top of page


Episode 136: One Way to Lose a Consulting Deal—with Deb Zahn

I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. In this podcast, it's just going to be me, but I'm going to talk about one way that you can lose consulting deals. This is something that makes me really sad because I've seen excellent consultants, the best at what they do, lose out on getting deals that they should have gotten because they didn't do this one thing.

Now, before I dive into that, I want to say that this is a compliment to a free, live masterclass that I'm going to be giving on the Top 5 Things You Must Do to Get Consulting Clients. This is going to be on December 10th at 11 AM Pacific Time, 2 PM Eastern Time. As I said it's free, and it's going to be live, so I'm also going to be interacting with the folks on it and answering any burning questions about how to get clients and how to build your business. There is a link in my show notes. You can also go to my website and sign up for it. Seats are limited, so make sure that you actually get your seat.

But this podcast is going to cover a topic that I don't cover in that masterclass but is absolutely critical for getting consulting clients. As I said, I've seen it go awry far too many times so that's why I want to talk about it.

Here's what it actually is. I'm not going to say a whole bunch before I tell you what it actually is. It's when a consultant does not articulate the how. What I mean by that is how you actually get them to the results. And that they're not able to articulate it so that it's understandable, it's believable and it's compelling to the prospective client. Here's what I'm talking about and how it typically goes.

Let's say you're in front of a prospective client. You've done your homework, you walked in, you were very well prepared. Please tell me you were very well prepared, walking into that. And in the conversation, you've been asking great questions, you've gotten them to reveal what it is that they need help with and what it is they're willing to pay to get help with. You’re able to see that you're a really great fit for them and what you know how to do will actually get them the results that they want. And you actually have results, and you have past experience to actually back up that claim. So that's all good, right? You share some of what you've been able to accomplish. They're into it, or at least they're intrigued, and you can almost taste the deal. You can feel that they're starting to get eager to work with you and you are getting eager to work with them because you know that you can help them.

And then you offer to help them. They're fine, they want to hear more about that. You paint a beautiful picture of that destination, so the destination being the results that you can actually help them achieve, where is it that you're going to be able to get them to. And they get excited about that. It matches what they talked about, it's what they very, very much need. For some, it's just something they've always aspired to. For others, it's solving big problems that they're having difficulty with. So that's all great, right? Everything is going beautiful.

And then, they ask you the how question. How is it that you're going to get them there? It is in that moment in how you answer that question that can make or break whether or not you actually get a deal. I'm not saying this occasionally happens, I'm saying that this actually happens enough that you have to be prepared for it. I want to talk about the three ways that it can go wrong and can result in you getting a no for work that you should absolutely get a yes to.

One is that you're not actually prepared to answer it. For whatever reason, hopefully, you did all this other preparation that got you to the point where they cared enough and they were interested enough that they then wanted to talk about what an engagement might look like and what you would actually do with them, that's the how. You weren't prepared for it. And unfortunately, what often happens, and I will admit it has happened to me, is that you babble. You don't say anything that is coherent enough that they can actually understand that you have a clear path to where they want to get to. They just don't get what you're saying. Or you keep talking about the destination, you keep switching back to that even though they're asking you a how question and they never actually hear an answer from you. I'm going to give an example of that in a moment.

Or, and this is what consultants unfortunately do a lot and it doesn't mean it's not true but it's not satisfying to the client often when you say it, is you keep saying, "it depends." What are you going to do with us? "Well, it depends." If they hear it depends too many times or you say it a lot, they're going to think you actually don't know how to get them where they want to get to.

You might also do something where you're giving answers and that's great, so you're not saying it depends, you're not saying something that's incoherent, but it's just not understandable or it's just plain not responsive to what they're asking for. And often, what'll happen is they'll look baffled, they might race to get off the call because, unfortunately, at that moment, what was at stake, and you might know that that was what was at stake, was trust. They have this burning desire to really trust that you are the right choice and one of the ways that they know you are the right choice is how you answer that how question.

What happens, at the same time, is also you're showing them what it's like to work with you. If you've listened to any of my podcasts or watched any of my videos, you know that this is something I say quite a bit, which is that every experience you have with a prospective client tells them what it's going to be like to work with you. If they ask you a question about the how, what is it you're going to do with them to get them to the result, what that process is going to look like and they don't get an understandable answer, then what you're signaling to them is that working with you is going to be confusing. And why would they pay for that? The answer is, is in most cases, they won't pay for it.

Now in contrast, when you look at what high-demand consultants do, these are the folks that everybody wants to work with, they get tons of yeses, they routinely get yeses, is one of the things that they do is they bring clarity. And they demonstrate clarity in all the different interactions they have with clients. In fact, you could think of it almost as one of the things that clients are buying is they're buying clarity, and that that's what you're selling. And you've got to know that that's what they really want and they're going to be looking for it when they're in the initial meetings with you. You've got to be able to show that.

Because why? Well, we know because when we get answers that are understandable, and we get it and we can follow along, it's soothing. It's a relief. "Oh, wow. They actually know how to get there. They're able to articulate it in a way that I actually understand. And I could turn around and I could actually explain it to others and that takes something off of my worry list." What you want to do is you want to take and you want to show them that you can take things off of their worry list. And presenting an understandable answer to a how question is one of the ways they do that.

So the reality is if you aren't able to do that, often because you haven't prepared to do that, then they have every reason to not hire you. You're giving them an excuse to not hire you, even if you know, you know, you know and you've been able to demonstrate up until that point that you truly are the absolute best person for them to hire.

I saw a painful example. I still cringe every time I think about it because it just makes me so sad. There was a consultant that I knew, that I had introduced to a client of mine. This was a prospective client for them. I was on the call because I had made the introduction. But it wasn't my show so I was letting the other consultant do their thing. This was for a big deal. This was going to be a six-figure contract and a contract that was going to be over multiple years. And the consultant that I connected with was, without a doubt, the absolute best person to do this work with them. There was truly, truly no one better that I could connect them with, and it was work that he really loved to do. On the surface, and even if you dug down, this was an exact fit and I knew it, which is why I took the risk of introducing them to one of my clients.

The meeting was going great. They were hitting it off, they liked each other. He was able to explain things that he's accomplished in other places. And it all was looking great until the client asked a how question. She wanted to know, if we did an engagement, what would that look like? What would the process be that you would take us through?

Now I knew that the reason she was asking that question wasn't just because she was curious about the answer. It is that she had to contend with things on her side that meant the answer to that question was going to be part of her calculation for who she decided to work with. She had some serious naysayers behind the scenes that she knew were going to throw rocks at the process. And by throwing rocks at the process, they were actually trying to stop the process and she knew that. She needed to be able to hear a clear, coherent how from him that was going to give her what she needed to go back and get the folks on board that she needed to get on board.

But the problem is when she asked the question, he didn't actually answer the question. He went right back to the what and gave examples of what he had helped folks accomplish in other places. All of which, by the way, were fantastic examples, but it didn't answer the question that she was actually asking. It got even more painful because she kept asking. She trusted me that I put the right person in front of her, and so she kept asking him to articulate the how. At one point, I couldn't stop myself, I jumped in and said, "Yeah, here's what I think she's asking." And I tried to set it up so that he could easily answer that question and he didn't.

And to this day, I have no idea why because he actually, I know he knew the answer to that question, I knew that he actually could think through it in a step-wise way. I think part of what happened is he had just done this work at such a deep level and for so long, that he could no longer take an easy step back and say, "Here's how I do it." He was used to, "Great, let's do this. Let's jump in, let's get it done." But what would have been great, in preparation before that meeting, was for him to think through, "All right, let me look at this with fresh eyes because they haven't seen what I've seen, they haven't experienced what I've experienced. This is a big frustration for them, that they're trying to deal with. How can I articulate this how, so that it's really understandable to them, what we're going to do and why we're going to do it."

The why you're doing that particular how is an important part of that and she was so eager, and in fact, expected to be able to hear that. But he lost the engagement because he wasn't able to answer that how question. She told me afterwards that's why he didn't get the engagement. And the saddest part of this, other than he didn't get to do this work that, again, I knew was absolutely right for him, is that another consultant did get it. And obviously I'm not going to name names, but it wasn't a consultant who was as good as him or who knew everything that he knew.

And ultimately, not just because of the consultant but in part, they didn't actually get the result they wanted. The problem is, the result they wanted was actually really, critically important and in some ways, a bit of an existentialist result that they had to get and they never actually got it. They spent all the money, they spent all of this time, they went through a process and the process didn't get them where they wanted to go. If he had worked with them, it absolutely would have. I truly, truly believe that. That's why that was so sad.

That's why, as part of your preparation, you have to be prepared, and practice in fact, saying not just what the result is but what the key steps are to getting to that result. You don't have to necessarily go ad-nauseum into all of the details. You should think through them enough that, if they ask questions about it, you can answer those. But you have to at least be able to articulate the major steps that it's going to take to get them there and you have to do it in a way where it's going to be really understandable.

The other thing is, is I know, and you might be thinking to yourself, "Well, Deb, it often does depend. I can't say this is exactly how you do it and make it completely understandable because they're going to have to make a whole bunch of choices along the way. So how can I do that?" That is absolutely true and I've been in that situation quite a bit. But you don't want to just say, "It depends," and then leave it hanging there. What you want to do is you want to be able to articulate to them what's going to have to happen, what decisions they will have to make, what options they will have to consider to formulate the right how so that they get where they want to get to. If you articulate that, you are demonstrating that you really do have a clear path for doing this, and it really can be articulated and really can be understandable. And it's going to help them see that, again, you are the right person to take them every step of the way.

That's the part where it has to be understandable. Think of that as the bare minimum. They have to hear it and know what the heck you're talking about. That doesn't happen naturally, particularly here in a situation where you're nervous because you're trying to get business. So you have to prepare for it, you have to plan for it and you have to practice it.

Now the other way that you can lose a deal is if, when you articulate your how, it's not believable. If the how that you are articulating only works in optimal conditions, you know those conditions that rarely happen, you've never actually seen them. Maybe once, you saw a unicorn float across the screen. But you know that, based on their reality, based on everything you've seen and you've experienced, that the chances of it being optimal are little to none. And you still articulate a how that only works in one of those unicorn and pixie dust situations, they aren't going to believe you. And they shouldn't believe you because you don't believe you.

The problem is, is if you think about it from the prospective client perspective, which you should always do, many clients have been promised many, many things. They've been told, "Oh, it can definitely happen in that timeframe. Oh yeah, this is the easy part. Yeah, we can definitely do this, no big deal." They've been promised those things before when they've hired consultants, only to be disappointed when it doesn't actually come true. Too many consultants make those promises, and maybe in that moment, maybe they even believe that it's possible. And they think, "No, no, no, this one time it's going to be different and everything's going to work out," but it doesn't and it never does, or it rarely does.

And now they're saying something to a client that isn't really honest about the situation, isn't really honest about what they can expect. And most clients aren't going to believe it. The problem is, if they aren't going to believe it, that you've lost trust. You have to be honest with yourself, you have to be honest with the clients about what it truly takes to achieve the results they want and to be able to articulate that. The reality is, is that you know, I know, not all paths are fast and not everything they want to do is going to be easy. And that there's a whole slew of things that could occur, or that you later discover, that make it more difficult or slower. And it is worth telling the prospective clients this so that they believe that you're actually being realistic. That you understand the reality, you understand the risk, you understand what it actually takes to do this.

What I've had to do is I've actually said to prospective clients things like, "Look, there are two options for what you consider for how to do this. Both will actually get you to the outcome, but they work in different situations." And then I describe what those are so that they understand that yes, I can articulate a how, I recognize that it sometimes depends. But I'm so good and I'm so thoughtful that I've thought through that and I can now present that to you. Or sometimes I might say something like, "Now this timeline would work if these three things happen," and then I describe what those things are.

Or if I know that maybe all of their senior leaders haven't actually agreed on where they're trying to get or agreed on some fundamental, critical part that is tied to the success in getting to their destination, I might say something like, "Having all of your senior leaders agree on this is going to make or break your ability to get to the outcome. That's why I'm suggesting we do that first. Everything hinges on that. If we're able to get there, here's what's possible. If we're not able to get there, here's what I would suggest." And then they get to hear me articulate how that actually works in real-world situations. And again, not when there are just unicorns and pixie dust.

Now you're probably thinking, "Yeah, but Deb, sometimes they believe in unicorns and pixie dust, and that they're going to sit in front of me or sit on the Zoom, and they're going to ask me for unrealistic things." That's absolutely true, I've had that happen a whole bunch. So I don't want to suggest that that's never going to happen, it is. But there's ways to handle that, that still demonstrate a believable how that is going to actually be something that they can respond to.

Let's say they want it fast and easy. You're not going to be doing them any favors by promising that they can have that if you know you can't deliver it. Or if you say yes to it and all you're thinking is, "It's not going to work, we're going to change the contract and then I'm going to be thinking I told you so later." That does not set up a good scenario and you might lose the engagement. You might never get the engagement because they don't believe you. You might lose the engagement because it doesn't turn out the way you said it would or you agreed that it would. Or the engagement ends, they don't get what they want, now you're taking a hit to your reputation.

It is worth risking losing a gig by being honest. And being honest doesn't mean you just say, "Look, that's not going to happen." You still offer alternatives. You still propose alternative solutions. But it is worth not getting a gig by being honest than risking your reputation. And risking it because you're agreeing to something that you're pretty darn sure isn't going to work. Because your reputation stands at the gate, as I've said before, stands at the gate of your bank account. You want to make sure that, at all times, you have a stellar reputation in your market as possible. One of the ways you do that is you don't promise things that you know aren't going to be possible, including the process by which you're going to get folks results.

Now I know that when I'm initially having a conversation with a prospective client that I am going to take them on a journey. And I'm going to describe how wonderful the destination is. I know that I have to say why that destination is important and the results they're going to get. They have to absolutely, fundamentally believe that my how will get them there. It's realistic, it's not exposing them to risks that I don't want to expose them to. And so I have to prepare for that ahead of time. So as I'm preparing, describing what some of my hows are, and now that's where I'm going to get plural. Because remember, going into a prospective client meeting, I might not know exactly what they want so I'm going to think through various scenarios. I'm going to think through the type of offerings that I have that are a fit for the types of clients I want to work with. I'm going to think through those hows so that I can articulate them in a way that it's going to be believable, that is going to pass the stink test because that's often what it is.

They might not think through all the nitty-gritty details of what you said and say, "Is that going to work?" But they're going to have to take a good, long sniff and say, "Yeah, that feels about right. I believe that that's possible. We might have to tweak things here and there, but I believe that that's possible." That's where you want to end with.

Now the other way that you can actually lose a deal is if how you describe you're going to get them the results, so your how is not compelling. We started with an understandable, bare minimum. They've got to get what you're trying to say. We then went to they've got to believe it, it's got to pass that stink test. And now we're at the part where it actually makes them want to say yes. And compelling can mean a whole lot of different things.

At a minimum, it's got to be relevant to them. Howeve,r it is you're proposing what your process looks like and how you're going to get them to the result, it has to be relevant to them and it has to reflect the circumstances that they're in. That's why, at the beginning of your initial discovery meeting with them, you want to ask a whole bunch of questions so that you know enough about that, that if you need to make adjustments to your how, or you need to describe why you're doing something in a certain way or proposing doing something in a certain way, it reflects their real-world circumstances.

And I've heard this from clients a whole lot. They also don't want to feel like it's an off-the-shelf process like this is what you do with everybody. "You're telling me this is the right how because it's your how, not because it's the right how for me. It makes your life easier, it doesn't make my life easier." You never want them to walk away thinking that. So part of it being compelling is making sure that what you're articulating actually matches them and who they are. And doesn't feel like a generic solution to what they experience as a specific problem.

So even if you've seen the problem they have over, and over, and over, and over again, and maybe it varies a little but not a whole lot, they don't experience it that way. They experience it as something very specific and unique to them. And they're going to need to hear you talk about how you're going to get them to result in a way that matches that experience they have. Because you want them to walk away feeling like, "Ah, man, they get me. They totally get me. They get my destination, and they get how they're going to be able to get there, and I feel good about that." Because you want them to have really good emotions because again, a lot of folks make decisions based on emotions and then rationalize it later. By the way, we all do that. That's why you want them to have those good feelings. One of the ways they have a good feeling is you present a how that is really about them.

You also want to be able to show that, whatever process you take them through, whatever that how looks like, that it's going to be a great experience working with you. It doesn't mean it's not going to be hard, it's not going to be challenging, there won't be bumps in the road, but that your how has taken into consideration and has baked into it things that are going to create the best possible experience that they can have. And that they're going to get to their destination and it's going to be in a way that they want to.

I think of it as the analogy of riding on a bus, going somewhere. Now I've been on the really nice buses, where the seats are clean and comfortable and they're shocks on the bus, and it feels like a smooth ride. I feel like I can relax and enjoy the trip. I've also been on the other one where, this is when I was much younger, and traveling where the experience is so painful and you feel every single bump. And it's not fun. You want to show them that you're taking them on the premiere bus and not the rickety, the thing that used to be a school bus about 10 years ago. That's what you want to think about, in terms of the experience.

You also want to show them that your process, whatever your how is, is reasonable but not unnecessarily burdensome. That you're not doing things just because you think they should do it, but because it truly adds value in terms of getting them to their result. It responds to the complexity of their situation, but in the simplest possible way. You're not looking at their complexity and saying, "Oh, you want to see complexity, I've got complexity," and now you're introducing things that are going to make their day-to-day lives even more difficult. So you're going to try to do things in a simple-as-possible way. What you're doing makes sense, so that goes back to understandable and it's defensible. That becomes compelling to them, particularly if they have to convince anybody else of the yes. They need to be able to take what you said, which they've understood, they believe and now, they've got to present it to somebody else in a compelling way. And you want to feed that to them so that it's easy for them to do that.

Maybe, depending on what your offer is, is it’s flexible. You can adjust it as needed to get them where they're going. You understand exactly what they're trying to accomplish, you understand what the options are and you're going to help them make decisions about options. I remember the first time that I worked with a particular client that I've now worked with for many, many years. She didn't know me and she was actually in my industry but not my sector, so it was one of the first times I was venturing outside of the initial ideal sector that I worked in. And I was going to help her with some strategic planning, and we were talking about the how, so what would it actually look like. She asked a question and my answer to it got me the gig. I knew as soon as I answered it, the look on her face, I knew I had it.

It was a small thing. She said, "I understand that we could do surveys, or we could do focus groups. Why should we do each one? Which is the right one to do?" My answer was really simple, which is, "Surveys give you magnitude, and focus groups give you nuance." Then we started talking about what she most needed. And was it magnitude or did she need nuance, or did she need both? In which case we were going to adjust it. As soon as I said that, those first two sentences, I had the gig. I knew that I had it because the look on her face was like, "Finally, a consultant can actually answer this question for me." From there, we've worked together for many years, and she's sent business to me. It was really smart, thinking through that how very carefully because it ended up being not only lucrative to me but also ended up doing work that I really love to do and expanded the sectors that I actually work in. It was great for a whole lot of reasons.

At the end of this, when you're describing your how, you want them to know and to feel that you are truly a fit. Or you're a good enough fit. It doesn't even have to be perfect, but it has to be a better fit than who else they're talking to, for them, for who they are, for how they function, and for what they want. That's what makes for a compelling how description. So when you're preparing, the same way that you did for understandable, and the same way you did with believable, you want to think through how can I describe this that's going to be compelling to the prospective client. I need to think about who they are, I need to think about what I know about them, I need to find out things about them. And that's going to help me make this as compelling as possible.

I'm also going to think through, as I'm preparing, times that I've done a similar type of work where it went well. What was really key to it going well because I want to be able to articulate that. Or if it went awry, why did it go awry and what adjustments did I make or have to make now to make sure that doesn't happen again. Because if you talk about how you're going to work with them, they might poke at it a bit, that happens quite a bit. It's a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do. And often, it's because in the past, they have experienced things that were frustrating, or painful, or things that didn't work, so they're going to want to poke at your how a little bit. So you want to think through some specific examples that ended up well, or things that you changed because it didn't go well, and that shows them how thoughtful you're being about this. And then, again, it's going to show them how thoughtful you're going to be when you're engaged with them after they hire you.

You just want to make sure, no matter what, that you are carefully prepared to describe your how in the meeting that you're going to have with them, in the follow-up you're going to have with them. And that is going to often be the difference between getting a yes or no. And again, I gave a painful example of where it ended up being a no because of it, but I have a bunch of examples like the one I gave, that I got a yes or I watched somebody else get a yes because they answered this question very, very well.

Of course, there are other things that you need to know how to do to get clients and get them more reliably. Those are the five things that I'm going to share for free. And again, I just want to mention my free, live masterclass, the Top Five Things You Must Do to Get Consulting Clients. It's going to be on December 10th. I'm going to be digging into those five things. I'm not going to talk about the one I talked about on this podcast, but I'm going to be digging into those five things, and I'm going to be answering whatever questions you have about how to get clients and how to build your business so definitely join me for that. And otherwise, enjoy thinking through your how. Have as much as you can prepared in your toolbox because you never know what tools you're going to need when you're in the moment with the client. And you do that and you're going to get a whole lot more yeses.

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.

And then the last thing is, again, if you've gotten something out of this, share it, share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant, and make sure that they also have access to all this great content and all the other great content that's going to be coming up.

So as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.

bottom of page