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  • Writer's pictureDeb Zahn

Consulting Business Development Process, Part 1: Prospects to Proposals

For folks who are new to consulting, the path to getting business can be a stress-inducing mystery. Other than responding to competitive Requests for Proposals, what do you do to get business? How do you get people to hire you? Where do you even start?!

When I first starting consulting at a firm, I had to figure out how to seek and get business under trying circumstances. I worked in the New York City office, which was a pretty new office. I was only the seventh person they hired for that office. Our firm was not well known in the New York market. The work I did was not something our firm was known for either, and there were several other firms that were very well known for that work. It felt daunting to say the least!

Over time, I started to see that the business development path often followed a standard process. I found it useful to look at the overall process and then break it down into manageable steps—with each step having different priorities and tasks. The typical process is:

In this blog, I’ll walk through the first two steps in this process. I’ll explain what the priorities are and some of the typical things you can do to get to the next step. I’ll also give you some insider tips about what I and other consultants have discovered works best.

1. Identify Prospects

The priority for this step is to create a list of solid prospects. Prospects are the specific people you are going to try to get business from. Solid means that you have good reason to believe that those prospects could yield engagements for you, if properly cultivated.

Your goal here is to be Goldilocks! You don’t want a list so long that it is overwhelming and unmanageable. You also don’t want a list so short that you will barely have any options to pursue. You want to find the sweet spot where you can use your business development time, energy, and effort strategically. Business development is time that you do not get paid for, so you want to be as surgical as possible.

Note that this step assumes that you have already done the work to clarify and articulate what you can offer clients. This is a critical step! If you haven’t clarified what you can offer, your ability to identify realistic prospects will be diminished. You will likely end up with a scattershot list of prospects. It also will make it difficult to offer something clear and compelling when you are in front of potential clients. If you need help clarifying and articulating what you can do for clients, I’ve got a tool that can walk you through it step by step. Know Your Zone: The Consultant’s Guide to Describing What You Can Do will get you ready to identify solid prospects, easily pitch what you can do for them, and get you clients!

Once you know what you can do for clients, you’re ready to build your list of solid prospects. The best way to approach this is to create a list of about 20-25 people who you think may need what you have to offer.

If you can’t come up with 20 people, then treat some people who you respect in your field to a free meal and ask them to help you come up with names. Make sure you tell them what you are planning to sell as a consultant so that they can help identify solid prospects. (They also may be able to introduce you to some of the people they suggested. More on that later…)

Now take your list of 20-25 people and segment it into two categories:

  • Hot Prospects: These are people who you know, who know you well, and who need what you have to offer. They should be easy to get a meeting with and already know you do great work or have a great reputation. They also are people who you know have a need that you can help them with. You think you could get a contract with them within 1-2 months.

  • Medium-Hot Prospects: These are people who you know or who know you well enough or by reputation. You could likely get a meeting with them. You don’t know exactly what they need, but you have reason to believe that they might need something you have to offer. You think you could get a contract with them within 3-4 months.

If there are any people on your original list that are not Hot or Medium-Hot prospects, take them off the list. Really. Take them off. It doesn’t mean there might not be opportunities you want to explore later, it just won’t be your focus at the beginning.

There are other ways to get prospects, which you can hear about on my podcast and which I dive into in other blogs. But this is one of the best ways to start because these prospects are often more solid.

2. Cultivate Prospects

Now that you have your list, you’re ready for the next step: cultivating your prospects. The priority for cultivating prospects is to get in front of your prospects and get a contract.

Get Meetings with Prospects

Start with your Hot Prospects. The first priority for this step is to get in front of the client. Whether it’s a meeting or a coffee date, it’s important to try to get direct, in-person contact. For most people, there’s no better way to cultivate prospects than face-to-face. If you can, offer to go to where they are to make it as easy as possible for them to say yes to meeting with you. If they only offer a phone call, take it, but do your best to get in front of them short of being annoying! (Critical Tip: Be persistent but not annoying.)

If you don’t know the prospect well enough to get a meeting, then find people who can make an introduction. If you asked people to help you come up with names for your prospects, ask them if they can introduce you. Make it easy for them to do it. If they are going to email them, write their email for them! If they are going to see them in person, offer to give them a couple bullet points that describe you.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

To increase the likelihood of getting a next step, once you get a meeting, prepare! Even if you know them and have worked with them before, you still have to do your homework. Make sure you have spent enough time on their website and looking at anything they have made public to understand what they do, what their organization/company does, and what their priorities and challenges are. Then match what you found with what you do. Don’t under- or oversell yourself. Look for things that are matches to what you can offer them and practice saying what you can do aloud and repeatedly. You want it to roll off your tongue easily!

As someone who also has been a prospective client, I can tell you that it is always obvious when someone did not take the time to do a little research before they came to talk to me, especially if they asked me questions that I knew could be answered online. It would make me less likely to hire them because I believe what you see is what you get! If they were not prepared for the meeting, I assume that’s what it would be like to work with them.

Also have a list of questions for them. The trick is to ask questions that demonstrate your knowledge of what they do; your insightfulness about the field; and your curiosity about what matters to them, including their struggles. This will enable you to honestly assess whether you’re the right person or team to help them and to better tailor your answers to match what they’re saying.

Rock the Meeting

Once you’ve done your homework, you’re ready for the meeting. The most important advice I can give you is to LISTEN. Listen to what they’re saying. Don’t just think about the next thing you want to say. The meeting is about them and their needs. They need to feel that from you. Ask specific—not generic—questions that reveal what problems they’re trying to solve, what is causing and contributing to those problems, and what outcomes they want to achieve by bringing a consultant in. Ultimately, you want to give them an experience of what it will be like to work with you. The best experience you can give them is that you listened to them, that you “got” them and what they need, and that you really can help them.

Now about what you say. You need to clearly and succinctly articulate what you can do for them based on what you know they want and need and what they say. “Clearly” means no consultant-speak. Consultant-speak is that almost universally irritating jargon that consultants use instead of plain language words that most humans speak. Your goal is to make sure that your client understands what you’re saying, so speak plainly. Succinctly means don’t go on and on. If they ask a question, answer it and then stop talking. If you’re giving a description or an example, say it and then stop talking. No one likes being talked at or feeling that their precious time is not being respected. So, talk unto others as you would want them to talk unto you. You also want to hear from the client as much if not more than yourself. I’ve had meetings with prospective clients who did 80% of the talking and gave me the gig because they got to talk about what mattered to them.

Most prospective clients not only want to hear what you can do but also how you do it. Be prepared to describe how you would work with them to get the result they want. Then give them some examples of how you did that or something like it somewhere else—even if it was in your pre-consulting days. Stories of struggle and triumph are very compelling. You want them to feel relieved at the end of the story—just like they’ll be relieved after they hire you and you help them get the results they want.

Get a Next Step

In the best of all situations, they’ll ask you for a proposal. But that doesn’t always happen. If they don’t ask you for a proposal, don’t assume it’s because it didn’t go well (unless you know for sure it didn’t go well). As the meeting is coming to a close, if they haven’t asked for a proposal and it looks like there are things you can do to help them, suggest a next step. What next step you suggest is usually best answered by your gut, which will get more precise with more practice. If you think they’re ready for a proposal, suggest that. If you aren’t sure, you could ask, “Would it be helpful if I put something down on paper about what I may be able to do to help you?” Often this will prompt them to either ask for a proposal or say that they aren’t ready for a proposal yet. If they do the latter, I often say, “Why don’t I just write down some ideas and then we can talk again.” I’ve never heard a “no” to that suggestion. I always try to schedule our next call or meeting before I leave because I know they will get busy and the warm feelings I created will grow cold with time.

I will send them is a scope of work within 1 to 3 days, perhaps with some options for them. If we set a meeting time, I will send it again the day before the meeting or by attaching it to the invite. I do not include a price unless they ask for it. I do not make it look like a proposal unless they ask for it. But I got my next step. That keeps the conversation about an engagement going.

You may have to do some additional cultivation to get to submitting a proposal. Again, the goal is to be persistent but not annoying. No stalking! If it’s not going anywhere, it is better to drop it so you don’t spend time trying to make something happen that isn’t going to and so you preserve the relationship. As with most things in life, relationships in consulting are primary. Always put the relationship first.

If all goes well, you have gotten at least one of your prospects to ask you for a proposal. Don’t worry if they don’t all ask you for a proposal. At least they know you are out there and may need you later or, as I have had happen many times, send someone to you.

Now it’s time to go to the next step in business development: the proposal. Or, more specifically, the winning proposal that gets you a contract and the chance to do the wonderful things you do for clients! Check out Business Development Process, Part 2: Proposal to Repeat Business.

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