Just about anyone who has worked as an independent consultant knows how it feels when your contact says, “We’ll discuss your proposal and let you know what we decide.” After all your hard work and preparation, you’re locked out of the meeting that matters most. What if people have questions that only you can answer? What if your contact misunderstands what you proposed? What if he or she wilts at the first objection, more worried about staying on the boss’s good side than getting business for you?
For example, let’s suppose you’ve been working with Jennifer, the VP of marketing, on a proposal to enhance the company’s website. Jennifer has assured you repeatedly that she’s the sole decision maker. But now she lets you know—for the first time—that she has to take your proposal before her management team for review and approval.
Of course, you’ll want to see if you can attend (perhaps by phone or Skype) to answer any questions the management team may have. But don’t be surprised if Jennifer says it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to attend. At that point, your best strategy is to make sure that Jennifer has (1) the desire and (2) the ability to be a strong advocate for you and your proposal. If either element is missing, you’re not likely to win. So begin by finding out what Jennifer really thinks of your proposal. Don’t succumb to wishful thinking. If Jennifer is anything less than 100% committed, you need to know why and address her doubts before she walks into that meeting.
Once you’re sure Jennifer’s on board, ask her to walk you through the decision-making process so that you and she together can identify and address any potential obstacles or objections. You might say, “Jennifer, I completely understand why the team will want to have this discussion without me there. So I’d like your help to be sure everyone has the information they’ll need to make a good decision.”
Ask whether any members of the management team usually look for specific information before they reach a decision. Go through each member of the team one by one. For example, Jennifer may tell you that decisions are often delayed because the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) needs time to review the numbers. If so, offer to provide your budgets, projections, and other financial information in advance of the meeting so that the CFO can prepare. Or let’s say Jennifer tells you that the Chief Operating Officer (COO) is likely to have concerns about the amount of time your proposal would take to implement and how it will affect ongoing operations. If that’s the case, you may want to suggest that you, Jennifer, and the COO have a call before the meeting to discuss those specific concerns.
Next, analyze the decision-making process point by point. What are the hot buttons? Where are the land mines? What are potential showstoppers? Here are some questions you can ask during your analysis of the buying decision:
- Which team members have the most influence over the outcome?
- What is each step in the decision-making process?
- What are some likely reasons the decision might be delayed?
- What questions or objections often come up in these discussions?
- When the team has said no to a proposal like this in the past, what derailed it?
- When the team has said yes, what made it happen?
- Who tends to dominate discussions?
- How will the decision be arrived at: majority vote, consensus, or some other mechanism? Does any individual have veto authority?
- What happens next? Will the CEO want to review the decision, or is it final?
- Is price likely to come up at the beginning or end of the discussion? How big a factor will it be?
Working through this process with your prospect won’t always guarantee a sale, of course. The meeting may still go the wrong way, often for reasons that have little to do with you or your proposal. But by following these suggestions, you’ll have done everything you can to anticipate objections and influence the outcome—even though you’re not in the meeting itself.
(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!)