Cover 3 key areas in your initial conversation with potential clients
Three of the most important questions to clarify up-front are budget, process, and timeline. Too often, these are left undiscussed until the end, when too many surprises can arise.
Even though most of the time, potential clients won’t reveal (or know) their budget up front, always ask. If they don’t know it, ask how they will determine it. Do your best to understand what their thought processes are regarding budget and keep them as part of the ongoing conversations until you get an answer.
Most clients do not have a process in mind for scoping a project and vetting an executive, and they will appreciate talking it through with you because this will likely be the first time they have thought about it. Details will include who else they would like you to meet with, who the decision-makers are, and who the influences are (who will have input).
Most often, potential clients have a timeline in mind regarding when they would like to start. Find out about any potential delays in the process, e.g., vacations or conferences that could delay getting meetings scheduled. If they are unable to answer with a general timeframe, ask, “How soon do you want to get what we have discussed accomplished?” and work backward from there.
Red Flags to Watch For in Potential Clients
Kicking the Tires.
Always beware when the potential client is vague about what they are looking for. Ask in-depth questions regarding where they are and what their needs are. Sometimes they are just kicking the tires and aren’t serious about taking action. Make sure they really have a need and purpose for bringing in an interim executive.
If all the client wants to talk about is cost, usually that means they can’t afford to hire you. With large companies, however; this is common due to very specific budgets. One of your first questions should be, “what is your budget?” If the potential client is focusing on cost and budget and letting that guide the conversation, they likely can’t afford your services. Beware of wasting your time.
Lack of Focus.
If even after talking for fifteen minutes, the potential client can’t explain their needs well; this doesn’t mean they won’t eventually use your services, but expect a longer process, because they are at the beginning of their process. It may be a while until they reach the point where they are focused and know what they need.
Something Doesn’t Feel Right.
If they are looking to get too much into the details of how you do things, or their questions aren’t fitting into the conversation, listen to your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it likely isn’t.
Signing on Behalf of a Company.
Beware if the client asks if you have a problem signing anything. As an independent executive and not an employee, you should not be signing anything on behalf of the company because of the liability issues it could cause you. Ask questions and understand the reason first before jumping to conclusions but certainly a potential red flag.
Your conversations are continually with people who are not the ultimate decision-maker; you are leaving the process to someone who may or may not know what they are doing.
Rather than looking at sales as merely a process, consider it a journey between you and the client. Start with no specific destination in mind and work through it together. Keeping an open dialogue and establishing as much up-front as you can will help you avoid some of the most painful lessons learned by others that can have impacts far beyond a single conversation or engagement.
Case Study: Staying On The Same Page with Potential Clients
We worked with an operations and supply chain expert who went in and consulted with a client following an acquisition. There were four very specific objectives and deliverables stated on the SOW. In order to effectively accomplish the objectives, the executive needed to understand the strategic direction of the company. As it turns out, there wasn’t one. The more questions the executive asked, the more the CEO enjoyed conversations on the topic and could see a strategy forming. More and more was asked of the executive and these conversations started to put a strain on his time.
As much as finding strategic direction became pressing for the CEO, the original four objectives were far more pressing for the day-to-day operations of the organization and the executive’s performance on the original SOW. When faced with decisions about what should take priority, the newer strategic initiatives or the SOW items, the executive had to ask himself one question: “Three months from now, how will my performance be judged?” The company may have more clarity on its strategic direction, but if the original operational issues were not resolved, that would be the leading story about the executive’s performance.
As much as it can be argued that strategy comes first, that was not the original purpose of the engagement, and the CEO was not willing to reprioritize it as such.
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