As consultants, we’re constantly receiving client requests for information, meeting new people at events and meetings, receiving RFPs, creating proposals for potential work, when we’re not creating new research projects, analyzing data or meeting with existing clients – in short, there’s a constant cycle of clients in an out, all of which need attention of various kinds. This is normally a good problem to have, but there’s a trap in there that can and should be avoided.
Even with top-notch marketing, a full sales funnel, and great clients, there are many prospects who solicit our attention that should not ever become actual clients. Unfortunately, they look on the surface just like the one’s that should! How to tell the difference? Of course, tighter lead screening, higher vetting standards, and other preliminary processes will cut down on the tire-kickers and time wasters. But what about those who seem earnest, sincere and clearly need help, but that end up wasting a lot of time and asking lots of questions, but don’t ever really have the wherewithal or ability to engage at the stated fee level or project scope? You’ve gotten to know them, you’ve adjusted timelines to allow for lower budget milestones, they’ve stated their desire, but either can’t or don’t act, sign the contract and start gathering information to engage the service.
Were there signs of this type of behavior earlier in the process, flags that were missed or ignored? My guess is yes, but without a high level of transaction volume, they can each be explained away as an anomaly or one-off problem, so that no trend or pattern develops. This kind of activity negatively affects productivity and profitability, so it’s worth a little time to track down the commonalities and causes for this type of behavior on the part of the prospect. Here’s a few additional flags we’ve uncovered:
- Have they ever worked with a consultant or freelancer before? Unless their corporate culture and structure and budget type allow for the use of freelance labor, especially hourly or open ended contracts, beware. It’s not something to enter into lightly, and their ability to work with you largely depends on them being comfortable with the arrangement, both ideologically and financially. If it’s a new thing, you’re the guinea pig in the experiment, and the risk is extremely high for you as the consultant.
- Have they set aside the management time and the access that comes with it, to give you the real story? Many first time consulting clients think that once we’re signed on, it’s all on us, and they just circle back around at the end for the report. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially for marketing – we need some time and interaction to download all the info we need to do the job, and it’s got to come from the top.
- Have they set aside enough budget to not only cover the consulting fees and time, but to pay to enact and execute the activity the consultant recommends? If not, your work simply becomes another binder on a shelf, and the opportunity to actually move the needle and grow that company in a meaningful way is likely lost. Not to mention your ability to capitalize on that relationship with further billable hours or additional projects.
Most of the above can be squared away with a very direct, frank conversation at the beginning of the relationship, to set expectations on both sides, assess suitability of both structure and finances, and to set some goals that everyone’s comfortable with. Setting expectations is key to a well-rounded relationship and should be an integral part of any formal or informal “onboarding” process you currently employ. Even with more seasoned clients, who rely primarily on the contract language and scope of work documents to outline what will be delivered and what will be needed to achieve it, a brief conversation with the more senior management contacts is required, just to set all concerned at ease going forward.
While you can’t always spot a “good” client or a “bad” one at first blush, but with some careful questioning and a solid process, you can reduce the lost time and increase profitability in real world practice, allowing you to grow and expand as time allows – you can only be so many places at once, after all . . .