Time-wasters and would-be thieves lurk among legitimate clients, and consultants have to find a way to separate the good from the bad and the ugly. Consultants can’t afford to waste time wooing clients who don’t have the authority, or sometimes even the intention, to hire them. A recent TechRepublic report provided a list of the most important questions you can ask to ensure that a potential client is worth your time.

TechRepublic members responded in a discussion with their suggestions for deciding how much time to invest in winning a client’s business. We’ve gathered the best of their comments and advice for you. Take a look at what their experience has taught them and see how it compares to your own methods of navigating potential clients while protecting your time and intellectual property.

Do your homework
TechRepublic member P Espo said the best way to know whether you’re dealing with a legitimate client is to understand who they are, what they do, and their current financial condition. He recommended using research sites such as Hoover’s to understand the potential client’s market, the pressures they may be facing, and the opportunities they may want to capture.

“Try to understand the ‘business driver’ leading to the project,” he said. “Is it important to their success or just a necessary technical undertaking?”

He said consultants should try to establish the following:

  • Who benefits from a success: customers, suppliers, or employees?
  • Is the benefit consistent with the direction the market is going?

P Espo proposes gathering evidence from a potential client’s suppliers and vendors about their spending habits. You may also ask about your contact’s authority and style.

Talk to the referring client and/or consultant
Similar advice came from member mslizny. She said that, typically, her clients are referred to her by other consultants or past clients. She recommended asking the person who referred the client questions about how they do business. For example, you might find out that a client typically takes two to three days to respond to follow-up questions. If so, you could extend the project timeline in anticipation of delays.

“They often have insights into whether or not a proposed project will happen and will gladly share their misgivings or previous experience with the potential client,” she said.

In most cases, their experience is a good basis on which to decide whether to continue talks with the client, she said.

Protect your ideas
Beyond wasting your precious time in performing research and preparing data, another danger posed by deadbeat clients—clients who wind up being a waste of time—is the theft of intellectual property. Many consultants in the discussion reported that RFPs can be simply a ruse to gather information cheaply. Anthud11 recounted one such experience.

“One client, after all the research and information was gathered, went online and attempted to negotiate price,” Anthud said. “The point was he already knew what was required because I had done the homework only to have him purchase the equipment from another vendor.”

Other members reported similar experiences. Karens said she once worked for a Fortune 100 company that intentionally put out RFPs just to gain the information it needed to go ahead with the project using its own staff.

“I did not agree with this, but this directive came from the CIO at the time,” she said. “Of course, he is long gone now and this practice harmed their reputation. Most vendors will not provide any analysis now without qualification of their real intentions.”

Chris Wood, a sales manager with Computer Consulting Services in Rome, GA, has a unique solution to use with clients who have unethical intentions for his research. He gives the client a “high-level” outline of the proposal to keep and brings a detailed proposal with part numbers, pictures, and diagrams to show to the client in a meeting.

“We explain the proposal and, when we are finished, take all the detailed copies back when we leave,” Wood said. “If the customer balks, we put a price on the proposal and walk away knowing we probably don’t want the customer.” Wood’s solution might have helped TechRepublic member Hesperus, who reported that he’s currently in conflict with a client over his intellectual property.

“This client will take my reports, change the colors or format of the report, and sell to a third party as their own work,” he said.

Free samples vs. charging for research
No matter how frightening the danger of clients stealing ideas may be, consultants still have to drum up business. According to netsoftde, clients are often gun-shy because previously hired IT implementers have burned them. He contends that it’s often necessary to give the first consult for free to win your clients’ trust.

Elad Keat, an independent consultant in Tel Aviv, Israel, disagrees. In fact, he contends that you should charge clients for a requirement analysis. He said most of his clients have been willing to pay after he’s explained the work involved.

“This way, if the client doesn’t come back, at least you got paid for some of your efforts,” he said. “Moreover, since you’re being paid, you’re more likely to do very good work that’ll make the client come back.”

Nick Papadopoulos agreed. As president of Eos Group Inc. in Scottsdale, AZ, he said he’s learned this “the hard way.”

“Our experience is that if the client hasn’t done the work themselves and doesn’t want to pay for the services, chances are they aren’t serious about the project, or if they are, they’re looking for a freebie, and you probably don’t want to do business with them anyway,” he said.

On all but the smallest of projects, Eos charges clients for “discovery services” and offers the client a high-level requirements document as the primary deliverable.

“My job is to convince them that without a requirements spec, they run a high risk of developing a solution that doesn’t meet the company’s goals—even if it actually gets built,” Papadopoulos said.

At the end of the short “discovery” engagement, the client’s commitment to Eos is complete, and they may use the requirements document any way they wish. Papadopoulos said he’s seen 90 percent of clients choose to continue the project with his firm.

Benefits for clients and consultants
Member Ewmiller said she also charges for discovery services and delivers a general requirements document at the beginning of the project. She said she has found the method effective because it forces the customer to be specific at the project’s inception, making “the whole thing easier in the long run.”

“I know what they want; they know what to expect,” she said.