Avoid Ending a Consulting Project Before It Even Starts

A big mistake many new consultants make is replying to toxic questions from clients too quickly.

Why toxic? I call them toxic because if you answer them too quickly they can be the demise of your project – even before you get started.

Two of the most common questions that clients ask consultants are:

  1. How long will it take to complete?
  2. How much will it cost?

Simple questions.

Innocent as they may seem…they are actually quite loaded.

I’m not saying your client is doing anything wrong. On the contrary, I’d ask the same question if I was in their shoes.

Hold Them Horses
Don’t answer just yet.

While you might feel that failure to answer these questions right away shows a lack of confidence and knowledge…in fact, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Yes, I know. That may be counterintuitive – but it is the case.

Walking Through An Example
Let’s say you rush to answer your consulting client’s question. You blurt out “It’ll take 3-4 weeks and I don’t think it’ll cost too much. Maybe $10,000 or so.” No biggie, right? Wrong.

When you leave that meeting you start to realize there’s no way you can finish that project in one month. You have already committed to another project. And to do the job properly you’ll need to pay your cousin Joe to get his help. Damn, forgot to add that factor into the equation.

How to Handle It
Your best course of action is to tell your client that you’ll review all the information and get back to them very soon. Ideally tell them you’ll be in touch the very next day.

This allows you to regroup your thoughts. Review your schedule. Go through the budget and work out the best way to charge and proceed with the project.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a day to get back to your client.

When you reply however, avoid giving just a general timeline and fee. Be sure to outline some of the notes from your meeting and how the client’s investment will provide them with the results they are looking for.

So next time when you’re feeling pressured to answer your client…chill out. Take a minute to breath and be sure you’ve got all the facts before you commit to a timeline and budget.

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  • Dave Mentios

    It's funny to read this today because I was just talking to a friend that recently became a consultant about this. Very good tips!

  • Stephen

    Made this mistake the other day. Learned my lesson. You reinforced it. Thanks.

    • Stephen – you're very welcome. No worries about the mistake. We all make them at one time or another. The important thing is that you realized it, and now can avoid making it again. That's great!

  • Was just talking to a colleague about this today, so funny!

  • Great advice, Michael. It's a losing proposition to give accurate estimates on project time and cost on the basis of cocktail napkin sketches. I've learned some hard lessons in not gathering basic requirements before giving estimates.

    Like you said, "There’s nothing wrong with taking a day to get back to your client." Or longer, sometimes.

    • Kevin – welcome! Thanks for the comment. I think we've all learned some lessons on this one! My hope is that this will save people time, stress, and money … and that they won't make the same mistake.

  • We all have a tendency to leap…..but have to control it. Since I have a tendency to blurt, I always say I'll get back to you with a proposal. Then I mindmap it out so I can make a decision based on logic, not emotion.

    • Tony – nice way to put it Tony "based on logic, not emotion." I like it. Do you mind map out all the different parts of the project? Would be interested to learn about your approach. Thanks!

      • Twanless

        I do mind map out different parts of the project — from the proposal, to the overall plan to execution details, etc. I find mind maps help me plan and order information. And they’re great for clients who need to assimilate information quickly. Also, they work for subcontractors or employees who need guidance in how to go about a project. Mind maps are great visual communication tools for both the client and consultant because they ensure we’re aligned in thinking.

  • Gloria

    This is an interesting discussion. One of the most frustrating aspects working as a consultant is when you work as a dual headed consultant, .i.e you have a day to day role Director or CEO, (managing resources and functions as well as development and reviewing strategies and making recommendations etc. It can be a quite a task to get organisations to understand this may need a more of an investment than initially envisaged. How do others manage this?

  • Ilija Trbovic

    I agree with you Michael. This is also a good advice for managers who want to get answer as soon as possible. Speed is not always a virtue 🙂

  • I got caught in that trap some time ago. At the time I was a project manager. I told the client that I could not give an answer without further analysis. They pushed – asked for a "thumb suck" or best guess.

    I estimated three months, then went away and worked through what needed to be done. I returned the next day to tell them it would take 12 months! "But you said …"

    Agree totally – do the analysis properly and then estimate only for the first phase if that is possible. Often there are too many unknowns to quote for the whole job.

  • I got caught in that trap some time ago. At the time I was a project
    manager. I told the client that I could not give an answer without
    further analysis. They pushed – asked for a “thumb suck” or best guess.

    I estimated three months, then went away and worked through what needed
    to be done. I returned the next day to tell them it would take 12
    months! “But you said …”

    Agree totally – do the analysis properly and then estimate only for the
    first phase if that is possible. Often there are too many unknowns to
    quote for the whole job.

  • Simbaconsulting

    These two questions were asked on an assignment I am working on and I indeed made the mistakes. I consider it fees paid.

  • Great tips Michael! This two question is really simple but hard to answer.