CXO

Free goods and services: You've got to give to get

It's a give-and-take scenario in the business world. Alan Weiss explains how you can win clients by giving away advice and products. He also explains how the best way to win profitable contracts is to be ready to walk away from the potential business.


The key to maximizing income is to give things away. That’s not an oxymoron. Whenever you’re communicating with a prospect—whether in person, by fax, by e-mail, by phone, or by correspondence—provide something of value. (No, your brochure isn’t of value to the prospect!)

You can give away only one of two classes of value: tangibles, such as books, tapes, articles, and documented models; and intangibles, such as advice, referrals, feedback, and empathic listening. The idea is to have the prospect think, “If I received this much value in a casual contact, how much would I receive if I actually hired this person?”

The articles or advice don’t have to be yours. Simply providing something that the prospect can use, no matter what the source, assuming that you use proper attribution, creates value in the eyes of the client. When I learned that one prospect was a wine aficionado, I sent along a list of an expert’s choice of the best domestic wines. The value doesn’t have to be business-related, but it should stop short of a gratuitous gift (i.e., bribery). If you’re seeing a prospect in person, either bring something along, or provide it immediately after the meeting.

Prospects must see something of value beyond your charming personality. You can manage this aspect of the sales process, whether your consulting work is as a generalist, in computers, in outplacement, in sales, or in anything else. Just ask yourself: “How will the prospect be better off as a result of having communicated with me?”

You’re never a vendor, always a partner
If you want to maximize the size of initial contracts, be prepared to walk away from the business. Don’t walk into the initial meetings with the fixation of “How will I get this business?” Instead, think about, “How will I get this business on my terms?”

When the buyer perceives us as a supplicant, “begging” for the business with hat in hand, he or she has the upper hand. In return for “granting” us the business, the prospect will be very demanding about fees, time frames, the scope of the project, and other variables. We’re inclined to give in to successive demands as it appears that the sale is imminent, but in reality, the only thing that we’re close to is a low- or no-margin project and a lousy relationship.

When the buyer insists early in the exploration, “What can you do for me?” respond with a simple, “I don’t know.” Similarly, if the prospect demands, “What will this cost?” respond honestly, “I don’t know.” Explain to the prospect that it’s premature to determine what you can do or what investment is required before you’ve had the opportunity to find out a great deal more about the prospect’s condition. You demonstrate several things simultaneously by taking this approach; therefore, it's clear from the outset that:
  • The relationship is collaborative, and not something you’re going to do for the client.
  • You’re not willing to be rushed or “cornered” before you can provide a reasoned assessment.
  • This is a relationship between two peers, not so characterized by the “buyer and vendor” dynamic.

When you appear to be ready to walk away from a possible sale, it clarifies your position as one who doesn't want business at any cost, and who will only operate on professional and peer-level terms. In the end, you’ll be able to charge much more for the projects that you “accept,” and walk away from those buyers who would be likely to treat you as an indentured servant.

Shortcut of the month
If you’re on the phone and interrupted by call waiting, jot down the last sentence or thought of the current conversation before putting it on “hold.” When you return, immediately apologize for the interruption and cite your written note (e.g., “You were saying that domestic sales are lower than expected…”). This technique makes for a smooth transition back to your original call and removes the annoyance of having been put on hold for someone else.
Alan Weiss is the founder and president of Summit Consulting Group, Inc., a firm specializing in management and organization development. Summit's clients include organizations such as Hewlett-Packard, General Electric, The New York Times, Mercedes-Benz, Coldwell Banker, and more than 80 other organizations in four countries. He advises executives and consultants on business objectives and personal goals. He has also written 13 books, including the best-selling Million Dollar Consulting: The Professional’s Guide to Growing a Practice.Copyright 2000, Alan Weiss.

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