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by Alan Weiss | March 10, 2009

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One of the most frequently asked questions in my mentoring program involves how to deal with a prospect who is taking you down the wrong road. That means that the prospect - whether gatekeeper or buyer - has immediately asked about hourly rates, costs, your knowledge of the industry; has suggested you actually deal with a subordinate two levels down; and so on.

In other words, you keep asking yourself, "How did I allow this to happen? How could things go so wrong so fast?!"

The solution, fortunately, is fairly simple, but requires some tough discipline on your part. You have to educate the prospect immediately about how you operate, what your expectations are, and what's within bounds and out of bounds.

Here are some techniques to help control the early relationship:

1. Force the prospect to talk. Don't allow yourself to be peppered with questions and, above all, don't launch into your own diatribe about your credentials, approaches, and how much your mother loves you. Ask questions immediately: "What are the most recent changes affecting your business?" "Are you having difficulty finding the talent you need?" If the prospect asks you direct questions, such as "What can you do for us?" or "How much do you charge?" use turnaround questions to force the discussion back to the prospect: "I'm not sure I can help. What are the issues you're concerned about?" "The investment varies, depending on what's needed. What are the areas in which you need assistance?"

2. Establish your own agenda. Tell the prospect that you have some objectives for the phone call or meeting. Suggest that you compare notes so that you can make the best use of your mutual time. If the client has an objective such as, "How would we work together?" then suggest that it might be best to first discuss your objective, "What kind of results are you seeking?"

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3. Make your policies clear at the outset. Tell the prospect that prior to submitting a proposal, you must meet with the person whose budget is being invested. Explain that it's simply prudent and a safeguard for all concerned (including the gatekeeper). Explain that you're happy to visit the prospect, but that if you're being asked to provide substantive consulting help for people while on site, you'll have to charge for that. Make it clear that you need to clarify specific objectives before a proposal can be created.

4. View yourself as a peer. If you see yourself as a supplicant, a salesperson, or an inferior party, you will act that way and you will be herded like cattle by any strong buyer. You must see yourself (and, therefore, act) as a peer who is considering jointly whether the project makes sense for the both of you. Do not accept arrogant or rude behavior, and comport yourself like an executive.

5. Be patient. When you're in a hurry, you tend to accept conditions and suggestions that might not be in your long-term best interest (e.g., "Would you like to speak to our director of human resources right now, and the two of you can carry the ball?"). Also, impatience will almost always result in a smaller project and a lower fee than does the maturity to wait and develop a more comprehensive project.

Many consultants find themselves in difficult straits with a prospect or with a nasty project because they haven't correctly educated and prepared the client. The best doctors take pains to ensure that the patient understands the procedure, commits to it, and understands his or her role in postoperative care. Consultants should provide the same kind of involvement for the prospect, for the sake of everyone's good health.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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