When to Walk Away from
Nine Pivotal Questions
by Michael W. McLaughlin
Time is more important than money for guerrillas, so they are smart about
how they invest their time. They don't chase revenue; they seek out profits.
When a client asks you to bid on a project, pat yourself on the back - your
marketing is working. Then take a deep breath and resist the temptation to
dive head first into the sales and proposal process. First, you need to get
the lay of the land to be sure you're setting the scene for success. Finding
the answers to nine questions will help you decide whether the opportunity
has the potential for profit…or peril.
Too many consultants chase after a new project before completing a thorough
evaluation of the project's risk and reward profile. If you do that, don't
be surprised if you end up with an under-funded, over-scoped project that
drains profit from your practice and racks up substantial opportunity costs.
So, skip the qualifying questions at your own risk.
Think of this step like the pre-approval process a realtor goes through
before showing a home. Realtors want to know that a client is serious before
investing time in conducting a search. Guerrilla consultants view the prequalification
step as similarly critical.
Here's what you need to know:
- Can the client clearly articulate the objectives and anticipated benefits
of the project? An ill-defined project often signals that the client
is still wrestling with what needs to be done. In that case, the consultant
can offer to help the client frame the problem, but it's premature to jump
into the sales process. Until you nail down the objectives and anticipated
benefits, expect the unexpected. Project scope and objectives can swing
wildly as others weigh in with their opinion on what must be done.
One consultant fumed that his client burned through seven proposal drafts
before deciding not to proceed with a project. The consultant mistakenly
used the proposal process to help the client define the project. The futile
cycle of proposal revisions was the predictable result.
- Is the project funded? This may seem obvious, but it does get
overlooked. If a project doesn't have approval and funding, or there's no
specific timetable for funding, it doesn't exist. It may not be comfortable
asking a client if the project is funded, but you must gather this information.
Throwing yourself into an unfunded proposal on spec is risky business. Remain
active with the client and be there when the project is approved. But until
that time, keep your business development investment in check.
- What consultant-selection process is in place? Even though most
clients will claim they have a decision-making process, a rational one rarely
exists. Ask the client who will select the consultant and what the criteria
will be. Find out if a deadline has been set for the decision. You should
be able to tell from the answers if the client has an objective selection
process in place. If not, maybe you can help the client develop one.
Beware of the selection committee that has no apparent buyers among the
members. And, if your point of contact on the decision lies in the procurement
department, you've got little hope of getting a straight answer. You're
likely facing off with an ill-informed messenger, not a decision maker.
- Who is really calling the shots? The number one waste of consultants'
time and money is negotiating with non-decision makers. Without access to
the decision maker throughout the proposal process and the project, you'll
struggle to find out where you stand.
The real buyer often delegates the selection process, up to the point of
the decision, to a task force or committee. Whenever possible, contact the
real buyer so you know who you'll actually be working for. Tread lightly,
though, and reach the decision maker through those involved in the selection
process. If you alienate them by going over their heads, you could find
yourself out of the running.
In a recent case, a consultant working with a selection committee presented
a proposal that conformed to the spirit and letter of a client's RFP. The
consultant lost the project, and later learned that the winning firm had
proposed a different project to the real buyer. At times, even the selection
committee loses sight of what's needed, and the compliant consultant pays
If the client is using a committee to select the consultant, find some way
to discuss the details of the project with the ultimate decision maker.
If that access isn't forthcoming, ask yourself if this is an opportunity
to let go.
- Is an incumbent consultant bidding on the project? Incumbents
often have preferred status with clients for new projects, and you need
to know what you are up against. With the rapid rise in master service agreements
and preferred provider arrangements between consultants and clients, the
competitive environment can be less favorable to new competitors. That doesn't
mean you should pass on the project, but it could change your tactics. Be
sure you know the playing field before you step onto it.
- Can your firm really deliver the benefits? Not all revenue is
good revenue, especially if a project is pushing you to the limits of your
ability and motivation for flawless delivery. Before agreeing to do anything,
honestly assess how well your firm's qualifications match up to the proposed
objective and scope of the assignment. If there's doubt, pack up your briefcase
and head home.
If you're sure the assignment is within your grasp, ask yourself if you
really want to do the work. Are you excited about the prospect? Your capability
and strong desire to take on the job will make the difference between success
and failure. If you're lukewarm about a project, your client will see that
faster than you can say "follow-on" work, so listen to your instinct and
pursue the opportunities that excite you.
- What are the opportunity costs? When a consultant pursues a new
opportunity, something else usually falls off the plate. As a result of
a new project opportunity, you may give up another project, delay a proposal,
or skip a vacation. Even if you can't quantify the cost of a new opportunity,
try to find a way to express it. You may find that the work in front of
you is far more valuable than the new work. Assess the possibilities and
carefully weigh them before you begin the sales process.
- Why did the client call you? Often, this is the most revealing
question you can ask, so don't treat it as a throwaway. The answer can tell
you what the client knows about you and your practice. Often, one or more
consulting firms are brought in simply to round out a field of competitors
and keep the presumed winner honest. Listen carefully to the answer to this
question, and remember what isn't said may be as important as what is said.
- Do you buy it? For consultants, pursuing a new project is both
a selling and a buying process. Of course, you have to sell your plan to
the client, but it's equally important that you "buy" the client's representation
of the project, politics, and probability of success.
It's up to the consultant to dig out the details of the project, understand
the client's culture and expectations. If you miss the mark now, your proposal
could be off base and the project could end up in the ditch down the road.
If that happens, you stand to lose as much as-or more than-the client.
Every consultant has a list of qualifying questions. I left mine at nine
in the hopes that readers would help me round it out to an even ten. What
question would you add to the list? Send an email and let me know.
Michael W. McLaughlin is the coauthor, with Jay Conrad Levinson, of Guerrilla
Marketing for Consultants. Michael is a principal with Deloitte Consulting
LLP, and the editor of Management Consulting News and The Guerrilla
Consultant. Find out more at www.guerrillaconsulting.com
Marketing for Consultants:
Breakthrough Tactics for Winning Profitable Clients
by Jay Levinson and Michael McLaughlin
Jay Conrad Levinson’s Guerrilla Marketing revolutionized the way
marketers do business by defying the conventional wisdom that effective
marketing means spending big bucks. He devised highly successful marketing
strategies that rely on creativity, imagination, and energy—instead of money—to
get the job done. Now, Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants applies
the power of guerrilla marketing to the hypercompetitive business of consulting.
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