Importance of Screening Potential Clients Prior to First Engagement.

Perhaps you already do this as part of your internal practices in your management consulting business, but if not, it is imperative that you develop the important habit of screening potential clients prior to your first face-to-face engagement with them.

I know that new clients are a lot scarcer than they were prior to 2008, and that even with improvements in economic activity since then, discretionary spending remains cautious and well below the peak we enjoyed in pre-recession times. This has decimated many smaller business consulting/coaching practices and some of our colleagues are resorting to taking on whatever assignments come their way, regardless of their suitability. Many of them are also spending up to 50% of their time doing free sessions in the hope of landing a paying client.

The most important thing to remember is that you have something of value to offer and that you must deploy your skills and knowledge with clients that truly appreciate your professionalism and what you have to offer them. Some of you may say that this is fine and well when business is buoyant, but that you still have to face up to the reality of paying your mortgage and feeding your kids each month. Truly, I get it. Nevertheless, the mistake of doing lots of free sessions, with little prospect of gaining a decent financial return, is not the way to solve the problem.

In much the same way that a potential client will screen you before making contact, and it is indeed rare for a potential client to engage with a consultant without checking them out, you should adopt exactly the same approach. You need to screen each potential client in advance of a face-to-face meeting. So how do you do this? Well the following questions may be useful ones for you to get the answers to:

  • How did the prospective client discover you or your practice?
  • Were you recommended by one of your existing or former clients?
  • What is the nature of the problem they are experiencing?
  • Is the problem what the prospective client thinks it is, or could it be something else?
  • Could the problem actually be the prospective client or one of his team?
  • What kind of management style does the prospective client exhibit?
  • From your perspective, is the client likely to be “a” rated or more likely “b, c, or d” rated?
  • Is the potential assignment a good match for your skills and knowledge?
  • Do you believe you can do your best work with this prospective client?
  • Do you like the prospective client based on your interactions with him/her up until now?
  • Is the prospective client a good match for your temperament and style?
  • Is there a budget for the project and if so, is it realistic?
  • Do you sense any penny-pinching on the part of the potential client?
  • Will the prospective client be able to pay you based on current liquidity and solvency of the business?

This is your starting point. Remember, not every potential client is nice and not everyone is honorable. Listen to your gut and beware of the hunters that simply want a free lunch. If you can get even more information at this preliminary stage, this would be even better.

So when do you gather all this information? The answer is simple – get it prior to the first face-to-face meeting.

And how do you get the information in the first place? Typically, first contact will be an email or a phone call. Have your screening question set ready and written in your own words. It should be broadly the same for each first touch with a potential client. Once you get your answers, you can decide if you have follow up questions that can be answered either directly by the potential client or you may decide to take time out to do a little more research.

It is also useful if you can get the potential client’s permission to send them a questionnaire with further useful questions, which gives additional clarification as to whether a face-to-face meeting is necessary or desirable. I usually do this in the early stages of an exchange. It is important to explain to the potential client that the purpose of sending the questionnaire is to garner sufficient information to make any subsequent meeting useful and beneficial for both parties. It also shows that you value the potential client’s time. Their receptiveness to completing a questionnaire will usually reveal whether the potential client is sufficiently engaged in the process or not.

I use GrowthOracle to manage this entire process for me. It automatically delivers the questionnaire to the client, analyses the responses, benchmarks the business against best business practices, and delivers a comprehensive report on the business and a written proposal, before I have had my first face-to-face meeting with the potential client. It takes just 5 minutes of my time and up to 90 minutes of a client’s time.

Before committing to a face-to-face meeting, do further research. Do Internet searches that give you good background information on the potential client and his business. Make discreet enquiries within your network about the business. If you have access to good online databases like Dun and Bradstreet or LexisNexis, do use them. Don’t feel bad about checking out your potential client. Remember that the client is doing exactly the same – checking out you and your practice.

So what are the benefits of the screening process?

  • It gets rid of tire-kickers at an early stage so you don’t incur unnecessary costs
  • You save an enormous amount of valuable time
  • It shows potential clients that you are serious about any potential engagement and that you do not accept every prospect as a client
  • It allows you to establish the budget and payment terms at a preliminary stage of the process
  • It removes obstacles, creates clarity, and prevents obfuscation
  • You only spend your time with clients with whom you can add the greatest value and where you can be confident about the results you can deliver
  • If it is quickly apparent that you are a good match with the potential client, you will often find that they will do the closing for you
  • You will avoid working with clients that you later regret taking on. You really don’t want to endure 3, 6 or 12 months of working with a client from hell.
  • You get the opportunity to refer non-matching clients to other suitable consultants at the outset before you make the mistake of engaging with them
  • You maximize the contribution made by each client to your business
  • You will enjoy the work and the contribution you are making to client businesses

I am sure that it is quite apparent that screening potential clients prior to first engagement is a sensible practice and that it benefits both the potential client and the business consultant in equal measure. If you are not doing it already, I would suggest that you start screening potential clients now!

Niall Strickland