Your initial call with a potential client is always a little nerve-wracking. Every situation is different, but by-and-large it's like a first date, except that you have thousands of dollars riding on the outcome. And unlike dating, it's not considered creepy to thoroughly research a potential client before making that first call.
Okay, in the age of Facebook this parallel to dating is a tad strained, but you get the point. And fortunately, potential clients have Facebook pages, websites, Twitter accounts, and about a million other reputation points that they actually expect you to "creep" before your first conversation.
If you are responding to an IBM RFP, this column is not for you. Such engagements are pretty cut-and-dry, and while you certainly want to foster a healthy relationship with any client, you are ultimately bidding on a known commodity. But if you are researching a new client that does not have a national (or even local) reputation, and the services relationship is a little more open-ended, here are a few pointers that I have found helpful in coming to that initial meeting prepared to make your best first impression.
1: Spend at least four hours researching the client
That may seem like quite an investment in your busy schedule, and if the potential contract really is not that substantial, adjust to taste. But be aware that there is so much information out there, even on the youngest company, that a quick 15-minute knock-around is not going to cut it.
2: For public companies, find and skim a recent annual report
Now you see where those four hours can go in a hurry. There are several investor-centric sites (AnnualReports.com for example) that can make the search not so problematic. For non-public companies, get your hands on a report through your personal network - just be very careful about asking sensitive questions based on the information you find there.
3: Search Twitter for negative and positive feedback
This can be a time sink, but 45 minutes or so spent browsing the social media network can give you a pretty raw glimpse of how analysts and consumers feel about a company -- being limited to 140 characters tends to turn off the filters. You can just use Google to brute your search, but several hubs focus on Tweeting (or Twittering, or whatever) on brands; you can find a good starter kit of these Twitter directories in this TopRank marketing blog. And of course, scan Facebook for similar information.
4: Call at least four personal contacts to try to dig up a little information
This assumes that as a consultant you've developed a healthy ecosystem of folks who know what is going on in your space. Find a couple of contacts who can give you historical or personal perspective on your potential client. You will probably find that their input is not entirely consistent, which is a good thing.
Also, don't make these calls the first step in your research. Get objective data and third-party viewpoints first - it will help you ask your contact the right question and appropriately weight their opinions.
5: Connect with your potential client on LinkedIn
If you can get a referral, that's magic, but go ahead and send a simple Connect LinkedIn request after reviewing your potential client's public site. It may have seemed presumptuous once, but now it is fairly commonplace, and it opens up another communication channel.
Key data points
The net result of your research should be about 10 key data points about the potential client's finances and stated goals. Focus on the positive, but be sure to identify one or two challenges the prospect is facing that you can ask about as well. Remember, you may be the one auditioning, but the client has to impress you too, at least a little.
Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRepublic.com and ITBusinessEdge.com.