After trading emails with a CIO (we’ll call him Fred), he calls you to discuss a project. The technology is right up your alley — in fact, you can’t think of a better qualified person for the job than yourself. You discuss the technical options for a while, asking a few questions that Fred had never even considered and offering some possible answers. Fred is unmistakably impressed — you can almost hear him drooling on the other end of the line as he anticipates getting you involved. He asks, “So, what do we need to do next?”

“I’ll send you my standard contract. As soon as I get that back from you, we can start.” Then you tell him your consulting fee.

Fred’s giddiness gives way to a sudden silence.

“Oh,” he replies at last. “Uh, I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

If at this point you reply, “Okay, talk to you later,” you won’t speak to Fred again. Obviously, your prospect is suffering from sticker shock, so what should you do? You definitely don’t want to offer to lower your rate. But does that mean either letting Fred get over it on his own or kissing him goodbye?

Sometimes when consultants encounter a new prospect, we think of them as monothelemic (okay, that’s such an obscure word that not even Google can help you — it means “having one will”). In other words, the initial contact person represents the entire company in our eyes; so if price is an issue, we tend to assume that everyone in the company has the same mindset. But it ain’t necessarily so.

I often find that Fred still wants you to work on the project, but he knows that he’s going to face a ton of resistance from his boss and the budget office over bringing in a “high-priced consultant,” especially during these uncertain economic times. Fred can already hear the CEO’s reaction: “You know we lost almost a million last quarter and prospects for this quarter don’t look any better. Why can’t you get one of the interns to work on it in his spare time? You know, ‘do more with less.’

Fred knows that handing off the project to an intern would be disastrous. Nobody in the organization, including himself, would have a clue as to where to begin. He knows that you’re the right person for the project, but how can he justify it to the rest of the organization? You need to give him a better reason than “because I’m worth it.” Here are three approaches that all basically come down to one thing: money.

Three tips for getting the consulting job

The strongest argument you can make is that hiring you will actually save them money. Fred may have only a vague idea about why you’re right for the job — something along the lines of “he really knows his stuff and we don’t.” You need to crystallize that into “because he knows his stuff, this project will get done right and in a timely fashion.” Back that up with some client success stories and references. Contrast it with the general state of industry-wide knowledge in this field, and paint a vivid picture of the many false starts and permanent mistakes that will likely result from trying to wing it by Google and error. The more you can boil that down to hard bottom-line numbers, the better. “I know a company that attempted something similar without the proper background knowledge — they spent five million dollars over three years and eventually had to scrap the project entirely.”

Second, try to ground the shock of that sticker. Remind the prospect that you won’t be an employee, relieving the client of the costs of health insurance, retirement, disability, workers comp, paid vacations, sick leave, and a ton of overhead. They can scale your monthly activities to meet their budget, and they can drop you at their whim without severance. You provide all your own training, equipment, software, and office expenses. Unlike an employee, you only bill for time in which you’re actually working. When you figure in all of those factors, your rate is effectively about half the same hourly rate for an employee, if that much.

Third, you don’t have to do all the work. It wouldn’t make sense for the client to pay your consulting rate for typing “public static YetAnotherFrakkinClass yetAnotherFrakkinClassFactory()” all day long for months; some lesser code deity could occupy themselves with that task. Offer to take one or more of their employees under your wing to mentor. This will not only allow them to achieve part of the project at a lower rate, but it can also yield huge long-term benefits in employee productivity and job satisfaction. You’ll be focusing your attention on making sure the design is right (hint: ditch most of those factories) and that the employees know how to implement it correctly. That’s worth every penny they pay you.

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