I’ve had that depressing experience… We probably all have at one time or another.
But, what I’ve learned is that this often happens not so much because WE blew it, but because THEY were not ready to make a commitment to ANYONE yet.
Let me explain…
There are five clearly identifiable steps or stages that almost every client will go through before they will engage us (or anyone else) as a coach or consultant. Potential clients are not always aware that they are going through these stages, but we should be very aware of what stage they’re in! The larger the dollar amount of the contract, the more this is true.
We all meet with potential clients who are at different stages in this process. Some do not yet sense any need for our professional services. Some are barely becoming aware they have an issue or opportunity they might need help with. Others have already talked to two or three other professionals and are close to making a decision. It is up to us to ask enough questions to determine where a potential client falls on this scale while meeting with them. This is important because trying to shortcut this process will only sabotage our efforts and almost always guarantee they’ll never become clients in the future. Bummer.
Here’s my point… we can take advantage of this process when we know where a potential client is on their journey. So, let’s take a quick look at these stages or steps… and our best response at each one when we are talking to a prospective client. That way, you’ll be using a systematized outreach process with the objective of moving prospective clients up a “staircase”. Each step up brings them closer to becoming a client and eventually an advocate for you. Take a look at the progression…
STAGE 1: This is when the prospective client says “we are really busy and it’s all good here… we have no immediate problems”. OK… No surprises here. There are lots of organizations in this situation. The window of opportunity with them may be closed for today, but things can and do change. The best strategy when you encounter them at this stage is to continue to work to increase their awareness of how you benefit your clients. Do this by consistently sharing things of value with them, for example… books, articles and reports you have written. Sending them notices of your live or recorded webinars and speaking engagements will keep them apprised of what you are doing to help others in your industry. (You are out speaking… right?) Connect with them on LinkedIn and stay in touch, endorse them and message them on their work anniversaries. Do these things consistently to help bolster your authority in their minds and keep you on their radar. That way you will be at the “top of their mind” when they do move to stage two. This is because clients buy coaching and consulting services from those providers who have demonstrated verifiable competency in advance.
STAGE 2: The “just becoming aware of a problem or opportunity” stage… This is the something’s not right here or how we can do better? phase. Here, potential clients may be aware of symptoms, but not the actual problem.
Here are the two questions to ask at this stage… “What do you see as your biggest challenge or opportunity at this time and what might make dealing with it difficult for YOU?” Notice the question focuses on THEM and not their firm. (Clients most often engage you to help themselves and their careers… not their company.) By asking these two questions, you can determine whether or not they can articulate what their real issue is. The second question helps you spot areas of potential weakness in their business. Only then can you help define the issue or opportunity and determine if you can help them.
STAGE 3: The “researching solutions” stage… Potential clients at this stage have already started to look around for ways their problem can be solved or the opportunity exploited. Where will they look? Google for sure, but you will have given yourself an advantage if you have worked to be sure that you will also come to mind. This is where generating awareness (Stage 1) pays off. If you have kept your name in front of them you will likely be contacted when they reach this stage. Question to ask at this stage… “What solutions have you explored so far?” If the prospective client can’t articulate this clearly, they are still at step 2. It is important to ask this question here, as we do not want to propose an option they have already explored and rejected.
STAGE 4: The “evaluating providers and/or getting bids” stage… If the prospect has a good handle on what they’re trying to solve or achieve, they may have started to look for someone or something to remedy their situation. This where you have an opportunity to help them make that decision. Question to ask… “What was the main reason that you wanted to meet with me?” This helps you determine how committed the prospect is in hearing what you have to offer. Here’s why…
Some contracts are wired… meaning the prospective client has already made a decision about who they are going to hire before they even talk to you. They are simply going through the motions of getting “competing” bids to make the process look more legitimate. It is certainly disappointing to go to all the effort of preparing a proposal only to learn that it was a wired deal. (It’s happened to me.) How can you avoid this happening to you? Here are some suggestions that will help, but not guarantee, immunity from this sort of thing. Ask this question, “May I inquire if you have been talking to other firms in regard to this issue/opportunity?” The answer is not as important as how the prospect answers the question. Are they forthright or evasive? If so, it may be a red flag to watch for.
The second question is one the consultant should ask of themselves… what is the nature of the relationship I have with the prospective client? If the answer is “none” then you will need to make a conscious decision to take a risk on preparing a proposal that may already be wired in someone else’s favor. This will be especially true for contracts open to public bid. More relationship equals more contracts. When does that relationship begin? It begins before you ever know the prospects name… through your speaking, LinkedIn and writing activities!
STAGE 5: The “decision to do something… or not” stage”… They will either be convinced to move forward or to procrastinate until everyone’s forgotten about it. The question to ask here is “What would you need to make a decision?” This will help you determine a prospect’s interest in moving forward. After that, the next question should be… “Who, besides yourself, will be making the final decision on this project and who will be in charge of implementation if we work together?” You want to be sure you are dealing with the true decision maker who has the authority to hire you and who is not wasting your time. This becomes more important the higher you go in a large organization.
Here’s the bottom line here… Clients want to buy your services when they are ready rather than being sold to. They do not like feeling forced or rushed into making a decision. Knowing where they are in the decision-making process will help you ask the right questions in order to take charge of the situation and guide them towards making a decision in your favor!