A salesperson I know starts each conversation about a client by asking: “Where is their ‘pain’?” He knows that unless they are motivated to change, he is unlikely to make a sale.

The same holds true for you as a free-agent consultant; unless your client sees a need to change something, they won’t hire you. Therefore, understanding what motivates people to change is the key to spotting opportunities.

An opportunity is a problem you can help with—at a profit. Learning to see opportunity means looking for all three parts of that definition. I’ll pass along some tips to help you define the opportunity, figure out if you can help, and determine whether or not you will profit from the experience. I’ll also share some suggestions for framing your proposal more effectively.

Last of four parts

This is the final installment in a four-part series that explores how employees can prepare themselves to become free agents. The first article in this series explored the risks and reasons involved with going out on your own. Part two discussed the infrastructure you’ll need to put in place to start your business, and part three covered capital needs for independent consultants.

Where’s the client’s pain?
There are four kinds of pain that motivate change (Figure A), says Linda Hoopes, an expert in organizational change management at ODR, Inc., a change-management consulting firm in Atlanta.

Figure A
Four states that motivate change in an organization

Current pain comes from a problem that’s happening right now. Anticipated pain hasn’t happened yet but appears likely unless something is done.

Not all pain involves things going badly, Hoopes argues. A current opportunity is a situation that lets the organization get ahead in some way, such as delighting a customer or achieving a competitive advantage, if it’s willing to pay the price of acting now. An anticipated opportunity is similar but less certain, and it requires a longer timeframe. The “pain” in these two cases is the benefit that is lost if the client does not act.

“You can pay the price for staying where you are, or you can pay the price for changing,” she said. “The question is: Which price do you want to pay?”

Can you help?
Sometimes the cause of your client’s pain dovetails nicely with your ability to help them. But what if it doesn’t? The best projects often require you to stretch yourself, said Gregg Shipler, a SQL Server consultant in Seattle.

“In this industry, if you are absolutely an expert at the work, it’s probably not going to be very interesting or pay very well,” he said. But if you know enough about the work that you know you can complete it by doing extra studying behind the scenes, Shipler advises that you go for it. Another benefit: “On the bleeding edge, there is less competition.”

If you aren’t absolutely sure that you can get up to speed during the course of the project or if there’s any question that the technology you’re proposing won’t do the job, you need to address that up front. Some clients are open to letting you learn as you go. Others aren’t. And if you botch a project because of your lack of experience, word about you will get around, Shipler warns.

“Your certification doesn’t say you have the knowledge,” he said. “It says that you can get the knowledge and arrive at a solution with the knowledge that you have.”

With enough experience at creating solutions from partial knowledge or added study, you’ll develop confidence that you can do it again for the next client.

Will you profit from the opportunity?
Just because you find a problem you can help with doesn’t mean the opportunity is a good fit for you. Several factors to consider are:

  • Can you afford to do it?
  • Is the client one with whom you want a long-term relationship?
  • Does this project fit your marketing focus as a free agent?

Add up all the rewards you stand to gain: the check from the client, new skills and experience, the potential for future business from that client, and references to other clients. Then subtract the costs: travel, purchasing development software, your own salary, and in some cases, other work you might have to give up to do this assignment. If the balance is in your favor, you stand to make a profit.

Next, ask: Do you want to work with the client?

A few years ago, the company I was working for got a rush consulting job. The client needed some emergency Oracle database assistance. I resolved the immediate issue, started a follow-up project, and was dumped.

It was only later that I found out that we were just the latest in a long series of consulting firms that had had the same experience. Before taking an assignment, try to get the opinions of others who have worked for the client.

Finally, ask yourself if the opportunity will take you in the direction you want your business to go or if it will sidetrack you. Of course, if your highest priority is getting some cash flow, that’s one thing, but in general, you want to take opportunities that reinforce your reputation in your chosen area.

Proposing change
When you send a client or prospect a proposal, what you’re really suggesting is that they change themselves. Keeping that in mind can help you write winning proposals.

You can frame the same situation from any of the four “pain” perspectives, Hoopes says, and different people in your client’s organization may see the issue through different lenses. A trend that’s five years away may look like a current opportunity to a CEO who typically thinks on a long timeline. A front-line supervisor may consider the same situation to be a future problem or an anticipated opportunity.

Her advice? Recognize which of the four viewpoints is going to be most compelling to the client “or hit on several of these angles so that whatever frame of reference your listener is coming from, you’re going to catch their attention.”

How do you assess potential clients?

Is there a method you use to make sure the client you’re trying to land is right for you or your firm? Post a message in a discussion or send us an e-mail.