CXO

Manage expectations, not just the project

When a client sees your price tag, she might ask, "Can we do this for less?" Consulting veteran Alan Weiss explains how you can manage clients' expectations without losing your ground.


When clients want to talk about reducing fees or compare your price with that of a competitor’s, make sure they understand exactly what’s included in your services. Doing so could win you the contract.

Focusing on value
Never allow the discussion with a prospect to focus on fees. Once that occurs, you are constantly on the defensive, trying to explain your contribution. Most embattled consultants resort to a description of the tasks they plan to perform, thereby aggravating the issue by allowing the prospect to zero in on irrelevant matters such as how many days are to be spent on-site, how much time is required to tabulate a survey, and how many people are necessary to do the job.

Always focus on value. Move the prospect’s attention to the outcomes of the engagement and the impact of the results on the prospect’s business plans. This avoids the task and commodity concerns (how much time, how many people) and instead focuses on the results objectives that are near and dear to the prospect’s heart.

If you’re faced with the question “Can’t we do this for less?” reply simply, “Of course. Which value (results) would you like to eliminate? Should we focus only on the field and not the home office, or eliminate the plans to get customer responses, or forget about the coaching that was to follow the feedback?”

Prospects always want to reduce fees but they never want to eliminate value. You control that dynamic by managing the conversation in a given direction. And it’s never the prospect’s business to help determine how many focus groups, how many interviews, how much training, how much observation, or how much of anything else you do in the course of gathering information and formulating recommendations. That’s why you’re the consultant and the prospect has called you. Never surrender your expertise to a committee.

Short lesson: Managing the project is easy compared to managing the conversations and expectations preceding it.

Raising the bar
When you’re in competition with other firms, never feel constrained to remain within the client’s specifications for your presentations or proposals. Yes, that’s heresy. But it’s also smart marketing.

By all means, meet every request in your prospect’s demands. But then exceed them. Provide options. Tell the prospect that you can conform to the specs if it’s mandatory but that you have an even better approach, and here’s what it looks like. Internal organizational specifications are often the poor result of diverse interests trying to satisfy conflicting objectives. They are not always sacrosanct and are often ignored by the buyers themselves.

I once lost a key contract that I was sure I had the inside track on. When I inquired as to why another firm got it, I was told that our proposals had been quite similar, with mine slightly better. However, the other firm had provided an unasked-for option to train management in the skills required as a result of the employee feedback that was gathered. I could have done the same, but it wasn’t requested so I didn’t offer it. The other firm did, with an added fee, and got the business. I don’t have to learn those lessons twice.

Get out of the boxes that are inadvertently established for you. Don’t feel constrained by prospect requests, RFPs, or pages of specifications. The value-add we all can bring is not a result of slavish adherence to demands but rather of innovative options to otherwise mundane requests.

Short lesson: Compliance is never innovative, and value is based on raising the bar, not restoring it to its prior height.

Shortcut of the month
If you want to get references from large, recognizable organizations but don’t have any as clients, try this: Offer to speak at a meeting of your local Rotary, Kiwanis, Chamber of Commerce, or some other service club. (They are always seeking speakers.) When people tell you later that they liked your comments, get their business cards. You’ll find some from major organizations. Simply contact them and ask if they’d care to put their comments in writing (which will be on their letterhead), in return for which you’ll send them a written copy of your speech. Bingo! You’ll have testimonial letters from major sources.
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.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox