Guerrilla Intelligence Questions Not to Answer

During discovery, clients will want answers to seemingly harmless questions. But responding before the scope of the project is clear can obligate you in ways you may later regret. Be prepared for clients to ask you:

^ How much will the project cost?

What is your hourly rate?

Will you send us a proposal?

Will you discount your fees for a promise of future work?

How long will the project take to complete?

You must answer all these questions eventually. But to avoid an unprofitable engagement or an unhappy client, wait until you have a complete picture of the client and the project before you answer. Most clients will push for answers to these questions right away. If you explain your position, they will usually recognize that it's in their best interests to wait until all the project issues have been thoroughly discussed before you answer.

but lose projects because they fail to demonstrate true understanding of those projects in their proposals.

How Well Do the Consultants Communicate?

Most clients give consultants the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while. They assume you are a credible professional who can help them—especially if someone they trust recommended you. That can change as soon as you open your mouth to speak.

Your credibility can go either up or down, depending on how you first address clients. No pressure here, but your initial statement can set the tone for a meeting or an entire project.

Discover beforehand the type of audience you will be addressing and the communication style of the client's organization. Communicate in a manner that is compatible with that style. When you know your audience, you can present yourself with confidence and competence.

Are the Issues Being Properly Explored?

Some consultants routinely suggest that all clients would benefit from their prepackaged services. It is premature to recommend complete solutions during discovery, but some consultants just can't resist doing so. Clients are sensitive to what they may perceive as canned answers to their problems. They see their problems as unique and complex and may consider your quick cures to be simplistic and superficial.

Will We Get the Attention We Deserve?

Clients want consultants to be fully engaged and interested in them and their projects. They also want to be assured of their importance to your firm. If you dwell on the international companies you are serving, smaller clients may think they won't receive the attention you lavish on larger ones. Make clear that all your clients receive the same high level of service, regardless of size.

Who Will Actually Do the Work?

In some consulting firms, after consultants secure an engagement, they hand off the project to others who perform the work. If that is the case, disclose the fact to clients as soon as possible. No matter how much preparation you promise to provide to your project team, clients will believe that they will have to go over the same ground with the new people.

Allay this concern by bringing members of the project team in during discovery meetings. They don't need to attend every meeting, but they should have some presence during the process. Convince clients that you have a reliable method for quickly educating those who will be responsible for performing the work.

What Kind of Relationship Will We Have with the Consultants?

When clients are considering hiring consultants, it's reasonable for them to worry about how the consultants will interact with company personnel. Long-term projects can involve intense relationships that affect the company's success. Clients want amicable relationships based on competence and professionalism. They want consultants to treat everyone in the company with courtesy and respect.

Can We Manage a Consulting Team?

Clients often wonder how they will manage a consulting team in their midst. And they may find it difficult to both oversee the work of consultants and manage their own operations. Build status review measures into your projects and include some contingency for additional time or resources to reassure clients that your work will stay on target. Help clients plan for the inevitable disruptions consultants and projects will cause to their businesses. Set up clear lines of communication to handle problems as soon as they arise.

Will Consultants Be Able to Keep Fees under Control? Clients are always concerned about the extent of their financial exposure. Though it's not advisable to hamstring yourself with fee estimates during discovery, you can explain the mechanisms you will employ to keep costs and fees to the point of your eventual estimate.

Be explicit about how you plan to stay on budget, how you monitor fees, and how often you will update the client on the budget. Discuss how changes to the project can increase costs if they require additional time and resources.

Conveying that you have controls in place will relieve anxiety about potential cost overruns and help advance your case for winning the work. The most effective way to allay clients' fears on this score is to include in your proposal that you will not exceed the project budget without their advance approval.

What Are the Risks?

When clients hire consultants, there are always risks to the client's business, to the consultants, and to those who hire them. If, for whatever reason, a project fails to meet its objectives, the consultants will always be blamed. But the fallout can readily extend to the client spon-sor(s) of the project. People who questioned the need for the project or the consultants in the first place can be counted on to point fingers.

Understandably, clients want to know their business and personal risks before hiring you. They also want to know how you will react to the stress of failure. They may be thinking, "If the project goes sour, how will it affect my career? Whose interests will be protected?" Address this underlying current with a thorough assessment of the risks. Reach agreement with the client on how you will share those risks. In some situations, you may be comfortable asking directly how a project could impact a client's career.

Who Else Can Do the Work?

Regardless of how good you are, despite the outstanding quality of your work and dedication, expect clients to ask, "Who else could do this work?" Don't be offended—companies are always looking for a better way to achieve results. Clients may want to explore doing the work with in-house staff, or may want to look for new or cheaper approaches to the project. Don't try to talk clients out of researching other options. If asked, offer your objective perspectives on the alternatives. It's in your best interests for clients to satisfy themselves that they have weighed all their choices.

► Give Clients What They Want

You can't anticipate every question clients have, but addressing the ones that have been discussed here will go a long way toward giving clients what they want. The objective of discovery is to minimize uncertainty for both the client and the consultant.

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