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Someone calls and expresses interest in your work.  They would like for you to send them a proposal.  How cool is that?

So, what do you do?

If you’re like most consultants, you jump right on the proposal,  of course. You include a lot of information about your credentials, clients with whom you have worked and numerous specifics about your planned intervention. You put a price to it, then dash it off – you do know the importance of “getting while the getting’s good” – and wait for the call or the return email.

More often than not, the phone call or email response doesn’t come. You wait a reasonable length of time and then follow up by phone … only to get your prospect’s voice mail. And he or she never responds. You know that you do good work, you’re honest, transparent and responsive.

So what gives?

Begin by recognizing where your prospect “is” when they submit a request like this one, and understand what they are actually asking for.  The person referenced above is “window shopping.”  ”Window shoppers” are nice to have around, they give the appearance that we have a lot going on, but most of them will leave without making a purchase because, for any of a myriad of reasons, they are not yet ready to buy.

As a service business that does most of its marketing online, I want “window shoppers” to be looking at what we do, I just don’t want to spend an inordinate amount of time with them.  Most window shoppers keep walking – they are not yet “in the market” for my services, and substantive efforts on my part are truly a waste of time.

So what does effective action look like?

  1. Place substantive, clear information on your website about services offered, clients served, results achieved, how you typically work with your clients and (yes) even a typical price range.  Make it easy for the window-shopper to find the information that they need to either compare you or bypass you.  All of this information would come out later anyway, and if they aren’t interested when they view it on your site, they wouldn’t buy from you when they saw it in your proposal.
  2. Before they hang up the phone on the first contact, you will want to qualify them further to see if they are actually “in the market” for your services.  While the CODE approach to sales actually teaches 8 areas of questioning that you must answer to fully qualify the prospect, you should determine at minimum
    1. their budget.  Simply be up front about this: “what budget have you established for this project?”  If you get the sense that funds are in place but that they are uncomfortable sharing the details, state the truth that ALL project goals can be met at a certain level based on the client’s resources, and it makes no sense for you to design and pitch a “champagne-level” solution if they are operating on a beer budget.  If they can’t or won’t share any details, you most likely have a window-shopper, so move on;
    2. who will be making the decision about which provider to use.  You want to be talking as early as possible with the decision maker to understand his or her criteria for the winning proposal.  If the person with whom you are talking is not the decision maker, ask if you may contact them directly to get their specifics.  Be aware that there are two levels of decision making: feasibility (or “Does this provider and his proposed service meet our needs?”) and economic (or “are we good with expending the financial resources to get this provider and this level of service?”).  Sometimes, one person within the prospect organization will make both decisions; at other times, one person (usually in operations) will benefit from the service and make the feasibility call but has to get the OK from someone else (either higher up in operations or in finance) to expend the resources.  Until you are talking to one or both of these individuals, you are most likely (again) dealing with a window-shopper.

Some consultants are uncomfortable with this level of questioning, not wanting to come across as “pushy”; unfortunately, by not taking the time to get these details, they come across instead as “push-overs,” not clear enough on their own value to address the prospect as a peer.  Note that the perception as “push-over” is almost antithetical to what clients expect in high-value consultants, i.e., one who is expert in his or her field and in high demand.  At best, a compliant attitude *may* earn the consultant an additional contract here and there; in those rare instances, it begins an unhealthy dynamic which may can result in scope-creep (i.e., providing additional services for free) or the expectation that you respond to arbitrary, spur-of-the-moment client demands.

Don’t let that happen to you.  The next time someone asks you to dash off a proposal, gently push back and get the information you need.

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