If an initial meeting with a potential new client goes well, you can still expect a few weeks of follow-ups, proposals, and counter proposals before you sign a contract. All that is natural. But what if you keep getting questions from your potential client, and the questions don’t necessarily address details of your proposal or working relationship? I find this happens a lot, particularly when you are negotiating for a strategic or process development contract.

The less a client knows about your specialty, the more likely they are to pick your brain “on spec.” Part of it is to simply to get a feel on whether you really know your stuff; some of it is help the client evaluate your proposal with a little more clarity and in a broader context; and sometimes, they are trying to get free consulting hours.

How do you placate a potential client without being taken to the cleaners? As unappetizing as it may seem, you have to play along to some degree – the customer isn’t always right, but they are the ones who pay the bills. I try to limit the time I spend on these kind of requests to about an hour per, with a max of three questions before I route the conversation to the “approve the proposal or just shake hands” phase.

I also try to limit the scope of what I will address in such off-proposal questions. Most importantly, I never propose an actual solution to a problem – ultimately, that’s what clients pay for, and you can’t be giving that stuff away for free.

I find the best tactic is to get a little Socratic and answer off-proposal questions with a few questions of your own, or more precisely, questions you would suggest the potential client ask themselves before moving forward. Thinking about a data warehouse, you say? What is the current state of your data hygiene? What are your real uptime requirements? Nothing that some simple research on the client’s part would not have turned up, but enough to point them in the right direction and, most importantly, to illustrate the value you can provide along that path – if they sign that contract.

Topics that I am perfectly happy to review in off-proposal questions include:

A quick glance at a vendor solution. I recently scanned some marketing and high-level press materials for an email marketing platform – it’s not my specialty, but I did put a red flag on some of the more specious vendor claims. Again, I couched the feedback in the form of rhetorical questions, but I think I gave the potential client something to think about. I did not get into cost or licensing terms. That’s paid work.
Cursory research on core concepts. If a potential client does not have any idea about this SEO business, craft a one-page note with links to some useful whitepapers or other key resources. This information won’t necessarily let them self-service their issues, but it will help them make a more educated call on your proposal. And ultimately, that’s better for everybody.
A quick reaction to recent market developments. Clients want a consultant who stays on top of the market, and will often hit you up for your quick estimation of a product announcement or acquisition by one of the big players. Again, three paragraphs on this kind of question illustrates your knowledge of the space. In fact, if you see an interesting and germane headline for your potential client, go ahead and send a note without being asked the question – it reinforces the fact that you are active and informed. And nobody is going to contract you for that kind of opinion, anyway.