Keep hold of the ball! Why you must control the sales process

A consultant emailed me the other day and asked the following question:

After a pitch, if a period of time has gone by and you haven’t gotten an answer from the prospect, when should you follow up and what should you say?

It's a great question. And it immediately tells me that this consultant made a big mistake!

He gave the client the ball and left him in control of the game! 

Now when the consultant contacts the client, he feels like he's intruding or looking desperate.

But the reality is, people are busy.

And as much as we'd like to think that we're really important consultants and so should be at the very forefront of our client's minds, chances are we're not!

So what should the consultant have done instead?

The number one rule in selling consulting services is to:

Always be in control of the next step!

Now, of course there are many ways in which we can present our consulting proposals to clients.

The most common include:

  • Printing it out and seeking immediate signing or physically leaving it with them to sign
  • Sending it through via email
  • Providing a link to an online proposal tool

Old school sales training would have you sit with your prospect and even hand him the pen until it's signed off.

(If you want to see a great example of this form of selling, go watch Glengarry Glen Ross).

Whilst that might happen sometimes, you must remember that you're not selling a commodity product like insurance. You're selling high-value, high-fee consulting. And sometimes people need to think it over.

So we need to give them the time and the space to do so. It's ethical to do so, and it will reduce the risk of buyer's remorse.

But how much time? How long should you wait before following up?

The answer is that you shouldn't wait. I'm not saying be pushy though. Let me explain.

Firstly, it depends on what your sales process looks like.

I favour slowing down the sales process. You do this for the benefit of both your consulting firm and the client.

You don't want to rush into an opportunity as that approach risks you underbidding, or worse, poorly scoping out the engagement and taking on a job that you either haven't quite got the skills for, or that you haven't allowed sufficient time to be able to make it profitable! 

There are many more problems that you can create by rushing into things, nearly all of which result in lower profits!

The right sales process

Here is a summary of the consulting sales process that I recommend:

  1. Meet with the client
  2. Determine your approach
  3. Present your approach
  4. Submit your proposal and follow-up

01 Meet with the client

Meet with the client or prospect to understand their challenge and determine if you're a good fit.

This meeting is primarily about you listening, and a little bit about you positioning yourself and your firm.

At the end of the meeting - after you've taken lots of notes - you determine if you think you can help or not. Then you offer to return at a later time to present your approach.

The most critical step of all is that you secure your next meeting at the end of this first meeting.

And by secure, I mean you get your phone or laptop out, agree a time and date, get the appointment in the calendar, and the meeting invite sent!

02 Determine your approach

This step doesn't usually involve the client or prospect, unless it is for clarification on points in your notes.

In this step you're simply going through your notes and shaping them into a proposal, although at this stage you're going to call it your 'Approach document'.

Of course you should only be doing this if you believe that, through your services, you can help the client to resolve their problem, and that you can demonstrate the transformation that you'll take them through.

03 Present your approach

At the time and date already agreed and in the diary, you meet with the client again to present your approach.

Ideally it's a face to face meeting, but for logistical purposes it might be a conference call or simply a telephone call.

If you can't be there in person, it's useful to be able to share your screen so that you can walk them through your approach, aided by diagrams and the actual approach document.

It's at this step that most people simply present their proposal, including their fees.

The trouble is, the inclination of most prospects is to look first at the price, then to work backwards and reconcile whether the proposal meets the price.

Much of the focus on the actual business needs, and the outcomes that you will be providing, get lost.

It's no different to how most of us buy things.

Whether it's a big thing, like a car, where the first action you take is to look at the price in the window, then you consider if it meets your needs.

Or it can be a small thing, like a pair of jeans, where again your first action is to look at the price (well most of us do anyway).

This approach to buying services is to treat you and your firm as though it's a commodity. And that's not a good thing!

So in step 3, the only thing you want the client to be focused on is the outcomes and value that you will be providing them.

In this meeting there are 3 critical things you must do:

  1. Sell the client on your understanding of their problem, and the outcomes they'll achieve by working with you
  2. Close any gaps in your understanding of the requirements - consider anything that might impact the delivery of your services, and therefore what price you'll need to charge
  3. Secure the next meeting or call to review your formal proposal (once submitted)!

It's in this step where the consultant I mentioned at the beginning of this article got things wrong.

He did what most consultants do, which is to get the proposal in as soon as possible, then leave it to the client to come back to them!

It's like an initial race to get over the line - the get the proposal submitted - followed by a fear of rejection. 

Rather than hear a 'No' from the prospect, many people would rather just wait for the prospect to get back in touch. 

This is not a smart approach as it puts the prospect under unnecessary pressure.

 And without having specified an exact date, you know feel like you're badgering the client if you chase up. Even though you recognise the importance of helping the client to move forward and resolve their problems.

04 Submit your proposal and follow-up

As I said, I prefer to slow the process down. The final step in this approach is, of course, to present your proposal.

From what you learnt in presenting your approach in Step 3, you can now make any final changes to your approach and scope, and formulate your Approach document into your actual proposal.

If you just jump straight to a proposal without showing your approach first, you miss the opportunity to:

  1. enable the client to feel a part of shaping your approach (important when you're a boutique or solopreneur)
  2. to make any changes to your scope, approach and fees

In the last task in step 3  you will have agreed not only when you'll provide your proposal, but the exact time, date and how you'll follow up with the client.

Even if it's just a phone call, make sure you get it locked into the diary. Your client will appreciate you respecting their time, and your focus on getting the project moving.

The only final negotiation might be on price.

If your prospect objects to your price, here are 10 ways you can respond. And if you got things wrong and under-priced it, here are some suggestions.

What to do and say if you didn't follow an approach like this, and find yourself in the same position as the consultant who emailed me?

In the situation where you've given away control, the first thing you need to do is to regain it. That means taking direct action. And to be clear, sending an email won't cut it!

Get on the phone and call the client.

If they don't answer, leave a voicemail saying when you'll call them back. Make sure to leave your number too!

How long should you wait?

I think 5 business days is a reasonable amount of time to give a client to review a proposal.

What if the client doesn't respond to your phone calls and messages?

In this instance, send an email, but enhance it. Say you'll be in their area next Wednesday and thought you'd suggest dropping by. Who cares if it's an old-school tactic, if it gets you in front of the client and demonstrates your willingness to travel to them, that can only be a good thing.

Still not getting a response?

Call their secretary or PA to try and get a meeting in their diary that way.

Reach out via a Linkedin message. If the opportunity is worth it, do whatever it takes.

What if you do finally get a hold of the client and he says he's not had the chance to look at it yet?

Think positive. You've got the client on the phone. You're engaging in a dialogue. You have the ball. Don't throw it away again!

If the client isn't yet ready to provide an answer, do the following:

  1. Agree a time, date and how you will follow up with them. Get it in the diary, and get your meeting invite sent out!
  2. Confirm with the client if there's anything else that he or she needs from you right now, or if there's anything more you can do to help. This question might expose if the client is in fact seeking a bid from an alternative provider, which can sometimes be the cause of delay in clients coming back to you. Of course, that is their right, but it's still useful to know. 

When to call it a day

I can't tell you when to give up.

There's a million articles out there telling you that it's on the seventh attempt that most people make a sale, or the ninth, or twentieth.

Really, it depends on how important this particular opportunity is to you and your firm.

If you need the revenue - keep chasing.

If it's a client you really want to work with - keep chasing.

If it's the chance to deliver a new service that you see great potential in - keep chasing.

Don't just send bland one-liner emails and voicemails though - leverage the project details.

Suggest that you need to get started in order to meet the timescales in your proposal.

Say that you can't hold back the resources without getting confirmation of the project.

Consider how the situation will be evolving through lack of action.

Eventually, you'll have to give up. And if so, chalk it up to experience. But still remember to follow up with the client even if they never responded to you.

Reach out in 1, 3, 6 and 12 months time to keep the connection alive.

Note also, that if a really long time elapses and the client does come back to you with acceptance of your proposal, you may just need to pause to reconfirm the scope. You'll want to take into account how long the client took to come back to you, and to determine if that might have any negative effects on your ability to deliver the project within the timeframe and fees proposed.

What if the requirement really is urgent and the client wants a proposal from the get go?

It shows integrity to want to get the project scope and subsequent proposal right.

If the client wants to force you outside of your preferred approach, and demands a compressed timescale, it's up to you to determine if you can realistically deliver.

You can go through the same steps as above, but leverage technology to reduce the time required.

If you can only have time for one meeting, make it the step 3 meeting where you present your approach. If you do that well, the final step (4) of sign-off is easy.

You could possibly do the initial scoping over the phone/conference call if pushed, although the preference is always to be face to face.

In Summary

To recap, the number one rule in selling consulting services is:

Always be in control of the next step!

Slow the sales process down to increase your chances of both winning and being successful in delivery.

Want to learn more about how to successfully close consulting sales?

Learn the exact consulting engagement sales process that I've followed for well over a decade.

I've successfully used this process to sell consulting engagements from 5 figures to more than £1m.

And in this free guide I show you exactly how to do the same. Specifically, I'll cover:

  • How to position yourself in a way that gets you ahead of the competition

  • How to increase the total value of your engagements
  • How to increase your win ratio

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