Nine Questions to Qualify Every Sales Lead

By Michael W. McLaughlin

It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that all revenue is good revenue, but it’s just not true. Success is not about how high your fees are or how much money you make; it’s about how much you get to keep.

Can you walk away from client work that doesn’t meet your profitability goal? You should, no matter how large the potential fee. For successful consultants, time is more important than money, so they are smart about how they invest their time. They don’t chase revenue; they seek out profits.

When a client asks you to bid on a project, pat yourself on the back—your marketing is working. Then take a deep breath and resist the temptation to dive head first into the sales and proposal process. First, you need to get the lay of the land to be sure you’re setting the scene for success.

Too many consultants chase after a new project before completing a thorough evaluation of the project’s risk and reward profile. If you do that, don’t be surprised if you end up with an under-funded, over-scoped project that drains profit from your practice and racks up substantial opportunity costs.

The qualifying step is like the pre-approval process a realtor goes through before showing a home. Realtors want to know that a client is serious before investing time in conducting a search. You should view the prequalification step as similarly critical.

Finding the answers to nine questions will help you decide whether the opportunity has the potential for profit…or peril. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Can the client clearly articulate the objectives and anticipated benefits of the project?

An ill-defined project often signals that the client is still wrestling with what needs to be done. In that case, you can offer to help the client frame the problem, but it’s premature to jump into the sales process. Until you nail down the objectives and anticipated benefits, expect the unexpected. Project scope and objectives can swing wildly as others weigh in with their opinion on what you need to do.

One consultant fumed that his client burned through seven proposal drafts before deciding not to proceed with a project. The consultant mistakenly used the proposal process to help the client define the project. The futile cycle of proposal revisions was the predictable result.

2. Is the project funded?

This may seem obvious, but it does get overlooked. If a project doesn’t have approval and funding, or there’s no specific timetable for funding, it doesn’t exist. It may not be comfortable asking a client if the project is funded, but you must gather this information. Throwing yourself into an unfunded proposal on spec is risky business. Remain active with the client and be there when the project is approved. But until that time, keep your business development investment in check.

3. What consultant-selection process is in place?

Even though most clients will claim they have a decision-making process, a rational one rarely exists. Ask the client who will select the consultant and what the criteria will be. Find out if a deadline has been set for the decision. You should be able to tell from the answers if the client has an objective selection process in place. If not, maybe you can help the client develop one.

Beware of the selection committee that has no apparent buyers among the members. And, if your point of contact on the decision lies in the procurement department, you’ve got little hope of getting a straight answer. You’re likely facing off with an ill-informed messenger, not a decision maker

4. Who is really calling the shots?

The number one waste of your time and money is negotiating with non-decision makers. Without access to the decision maker throughout the proposal process and the project, you’ll struggle to find out where you stand.

The real buyer often delegates the selection process, up to the point of the decision, to a task force or committee. Whenever possible, contact the real buyer so you know who you’ll actually be working for. Tread lightly, though, and reach the decision maker through those involved in the selection process. If you alienate them by going over their heads, you could find yourself out of the running.

In one case, a consultant working with a selection committee presented a proposal that conformed to the spirit and letter of a client’s RFP. The consultant lost the project, and later learned that the winning firm had proposed a different project to the real buyer. At times, even the selection committee loses sight of what’s needed, and the compliant consultant pays the price.

If the client is using a committee to select the consultant, find some way to discuss the details of the project with the ultimate decision maker. If that access isn’t forthcoming, ask yourself if this is an opportunity to let go.

5. Is an incumbent consultant bidding on the project?

Incumbents often have preferred status with clients for new projects, and you need to know what you are up against. With the prevalence of master service agreements and preferred provider arrangements between consultants and clients, the competitive environment can be less favorable to new competitors. That doesn’t mean you should pass on the project, but it could change your tactics. Be sure you know the playing field before you step onto it.

6. Can your firm really deliver the results?

Before agreeing to do anything, honestly assess how well your firm’s qualifications match up to the proposed objective and scope of the assignment. If there’s doubt, pack up your briefcase and head home.

If you’re sure the assignment is within your grasp, ask yourself if you really want to do the work. Are you excited about the prospect? Your capability and strong desire to take on the job will make the difference between success and failure. If you’re lukewarm about a project, your client will see that faster than you can say “follow-on” work, so listen to your instinct and pursue the opportunities that excite you.

7. What are the lost opportunity costs?

When a consultant pursues a new opportunity, something else usually falls off the plate. As a result of a new project opportunity, you may give up another project, delay a proposal, or skip a vacation. Even if you can’t quantify the cost of a new opportunity, try to find a way to express it. You may find that the work in front of you is far more valuable than the new work. Assess the possibilities and carefully weigh them before you begin the sales process.

8. Why did the client call you?

Often, this is the most revealing question you can ask, so don’t treat it as a throwaway. The answer can tell you what the client knows about you and your practice. Often, one or more consulting firms are brought in simply to round out a field of competitors and keep the presumed winner honest. Listen carefully to the answer to this question, and remember what isn’t said may be as important as what is said.

9. Do you buy it?

Pursuing a new project is both a selling and a buying process. Of course, you have to sell your plan to the client, but it’s equally important that you “buy” the client’s representation of the project, politics, and probability of success.

It’s up to you to dig out the details of the project, and understand the client’s culture and expectations. If you miss the mark now, your proposal could be off base and the project could end up in the ditch down the road. If that happens, you stand to lose as much as—or more than—the client.

Every consultant has a list of qualifying questions. I left mine at nine in the hopes that readers would help me round it out to an even ten. What question would you add to the list?