Today’s guest post is by Greg Gentschev of Brekiri, a business research start-up in San Francisco. Greg spent the past 10 years in consulting, working in areas including growth strategy, competitive analysis, and benchmarking, before moving on to found Brekiri. He also writes extensively about research and business analysis topics at the Brekiri blog.
A few years ago, I was on a consulting project for a major medical device manufacturer. We had done several months of work and prepared several hundred pages of sales force benchmarking for them, and we were presenting the resulting recommendations to the client’s head of strategy. Halfway through the meeting, the client stopped us and told us that our convoluted chart we had put together (at his request) did not make any sense and contradicted another one of our conclusions. We looked at both the charts, stammered a bit, and said we would get back to him. The meeting went on, but it was fundamentally already over. We had lost the client’s buy-in simply because we had failed to understand his earlier feedback.
There are a million ways to gain and lose credibility with the client on a daily basis. If it goes too far down, you lose the potential for follow-on work or referrals from that client. Based on my own sometimes painful experiences working with clients over the last ten years, here is some advice on getting buy-in.
Communicate Clearly Up-Front
A lot of problems start with a cookie cutter proposal that does not address the client’s challenges squarely. Make sure to be probing enough during the business development and proposal writing stages so that you have a good chance of addressing not just what the client wants, but what they need, in the proposal. Do not simply propose your usual work if the client’s issues are different. If the budget does not allow you to address everything, be very clear about that up-front.
Understand the Organization
Many times, people in the client organization will take your recommendations as attacks and try to block you. In my case, working on revenue growth for the CEO or board, the head of sales and marketing often thought I was there to critique his work. You have to convert these people into collaborators or neutralize them so that they do not sabotage you. I prefer the former, and I usually frame the project as building on the client’s progress to date and work directly with whomever might see me as a threat. Be careful not to play too nice; do not whitewash problems to avoid offending people.
It will make your life easier, and hopefully more pleasant too, if you build rapport with the client team over the course of the project and get to know them. Face time is still important in this regard, so try to spend some time on-site with the client, whether holding meetings or just working in a cube. You want the client to see you as being on their team, which is tough if you are just a stranger who only comes in to deliver the bad news. If you cannot make it to their location, one-on-one phone calls with the main stakeholders are the best substitute.
Also try to include interim presentations of your results. This approach gives you a chance to test-drive your conclusions before they are set in stone. Try to get feedback from the client, and make sure to publicly follow up on it afterwards.
If you get a chance, also see if you can do the client a small favor like providing advice or information on some topic not in the project scope. It helps cement the idea that you are there to help them.
If your conclusions and recommendations are sensitive, make sure to pre-sell them with the client. On a project where the main stakeholder is the CEO, I usually try to give a brief preview to the head of sales and marketing, assuming they are on my side by this point in the project. This test-run can help you identify any touchy subjects and prepare appropriately.
In your presentations, focus on the benefits of changes rather than putting too much emphasis on the problems the company has currently.
Finally, separate the wheat from the chaff in your recommendations. Avoid delivering a laundry-list of points that all sound good but are quickly forgotten. If everything is important, nothing is. Instead, focus on the three most important items and provide the analysis to back up those priorities. You can still include other ideas, but the main points should have enough impact to make an impression.
After the work is complete, follow up with the client to help make sure they execute on your work and get value from it. You will be remembered for the results more than the actual deliverable, so provide advice on any sticky details they come across.
I have found these tactics very useful, but I am sure there are others I have missed. What have you found the most useful in getting client buy-in for your own consulting work?
Greg Gentschev is the founder of Brekiri, which provides online research tools for small and medium businesses. He has over 10 years of consulting and marketing experience, primarily in growth strategy, marketing planning, competitive analysis, and benchmarking. Clients have included companies such as Microsoft, Boston Scientific, and American Express as well as startups and private equity portfolio companies. Greg has an MBA from Georgetown University and an MS and BS in engineering from Stanford University.