Every consultant has been there. Your initial meetings with a prospective client went swimmingly, you sent over a stellar proposal, and then—dead silence.
What went wrong? Well, for starters, it ain’t over yet. When I’m closing consulting deals with clients, especially with “difficult” clients, I operate on two principles:
- Everything is negotiable. Even if a client says no to your proposal, be open to negotiating its terms. Often, a few tweaks are all it takes to turn that no into a yes.
- Do unto others. Yes, The Golden Rule applies here. If I wouldn’t want someone to call me three times a day because I haven’t responded to their email, then I don’t do it to my prospects.
I also want to clarify up front what I mean by a “difficult client.” A difficult client here is someone who would actually be an ideal client, but is resistant to signing on the dotted line.
Contrast that with what I think of as a “problem client,” one who will drain time, energy, and resources that would be better spent elsewhere. I don’t think it’s ever worth it to take on a problem client, regardless of how big the payday. You’ll always end up wishing you hadn’t done it.
So let’s focus on those deals you really want that are tough to close. When it comes to client acquisition, I like to think of the entire process as courting. You know, the good old-fashioned process of getting to know someone and wooing them. As much as you may like to think that you’re the highly desirable consultant everyone should want to work with, you need to be the one pursuing the prospective client.
As a consultant, getting this right requires an entire sales process you must walk a prospect through. The exact number and names of these steps will vary depending on whom you ask, but I’ve outlined my own below.
Just like anything else, when we talk about how to close a deal with a client, we need to begin at the beginning: the first contact.
Step 1: First Contact
If you’re using inbound marketing, then the lead has reached out to you first. These leads are typically easier to convert because they already know something about you, and they took the initiative to make contact.
If you’re using outbound marketing (e.g. cold emailing or cold calling), then you reached out to the lead first, and typically, they have no idea who you are. These leads can be tougher to convert because they may not even be looking for a solution, and they don’t trust you yet.
With inbound marketing, the key in this first stage of closing consulting deals is to reply to your lead as quickly as possible. This makes the chances of closing the deal much higher. One study of 1.25 million sales leads found that if a company responded within one hour, they were seven times more likely to have a meaningful conversation with the lead—and more than 60 times more likely than those who waited 24 hours or longer.
Tools you can use:
- Create a special inbox for incoming leads. No one likes to be a slave to their inbox, especially when it’s filled with so much junk. Create a special email address that’s only for incoming leads. You can do this for free with Gmail. Then, connect it to your contact form on your website.
- Set up notifications on your smartphone. Brandon Gaille of The Blog Millionaire recommends sending every contact form submission straight to your cell phone via text message. You can do this with a paid tool like Twilio.
If you want some help with cold emailing, check out our formula for writing cold emails that get responses.
Step 2: Discovery Call/Meeting
The next step is your initial call with the prospect, also known as a discovery call, or even an in-person meeting. If you’re having a hard time closing consulting deals, this is the step where the resistance may begin. Sometimes people contact you, excited about the prospect of working with you, but then are resistant to actually getting on a call or meeting with you in-person. What can you do?
Let Them Know What to Expect
Outline your process on your website. Try to outline the next steps for them. How long will the call be? What will you ask them? What should they have prepared? You can even begin this early on by including your process on your website. This does wonders for alleviating the anxiety a prospect can feel about contacting you. Plus, it further qualifies your lead.
Illustrator Mike Senda does a great job on his Work With Me page at putting his prospects at ease by providing the steps in his process plus frequently asked questions:
Send them a client questionnaire. This is one of my favorite ways to qualify a lead. I often send a questionnaire before we even book a discovery call. If someone is unwilling to fill it out, then I know they’re not serious about getting started. Some things you can include in your questionnaire:
- Describe your project to me.
- What do you hope to accomplish by the end of our time working together?
- Have you worked with a consultant before? How was that experience?
- What is your timeline?
Remind Them to a Book a Free Call
If a lead said they were interested in learning more but still hasn’t scheduled a call, remind them to do so. A lot of times, people get busy and forget to take that next step. You can use HoneyBook to remind you to follow up, and you can even send the follow-up emails via the platform.
Step 3: Proposal
Congrats! You’ve gotten to the proposal step. Now it’s time to craft a customized proposal to win over your prospect.
Personalize it. This should go without saying, but be sure to address the proposal to the point of contact with their first and last name. This should not be a cookie-cutter proposal.
Restate their desires. In the opening paragraph of your business proposal, express your excitement at the prospect of working with them and then mirror the language they used when they talked about what they were hoping to get out of this. This reframes the entire proposal not as merely something they’re about to spend money on but as a transformation they’re about to invest in.
Here’s an example:
Thank you for considering me to help you streamline your business processes. I am excited to help you get organized, set up systems, and create an operations manual so you can stress less and have more time to spend with your family.”
So instead of just stating what you will do for them, be sure to state how that will make them feel.
Create tiered offers. This definitely isn’t the norm, but if it works for your business, I recommend creating a three-tiered offer right inside your proposal. Why? People like options, but not too many options. Psychologically, our brains will gravitate toward the middle option, too, which is why so many SaaS companies offer three-tiered prices. Just take a look at HoneyBook’s pricing page:
Tools you can use:
I highly recommend sending proposals using software that allows you to see when the recipient has viewed them. Both of these do just that:
Immediately after you send the proposal via your software of choice, follow up with an email letting the prospect know it’s been sent and that they can contact you with any questions.
Step 4: Negotiations/Closing Consulting Deals
The next step in the consultant sales process where a prospect might get hung up is the negotiations. Maybe you’ll get lucky and the prospect will sign the dotted line and issue the initial payment, no questions asked. But what if they don’t?
Here are three situations that might happen and what you can do in each:
You haven’t heard back?
Again, if you send the proposal via software that lets you see when a prospect has opened it, this can give you some insight on when to follow up. If they haven’t opened it yet, wait until they do. Unless, of course, it’s been days.
When should you follow-up? It’s hard to find data applying specifically to sales emails, but a study by USC Viterbi that analyzed 16 billion emails found that once 48 hours have passed, it’s unlikely you’ll be getting a reply. Based on that, it might be a good idea to follow up within two days of sending the proposal if you haven’t heard anything yet.
In your follow-up email, try to ask at least one question, and no more than three. Research by Boomerang found that this is the sweet spot for increasing the likelihood of a response by 50 percent.
What should you say? Please do not send an email that says, “Just following up on this!” That’s likely to go straight to archived. Instead, seek to add value in every follow-up, even if it’s brief. Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re an email marketing consultant and a prospect wants to hire you to create their first email sales funnel. You might follow up with an email that says:
I remember you said that price was a factor when considering which email marketing service you wanted to use. MailChimp is completely free up to 2,000 subscribers and may be an excellent option for you. I have experience setting up automated campaigns in MailChimp, and I could do this for you as early as next week.
By the way, did you have any questions about the proposal? I’m open to any suggestions you may have. Just shoot me an email with any questions, and I’ll address them right away!
To get automated follow-up reminders, use Boomerang. This free Gmail extension has a feature that will remind you to follow up after a certain number of days has gone by without a reply.
They Said No
What happens if you sent the proposal and the client decided they no longer wanted to work with you? All that time and energy gone to waste! Relax. You’ve gotten this far in the sales process, so you’ve built up a rapport with the prospect. At this point, you need to know why they said no. Steli Efti of Close recommends asking this question: “What are all the steps we have to take to help make this happen?” I love that because it shows assertiveness and that you’re open to negotiating.
Keep the doors open, and know how to respond to common objections.
Objection #1: It costs too much. Move your prospective client’s focus away from the price tag of your services and toward the value you provide. Avoid words like “good deal,” “save money,” “bargain,” and the like.
Here’s what the conversation might look like:
Prospect: “$1,900 is out of our budget for a content audit and strategy.”
You: “What is within your budget?”
Prospect: “We were looking at $1,500.”
You: “Here’s what I can do: The content audit involves a thorough review of your process, plus a content strategy document and a complete editorial calendar for three months. If I cut the editorial calendar down to one month, I can work with $1,500.”
If the prospect claims that they can’t see how you justify your prices, remain calm. Getting defensive will only make things worse. Calmly explain the value of what you provide. If the prospect still can’t see your value, they’re not someone you want to work with.
Objection #2: Now’s not the right time.This is actually good news! That means they haven’t told you “no” so much as “not yet.” You want to maintain that relationship so that when they are ready, you’ll be the first person they think of. Ask them if you can add them to your email list where you can send them tips that will help solve their problems. Or if not that, be sure to personally check in with them every now and then.
Objection #3: I’m not sure it’s the right fit.When you hear this objection, it means you haven’t fully earned their trust yet. If you’re confident you can help them, though, you can offer a free trial or a paid test piece to help win that trust and prove yourself before upgrading to the full paid option.
Negotiations Hit a Standstill
Responding to this scenario depends on what you’re negotiating on. I firmly believe in negotiating on scope, never price. But, that’s up to you. If this client is someone who will look great in your portfolio, or if they’re a nonprofit or charitable organization, I could understand cutting them a discount. Just realize that by doing so, you may be undercutting the value of your services in their eyes.
Give them time, but not too much time. Give it too much time, and the lead will go cold. Be sure to have an expiration date on your proposal so they can’t come back one year later and ask for the same pricing.
Get them on the phone again, or better yet, video chat or meet them in person.It’s easy to ignore someone who exists only as a few lines of text on your computer screen. When you talk to someone on the phone, conduct a video chat, or even meet in person, you’re much more human to your prospect. My favorite technique is simply to ask them point blank: “What concerns do you have about working with me? What’s stopping you from taking that next step?” That gives you the chance to address each concern right then and there.
Offer a trial period or a paid test piece. Yes, you lose money in the beginning, but think of the lifetime value of the client. If you can get them in now, even for an unpaid trial, and really knock this project out of the ballpark, you’ll earn so much more later. Just realize you are taking a risk because there’s never any guarantee they’ll become a long-time paying customer, but if you’ve done your due diligence and feel they’re the perfect client, I say go for it.
Give them the opportunity to talk to your former clients. Consultants should have a roster of clients who are willing to vouch for them. Once you get your former clients’ permission, offer your prospect their contact info. This shows an incredible amount of confidence and can help put the prospect’s mind at ease.
Keep sending them free advice. Add them to your email marketing list (with permission, of course), or send follow-up emails that provide value. Continue to point out ways they can improve. When they are ready to commit to investing in a solution, you will be the first person they think of.
But What If I Come Across as Too “Salesy”?
Many consultants worry that by pursuing a prospect, they’ll come off as a snake oil salesman (ick!). But here are two things to keep in mind:
- If you really think you can help them, why wouldn’t you?Instead of thinking of it only as selling, try to approach it from the perspective of truly trying to help someone. At our core, that’s what we consultants do. We’ve helped clients in the past, and we want to continue to help more. Now, if you really think you’re not going to be able to do that, then don’t pursue the prospect.
- You’ve built up a relationship with this prospect.This isn’t some cold lead that you’re hounding with endless emails and phone calls. This is a lead you’ve qualified and determined is a good fit. They’ve already shown interest in you by contacting you, meeting with you, and looking at your proposal. The further along in the sales process they are, the more trust you’ve built up with them.
If you stick to those two premises, you won’t come off as salesy, but earnest. And soon, you’ll be well on your way to closing consulting deals with ease.