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Episode 119: A Must-Do to Get More Consulting Clients—with Deb Zahn

Deb Zahn: Hey, folks. This is Deb with the Craft of Consulting. And today I'm going to talk about something that you need to do for sure in order to get consulting clients. In order to close more deals. And it is something that I have seen many, many, many consultants, including myself, flub up on multiple times and end up not getting a contract that they could have gotten. So that's what we're going to talk about today. Now, I do want to let you know that on August 20th, I'm going to be doing an online masterclass for the top five things you need to do to get consulting clients. I would love to have you join me for that. And in that, I'm going to give, truly, what the most important things you need to do to be able to get clients. But on this podcast, I'm going to talk about a bonus, sixth thing.

And I don't want to leave you in suspense about what that is, but I just want to say before I tell you, is that if you don't do what this step is, or you don't do it skillfully, you can kill deals. And as I said, you can kill deals that you could have gotten. And that means that you're going to not have the opportunity to do work that you really love to do. But here's the other thing, it can harm relationships and it can harm your reputation. So having a thriving, sustainable consulting business is all about having great relationships within your market, with clients that you've worked with, with prospective clients and for other folks who have influence within your market. You also want to make sure that you always have a reputation for excellence. So if you do certain things in your market that display that you do not do things with excellence at all times, it's going to hurt your ability to get clients.

So you don't want to kill a deal that you almost have in hand, but you also don't want to build up a reputation that's not going to serve your business needs and may work against it. All right, so I'm not going to leave you in suspense anymore. This is a thing that should be really, really obvious. And again, I will tell you, I've made mistakes relative to this so many times, and that is you have a meeting with a prospective client. Things go well, or they go well enough, and you have an opening for a contract, but you don't follow up appropriately. Now, if you've been eager to get work or even maybe a little desperate to get work, the thought of not following up probably sounds really confusing. But there's so many things in the process of following up that can and often go wrong.

And we're going to talk about what those are and we're going to talk about what you should be doing instead. So let's talk about what happens here. So one of the things is by the end of the meeting, and I'm going to talk about again in my masterclass, like what gets you into the right meetings and what actually gets them to want to work with you. But one of the most important things that you have to do to kick off appropriate follow-up, is to make sure that it's clear what that follow-up is going to be by the end of the meeting, which means that you have to make sure, you have to make sure not the client that you're talking to, that you leave enough time to be able to have a conversation about what that follow-up is going to be. So the most important thing is you need to make sure that you get the next step.

Don't leave it hanging. Don't leave it unclear about what that is. If the client doesn't ask for a proposal, then you can either suggest that you put a proposal in front of them. Or if you think they're not quite ready for it, you can also suggest that you put some ideas on a piece of paper that you can have a conversation about. And then you say exactly when you want to have that conversation and when they're going to have it, but you want some next steps. So you didn't just have a fabulous meeting and then they go about their day and they think nice things about you. And then other things start to cloud their mind and you're going to be a faint memory, if even that. So you want to make sure you clarify and say out loud to them what that next step is going to be.

If you say a proposal and they're like, "Oh, I'm not sure about that." Again, you can offer to say, "Look, there were several things I heard that you said, that I think I could help you with. Why don't I put some down on a piece of paper and then we can talk about them? And I can also present a few options of what that might look like." But get some next steps. Then, the thing that often goes wrong. Let's say you get that next step, but you haven't clarified when they're going to get it. So they might have different assumptions in their head than the assumptions you’re having and you don't want anything to be a mismatch. So you want to clarify when they're going to get it. So if you have a next step, if it's getting them a proposal or it's getting them options for a potential scope, you want to say, "OK, I'm going to get that to you by X date."

And that X date, by the way, should be really soon. So unless you're going on vacation, unless you're having major surgery, or something else is happening, in which case you say, "Look, I'm headed out for two weeks. Is it OK if I give it to you by this date?" It should be within two days, four days at the max. There might be things that are outside of your control in which case it's longer. And communicate that. But you want to make sure that when you walk out, you know what the time frame is and they know what the time frame is and you've both agreed to that.

So that's absolutely essential for you to do at the end of a prospective meeting with a client. But here's the next thing that often goes wrong: if you promise something within a certain time frame, but you miss that deadline. And there could be all kinds of really good reasons why you weren't able to get them what they said they wanted and what you agreed to, in a particular time frame, could be lots of really good reasons. You want to avoid that as much as possible. If it happens once to you, if it happens twice to you, you might start to have to adjust what comes out of your mouth. I had to do that because one of the things that I kept making a mistake about, is when I was thinking about what I was going to get them, I wasn't thinking, oh, what are the other things that I also have to do that may have deadlines? I possibly was saying, and often saying dates that were actually not possible. I had to learn to say something on the outskirts, "I'm going to give it to you within the next two days. I'm going to be giving it to you within the next four days. If anything gets in the way of that, I will let you know but that's the date I'm going to give you."

And I had to stop saying that they're going to get it the next day because guess what? They weren't going to get it the next day. So you have to pay attention to what you're able to do or not able to do. Optimally, what you'd want to do before you walk into that meeting is think about, hey, if I'm going to put something in front of them, when reasonably can I do that? And in fact, one thing I've been doing is I've been booking that on my calendar ahead of time so that I know exactly when I can give it to them. But no matter what, you don't want to miss that deadline, unless there is some significant reason why you miss it.

Here's the next thing that could go wrong. Let's say something does happen. You miss that deadline, but you don't communicate with them. So they were thinking they were going to get it on Thursday. Thursday goes by, Friday goes by, the weekend goes by, now it's Tuesday. And they still haven't gotten it and they haven't heard anything from you. So often one or two things will actually happen. So the first thing that could happen is you're out of sight, out of mind. So they had a good experience with you, but now they've moved on to other things. Other things have come up in their life. Maybe another consultant approached them, or they've already had a meeting with another consultant and they're going to then replace you. So you don't want that to happen. But the other thing that could happen and I've had this happen to me and it's painful, it's so painful, is when they reach out and they're like, "Hey, I thought I was going to get this."

And now you're in a position where you actually have to explain to them, "Oh yeah, sorry. Here's what happened." But now, it's not just a problem of the fact that you missed a deadline. Now it's a problem of the fact that you didn't communicate with them, and you don't want them pointing that out to you. That does not start a relationship off on a good foot. And it also could be a big mark against you, so that they often will decide that they don't want to work with you because it doesn't sound good. That doesn't look good. So that's sort of the next thing that could happen. You always want to make sure you communicate. If you miss a deadline, you want to apologize for it. And I'm enunciating that because the words, my apologies, I'm sorry, need to actually come out of your mouth or show up on an email and then tell them when you're going to get it.

I, personally, do not list all of the reasons and I don't make excuses. If there is something that means that they're not going to get it in a while, like a family emergency comes up, I might communicate that. But otherwise, I apologize and I let them know when they're going to get it. So obviously, missing the deadline can keep happening. It should not. I've actually seen, I've actually had it happen to me when I was on the other side and just deadline, after deadline, after deadline got missed until I was like, forget about it. Why do I want to work with somebody that's going to miss all of their deadlines? Because they're probably going to do that when we work together. So if you do it once and apologize, get yourself back on track. That's salvageable. But if you do it more than that, then you're going to start to look like someone that they don't want to actually work with.

So let's say you get past that and you're not missing deadlines and everything's fine. The other mistake that I've seen happen quite often is that what you give them doesn't match what they thought they were going to get. So if you told them that you were going to get them a proposal and instead you just wrote up some bullet points about what a particular scope of work might be and don't explain why that switched and why that switch is actually a benefit to them, they're going to be scratching their head and wondering why they didn't get what they want. If you give them something that doesn't match the potential scope of work that you talked about, and instead you're talking about something else, which again, I've seen happen, then they're going to be scratching their heads and saying, "Were we in the same meeting?"

And again, "Why do I want to work with this person if they don't get what it is that I want?" And communicating that you get them and you get what they want is one of the most important things you absolutely have to do to get clients. That's not just when you're meeting with them, but that's also everything that they see afterwards, including a proposal, including a scope of whatever it is you agreed to get in front of them. So it's got to match what outcomes they said they wanted. The things that they care about. Anything you might have talked about in terms of what the process is. Now, if you left that meeting and you thought, you know what, there's actually might be a better way to do this, or there's another option that I want them to consider that still gets them to their outcome, or is an improvement on what you've talked about, that's OK to put in front of them as long as you explain why. And as long as that explanation makes it really clear that it's all about them and it's all about them getting the outcome they want.

What is not OK, is to put something in front of them that balloons the scope. That basically are big, expensive additions that really just look like you're trying to drive up the price. And you might've left and thought, “Oh man. There are so many more things that I could do for them. I'm just going to give them all of that.” But you have to think about how that's going to be received and how that is often received, particularly because a lot of people haven't had great experiences with consultants, or they know the stereotypes about consultants who just are trying to make a bunch of money and make it off of them. So you have to think about that you're not the only context and you're not the only example of a consultant.

If you suddenly balloon the scope and it's far beyond what they talked about, chances are they're not going to look at that favorably. It's going to be confusing to them. It's going to, again, look like you're making it about you and what you really want is you want a whole bunch of money. Now, what I often do is if I go away and I think, oh man, there's other things I could help them with. Then I might put something in the scope that says, or put something in the proposal that says, "If you need additional assistance, here's how we could arrange that. Here's how we might arrange that in an existing contract." But I generally will not bring it up in writing if I didn't bring it up in person.

What I might do is I might say when we get on a phone again, and we're going to review the proposal and we're going to review the scope. If I think there's a really burning need and demand that they might have, I will bring it up. But otherwise, I want to get working with them so they get a feel for what it's like to get the good, juicy, wonderful value that I can provide to them. And then guess what? They're going to be way more open and eager to have you suggest other things to them. But the whole point is not to throw everything at them in the kitchen sink. It's to really show, I get you. I understand you. I understand what you're trying to achieve and I've got clear strategies and ways that I can assist you to actually get there. That's what you should be focused on 100%.

And then one of the last things I will say is, actually I got two more. So this one is, if you give them something, that's just unpolished and by unpolished I mean ugly. I'm just going to use that phrase. So you don't have to give them something that is absolutely perfect. I've actually seen some consultants overdo it, where they put together this really intense, polished proposal and include all of these details in it, that maybe you haven't talked about. Maybe you haven't figured it out with them. Now if they've asked for it or if it's something they expect, you definitely want to give them all of that. But mainly, what I see is the reverse, which is there's typos, misspellings, the punctuation's off, the formatting is off, which personally drives me crazy, or it's missing information or there's something sloppy visually.

I've seen proposals where they would try to get a little fancy, which I love and put pictures of the folks that would be doing the consulting, but they weren't even and they weren't matched. So it literally looks like somebody did this at 11:00 at night, and they were really tired and they just wanted to go to bed. You want to give them something that shows them that you care about quality, not that you care about perfection because perfection can actually get in your way. And perfection, by the way, can be one of the things that causes you to miss deadlines because you're too afraid to give it to them because it's not perfect. That's not what I'm talking about. I think perfectionism is one of the biggest mistakes that you can make when you're trying to develop a consulting business.

But I mean quality. And that means that it is client ready. That's the term that I use. That it looks good. It looks like it was thoughtful. It's visually appealing and easy for them to read. There's nothing that's going to irritate them and make it unpleasurable to actually read it. And you never know who the folks are out there that care tremendously about mechanics and punctuation and things like that. I am one of those. So you don't want to hand me anything that's got a whole bunch of mistakes, but you never know who those people are. You never know what's actually going to bug them. So you want it to look as if you are proud to hand it to someone. Not perfect, but polished. So that's definitely something that you don't want to make that mistake. And a lot of that you can handle by actually having your templates ready ahead of time.

Now, if you have a customer service or a customer relationship management system, a CRM, then you should have your proposals and scopes already in there that have a template and everything's formatted. And you're just going to go in there and add the information you need. That can help make sure that it's not sloppy because you're using a template. So a lot of that, you should be able to do work ahead of time to make sure that doesn't happen. But you know what? Proof it. If you're not good at proofing it, have somebody who is good at doing it. No matter what, throw it in Grammarly or do a spell-check so that you can really pay attention to things that are going to be obvious mistakes that will bleep off of it.

So here is the last one. And I saved what I think is probably one of the most important ones for last. And that is, when they don't respond to you and you don't respond to them. So it is often that you may say, "Look, I'm going to get this to you on Thursday." You do what you're supposed to do. You get it to them on Thursday. It looks gorgeous. It's responsive to what you talked about. It's all of those beautiful things that you want to put in front of them and crickets. You don't hear anything. They don't get back to you.

And what usually happens is particularly if you're feeling some confidence issues, if you're feeling imposter syndrome or anything that's just not quite making you embrace your fabulousness in the way that you want to embrace your fabulousness, then you might start filling in the blanks, right? So they didn't respond to you and that created a blank slate and you started filling that with assumptions.

And often it goes like this. "Oh, they weren't really interested." "They didn't like what I gave them." "Oh my God, they hated what I gave them." I've heard that one a whole bunch. And you just start making all of these assumptions about why they don't want to hire you and not trying to understand that there's a whole bunch of things you don't know about why they didn't respond. And it could have, and often has, absolutely nothing to do with you. Unless you're one of those people who have always responded exactly when you're supposed to, to everything. And I will tell you, I am not one of those people. Then, you know stuff comes up, work stuff comes up, life stuff comes up. For me, it's that I have a really crappy short-term memory, so I might look at something and then Etch A Sketch, which is what my secretary used to say when I move my head and then I'd completely forget that I just looked at it.

So there could be a whole host of reasons they haven't got back to you. And the key is, is to not make assumptions. And don't you kill the deal because you didn't hear back from them when you expected to hear back from them. So there's a cure for crickets. The cure for crickets is to actually follow up with them. And that means, send them a little note if you know them well, and you think it's appropriate, you can make a phone call. If there's some folks that I've worked with enough, or I know well enough that I might send them a text. Whatever the most appropriate communication you think is for them and just say, "Just checking in. Did you review the proposal?" Remember, that they may not have time. They may be super busy. They might not have time to read the entire email.

So, a couple things you want to do here. One is you want it so that if all they did was read the subject line, it would nudge them the way you want them to be nudged. So literally in the subject line, I will put in capitals, "CHECKING IN: Did you have a chance to review what I sent?" Or something like that, usually it's a lot more direct than that, but then you want to reattach that thing because you don't want them to have to go back in their emails and have them go search for that. Because again, every time you ask them to do an extra step or put a burden on them, you reduce the chance that they're actually going to do it. So you reattach it. You might put in your subject line something that is a little more provocative or something that is attention-grabbing related to their outcomes.

So it might be, "CHECKING IN: Eager to help you with X," or something like that. But if they read nothing else, that should be enough to nudge them. And again, you can do it by email. You have to know someone, I think pretty well, to do it by text, meaning they've freely given you their cell phone number. But you can also give them a call, if you think it's appropriate. The one thing to remember is, everybody is really different. So for some people it's much better if it's an email because that's what they pay attention to. That's me. There are some people who prefer phone calls. That's not me. So I can tell you from experience, I miss a lot of my phone calls because I don't really pay attention to them. I pay attention to text and I pay attention to emails. It's actually gotten me into some trouble, mainly with folks wanting to adopt cats, which is a whole other thing.
But you want to think about who they are. So you might even, before you leave the initial prospective client meeting, you might ask them, "Are you better email, text, or phone call?" And they'll tell you. If somebody asked me that, I would tell them exactly. If I didn't really want to give them my cell phone, I would give them something and say, "Just email me." If it was someone that I knew a little bit better, I might say, "Yeah. And here's my cell phone." And oh, by the way, now they have my cell phone. So you may ask and if not, just kind of feel out who you think they actually are. If they're an introvert, I would say don't call them. If you get a feel that they were more introverted, then calls can sometimes come across as intrusive. If they're not, you might try one of those things. If it doesn't work, you might switch to another thing.

But when I say follow up with them if you hear crickets, I don't mean once. There are all kinds of reasons that somebody might not be following up with you. It is perfectly appropriate to send them something, let's say you send them something on Monday. It's been a few days since you expected to hear from them, it is perfectly OK a few days later, to send them something else. It's perfectly appropriate to remind them a third time, maybe a fourth time. Unless they indicated they were really, really super excited about working with you on a particular project, I might stop there or I might continue. I was actually just coaching someone who we had talked about a follow-up plan for her, for someone who seemed really eager to work with her. It took her following up for a year, which is a little bit longer than typical. But now, they're eager to talk to her about a contract and everything is moving forward in the way they want.

That's longer than it typically takes but it certainly can take a few weeks. It can certainly take longer than that. Start with the assumption that you are not going to be a pest or a burden to them. You want to make sure that you're making it easy for them to follow up on the action that you wanted them to take. So again, every time you send them something, or every time you reach out, if you leave a voice message and you say, "Just checking in, I'm going to resend you what I sent you, so it's at the top of your box." Just think about every way you can make it super easy for them to respond to you and to be the one thing that they're dealing with that week or that month, that is not an extra burden for them.

So don't give up, is the point that I would make. And this is where I have seen things absolutely get lost. And I'm thinking of an example, recently, where I was talking with another consultant and he had given something that was...I read it, it was absolutely fantastic...that he gave to a prospective client. It was an existing client but it was going to open up the door to do some additional work that was going to be really good, really meaningful. And he heard crickets. And he heard crickets, by the way, for over two months. I think he followed up once and then didn't want to be rude. And that's kind of how he thought of it. But he immediately assumed that they didn't like it. And he said to me, "If they didn't like it, it would have been OK if they just told me that, I would have been OK with it." I'm like, "Why are you assuming that they didn't like it? Their world is really intense right now. They probably haven't seen it."

And so we came up with a strategy to get them to pay attention to it and to get the right people to pay attention to it because there were some people that he actually didn't cc, that if he had, actually probably would have gotten a response. So we came up with a strategy and now we're cooking and we're talking and he's talking with them about a significant engagement that's going to do a tremendous amount of good for their world and the people that they serve. And again, he had to get past, as I've had to get past, as others have had to get past, the assumptions we make about why they're not getting back to us. Follow up appropriately, follow up respectfully because you want to make sure that you always maintain the relationship. But don't, don't sink into your assumptions and not follow up because chances are, it's got nothing to do with you and they do want to work with you.

So the last thing that I'm going to say applies to everything that I just said, and that is, and you've heard me say this before if you've ever listened to a podcast, is that every experience that you give a prospective client as they are becoming a client tells them what it's going to be like to work with you. And so your operating principle should always be, I am showing them that it is going to be wonderful to work with me in everything that I do. So every time you're about to do something, you want to stop and think, what's the experience going to be like for them? And am I showing that I am going to give them an excellent experience? And if the answer to that is no, don't do it. If the answer to that is yes, but this would make it better, do that.

But you always want to make sure that you are pausing, and you are thinking about that from the moment you first reach out to them all the way through actually getting a contract with them. And then of course, any time they actually work with you, and they get to experience what you're able to do for them. You want to make sure that their experience is always, always, always, always, always excellent. So that underlies all of this.

So this is that sixth thing that is absolutely essential to closing the deal. And as I said, I am saddened by how many times I have not done this in the way that I wanted. I have actually lost business because of this, business that I could have had, business that ended up going to another consultant or important work that ended up not being done because I didn't follow up appropriately.

I've seen this with other consultants. It is one of the top things that you can build systems around, you can build habits around, you can cultivate the exact experience you want to have. And if you do that, you will end up closing more deals, 100% end up closing more deals. So that's what I wanted to share with you today. Again, I want you to join me on my masterclass, where I'm going to talk about the other five things that you need to do to get consulting clients. That is going to be August 20th. There's going to be information about that in my show notes and you'll also see it on my social media. But sign up, seats are definitely going to be limited. But I want everybody to have a chance to hear what those things are and it is going to make it so much easier going forward for you to get clients. Add this one to it and you will be golden. So thanks so much for joining me today.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or if you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content and I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is, if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

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