When talking with a customer about their project support needs, do you use a formalized approach or do you just wing it?
Interestingly enough, I was amazed to learn recently that the vast majority of consultants (including solopreneurs) don’t utilize a formal process for collecting information when talking with a customer about a project. As I began asking more questions I learned that this was a habit across the board, regardless of the amount of years of experience the consultant has in business and or their consulting practice. The conservative side of me wanted to run for the hills hearing this.
Working as a consultant offers a lot of flexibility, however within this flexibility comes lots of room for alternative view points, ambiguity and of course misinterpretation. When things are loosey goosey we open ourselves up for further opportunity for projects to fail, missing the mark or leaving one or both parties with a sour taste in their mouths at the end of the project.
One of the best things I learned early in my career from a more experienced person I worked with was the importance of being disciplined in using a standardized system of help in the information gathering discussions when talking with clients.
Because if you don’t it’s amazing how quickly people can interpret things differently than what we had assessed, thought or even heard. What’s worse, is a simple misunderstanding up front at the beginning of a project or relationship can boil up to big issues down the road, including legal actions.
For these reasons I use, and always suggest consultants use, a formal process for evaluating, qualifying or assessing project opportunities with customers. This meeting or discussion between supplier (consultant) and customer can be referred to as an ‘intake meeting’, ‘scoping a project’, ‘project qualification’ or ‘project discovery’. They’re all designed to do the same thing – ask questions to obtain information.
When you’re in a discussion with a customer about their project needs you’re really trying to figure out one thing – is this the right project/ business opportunity for me to take on?
The answer to that question is buried in a flurry of Q&A, best served up using a formal approach where we learn about our customers’ needs, thoughts, feelings and desires for the project and work ahead.
Creating a project qualification process document (SOP) before you begin discussing projects with customers ensures you will gather all the information upfront in a consistent manner. This will also lessen the likelihood of you having to go back to ask the customer for foundational questions to better understand the project. Here’s some good questions you could use in your project qualification discussions to determine if this is the right work to take on and customer to work with:
Keep qualification discussions to no more than 30 minutes if possible. As a consultant your most precious asset is your time. All to often customers will spend time talking about things that have nothing to do with the project and or work they’re requesting your help with. Set the tone at the beginning of the discussion indicating you have 30 minutes to talk through their project needs, then moderate the discussion from there on out.
Think like a consultant – not an employee. Employees have to do the work their employer asks of them, this is not true as a consultant. Your job is to listen and provide feedback. If what the customer is asking for doesn’t add up or isn’t feasible it’s your job to guide them to an alternative solution and or walk away from the opportunity. Consultants advise and perform the work as an SME. Be wary of situations where customers are asking you to perform a miracle. Projects must be grounded in reality, otherwise you may end up as the one to blame.
As you wade through the project qualification discussion with your customer it’s advisable to be on the look out for the following challenges:
As you begin to formulate your approach to these discussions and questions it’s highly advisable to jot it down on paper, creating a template or checklist you can use each and every time.
Should you get through the project qualification stage and both you and customer are interested in moving forward to the next stage make sure you put everything in writing that was covered during the qualification discussion. Be specific and direct. Your Statement of Work (SOW) is the backbone of your project and incredibly important in outlining expectations, performance and what happens if changes need to take place during the project.
Key Take Away:
As a consultant your most precious asset is your time. Use a formal and formatted approach to your project qualification discussions with your customers to ensure you collect the right information up front to better determine if the project in question is the right opportunity for you. Can you deliver the goods inline with the customers expectations?
Create a project qualification template or scoring matrix to use in your customer discussions to obtain all the information needed up front for the project. This removes all the guess work. Your template should include both exploratory questions to get your customer talking and sharing with you the in’s and out’s of the situation while also simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions like “is this project approved?. Once you’ve completed the discussion with your client tell them you will get back to them after you’ve had an opportunity to digest the information you gathered. This will give you time to allow the information to sink in, time provides perspective. Sometimes a scoring matrix can be really beneficial in this situations especially if you have multiple project opportunities with multiple customers because it allows you to objectively rank each project opportunity against one another. Pick the best or most lucrative projects and say adios to the others.
As a consultant [freelancer, gig, moonlighter, etc.] we work in the capacity of ‘work for hire’ whereas we go in, do a job and work ourselves out of the picture. Then it’s onto the next job, rinse and repeat. This can be a fun way to make dough while providing that good ole ‘work life balance’ so many people love to preach about.
Where consultants typically run into problems is the work they’re performing on behalf of the client or end user isn’t clearly defined or even in writing. As a result, it’s common for consultants to find themselves in sticky, even legal, situations they don’t know how to navigate.
Keeping your nose out of legal issues or poor project results really comes down to ‘deliverables’, however before we get there it’s important we keep top of mind two maxims which are the cornerstones of a consultants life:
Know what you can do vs what you shouldn’t
(don’t try to be everything to everyone, stay in your lane doing good quality work you’re confident you can deliver)
Remove the he said she said situation
(both consultant and client should sign a Statement-of-Work, SOW, which clearly spells out responsibilities of each party, cost, duties within the project and their respective deadlines, these are referred to as ‘deliverables’, before the project starts)
Establishing deliverables with a client can be tricky. It’s important both parties agree on the expectations of the work to be performed and the consultant can actually deliver the goods. Remember, the SOW is a legal document. If you over commit and under deliver you could find yourself in hot water.
If you’re a consultant and are establishing deliverables on a project with a client make you keep the following in mind:
1. Can you deliver what the client expects and are those expectations realistic?
2. Challenge the customers’ expectations – does the customer understand what they want and does it match up with what they’re asking?
3. Communicate ahead of time – if you need help, are missing info or are at risk of missing a deadline, don’t wait till the very last minute to communicate. At the first point in which the issue arises inform your client of the situation and in the same conversation come prepared to offer a solution. Communication is key to successful project completion.
4. Focus on performing at a high level while delivering early, this will position you to be awarded more business in the future from said client
Key Take Away:
Get all work agreed upon in writing via an SOW and ensure you can actually deliver the goods. Communicate in the moment and often while focusing on delivering ahead of schedule with a high level of quality output.
Run a gap analysis on your existing projects to see if there are areas you may be at risk. Once you’ve identified those areas of risk on your current projects, come up with a viable solution to address it and proactively communicate with your client the situation and next steps. Ask for their buy in, then move forward.