Thursday, November 10, 2011

Be Prepared for the Unexpected (contributed by Claudia Dencker)

My career has taken many twists and turns and has been filled with amazing opportunities and successes, as well as its share of disappointments. While I am now an employee of Stanford University, I spent the bulk of my career as an independent consultant. And there is truly no better career.

Many authors have written about the business of consulting, such as how to set yourself up legally, financially, and with the tax authorities. But that's the easy part, because you are in control. You take action, you get results. Where many consultants, business people, and even job candidates fail is in securing the gig, securing the sale, securing the job. Without a consulting assignment, you won't be able to start or maintain your status as an independent consultant.

This post and others will take you through what I believe are the most important aspects of consulting: establishing a relationship and maintaining that relationship, thereby securing repeat business. Many of the lessons in these posts can also be applied to interviewing for a job for regular employment.

I have a non-technical background. But, I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time when the economy was expanding. I left Hewlett-Packard in 1983 as a software quality engineer with little prospect for advancement unless I got an MBA. The job offer I received from a small start-up in Santa Clara, California, was a compelling step towards realizing the long-held dream of running my own business. This company, a contract software testing house, taught me the necessary skills to take my first step into consulting. I learned the great importance of salesmanship from two masters, one a long-standing salesman and the other a recent graduate from San Jose State who came to sales naturally.

Before I tell you just what I learned, let me relate a story. Years into my independent consulting career, I was trying to secure some business with a medical device company in San Jose, California. I had already made contact with the decision maker. As part of his qualification process, he wanted me to meet some of the key team members before making a commitment. I agreed and we set a date.

On the day of the appointment, thinking that I would only be meeting with two or three people, I drove to the site. It was a stunning day with bright sunshine, blue sky and a cool breeze blowing through the South Bay, a good omen for the day. As usual, I dressed in business attire and took along some company brochures and business cards in my briefcase, confident that I had a solid chance of landing the job after meeting with a few people. Imagine my surprise when I entered the conference room and saw twenty people sitting around a large table all waiting to meet me. I took a deep breath, smiled at everyone, and relaxed. This would not be a typical session.

The people around the table introduced themselves. Then came the first question: "Tell us about your services." For those of you interviewing for a job, this is the same question as, "Tell us about yourself." I had practiced my pitch many times before in similar settings, in written materials, and through presentations, so I launched into a description of my services. This took about five minutes, as I had pared it to the essentials. I didn't want to talk too much about myself. I wanted to learn from the potential customers what they were looking for, what their pain points were, and how I could help. Only two or three attendees asked questions; everyone else sat and listened. I kept my answers short and to the point, being sure to answer only the question that was asked and nothing more. I even let the occasional silence set in.

Towards the end of the meeting, someone asked another common question, "How much is it going to cost?" I responded with my usual answer: "Let me review your specifications, and I'll put together a cost for you quickly." I had learned years ago to avoid giving off-the-cuff estimates. The goal of my meeting with the twenty participants was to get to the next step in the sales cycle. Off-the-cuff cost estimates can slam doors.

The meeting ended when I had gathered all the information I needed to finalize and cost the proposal and to be assured of its success. I had spent much of the meeting listening to the customer, not rushing my answers, and, when I did speak, keeping answers on point. I tried to keep the customer talking as much as possible.

As I left, I informed everyone that I was very interested. "I want your business," I said. "It would be pleasure doing business with you and your team." I'm happy to say that I landed the job. To this day, I still don't know why there were twenty people in the room, as I worked with only one of them.

So what had I learned from the two sales masters that helped me land this contract? Here are the primary lessons:
  • Listen, listen, listen. Have the customers tell you what their pain points are—don't assume that you already know. Keep the customers talking and elaborating on their situation. This will help you to form an air-tight response to their needs.
  • Only answer the question that was asked. Do not elaborate or expand unnecessarily.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected (like a much larger interviewing group than you expected).
And some other lessons:
  • Avoid ball-parking the cost of your services off the top of your head. Even cost ranges can be booby traps unless they are ridiculously wide, and then everyone will recognize that. This will work against you.
  • Be sure to tell the customer that you want their business. In an unexpected way, it is flattering to the customer and of course, important to you. Your career as an independent consultant starts with that first sale.
I also learned to relax in those face-to-face meetings; they can be fun.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

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