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EPISODE 11: Perfecting the Prospective Client Pitch—with Meggan Schilkie

Deb Zahn: Hi, I want to welcome you to Episode 11 of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. My guest today is Meggan Schilkie. She's a principal in the New York City Office of Health Management Associates. Health Management Associates is a national health policy and program consulting firm. Meggan works particularly with behavioral health providers but also a number of other clients around the country. She has tremendous expertise!

This show is going to be a little bit different than other ones because we're going to dive very deeply into the pitch meetings that you do with prospective clients. This is when you get a meeting with prospective clients, and you're going to go in and have a conversation. See if there are things that you can actually do to help them and then, ultimately, get engagement with them so that you can work with them.

We're going to talk about what needs to happen before, during, and after those meetings. And this will really help you perfect your skills when you're in front of a client for the first time so that you can ultimately get more business. So with that, let's get started. I want to welcome my guest Meg Schilkie to the show. Meg, thanks for joining us.

Meggan Schilkie: Thanks for having me, Deb.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful! So let me start off and have you tell my listeners what type of consulting you do.

Meggan Schilkie: Well, when people ask me I say I do healthcare consulting. Because that's really my client base. But I guess generally in the business it's not that thought of as management consulting. Happens to be focused specifically on health and behavioral healthcare clients.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And how did you become a consultant?

Meggan Schilkie: I became a consultant almost 5 years ago. I was departing a long stint within New York City government and looking for new and different options and opportunities. And, actually, I discovered about my current firm, which has an incredible reputation and set of brilliant colleagues that really lured me even though I wasn't planning on becoming a consultant. With organic process that really inspired me to join their ranks and to begin to do this work.

Deb Zahn: That's great. Now today you and I are going to talk about the meetings with prospective clients. I know you have a passion for those going extremely well, and you're very good at it because you get quite a bit of business. And sometimes you call it the pitch meeting and generally for the listeners, these are the meetings that you have the initial meetings with potential clients. And the goal is to see if and how you can help them. And then ultimately if you can help them to be able to actually get a contract.

So we're going to talk about some of the do's and don'ts. And then also look at it from the perspective of if you go in solo by yourself versus if you go in with a team. So let me ask this first. Before that meeting happens, there's obviously a lot of ways to get into that room with the client. Typically for a lot of the clients you have, how do you actually get into that meeting where you can talk to prospective clients?

Meggan Schilkie: I think there are a couple of different avenues as you've alluded to. Certainly one is by hitting on possible work. So a lot of our clients in the public sector, who deal with money, do need to go through a competitive procurement process. And we do frequently bid on or compete for that work by submitting competitive proposals. But frequently I actually get the majority of my work through a network of contacts that I've worked over a career. Where I am a little bit aware of what's happening for them. Part of my job is to stay aware of the leading-edge trends and demands.

And so by keeping in touch with my network of contacts, I learn from them what they're facing. What their needs are and challenges are. And so I just keep that dialogue going such that, when we have a need specifically that we feel like we could really help them with, I then could put together a scope of work. And propose the way for my firm, Health Management Associates, to come in and to support them in doing a particular piece of work or problem solving around something that they're facing in the industry. That gets the discussion leading up to a pitch meeting.

Deb Zahn: I would imagine also a lot of your current or past clients are also. You know when you need someone who can solve X problem for you or Y problem for you, call Schilkie. She's the one who can actually do this. So obviously this prospective client meeting is more than just what happens in the meetings. It's one as you mentioned: it's how you get in. It's staying on top of industry trends, which you are going to want to reflect in the meeting.

But there's the before, the during the meeting, and then after the meeting. I thought what we could do is break it down and start with: You got a meeting. You got it scheduled. What should someone, whether they're independent or a team—and I know there's a bit of a difference—what should they do before to be able to prepare for that?

Meggan Schilkie: I think, one of the things we talk about a lot is that, consultants are generally people who are very quick on their feet. They're used to reacting to demands, questions, challenges in the moment. That tends to be one of the things that they're good at. And that makes them good at consulting. In a pitch meeting however, it's very important both to be flexible and responsive in the room, but to do that preparation in advance.

And so no matter whether you're walking in by yourself or whether you're going with the team, I really advise strongly on a decent amount of preparation. And there are a bunch of components to that. It's really doing your homework. Seems like it should go without saying in our industry but really understanding who that client is, what they're facing, knowing who you're speaking to, what role they play, learning even if you can a little bit about their culture or history. Because that will give you context and really be able to come in with an idea of who they are and how they fit into the larger system.

Deb Zahn: And I would say I think one of the mistakes some new consultants make, is if they know the person they think they don't have to do that. But you still have to do that.

Meggan Schilkie: Absolutely. You're right. I think there is a sense, especially when consulting opportunities arise from sort of networking and familiar contacts or long-term colleagues, people you've known from prior roles in the industry. That familiarity or that relationship will be enough to get you the work. And I must say it's really, really important first of all not to presume on that relationship in that way because, likely your colleague has to go through a whole process. Where they're accountable to their larger organization.

Sure there are times when someone will just bring in a friend and do the work because they know and trust them and they've done it before. But for the most part, it's really critical that you exhibit the highest level of professionalism in any kind of pitch meeting or proposal experience that you give. Regardless of how well you know the person.

And quite frankly, knowing one person within an organization may not be enough. You really need to be proposing to a larger team, audience. And the ultimate decision maker may not even be the person that you have that relationship with. So you just need to be really careful about that.

Deb Zahn: Gotcha. So don't show up in your pajamas, one.

Meggan Schilkie: Don't show up in your pajamas. Not too many private jokes on the side. And I know very few consultants who can walk into a meeting and talk about golf for 15 minutes and walk out with a project.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Meggan Schilkie: A couple out there that I do know who do that. But, for the most part most of us have to really prepare. Put together a very concise proposal. Articulate the value you add. Or differentiators between us and our potential competitors. And really identify how we're going to help them. That we understand their need and exactly what we'll do and what value we'll bring to them.

Deb Zahn: Now should somebody who's preparing—again, I'm thinking of folks who've never done it before—should they write out everything that they're going to say? Should they use an outline? How would you suggest the mechanics of how they prepare?

Meggan Schilkie: I think there's a balance. And this is something you learn over time by doing this a lot. Certainly I do start with the rough script for myself. Especially if I have advanced questions those are gifts. You want to make sure that you're absolutely answering any questions that you have been given. And that should be a priority that you get to very quickly in the meeting. And you want to balance that with it being really conversational.

And the way that you do that first of all is preparing well but not over-rehearsing or memorizing or reading off a piece of paper or script in the room. People use PowerPoint slides as a guide. I think if they're used well, they can be right as a sort of reference to help you move through the dialogue or discussion that you're hoping to have.

The most important thing is to make sure that it's a dialogue, is actually not what you've prepared to say. But listening and asking active questions. And within the pitch meeting is an opportunity to learn and understand more about what that client needs or is looking for. That's really critical. Because that also gives them a sense of what that experience will be like of working with you. That you're going to constantly try to better understand to listen to them and to really adapt to meet their needs as they change through the process.

Deb Zahn: Right. And if you've done your homework, you also then know what to listen for and you don't walk in and ask generic questions like, "What keeps you up at night?" Which causes a lot of eye rolling. Because that basically says, "I didn't bother to find anything out about you ahead of time. I want you to do that work for me." And which doesn't generally get a great response.

Meggan Schilkie: Absolutely. And you run into clients in all states of evolution in their own work. And so you want to be promptly prepared with your own ideas and thoughts and proposals. Such that, if they really, really are, an open-ended question for you and looking for your advice. For you to come in and tell them how to approach something, you can do that. But remember that ultimately, they're the client and so you got listening is very important.

I will say the best pitch meeting I ever had was one where we had a whole slide deck. Hour and a half meeting plan. I think 40 slides or whatever it was. We got through slide 3. And by that point it had devolved into a conversation where we were excited to hear about their challenges. We were actually sort of brainstorming in the room with them a little bit. We were actively engaged in that discussion and it almost felt like the consultation had begun and we knew we had that project before we left the room. And we didn't. Never be a slave to your slides or your preparation. It's important to do that so you have it. But do not be afraid. Go off that if the conversation takes you there and the client wants to go somewhere else.

Deb Zahn: Right. And if you've prepared, you can bring that flexibility in the room.

So let's say you have a team. So if you go in solo and you know how to tap dance and you know how to do various other dances. It's a little bit easier. But if you’ve got a team, now you have choreography. So prep with the team ahead of time?

Meggan Schilkie: What a great analogy, Deb. I love that. So you know that part of my background that I bring to this whole thing is that a very, very long time ago, earlier in my career I actually did some performance and directing. And I like to bring some of that expertise and experience into my pitch meetings.

I love working with the team. To do exactly what you said. Choreograph a really thoughtful organized approach. There things that you certainly never want to do as a team and things you definitely want to make sure you do in the room. One thing is that every single person in that room needs to play a key role. And needs to have a voice and a contribution to the pitch meeting that adds value.

You do not want to bring extra people into the room. What that conveys to a client is stacking teams with people who aren't adding value and that costs them more money. Right? They know very clearly who they talked to about what. Do you want to be very clear with them? Who's responsible overall? Who's directing the project? Who's doing the actual management of the day to day deliverables? Who's actually their point of contact on any issues that they can call?

That they don't have to worry about sorting out the team roles, but they should understand that very clearly. Also that you have thought those through. That everybody on the team is very clear about what their responsibility is and what they're bringing to that project. And that's really important.

Deb Zahn: Right. Because again, you're giving them, as you said, an experience of what it will be like to work with you. And they want choreography, not chaos. So you got to bring that and show that.

Meggan Schilkie: Absolutely. And I think an ideal team size for a pitch tends to be 3. Maybe 4 at the most if it's much more complex. A larger long-term more complex project that really is different. It stays and if the pitch meeting is a longer meeting that really requires you to work through the components. I tend to think any more than that is confusing or clouding for the client.

Obviously, there are exceptions, but I would say in an ideal world, 3 people. Because 3 people can easily also have that dynamic in the room where you're talking to each other, and it's more of a dialogue rather than a rigid “Now this person is going to present. Now this person is going to present,” which is not the kind of feel and approach you want to be bringing to that room.

Deb Zahn: Now I know I've had experiences where there was some prep ahead of time with the team, but we all prep differently. So how I tend to prep is, again, I don't over-prepare. But I don't just write it down… I say it out loud because I'm trying to get the “muscle memory” in my mouth so that the first time I say it is not when I'm in front of the room. I do the rehearsal. And I’ve found that other folks don't do the rehearsal. They just write it down, and they get their thoughts together.

And for some people, who are good and quick on their feet, they can do that. I don't find most people can. So do you do group rehearsals? Particularly if it's a project that they give you the questions ahead of time. And you know what they need… that sort of type of rehearsal? If it's, we know them but we don't exactly know where this conversation's going to go or what they might need that's a different type of rehearsal. How do you balance things like that?

Meggan Schilkie: I'm a big fan of rehearsals, I do think they have a place especially when it's a team, and it's actually important for you to hear the other people say what they're going to say out loud to the best that you can in advance. Because you know actually the point of having that team too is that you can give one another feedback. And so, for many of us, something might look great on a piece of paper, but then when we start to speak out loud as you've said, it comes out very differently.

And I love the term muscle memory. You know I do think that practice and rehearsal, in general, will get you there so that you're more comfortable. Not everyone is comfortable immediately being public. Doing public speaking. And it's such a difficult part of business development and presenting yourself as a consultant that it really does require rehearsal very much so. As a group, it's also really important to rehearse certain things.

OK? So things like Deb, if I happen to think maybe you're taking a little too long for your section of the presentation. I might wait for you to take a breath and say, "You know what, Deb? Looking at the time, I think we have to make sure we address these 2 questions. And then we can definitely come back to that if we have time."

And you need to practice responding to me positively in that interaction so that it never looks like there's any tension between us. It looks like we're only supporting and complimenting one another as a team. That we worked together in the past and know how to do this. That we're backing each other up. All of those sorts of good behaviors of team members can be easily exhibited. And it's always really important for you not to say, "Oh no Meg. Just hold on…"

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Yeah.

Meggan Schilkie: Because that just demonstrates that there's a lack of cohesion as a team, and they never, never want to see you disagreeing with one another in the room like that.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Because they don't pay extra for drama. Often they don't want to pay for drama because they might have enough of that in their organization, and they're hoping you can help come in and relieve that. That's great. Any other preparation things that you think are critical?

Meggan Schilkie: I think that there are little things that we can do. Especially that modern technology allows us to do that maybe we couldn't do 10 years ago or were less available to us. One thing is that I tend to do a little bit of work and research to get at the culture of the organization that I'm pitching to. Giving an example of a recent one where there was actually an online video of a client that we were preparing a pitch for. Where a number of the members of the team for whom we were going to be pitching, actually, had done a presentation for their oversight board.

And so, we were able to actually watch them in action. We were able to put faces with the names of the people who would be in the room. That helps you a lot in your preparation. You're able to hear them and understand a little bit about style and approach. The formality with which they were presenting versus maybe a more relaxed or casual style or attitude. And I will tell you that really helped us walk in the room with a better sense of who they were, what the style and culture of this organization was. And just sort of in some ways match that with our approach to the presentation or pitch. And that goes a long way.

Deb Zahn: Wow. That was a gift. If you can find videos of folks in this day and age. You can find more of that whether it's somebody giving a presentation or some funny video that they put together as a promo. That's a tremendous gift. And I would tell folks prepping don't give that gift back. You don't. Back in the day, we were going in cold all the time, and this is actually something that helps. That's great. Any other prep things or should we walk in the room?

Meggan Schilkie: Well, I think the only other thing I would say is most of us, as consultants, spend a lot of time having to over and over again introduce ourselves. Talk about our backgrounds. Our bios. Some of us get tired of doing that and find more and more concise ways to do so to try to sort of capture 20 plus years of experience in 2 sentences. Because we don't want to repeat the same thing over and over again. And trust me the client doesn't want you to either.

Deb Zahn: Right.

Meggan Schilkie: They've read your proposal, which includes your bio or your CV. They've looked you up online or read your longer bio that's online and available on the website or whatever it is. You don't have to ever, ever read that in a room. And please don't. So I mean if you've ever sat through that on the other side of the table-

Deb Zahn: Oh, yeah.

Meggan Schilkie: Really it can kill the tone or the mood in the room. Especially if multiple people, right? What I tell people is to think of ways that their background and experience directly applies to the project and client in front of them. And instead of trying to summarize your CV in a way that's concise and exciting because there's rarely a good way to do that, talk about one or two very specific experiences or lessons learned on projects that you've done recently. That you think would directly be relevant and apply and be beneficial to this client and their situation. It lets them know that you understand their need in the work ahead of you. In the project. You can bring some great exciting lessons learned or insights from previous work that you've done.

And that you're able to take that and apply it directly to their problem or need. And so if you can think of those in advance and use that as part of your background or introduction or a moment when you're describing your expertise instead of reading your bio that will always, always be more effective. And it's more memorable in the room. People will walk away with those sort of specific examples much more etched in their brains than they will any sort of dry description of your resume.

Deb Zahn: Right. Or “When I was 5 I did this...” OK, so you've prepped either solo or you've prepped with the team. You're ready to rock and roll. You walk in the room. What's the most important thing to do first? And we recognize there are, again, a couple of different types of pitches. One is you're meeting with them because you're just seeing if there's something that you could potentially do together. And then there are ones where you've maybe submitted a proposal. Now they brought you in to talk about it. Let's do the first one. Where you don't exactly know what they need. They don't exactly know who you are and this is your first chance to give them a good impression.

Meggan Schilkie: Yeah, I mean. I'll be honest with that first one. I've probably approached a couple of different ways and some of that is about reading the room. So again, being open, receptive, listening and engaging with your potential client in the room. So that you're following their lead in some ways. Introducing yourself and talking a little bit about the type of work you do is important if they don't know you at all. If you haven't already given them written materials that provide all of that.

The other thing is to really have a very targeted and focused set of questions for them about what you want to know. Basically shape a scope of work or identify to keep problems that you could be really helpful to them. So for instance, you might want to ask them how their organization is currently leveraging partnerships across their region in order to accomplish different strategic goals.

Because partnerships are such a critical aspect of healthcare delivery at this time. You might want to ask them what their most recent strategic planning experience was like. And did they use a consultant or how did they arrive at that? And how is there progress going towards those goals? We want to be very targeted and specific. Understand right now where they are. In their organization's evolution and then begin to ask them may be specific questions about things that you know are happening right now in the world that will directly impact them and their success. And how they're currently thinking about responding to those demands. Whether it be delivery system reform or some sort of larger finance changes in their system, they both show that you know what's happening that will affect them. And two, that you want to sort of know where they are in that process before you start rolling out advice that sort of lasts or under-informed and doesn't incorporate what they may have already done as an organization as a system.

Deb Zahn: What I like about that is…so if you start off with the brief introduction related to who they are and then you go into. Now it's more of a conversation where you're asking questions that are informed by preparation. You're also demonstrating to them that it's about them. And it's not about you. And again, I've been in pitch meetings where the intros went on too long and then we didn't get to those questions and so what the prospective client experienced is that it's about us. It's not about them.

And so I like that. Get past that. Give them enough to intrigue them and to show some credibility and then get into those things that'll put you into a conversation where you can start to demonstrate how you can help them.

Meggan Schilkie: Absolutely. You also don't want to cover the ground they've already covered, right? So sort of knowing where they are and getting that sense quickly allows you to not offer general advice where they're sitting there looking at their watch saying, "Yeah, yeah. We've done that or we've already addressed that or we've asked and answered those questions."

Allow them to catch up to the point where they are in their organizational thinking. And then you can really add value at the point of development that matches their needs and where they are as opposed to giving them something that's generic just because you know it's something maybe other organizations have needed in their past consultations.

But this organization may be further ahead. Or maybe in a different place and it's really important to learn and understand that. And if you can understand that in advance of walking into the room that's great. And if you don't know that until you're in the room that's OK.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And where do examples of other work you've done come in? How do you apply those?

Meggan Schilkie: You know I always like to have a couple in my back pocket when I walk in the room certainly. Where I think they're going to be applicable. But again, because I'm going to learn in that room, I want to be prepared to honestly throw those out the window. And start with something new that seems much more aligned with this particular organization and where they are.

And so by listening really actively in the room to the answers to those questions that I've just asked, it might spark in me a better, more relevant example that I didn't think of. But now I have and I can be organically responding to them in the group. You want to be careful about not sort of saying, "Oh, that's exactly like this other thing I did."

Because that can be reductive. And I think the client gets worried that "Oh, you're going to roll out some cookie cutter process. Or bring up an approach to me that you've already done with somebody else that maybe isn't as nuanced or personalized to our organization as it could be." You need to be a little wary of that.

Sometimes I like to say, "Draw on a piece of this project and a piece of this project that I think are relevant to you" to show that you're really thinking. That you're breaking a problem or project down into its important component parts and understand it. And then you will draw on a whole array of different parts, experience, tools, resources, etc. To bring that all together in a way that best meets their needs. And then just to get a better response than just, "Oh, that's exactly like this thing I did 2 years ago." That sometimes I think it gives the wrong impression.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I've also used examples as a way to draw out more information from them. So I might say, "We worked with a group. Here were some of the key things that they were struggling with. To get to the place that you're talking about. Are those some of the same things that you folks are struggling with. Or do you have other things going on?"

And then the examples become again about them in a way to sort of draw out what matters to them. And you can then start to see where their pain points are which is ultimately what you want to be able to solve for them.

Meggan Schilkie: Absolutely. I agree with that.

Deb Zahn: So what now. I've had this situation and it's always a little painful and tricky. Where I've gone in and they took the meeting with me. Or took the meeting with the team for whatever reason. But they don't really think they have any issues. They don't think they have any problems. They probably do. And they might even have said they do. But they think they're on top of it. How do you handle that when there isn't sort of a clear path to “they know that they have a problem and you know that you can solve it”?

Meggan Schilkie: In some cases, it's actually a little bit more about streaming this. I guess I would say the way I framed it in the past is sometimes people feel like they've really done a lot or accomplished a lot. And they're at a point in their organization where they aren't comfortable maybe acknowledging certain problems or challenges.

So some of what we might do is say, "You're very well positioned, based on some of the things that you've successfully accomplished. We can build on some of those to position you really at the forefront of your industry and among your competitors. And that through that process, perhaps we would identify additional ways that you can strengthen your organization's needs that you may have that you might not yet be aware of."

So that it's not just like, "I'm a consultant. I'm a hammer. So everything's a nail. So I have to.”

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Meggan Schilkie: “I have a problem to solve with you. And I'm going to sell you something no matter what." If they truly don't currently have a problem that's suited for our experience, expertise, and talents, we also might be just fine with saying, "You know what? OK. I understand right now you don't have an immediate need. Here are some of the things we can imagine knowing where the industry is going that might arise in the next few months. This comes up and you decide you want to talk to us about it again, here are some of the ways we might be helpful."

So that it's not a pressured situation where you're sort of trying to force them into shaking your hand on an agreement or a deal or a project before you walk out of the room. It's just not what they think they need right now. Maybe that's OK. Maybe it's something that will come up in the near future. And the other thing is simply that, making sure they have sort of all the tools at their disposal to make the best-informed decisions.

So maybe it's not a big problem or project that they need to be solved by us at the moment. Maybe it's a brief analysis of some of their options or opportunities that would allow them to think about the future in a different way. And so it's OK to size things differently depending on the need in front of you and where that client is. So I think you can be adaptive in that situation.

Deb Zahn: That's great. So let's say in the meeting that you do uncover something that you think you can help them with. Not everybody we work with has worked with a whole bunch of consultants. Often they have but not all the time. So there's that moment where you have to switch it to more of a transactional conversation about, "OK. Well, we've clearly got some things that we could do together." Sort of what's next. How do you make that leap? Because I often find that it's us that has to make that leap in the conversation.

Meggan Schilkie: Yeah. So I'm a pretty big proponent of not necessarily negotiating in the room. Sort of turning that pitch into the negotiation. I feel like it's important for everyone on both sides, to walk away and breathe for a moment. Metabolize what happened in the conversation. Frame your own thoughts and pull together. Sometimes debrief with your respective teams.

What I generally will say to them is, "Let us go back and talk to our team and come up. Just come together and define a scope of work to draft something." Put it in writing for you to react to. So that you have something concrete and specific that you can look at and say, "Yes. This matches what our understanding was and what we agree we need" Or, "No, we may have to go back and forth or do some follow up calls to make this an iterative process. To hone this scope to get closer to what the real needs are." And that allows for that continued dialogue.

I do think it's good to have very concrete next steps with very clear timeframes. If anyone's following up on anything on when you will get them that written product and follow up to the meeting. It's also really important just to sort of reflect back to them. What you heard in the room. So that everybody's walking out with a little bit of a shared understanding. And just you know a light recap at the end of the conversation can really help me do that. It also allows them to add anything that maybe they thought of along the way which comes up that they haven't had a chance to voice in the conversation.

Deb Zahn: Right. It's also their chance to tell us if anybody else has to be involved. So often if they're not the decider, you can ask, "Who is?" And then, what matters to that person? Like what types of things will. You don't want to ask it discretely is what gets them to a yes? But what do they need to see in order to be able to move forward with this? And then, yeah. It makes your life easier on the other side.

Meggan Schilkie: Yeah.

Deb Zahn: So anything else before you walk out of that room that's important?

Meggan Schilkie: For me, it’s this. It may be slightly personalized to the type of work that I do. I think it's really important to convey lots of empathy. To look through their eyes. And to get an understanding of that problem and that again is active listening and reflecting back what you've heard. But also that demonstrating that one, that you actually care about their problem. And demonstrate a commitment, a pattern, excitement or interest and really being able to help them solve it.

I mean otherwise, what are we doing this for, right? Consulting, I think can be far better if these are considered. If what you're doing is working with clients that you care about whose missions or visions that you can feel aligned with. And also, that you really truly believe that you can bring some value in and have a passion for helping them solve this problem.

I think it's important to take a moment. And it's great to try to convey that all along the way of the meeting, right? And then there are simple things like smiling and engaging and asking questions and conveying your own understanding of their challenges. And then displaying that empathy. If you have it though, it's worth pausing and taking a moment. At sort of in the wrap up phase of the meeting to make sure that you convey that.

And that's really what can set you apart from someone who really believes in and cares about their problems and wants to help them solve the problems they have. Rather than someone who's just trying to crank out work and develop business and get that contract signed. Then get into a bigger firm or whatever it is. And that's the difference maker.

Deb Zahn: Right. And their notes say, "Nod now" as opposed to you're actually listening because you're engaged with them. Because I find and I've certainly told other particularly new consultants this. If you also want them to have an emotional response to you. And that emotional response should be that they feel relief. That somebody cared, somebody listened, someone got them and they think that someone could actually do something to make their day to day life better.

Because, again, you and I work in the same industry. These are hardworking folks. They're working long hours, hard hours, in tough circumstances. And I want to be able to make their lives easier. And I want them to feel that before we leave the room.

 

Meggan Schilkie: I completely agree. And a lot of times I talk about the fact that I've spent my life in my career helping people like them, making their lives easier, through supporting them by solving operational challenges or financing issues. I do believe in what they do and that it's important to me that they have the right tools. To really help people. To deliver the care they deliver. To help people recover and improve their health and behavioral health also.

I think it's really important too. You can apply that obviously there. That's different and depending on your particular area of consultancy. But, you can apply that really truly, I think, in any industry if you are passionate about what you do and believe in it. That you convey that I think is really critical.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, absolutely. OK. So then you walk out of the room. You don't high-five until you're outside. Or in the elevator, if there's no video. What do you do then? What happens afterward?

Meggan Schilkie: Well, I’m definitely a big fan of a simple follow up thank-you note within, say 24 hours of having completed the meeting. Just acknowledging that you appreciate their time. Maybe reflecting back in a very simple sentence. One or two key themes you heard in the room. Re-articulating that you are excited to work with them.

And also, re-articulating any commitment for follow up that you've said that you would get them like a written proposal or draft scope of work. Or any additional information they requested while you were in the room with the timeframe. To make sure that they know that you're on track and everybody walked out with the same understanding and that you're going to move this forward in an efficient way.

I think it's important to get them something as quickly as possible after you leave allowing for sufficient time for team input and to make it a quality scope or proposal that you're drafting. But making sure either within the week that you have gotten them a draft or something that's really close to final for them to react to.

I tend to also think it's helpful not to try to make it absolutely perfect the first time. Because I think it should actually be a dialogue or an iterative process. And that you want to be. I tend to like to present to clients with a menu of options. Not just you know? And also not trying to throw everything in the kitchen sink at them in the first meeting.

I tend to either do things in phases where I say, "You know? Here's phase one of what we heard. Let's start by contracting for that." That way you get to, especially if it's a brand new relationship, get to know us and our work. You get to know that we can deliver for you and the quality of service that we can provide. And then we'll move on to phases two and three if that's what works best for everyone.

Or to offer them a little bit of a menu where they can choose some pieces out apart that fit with their particular priorities and budgets and all of that. And then you could always move on to later contracts. I think when you try to squeeze everything in all at once. If what you heard, lots of lots of challenges and problems and projects in that room because you can hear a lot in an hour.

So if you try to put all that in your very first proposal scope and it comes out to tons of money. That's really going to turn people off. So I think you want to balance that by presenting like I said, a menu or phased approach. And breaking it into bite-size pieces also helps them feel like, "OK, this problem is manageable." It gives them that sense of relief that you were talking about.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. The prioritization that you're doing could be one of the first most important pieces of value that you actually give them. Because they're probably overwhelmed and saying, "Oh my God. I have so many problems." And now you've soothed them even further and given them relief even further because you, as you said, have made it feel less overwhelming and more manageable.

Meggan Schilkie: Absolutely.

Deb Zahn: That's great. So, occasionally, very occasionally, even if a client says, "Oh my God, I need this in 2 days." Occasionally you don't hear back. You send something and you know you can help them. You know that they really wanted it and suddenly you hear crickets. What do you do?

Meggan Schilkie: Certainly I make sure that you go beyond an email. Pick up the phone and call them. And just leave them a thoughtful message. It's amazing, right? So many people rely on email and technology and written communications we forget sometimes to pick up the phone. You know the phone is ringing. And it's OK to pick up the phone a couple of times and just check in. Very low key. No pressure.

And the important thing to convey is, "I realize you are incredibly busy. I know that you have other things you're contending with. So this is on your timeline, not mine. You're the client, you're the customer. We just want to be available to you. We recognize you might be under some time pressures from some of the problems we heard from you in the room. And we really think we can jump in right away and help sort that pressure for you."

That's the message I try to convey. And don't worry if I haven't heard back for a while. Because for any of us who have been on the other side of that table, sometimes something else comes up and you just can't get back to that question of consultation for two weeks or so.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Meggan Schilkie: And you just have to understand that it may have nothing to do with you or what you mean to them. That it just might be what's happening in their lives at that moment. Well, I try not to chase people too much. But to be proactive in reaching out and just making sure they know we're here. We're excited to work with them and when they're ready we'll be here.

Deb Zahn: So, yeah. The other piece is if they sign it you get the contract then you got to knock it out of the park. Because again the ultimate goal is not just doing well in the first meeting and getting a contract. It's keeping them coming back for more and making sure they tell everybody that they've ever met in their entire lives. That you're the best folks to go to.

Meggan Schilkie: Absolutely. The best business development is delivering quality on the work that you have with your current clients. I agree.

Deb Zahn: Is there anything that you would tell new consultants. They're professionals now, they're going to be a consultant. Absolutely don't do this. Do you have sort of your top two don’ts? Hard to pick two I know.

Meggan Schilkie: I don't overly “yes” clients. So one of the things for me when I was a new consultant starting out. I know I was sort of eager to please, right? It was a new role, with new functions and a new relationship. And I had this idea that the client is always right. To be responsive to them. And so I think I was a little eager to please. On the “yes” side. You have to balance that.

And one of the ways to do that, is to remember that, mostly they're hiring you for your expertise and your advice. And so that means telling them things sometimes that are harder to hear. And learning to do that in a way that they can hear it. So being able to say things like, "I know you're going in this direction, and you think this is the right thing to do. But can we possibly step back for just a moment, make sure we have looked at all our options. That you're making the most informed decision that you can make. That you have all the data and information available to you to make this really important decision."

Not to sound like you're upselling or elongating the process. But to just make sure that you really want them to be as successful as possible. And so that would be one of the top things I would say.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Any other don't that's sort of a burning don't for you.

Meggan Schilkie: I would say don't try to be all things to all clients. Right? That's the other piece of the equation that is easy to fall into. We're not all experts in everything. We can't possibly be. It's OK if a problem or an issue arises for you that you observe or identify with your client or they identify for you to say, "You know what? Not the right person for this. This is a little bit outside my expertise. But I will absolutely help you find another consultant. Or if necessary another firm or another resource to help you get this problem solved."

Rather than trying to sort of blindly stumble forward and be all things to them and answer all of their issues or problems or questions. Even when some of them may fall outside your expertise. That can be hard to do. But it's really important and it demonstrates your integrity as a consultant. And it demonstrates that you care about them and their needs and making sure they get met. Not about selling them consulting services or billing them for the work you're doing and trying to do everything for them.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Because ultimately it's about value. And you want to make sure they get it. And clients love it when that happens and they don't always experience it. So it's a good thing for them to know that at the end of the day, you know it's about them.

So let me ask sort of a last question for you. I ask all my guests this because I think it's so important. I know how passionate you are about being a consultant. But I also know you have a life outside of consulting. So how do you balance and allow yourself to experience the other things that matter to you in your life?

Meggan Schilkie: Well, I certainly work a lot. So I do look for creative ways to find balance in my life. I'd say I sort of have three things that I do that help me strike a balance. The first thing is really doing the work that I love. When I love the work and the clients and the projects I'm doing, it doesn't feel as much like work, right? And it's working within a network and a system that I believe in and building relationships with your clients and the people that you're working with. It can really help make it feel less like work and more like a real calling or a passion and that helps with balance.

The second one is, I have an amazing husband who loves to travel with me. And I have discovered one of the great things about consulting which sometimes requires some travel as we all know. Is that when I go to new or different places, I will sometimes extend my stay. If I'm working there with a client, I'll maybe stay for the weekend and then invite him to join me. And so we'll explore a new place, a new city together. And then he gets to see the place that I am going to as part of my work and share that with me.

And we get to explore all the great new restaurants and culture of the place I am. It also offers me some additional insight of my clients. Because I'm learning more about that place where I'm going to frequent. I'm not just showing up, going to the client meeting, turning around and coming back. But I'm really appreciating the place. And sharing that with my husband and my family in a way that allows me to feel that balance and feel connected to a place and to get some benefit too from that travel. Which can be very stressful as we all know if you don't take control of it in a way that's positive for you.

The final one is definitely building a team and working with colleagues who I care very much about. When you're working closely with the people that you care about on your team, it can make it so much more fun. More enjoyable. That you know solving those problems that can feel really, really stressful when you're on your own. Because consulting can feel very lonely if you're out there on your own doing the work. Really making sure you're connected to your team. That you are constantly engaging with them even if they're not in the room with you. And they're helping to problem solve. That you're bouncing ideas off them. They're reviewing your work. It makes your work better and also it's more enjoyable.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. I love that. Well, Megan, thank you so much for joining me. This has been absolutely fantastic. I think anybody who's never gone to a prospective client meeting is now going to be much more prepared to do that. So thanks so much.

Meggan Schilkie: Thanks for having me, Deb. My pleasure.

Deb Zahn: Well, thank you for listening to Episode 11 of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. Hopefully, you enjoyed sort of a deeper dive into a consulting topic. I'm going to do some more interviews like this where we pick something that is so essential to being a successful consultant. And to go into it deeply enough that you can actually walk out and apply it immediately to help you be successful faster.

So please hit subscribe so you can know exactly when all of these great interviews come out. And also feel free to check out craftofconsulting.com. I have a whole lot of information and tools on there that can help you in every step of your consulting journey and again can help you be successful faster. So thanks for listening to this episode. Really excited to bring you the next one and see you next week. Bye.