Read an Excerpt
Building Business with New Clients
In This Chapter
- Introducing yourself
- Deciding whether to proceed
- Establishing a relationship
- Meeting with clients
- Following through with clients
- Looking to the future
Attracting potential clients to your business is a definite must if you expect to sell them on your product or service. (Chapter 20 details the kinds of things that you need to do to bring potential clients to your door.) Now that they're at your door -- or on the phone, in your mailbox, or on electronic mail -- what do you do next?
The next step is to convince your clients that they need to do business with your consulting firm. Or rather, that you -- and perhaps only you -- can best help them with their needs. So much so that your business has the clear edge over all your competitors.
In this chapter, we explore exactly what you need to do after you get the attention of prospective clients. We tell you about the importance of the personal introduction and the significance of quickly establishing good rapport and a firm basis of trust and goodwill. We walk you through the process of making a pitch to your clients and then following up -- and we talk about the importance of keeping your commitments.
The Personal Introduction
In many ways, the personal introduction of a prospective client to your business is probably one of the most critical points in the process of selling your services. Blow it here, and you probably won't have to worry about seeing that client again. However, if you make the right impression (and we're sure you will!), you'll have a client for life -- or at least as long as the checks don't bounce!
We know that you're not necessarily in business to make friends. You're in business to make money. But you have to remember that business involves much more than just dollars and cents (or pounds, pence, marks, yen, or whatever your monetary persuasion). Consulting is first and foremost a social activity. Not person-to-machine, not client-to-faceless bureaucracy. We're talking human being to human being. One on one.
In the sections that follow, we consider the things that go into this most important beginning phase of your consulting relationships: the personal introduction.
First impressions count!
Depending on the size and nature of your organization, the first experience that a potential client has with your consulting business may be anything from speaking to your answering machine or receptionist to visiting your Web page to meeting you personally through a mutual acquaintance. We can't emphasize enough the importance of a potential client's first experience with your business -- in many cases, it may be your only opportunity to sell that client on the benefits of working with your organization. Consider these two scenarios:
- Scenario A: The client of your dreams calls the long-distance phone number that you advertised in your Internet e-mail solicitation broadcast last week to 100,000 potential clients nationwide. Your answering machine picks up, "Hi, this is the Acme Consulting Group. Sorry, we can't take your call right now, but leave a message and we'll get back to you as soon as we can." The client of your dreams leaves a brief message expressing his urgent need and asks you to return the call as soon as possible. Unfortunately, you are halfway across the country at the time, and you don't get the call until you return home several days later. When you finally return the call, the client of your dreams has already found someone who can meet his urgent schedule.
- Scenario B: One of your best current clients refers the client of your dreams to you. When the prospective client drops by your office unannounced, she is warmly greeted by your receptionist -- who offers a cup of coffee or soda -- and is steered to the waiting area while you are paged. Because you always have time to meet a new client, you drop everything and come out to the waiting area to greet your client-to-be. After you take her on a brief tour of the architectural models of some of your most involved and successful projects and then review her needs and make a rough pricing estimate, your new client asks how soon you can start.
What kind of initial impression does your organization make with your clients?
There's never been a valid excuse for sloppy service -- and there still isn't one today. What's more, in these days of satellite telephones, nationwide telephone paging, personal digital assistants, Internet e-mail, and more, you have less of an excuse than ever before to be hard to reach -- even if you're a one-person organization. If you can't get your introduction right, why should a client trust you to get anything right?
Peter remembers the time he called a large insurance firm to get advice on a business transaction. Instead of a real-live receptionist, Peter got a voice-mail system that presented him with six -- count 'em, six -- different dialing options. That wasn't so bad in and of itself, but when Peter got to the option he wanted -- the next to last option, of course -- and punched the number into his phone, he was quickly and efficiently cast into the River Styx of voice-mail hell. "All telephone attendants are busy right now. Your call is important to us. [You, however, apparently are not.] Please continue to hold while we serve other callers."
After listening to the message -- over and over again -- for five full minutes, Peter decided to try to escape. Pressing 0 on his phone, Peter was greeted with a curt "I'm sorry, but that is not a valid system option." "Here's a valid system option," Peter thought to himself as he slammed down the phone and then called another insurance firm (coincidentally, a smaller, local brokerage), where a live person answered and then quickly transferred his call to an agent who took the call and answered the question. Mission accomplished!
If you want a quick reality check on the first impressions that your organization is making with your clients, pretend that you are a new client and do the following:
- Call your business and see what happens. Does someone answer the phone on the first few rings, or does it take a while for someone to pick up the phone? Is the initial greeting upbeat and cheery, or is it the kind of greeting that makes you feel like the receptionist would rather be doing something -- anything -- else than taking the call? If the receptionist is out, does another employee pick up the phone quickly and courteously? Do you end up in voice-mail hell with no chance of escape?
- Take a close look at your facilities. If you're a freelance advertising copywriter, your clients may not be surprised (or disappointed) to visit an office that is located in a spare bedroom of your home. However, if you're a tax accountant, your clients may prefer to see that you have a real office in a real office building with a real employee or two -- indicating that your practice is financially stable and viable.
- Take a close look at your marketing materials and work output. Are your company brochures and other marketing materials of high quality, or do they look like something your third-grade kid knocked off at school one day? Are your letters and work samples laser-printed on high-quality paper, or are you still using an antique 9-pin dot-matrix printer that's a few pins short of a full set? Would you pay your hard-earned dollars for your products?
- Take a close look at yourself. It probably goes without saying that you should be well groomed and dressed appropriately for the kind of consulting you do. Although your clients may expect their investment advisers to wear pin-striped suits, the same clients might expect their computer consultants to be dressed in polo shirts and khakis.
Seriously consider the answers to these questions and then make any changes that you need to make to ensure that all your clients and prospective clients have a positive first impression of you and your organization. Don't forget: You have only one chance to make a first impression!
Ask and listen
The best professional salespeople know that their primary responsibility is to help potential clients find the best solutions to their needs. This means asking questions and then listening -- really listening -- to the answers.
You have no doubt dealt with salespeople who have their own agendas and have little time to hear about yours. Before you can get out even one word, they launch into a prepackaged speech about whatever they have to sell. And if you do manage to get a word or two in edgewise, your word is quickly ignored as the canned speech continues, and continues, and continues.
How does that make you feel? Like trying to find another salesperson? Exactly!
In his book Selling For Dummies® (published by IDG Books Worldwide, Inc.), master salesperson Tom Hopkins presents a very useful rule:
Listen twice as much as you talk and you'll succeed in persuading others nearly every time.
Think about why this is true:
- Everyone likes to be listened to. Not only does listening show respect, but it also makes the speaker feel important. However, good listening skills go way beyond simply stroking a client's ego.
- Good listening helps you do your job better. Why? Because when you listen, you hear exactly what your clients want, and you can respond with the exact answers that your clients need.
The simple fact is that you can't possibly understand what your potential clients need unless you give them the opportunity to tell you. And you can't possibly hear what your client is telling you unless you take the time to listen! To make sure that you both ask clients the right questions and listen to their answers, we have developed the following four steps to effective asking and listening:
- Ask open-ended questions that define the boundaries of the opportunity. When you first meet potential clients, you really have no idea what their needs are, how extensive those needs are, and what addressing them will require. Therefore, your first task is to ask the kinds of open-ended questions that help you define the big picture, the rough boundaries of their opportunities, and thereby the rough boundaries of your solutions. For example, you might ask, "What results do you want to see come out of this management training?" or "Exactly what can our firm do for you?"
- Use active silence. When it comes to listening, silence is golden -- not the disinterested silence that comes from having more pressing matters on your mind (Yikes! My foursome tees off in 45 minutes!), but the active silence that tells your clients that you're involved in what they have to say and are interested, thinking, and putting your all into understanding their issues and perspectives. When your clients appear to have ended a thought and seem ready for you to respond, first prod them to give you deeper understanding with a nod of the head or by asking "Is that all, or is there more?" before you launch into your side of the discussion.
- Ask clarifying questions. Clarifying questions take you from the big picture to the little picture and help you to refine your understanding of your clients' opportunities. For example, asking, "Do you really want a full review of your entire quality assurance system, or do you think that a random sampling of products might accomplish the same goal?" is a good way to help define the extent of the effort required to accomplish a task.
- Confirm your understandings. An important part of the process of asking questions and listening to their answers is periodically confirming your understandings with your clients. For example, you might say, "Now here's what I'm hearing that you would like me to do . . ." or "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that what you would like me to do is to create a Web site for your firm that illustrates and explains all your products and then to update it on a regular basis -- am I right?"
Avoid asking questions that might introduce an element of trepidation into your relationship. Questions along the lines of, "Do you realize how incredibly expensive it's going to be to straighten out this mess?" or "Who's the incompetent jerk responsible for running this department?" are to be avoided at all costs.
Never forget the golden rule of consulting: listen before you leap! You'll have plenty of time to do plenty of talking after you land your client. For now, content yourself with asking a few questions to help draw your client out, and listen, listen, and listen some more.
Tell them about yourself
Just who do you think you are? What makes you such an expert?
Your clients want the best service that their money can buy. Your job is to give it to them. However, before you get the opportunity to do so, you have to prove that you've got the right stuff. And just how can you do that? Here are a few ideas to get things rolling. You don't want to overwhelm your potential clients at this point in the process -- you just want to set the stage for your relationship.
- Related experience: Of the firms you've worked with, whose needs were most like those of your client-to-be? How large or small were the firms, and what was your part in the project's success? Why will this experience help you deal with your prospective client's needs?
- Personal credentials: What are your personal credentials for doing the job that your client needs to get done? What firms have you worked for and with? What college and professional degrees do you have? What major projects have you been personally responsible for, and what are the quantifiable measures of their success?
- Company credentials: Who are the key clients of your business? What do you do for them, and how long have they been associated with your company? What are some of your business's most prominent successes, and what was your role in making things happen?
Green Light or Red?
You have now reached your first critical intersection in building business with new clients -- do you go forward, or do you tell your potential clients to look elsewhere?
What? Tell your clients to look elsewhere? Did we temporarily lose our marbles, perhaps? Are we a few cards short of a full deck? No. It may seem nuts -- after all, why would anyone turn away a paying client? In the real world of consulting, a wide variety of good reasons for turning down work exist.
Consider these reasons, for example:
- Not your thing: Although the temptation to try to conquer every single problem that lands on your doorstep often arises, you may run across one or two problems that someone else is better able to deal with. If that's the case, don't be afraid to refer your client to another associate or another consultant or, absent that option, just say thanks but no thanks.
- Previous commitments: If you're already fully booked with other clients, you don't do anyone any favors by taking on even more clients. Your current clients suffer because their work is put on hold as you get new clients online; your new clients suffer because you have to put them off until you can get around to their projects. Finally, you suffer as you try to juggle all these different clients and priorities.
- Goals unaligned: After reviewing the opportunity, you may feel very strongly that your client should approach things one way, but the client may insist on a completely different approach -- one that you find ineffective, incompetent, or unethical. If this is the case, and you can't bring your client around to your point of view, simply walk away from the opportunity -- you'll find plenty more fish in the sea.
- No chemistry: Although part of being an effective consultant is the ability to get along and work with an incredibly wide range and diversity of clients, sometimes your personalities just don't mesh, and it may be best for the project that someone else take it on. Part of the introduction process is getting to know each other. Make sure that you do whatever you can to get a feeling for what working with this particular client will be like.
- Insufficient client resources: After meeting with your clients, it may quickly become apparent that they are not interested in paying the kind of fees that you charge. You have to make enough money to support your business, and you shouldn't be ashamed to charge clients a fee that reflects the high quality of service that they receive. If you don't stick to your fees at the beginning of your relationship with a new client, it's unlikely that you will ever get those fees -- no matter how well you perform.
- Inadequate client commitment: Occasionally, you'll be approached by clients who don't really want you to solve their problems; they merely need to show someone -- a boss or management in general -- that they are doing something to justify their existence. When that kind of client comes through your door, run! Not only will you be frustrated when the client brushes aside or shelves your recommendations, but your reputation can be potentially tarnished due to your "failure" to turn things around.
Regardless of the reason you decide to veto a particular project, try to refer the client to someone who may be better able to take on the opportunity. Successful consultants maintain extensive networks of associates who can pitch in to help on particularly large or complex projects.
So is the light green or is the light red? Only you can decide.
Getting to Know You
Because of the nature of person-to-person interactions, every consulting relationship involves a certain amount of chemistry. If the chemistry is good, a consulting relationship can be long-lasting and beneficial to all. If the chemistry is bad -- like a high-school lab experiment careening out of control -- you can count the length of the relationship in nanoseconds instead of years.
So how do you build the foundation for a stable and mutually beneficial relationship? We'll let you in on a little secret: It's not rocket science. Just as in your nonbusiness relationships (you do have at least one or two nonbusiness relationships, right?), consulting relationships are built on trust and on an honest desire to help one another. Sure, every consultant has something to sell, whether it's dragging a company kicking and screaming through a long-range planning process, conveying a lifetime of expertise in finding underground oil deposits, or setting up a company's Web page. But the best consulting relationships come first from a place of wanting to share your unique skills and expertise to help someone who needs them.
In this section, we consider some techniques to help you establish a good relationships with your potential clients. We discuss how to build rapport with your clients-to-be, get your clients what they need, and build a firm foundation of trust to carry your relationship forward into the future.
Before you enter into a business relationship with prospective clients, you have to establish some degree of rapport with them. Rapport is the connectedness that individuals in a relationship feel for one another. Rapport comes from shared experiences. A shared experience can be as simple as a shared joke or as complex as a common lifelong interest. In some cases, a relationship is established between people instantly; in other cases, a relationship never really blooms. If rapport doesn't develop between the parties of a relationship, you can bet that the relationship won't last.
When you're the client, it really doesn't matter whether you're an introvert, an extrovert, or something in between. However, when you are a consultant and are on the selling side of the equation, you definitely have to take on the personality of an extrovert -- whether you feel like one or not.
Two ways exist to be comfortable initiating new relationships: Either you developed this skill as you were growing up, or you can learn it now.
We both grew up in homes where our families were transferred from one place to another every few years. Although this lifestyle did disrupt more than a few friendships as we grew up, all the moving around did teach us how to feel comfortable with all kinds of people. Whether it was the suburbs of Washington, D.C.; a small town 100 miles south of Atlanta, Georgia; or Paris, France; we learned how to adjust to new circumstances and make friends quickly with an incredibly diverse range of people around the world.
Fortunately, if you weren't lucky enough to learn the art of establishing instant rapport when you were growing up, it's not too late to learn how:
- Be friendly. Everyone likes people who are friendly and who seem genuinely interested in them. When you take the first step to reach out to someone, they'll likely reach back.
- Assess your client's personality. Does your client want to chat and socialize for a bit before getting down to business, or does he or she want to skip all that and keep business at the very top of the agenda? If your client is oriented to socializing first, allow plenty of time for getting to know one another before getting down to business. However, if your client is the kind of person who wants to forgo social pleasantries and get right to business, do that.
- Find something in common with your client. Do you share a common interest or hobby with your client -- perhaps ice fishing, playing Bach fugues on the harpsichord, or collecting bottle caps? Common interests can break the ice between you and a client faster than a Russian icebreaker at 30 knots. You never know until you ask, so ask!
- Be sincere and down to earth. Don't try to pretend to be someone you're not. Just relax, be sincere, and, above all, be yourself.
Helping them get what they want
Helping your clients get what they want is really your number one job, and you have to be particularly vigilant to avoid letting your needs take priority over their needs. It's not uncommon for a consulting business to develop certain assessment or training tools or products and to then feel a lot of pressure to make clients fit these tools or products -- even if it means pushing the clients into a box that really doesn't fit.
For example, a business that conducts long-range planning sessions with the top management teams of for-profit corporations may have developed an assessment model that works great in the private sector. When a local nonprofit agency asks for help in its long-range planning, the consulting business decides to apply its standard for-profit assessment model to the nonprofit organization -- despite the fact that the fundamental nature of the organizations is quite different. Although this tactic makes perfect sense from the consulting practice's cost perspective (why spend the money to adapt the assessment tools for a one-off project, after all), it may make no sense at all from the perspective of getting the best results. In a case like this, if the consultant is unwilling to take the time or spend the money to tailor its approach to the needs of the client, it would really be better for all concerned to refer the work to someone else.
Some consultants allow their egos to get bigger than the side of a barn. When you're selling yourself or your business as an expert in a particular field, it's hard not to start believing your own sales pitch. Although nothing is inherently wrong with letting your ego show from time to time, you should do so only if it doesn't interfere with your client relationships or with giving your clients the best advice possible at all times. If you see that ego is starting to get in the way -- either with you or with an associate -- step back for a moment and take a close look at what your clients really need. Then push that big bad ego out of the way, if only for a few moments, to determine whether what you're offering is really what your clients need. If it is, great! You're on the right track. If it's not, go back to the drawing board and come up with an approach that does meet your clients' needs.
On the flip side of this coin, you may need to tell your clients things that they just don't want to hear but that reflect the truth of a situation. For example, while speaking with your client about a problem he's having with the response rate for direct-mail advertising, you may quickly realize that the problem is the poor quality of the advertising piece that the client's firm is sending out. Even if your client disagrees vigorously (after all, he created the ad personally and knows what works and what doesn't), you have to call it like you see it. To do any less would be to do a disservice both to you and to your client. A good consulting relationship is built on trust, and part of building trust is being honest with your clients -- even if occasionally the truth hurts.
Building a foundation of trust
Although many things go into making a good consulting relationship, trust is probably the most important factor of all. Trust is the cement that holds a relationship together. Without it, a relationship quickly falls apart -- crumbling into little bits and pieces before your very eyes.
So how do you build trust in a consulting relationship? At this early phase of the consulting relationship, doing the kinds of things that set the stage for the development of a strong, long-term relationship is most important. Here are some quick and easy ways to build trust with your clients:
- Make commitments and keep commitments. One of the easiest ways to build trust in a relationship is to make commitments and then keep them. If, for example, you tell a client that you will be available at 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday for a conference call, then, when you're ready and waiting for the call at 3:00 on Wednesday, you're sending a message to your client that you can be trusted. Whether the commitments that you keep are big or small, they add up to increased trust. Make commitments and then keep them.
- Give your honest opinion. If your clients have a problem, tell them that they have a problem. Sometimes you may be tempted to sugarcoat problems in the hopes that your clients will find them easier to swallow. However, this tactic can backfire when your clients finally realize (and most eventually will realize) the full extent of their problems and wonder why you kept them in the dark. Trust is built on honesty. Be honest with your clients.
- Keep secrets. When you are hired as a consultant, you may have access to some of the organization's most important information and secrets. Never disclose this confidential information outside your business or outside the circle of individuals with whom the client designates for you to work. From confidential payroll information to new product strategies to the rumor that the president of the firm is an alcoholic, your silence is crucial. Not only can leaking confidential information destroy the trust you have worked so hard to build, but it can also expose you to an expensive lawsuit. Keep secrets secret, and you prove your trustworthiness every day.
- Do great work. When you do a great job for your clients, you demonstrate that you value their work and their organizations and that you can be trusted with taking on even more important responsibilities in the future. Do great work, and the trust that you have established with your clients continues to build.
It's very likely that your first contact with a potential client will not be in person but will be by phone, e-mail, letter, or other mode of communication. However, after you get past the initial introductions and find a clearly mutual interest to proceed, you have to take the relationship to the next step, which usually means a face-to-face meeting. Don't get us wrong -- we're not saying that you have to fly across the country for a meeting whenever a prospect calls. Your decision to meet face-to-face with a client depends on many factors. But, as we have said before, consulting is a people thing. Although you can establish and carry on a long-distance business relationship with your phone company or with a mail-order bookstore for years without a face-to-face meeting, consulting is a different animal.
Consulting is different because it is very much a personal service. As a personal service, consulting depends on person-to-person interaction for its success. Think about it: Would you entrust the financial viability of a business that you spent your lifetime to create and build to someone whom you have only just met through an online chat room? We don't think so!
Steve Dente and Signature Software
As the owner of San Diego, California-based Signature Software, Steve Dente (
Consulting For Dummies: How do you find your clients?
Steve Dente: Almost all have come from networking with other programmers and other companies in the industry.
CFD: Let's consider both of those avenues. So how do you network with other programmers?
Dente: I belong to programmer groups, which include independent consulting programmers and programmers who work for large and small companies. When they get a call to do a program and they're too busy to do it, they'll pass the work on to someone else in the group. We all know what each one of us is best at, so if they hear of a job that requires certain skills, they'll recruit one of us for it.
CFD: So if you have a job that you need some help on, then you give one of the members of your group a call, and vice versa?
Dente: Right. And also, each of the programming language groups maintains Web sites on the Internet where companies can post needs or you can offer your services. For example, I am a member of discussion and programmer groups at a number of Web sites.
CFD: You said that there were two ways that you network, the first with other programmers and the second directly with businesses. How do you pursue networking directly with businesses?
Dente: The companies that I consult for hire me because I am involved as a geologist in the mineral business. So having knowledge of that business and being able to write software programs as well gives me a unique expertise to write industry-specific software for gems and minerals.
CFD: What is a typical consulting job for you in the gem and mineral industry?
Dente: The last one I did was for a large American mining company. I wrote a program that helps them sort and track the cutting, [calculate] the yield results, and organize the pricing of their sapphires.
CFD: How do you break the ice with a new client? How do you tell them about yourself and convince them to hire you?
Dente: Well, normally you talk about who you know in the business and what your potential client's company is doing in the market. In other words, you show an understanding of what their business is. I often send them samples of programs I've done before.
I think if you show people that you understand the general nature of their business, that you also have insight into how other people are doing business, and that you understand what their problem is -- and you can present the outline of a solution -- then the rest takes care of itself.
It's all a matter of developing a relationship and gaining a level of comfort with the client. If you can convince a customer that you understand the problem and have insight into a solution, then that becomes the area of conversation. The terms of the contract and the finances then become pretty easy to deal with.
CFD: So the money becomes secondary?
Dente: Yes! The money pretty much takes care of itself; it's not the main issue. That's the way I like to work.
CFD: When you meet with clients, do you meet with them at your office, or do you go out to see them at their offices, or someplace in between?
Dente: Most of my consulting jobs are initiated over the telephone and, because the problem is theirs, I usually go to their site. In the last year, I have called on clients throughout Southern California, New York, Montana, Korea, China, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The field of geology is international in nature, and I have contacts in all these places.
CFD: So why do these firms hire you instead of another programmer?
Dente: In general, programmers are programmers, and business people are business people. I'm in the unique position of having spent 20 years in the gem field as a geologist, and then becoming a programmer as well, just out of my personal interest. That gives me a businessperson's insight to programming, which is useful. A lot of times, programmers know how to write code, but they don't know how to solve business problems. My level of consulting is multilevel and multifaceted instead of just a limited skill set.
CFD: What advice would you give to new consultants to establish and develop their businesses?
Dente: You can advertise all you want, but advertising is the least effective way for consultants to get clients. Your last client is your best source of the new client. And your current client list generates your new client list. So the best thing is to maintain a good rapport with your clients, provide them a quality service, and effect a solution to their problems. Business is the maintenance of relationships. And consulting in particular depends on relationships because what you're selling is yourself -- your skill set and your services.
CFD: Right. You're not selling a can of soup, are you? You're selling yourself.
Dente: That's right. So, how well you work with them, how well you listen to them, and how well you gain insight into their needs results in how happy your clients are with you. This then results in more work -- both with that particular client, as well as referrals to other people they network with.
Virtual or real?
The world is a big place. We understand that the potential rewards of a business relationship don't always justify the expense of setting up a one-on-one meeting. And we also understand that the Internet, e-mail, voice-mail, cellular phones, and all those other nifty technologies make it easier than ever to communicate with anyone you want, anytime you want. But despite all these great innovations, nothing can replace the power of a face-to-face meeting.
Meetings put a face on a distant voice on the phone or on the typed meanderings of an e-mail message. Meetings breathe humanity into the digital bits and bytes that flow through the phone lines from your office to your client's office. When you're sitting before your client -- in living color -- ignoring your message is a lot harder than when it arrives by mail, phone, fax, or computer. And getting your message across is a lot easier.
Not convinced? Check out this story.
A couple of years ago, Peter's literary agent called him with some good news -- he had met a woman who was looking for someone to ghostwrite a book for her. The potential client had built a very successful company around a series of seminars that she presented around the country. She hoped that a book distilling the essence of her seminars would be useful for furthering her goals -- both by having something to sell to participants in her seminars and for reaching a wider audience through distribution in bookstores. Although she was a gifted communicator, she just didn't have the time to run her business, conduct seminars, and write a book at the same time. Armed with her name and phone number, Peter made the call.
Unfortunately, although Peter's client-to-be was interested in discussing the project with him, she let Peter know that she had already pretty much decided to contract with a writer with whom she had already met and discussed the project. Hmmm . . . what to do? In a last-ditch effort to save the project, Peter suggested that they get together over coffee the next morning anyway, and that he would pick up the tab. What would it hurt to spend a little time discussing the project? His client agreed, and the stage was set.
When Peter and his client met, they felt an instant rapport, a connectedness that just wasn't evident when they talked on the phone the day before. Despite the fact that Peter's client was 99 percent certain that she already knew who was going to write her book, what was supposed to be a 15- or 20-minute cup of coffee and chitchat became a two-hour discussion of personal philosophy, vision, and project goals. Peter's client called later that evening to tell him that she had selected him to do the project.
If there is a lesson to learn here, it's that you can never underestimate the power of face-to-face meetings. The meeting sparked a new level of communication that was absent in their phone conversation the preceding day. As a result, Peter was able to persuade his client that he would do a better job on the project than the writer she had already selected. When Peter confirmed that he could meet her budget and schedule to boot, the deal was sealed.
One more thing: Scientists and other smart people have determined that some 85 percent of communication when people meet with one another is nonverbal -- you know, facial expressions, tapping of toes, crossing of arms, and sighs of boredom, or edge-of-the-chair excitement indicating rapt attention and interest. When you communicate with a client over the phone, through the mail, or via a computer, you end up with only 15 percent of the message, and you lose the other 85 percent that you can't see. Of course, this is also true for the messages that you send to your clients. So if you can't meet in person, make sure that you're especially careful to get your entire message across.
Despite our attempts to fill in some of this communication gap with cute voice-mail messages ("You have reached the desk of the great and powerful Oz -- ignore that man behind the curtain!") or the ubiquitous usage of those pesky emoticons in e-mail messages (you know, these things :-), :-(, and worse), nothing has yet replaced the emotional power of the personal meeting and, at least until we all have access to full-body videoconferencing worldwide, it's likely that nothing ever will!
Weighing the costs versus the benefits
The question is not should you meet with a prospective client. The question is: Do the benefits of meeting outweigh the costs? For example, at a cost of a cup of coffee and 20 miles worth of gas, the benefit of Peter's meeting with his ghostwriting client far outweighed the cost. However, if the client lived in New York -- 3,000 miles away -- the relative advantage of the benefits to be gained over the costs would not have been so clear and compelling. When you consider your options, take the time to weigh the potential benefits of a face-to-face meeting with your potential clients against the costs.
In the following sections, we present some of the things to consider when you decide whether to meet with a prospective client. If the pluses outweigh the minuses, pack your bags and get going!
The travel experience
Plus: You may get to visit some interesting new places and meet some interesting new people.
Minus: You may get stuck in the airport in a blizzard and your bags may get lost. Also, airplane food is pretty bad news unless you can talk a flight attendant into bringing you a few crumbs from the first-class cabin.
Net Result: Make the trip if the potential benefit outweighs the cost of the trip, but bring your own food supplies for the airplane flight. A laptop computer loaded with the game Myst is a compelling bonus.
Plus: You can catch up on your work and return phone calls while you wait for the snowplows to clear the airport runways.
Minus: Due to a special government regulation, airports are inherently boring places to be. Especially if the airline loses your bags. You'll probably want to do anything but work as you wait in the airport bar for your oft-delayed flight.
Net Result: Your time is worth money. Do the benefits of the trip equal or exceed the opportunity cost of staying home? If not, cancel that reservation -- right now!
Plus: Travel costs are generally tax deductible. Unfortunately, the costs that are the most fun are generally not tax deductible.
Minus: Could cost a lot of money, especially if the client is a long way away or if you have to travel on short notice. Furthermore, airlines don't reimburse you for the full amount of your loss when they lose your bags.
Net Result: The money you make on the deal should at least meet or exceed the amount of money that you spend trying to get it. Don't forget to add in the cost of replacing your lost luggage.
Plus: This meeting may lead to a long and fruitful consulting relationship that allows you to get your kids through college and step up from that '68 Volkswagen you've been driving since college.
Minus: This meeting may turn out to be a complete waste of both your time and your client's time.
Net Result: You don't know until you give it a try. When in doubt, consult with your nearest psychic.
Whom to meet?
In most cases, the best person to meet with is the one who can decide whether or not to hire you or your firm. Why? Because if you're dealing with people who don't have the authority to hire you, you may be wasting your time. However, the next best thing to meeting with the person who can make the decision is to meet with the people who can favorably influence the person who makes the decision.
Who are some of the people you should meet with? Before you schedule your next meeting with your clients-to-be, make sure you see how they stack up according to the following list:
- The big cheese: Also known as the fearless leader, the omnipotent one, the big kahuna, or simply the boss. Whether this person owns the company or is beholden to the company's shareholders, this man or woman usually has unlimited spending authority and can hire you so fast your head will spin. Not only that but, after you're hired, the big cheese can clear-cut a path through the organization's obstacles for you, making it much easier to get your job done.
- The executive assistant: Also known as the power behind the throne, the great organizer, the all-knowing and all-seeing one, or simply the boss's secretary. Because they have the ear of the big cheese, executive assistants wield tremendous power in their organizations. If you can't get to the big cheese, the executive assistant is definitely a close second in priority.
- Middle management: Also known as chief bottle washers, VPs, corporate overhead, or simply the management team. Though these individuals don't have the unbridled authority of those in the big cheese category, most have some amount of financial authority and can hire you after filling out a small mountain's worth of internal forms and paperwork or after doing the proper amount of begging with the big cheese. Because these folks are busy creating the obstacles that you are being hired to identify and correct, don't expect them to clear organizational obstacles out of your path.
- Employee committees: Also known as a thorn in the side of management, manager-free zones, or simply the folks who really make things happen. In these days of self-managed work teams and employee empowerment, employee committees have gained a large measure of power and authority within their organizations. Many control their own budgets and can decide whether or not to contract for your services. Although convincing a committee of multiple individuals to hire you is harder than convincing just one person, your time working with employee committees can be time well spent.
So how do you get to the right person or group in an organization? After you select your target, simply pick up the phone and call. In our experience, you save a lot of time and money by sidestepping staff and using your phone to go directly to the person or group in charge. E-mail is also a great tool for getting to the right person. We have found that, in many cases, a person who won't return a phone call for days or weeks (or ever!) will reply to an e-mail in minutes. You may have to spend a little time with the receptionist or other employees in doing some research on who's who in the organization, but, after you find out, be deliberate and assertive in your efforts to contact the right people.
Where to meet?
You have the option of meeting at your place, the client's place, or somewhere in between. The selection depends greatly on the nature of your business, on whether you're traveling a great distance for the meeting, and on your client's time constraints. Consider the pluses and minuses of each option.
- Your place: Meeting at your place may make the most sense if you have a place to meet. Another reason to do so is that your business may require you to demonstrate a product that is not easy to carry around. For example, a firm that provides custom computer hardware and software solutions on large office servers and networks may have a difficult time lugging the appropriate equipment to a client's site for a demonstration. In such cases, bringing the client to your site, where the equipment is already installed, configured, and up and running, makes more sense. The upside of a meeting at your place is that the cost of transportation is not an issue. The downside of meeting at your place may be that your office is more virtual than real; in fact, your office may be in a closet in the corner of your bedroom. Hmmm . . . that won't do, will it? If you think that the sight of your office might leave a negative impression with your clients, suggest that you go to them instead.
- Their place: This is often the preferred choice -- especially if your client-to-be is too busy to get away from the office or if you need to meet with more than one or two people at a time. The advantages are that your clients are on their own turf, and they are probably more comfortable meeting with you there than in an unfamiliar setting. The disadvantages include clients who answer their phone every time it rings or who spend time chatting with everyone who walks through the door.
- In between: Think of a comfortable coffeehouse or a favorite restaurant for lunch or dinner. Pluses: The location is neutral, and you get the opportunity to get away from the moment-to-moment demands of a busy office. Minuses? You may accidentally insult your client when you comment on the evils of caffeine.
Most busy clients prefer for you to meet them at their office. So where you meet with a particular client really depends on whether you can effectively demonstrate a solution to your client's problem at his or her site and whether the cost of getting to your customer does not exceed the expected financial benefits of doing business. When in doubt, err on the side of going out of your way to meet your client at the place of his or her choosing.
When to meet?
Should you try to set up a meeting as soon as possible -- strike while the iron is hot, as it were -- or should you take things slow and easy? Although some people say that good things come to those who wait, this is not necessarily the case when it comes to consulting. The truth is that consulting is a very competitive field, and the more appropriate adage is likely, "You snooze, you lose."
When you press for immediate meetings with prospective clients, you not only impress them with your obvious interest in meeting their needs, but you also help to ensure that your firm is selected before other consultants have an opportunity to get their foot in the door.
So what is the correct answer to the question of when to meet? Now! Not enough time or not enough notice to meet today? Then set up a meeting for first thing tomorrow. The point is, the sooner you get your meeting scheduled, the better chance you have of landing the deal.
Follow-Through Is Everything!
Despite successfully making it through all the hurdles of getting to know new clients and winning their trust and confidence, many consultants ultimately lose their deals when they fail to follow through with their clients. Though you may prefer to think of consulting as the art of performing the services in which you're expert, the one thing that makes the world of consulting go around is ultimately your ability to sell yourself to the people and organizations who can afford to pay your bills.
If you can't sell yourself, you can't sell your services. It's that simple.
After you make your sales pitch, the next step is to set up a system of follow-through with your prospective client. As a consultant, you find that many of your prospects are very busy people, and it is easy for them to lose your proposal amongst all the other priorities that they are charged with juggling. The purpose of follow-through is to keep your proposal fresh in your client's mind and make sure that he or she doesn't forget about you.
Bob has his system of client follow-through down pat. Whenever he meets prospective clients for his services, he puts them on the mailing list for his newsletter, Rewarding Employees. The newsletter, which is published monthly and sent to more than 2,000 clients and clients-to-be, provides its readers with an enormous amount of useful information about employee rewards and reward programs. Not only do Bob's clients learn something useful, but they also are reminded that Bob offers a wide variety of reward-oriented products and services.
However, don't forget the number-one rule of following up with your clients: Don't be a pest. Proper follow-through walks a fine line between an occasional reminder that keeps your name in mind and a full-court press that makes you more trouble than you're worth. Be sensitive to the needs of your clients when you decide on your follow-through strategy. Although every situation is different, you can't go wrong by applying the follow-through techniques presented in this section.
Setting a date for the next step
If you don't have an appointment calendar, a daily planner, or a personal digital assistant to keep track of your appointments, stop right now. Do not pass go or collect your $200 until you go out and buy one. You have one? Great! You're all set.
What is the next step in selling yourself to your client? Another meeting? A technical demonstration? Mailing or faxing a copy of a journal article that you authored? A phone call to check to see whether you are going to be selected to do the proposed job? Until you land your consulting job, make sure that you always decide on what step is required next to get you closer to your goal, and set a date and time for its completion.
Whatever the next step is -- no matter how trivial -- make a note of it in your calendar. If the event is set for a definite time, make sure that you make a point of recording the time, too. The point is, you don't want to take the chance of forgetting what you need to do to land your consulting job. Two of the key tests that you have to pass for your clients are punctuality and reliability. If you say that you'll call to follow up at 9:00 a.m. on September 30, then you'd better be dialing the number at 8:59 a.m. on the 30th of September.
The fine art of the thank-you note
A thank-you note can do wonders to get you planted squarely in the middle of your client's good graces. Just as a post-interview thank-you letter makes a positive impression on a company that is hiring a new employee, a sincere thank-you note makes a positive impression on the individuals who decide whether you get a contract for your services.
Writing good thank-you notes is an art. They should be sincere and from your heart, and they should leave the reader with a positive impression of both you and your business. Whenever you write a thank-you note, make sure that it does the following three things:
- Personally thanks your client for her time and interest
- Firmly expresses your interest in doing the proposed work for your client
- Includes any additional information that the client may need to make a decision in your favor
So when should you take the time to thank a potential client? Consider sending a thank-you note whenever you find yourself in the following situations:
- You want to thank a client for agreeing to meet with you at some future time. This thank-you note also serves to confirm the date and time of your meeting.
- You want to thank a client for having taken time to meet with you. Not only do you get to express your sincere thanks to your client, but you also get to reiterate the many compelling reasons for selecting you or your consulting business.
- You want to thank a client for the business. After you're hired, a thank-you note expressing your gratitude is certainly in order.
Of course, you may feel that a thank-you note is appropriate at other times. If so, follow your instincts. You don't have to write a book -- all it takes is jotting down a couple of sincere sentences of thanks and then dropping your note in the mail. When in doubt, send it out!
Following up via letter, phone, or e-mail
The medium that you select to follow up with your clients is not as important as making sure that you do follow up. Each possible way of following up with clients has its pluses and minuses, and which one you choose depends on your style of doing business and on what seems to work best with a particular client. You always have the flexibility of selecting one method or a combination of methods of follow-up. Ultimately, the decision is up to you.
Consider the advantages and disadvantages of several media for client follow-up:
- Letter: You can easily hand-write or type up a letter anytime or anyplace. Although a personal letter delivered by messenger, by overnight delivery, or by mail is the most impressive to potential clients, you can also send it via fax. On the plus side, letters are convenient and effective. On the minus side, letters can get lost in the shuffle of busy executives.
- Phone: The most personal form of follow-through besides a face-to-face meeting is a personal phone call. When you phone your clients, you demonstrate that their business is important to you and that you are very interested in winning it. On the plus side, you can make a phone call from anywhere, most anytime you like. And with voice-mail, you can leave an extensive message for your clients even when they are on the phone or away on business or vacation. On the minus side, playing phone tag over a prolonged period of time or getting lost in voice-mail hell is certainly not unheard of.
- Electronic mail: Computer e-mail is a bit less personal than either a letter or a phone call, but, when used properly, it can still be quite effective. On the plus side, e-mail offers the ultimate in flexibility and convenience. On the minus side, if you get just one letter or number wrong in the address, your message can end up in Vladivostok instead of Toronto.
Here's a sample e-mail thank-you note to help get your creative juices flowing:
|To: ElwoodHayes@bigbiz.com |
Subject: Thank you!
Just a note to thank you for taking the time to speak with me about the companywide performance assessment that you would like to conduct next fiscal year. We are very interested in working with you to complete this important task. As you have seen, my company has more than 15 years of experience in successfully completing performance assessments for a wide variety of Fortune 500 firms. Each of these firms has been tremendously satisfied with the results, and I have no doubt in my mind that we can do the same for you.
I will call you next week to see where we go from here.
However you decide to thank your clients for their time, you need to keep one key rule in mind: Be sure to thank them. Not only do you leave a positive impression in their minds that may help you land the deal, but you'll also be remembered for future opportunities even if you don't do business this time.
In the process of selling your services to potential clients, you have to decide which ones have the greatest potential of doing business with you or your firm and which ones have the least potential. Although being able to put your all into pursuing every single lead that you get might be nice, it just isn't realistic from a cost perspective.
Following through with clients takes both time and money -- and lots of it. Because both time and money are available in limited amounts for most consultants, the wise thing to do is to split your client list into two pieces, active and inactive, and put most of your resources into the former. Consider the differences between active and inactive clients:
- Active clients are the clients who have shown a definite interest in hiring you or your firm. Because they are the most probable source of future work, they should get most of your attention. Make sure that you place them on a schedule of regular follow-up communication -- phone calls, e-mails, letters, product brochures, newsletters, and more -- from your firm that keeps you and your services in their mind.
- Inactive clients may have once expressed an interest in your business, but your repeated attempts over a prolonged period of time (six months or more, depending on your own criteria) have failed to land a deal. You should downgrade such clients from active to inactive status and also decrease the amount of resources you devote to them. A good way to keep in touch with inactive clients is to add them to the mailing list for your firm's newsletter. For the minimal cost of printing and postage, you keep open the possibility of doing business in the future.
In our experience, considering