tim, if you let us work on the Second Circle, you’re more likely to nail the bullseye. (With a thimble.)”

Of course, as you chat with prospects, you have to discover whether your consulting firm’s specialty fits in their Second Circle. Your question for prospects is:

“What are the high priority issues and challenges that you haven’t been able to tackle yet?”

Or, when inquiring about what’s going on in your prospects’ worlds, you can employ two of the most powerful words in a consultant’s vocabulary: “What else?”

If you tend to find yourself submitting proposals that never get signed, you may be chasing projects in the outer circles. Combat that time-sucking issue by asking prospects,

“In the grand scheme of things, how important is this project to you?”

Invest limited (or no) time and energy pursuing low-priority projects.

Historically, which type of project has been easier for you to win–Second Circle or bullseye projects? Share your experience below.

  1. Will Bachman
    December 6, 2017 at 6:12 am Reply

    Great framework! And I am working right now to memorize this question: “What are the high priority issues and challenges that you haven’t been able to tackle yet?”

    One might distinguish between proactive client development and reactive.

    For proactive client development, your advice to focus on the second circle makes a ton of sense and is a great insight to me.

    Many independent consultants I know get a lot of projects that are more on the reactive side. I.e., a client has a project starting, it is the hot item on the CEO agenda, and there is a lot of dust flying. And the client has realized that they simply don’t have the resources to get it done and they are desperate to get help to start on Monday. That’s a Bullseye project. And to get hired for a Bullseye project, you don’t necessarily need to be the most qualified consultant in the world for that particular need: you need to be the first qualified consultant who is credible and available that the client calls. So the key for those projects is to be the consultant who is top of mind with a sufficient number of executives.

    What’s your perspective? Long term, do consultants create more value for their practice with proactive or reactive client development?

    • David A. Fields
      December 6, 2017 at 7:11 am Reply

      Thanks for the very thoughtful and insightful comment, Will. I wholeheartedly agree with the distinction you’ve made.

      Most boutique and solo firms strive to increase the number of projects that come into them, or in your parlance are reactive.

      However, relying 100% on reactive projects is a dangerous Business Development strategy. That’s why you should be actively seeking Second Circle projects from target prospects while you’re handling the bullseye projects that are coming into your firm.

  2. Elvis
    December 6, 2017 at 9:17 am Reply

    Aiming low vs. going after decision makers!

    Hello David, thanks for the interesting article and even better book Guide to Winning Clients. I am halfway through reading it, and it is an excellent source of inspiration, ‘know how’, information, and encouragement.
    As you can see from my title, it seems your article suggest to go lower and not to spend time with the top dog. Alan Weiss, if I am not mistaking, suggest opposite approach, target those who can make decisions, people in top echelons.

    Further, what would be your advice for non-U.S. based people like me who want to start the consultancy business. Outside the U.S. the culture of dialogue as described in your book and this article and relations are not so apparent. Usually, in my field, capacity development, good governance and democracy development, clients are organizations such as UNDP, World Bank, and similar and they have strict rules not allowing space for persuasion and exchange. Their bottom line is, submit your proposal by using our template, along with the financial proposal, make it cheap, and wait to hear from us.
    I will appreciate your insights and comments back.
    Thank you!

    • David A. Fields
      December 6, 2017 at 9:59 am Reply

      Elvis, some clarification is in order: I absolutely recommend you target decision makers. In fact, in the book and elsewhere, I recommend segmenting your contact list based, in part, on each person’s ability to sign a consulting project with your firm. The error many consultants make is thinking they should aim for the top of the organization or the highest level decision maker. Two points to keep in mind:

      1. CEOs of very large organizations typically don’t make the hiring decisions on consultants–the next level down does.
      2. You should always look for the lowest level decision maker that has the desire to solve the problem your firm solves and the budget authority to bring you in.

      My experience with consulting outside the U.S. is that the same rules apply virtually everywhere except in some countries in Asia. What changes from culture to culture is the level of formality, the speed with which trust is extended, and the extent to which relationship trumps expertise.

      The situation you’re describing is what consultancies that work with governmental agencies face all over the world. Typically, there are three types of projects: Projects that are sole sourced and never go out to bid; projects that appear to be open for bid, but for which one consultancy has the inside track; and projects that are truly out for fair bid. The third type of project is the least common and, by and large, the least profitable to pursue. To succeed in these markets you must build the relationships that allow you to win the first two types of projects.

  3. Sam Klaidman
    December 6, 2017 at 11:44 am Reply


    I’m not sure which is more important, the content in the post or the content in the comments. Fortunately, we don’t have to choose.

    I’ve had a small number of projects that were driven by the CEO and got funded but not implemented because the lower levels have neither the capascity or desire to solve the and the CEO moved on to the next shinny object.

    • David A. Fields
      December 6, 2017 at 12:03 pm Reply

      Sam, the conversation and discussion in the comments definitely enhances the content. (Thank you for contributing to the conversation!)

      Your experience is interesting. I’ve seen projects fail to stick because there wasn’t a long, implementation tail built in. On top of your good work winning those projects and collecting the fees, you may want to include some buy-in and implementation phases into the project design. Just a thought. (By the way, though I don’t mention it often, there’s a good discussion of how to make project results sticky in The Executive’s Guide to Consultants.)

  4. Debbie G
    December 6, 2017 at 1:59 pm Reply

    Please say more about how to determine if someone is a lower level decision maker or the ultimate decision maker.

    • David A. Fields
      December 6, 2017 at 7:28 pm Reply

      Debbie, I think the distinction you’re making is between influencers and decision makers. The ultimate decision maker is the decision maker, no matter what level of the organization he occupies–there’s no “sub-decision maker.”

      What you’re looking for is the lowest level person in the organization that is a legitimate decision maker for your consulting; i.e., who can hire your firm. How you find that person depends on where you are now–whether you have to be introduced up the chain to a higher-level person or down the chain to someone who actually cares enough to hire you.

      • Debbie
        December 18, 2017 at 1:38 pm Reply

        Good point. If one is speaking to a member of the senior leadership team, how would you determine if they are the influencer or the decision maker? In some organizations I’ve found the decision maker is the senior executive and in others I’ve found out later than I’d like that it’s really the owner/CEO/President. Does this differ if you are working with a mid-size company vs a larger company?

        • David A. Fields
          December 18, 2017 at 6:27 pm
        • Debbie
          December 20, 2017 at 10:24 am

          Thank you for pointing me to this article. So many great ones from the past, that have terrific insights. Do you find it’s best to use the decision story question during the context discussion or earlier when you’ve identified an opportunity? At what point would you begin to engage the real decision maker in the process?

        • David A. Fields
          December 20, 2017 at 10:41 am

          Debbie, once you identify an opportunity you start the Context Discussion. You bring in the decision-maker as quickly as possible.

  5. Debbie
    December 18, 2017 at 1:42 pm Reply

    This question “What are the high priority issues and challenges that you haven’t been able to tackle yet?” is an awesome one. I’m wondering about the timing. Would this works best when you are at the end of a quarter? For example in Jan, most clients are now beginning to tackle their 2018 goals/plans, so I’m thinking this question will be too early in the year for Jan/Feb conversations.

    • David A. Fields
      December 18, 2017 at 6:29 pm Reply

      The question is appropriate any time. Executives are always working on goals and leaving other goals unmet/unaddressed. Don’t wait. Ask now.

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