You have seen this movie before. You are excited by an invitation to visit the office of a promising prospect. There is a great discussion about the business and where your services would fit. Serious questions are asked and, anxious to demonstrate your understanding of the your (almost) clients’ needs, you supply straightforward and practical answers. The prospect seems impressed with your business acumen; the energy in the room feels good; you can visualize your first day on the job. At the meeting’s end, there is talk of bringing you in to specify the details of a working relationship.
A week slips by and then two. Your email or phone call is either unanswered, or the answer you receive is that your prospect is unable to move forward at this time. Can you call back next month? Ten days into the new month you call and realize, with much regret, that the trail has gone cold. Who you thought would become a new client was in reality a cruel imposter, who robbed your expertise and disappeared.
That scenario is repeated more than one would think at for-profit and not-for-profit institutions alike. The fact is, unless a consulting professional works at Accenture, McKinsey, or some other big consulting group, rip-off artists may conspire to defraud you of actionable business information without paying you a dime. I’ve been invited to two or three interviews where in hindsight I came to realize that the “prospect” was merely fishing for free ideas that would resolve a dilemma that would be handled in-house.
Certain salaried predators feel it’s very clever to pretend that there is a nice project available, call in a few Solopreneur Consultants and pepper us with questions that we answer because we neither eat nor pay the mortgage unless we obtain clients. The schemers take copious notes and laugh as we walk out of the door, filled with false hope and visions of paid-off credit cards.
The business press occasionally takes this subject on and presents an article that provides strategies that external consultants might use to protect ourselves, but I have little faith in the proposed remedies. Reading them, I’ve seen almost nothing that I would expect to work in real-time. The prospective client asks questions about a project. How do you avoid providing answers and demonstrating your ability to do the job?
Giving a wonderful sales presentation only means there will be better quality information to steal from you. Recommendations to find out who will be in the meeting and searching for common ground that will allow you to connect on a personal level with at least one person on the team (oh, you grow roses, too?) means nothing to someone whose agenda is to exploit. Knowing when to try to close the deal means nothing because there is nothing to close, except the door in your face.
There are few effective solutions for this troubling occurrence. To date, the best I’ve read was contributed by Grant Cardone, sales guru and best-selling author of Sell to Survive (2008) and Sell or Be Sold (2012). Cardone suggests this reply:
“I would like to work with you on this issue and I have a few ideas on how we might proceed, but at this time I don’t know your company well enough to give you answers that either of us could trust to be correct“.
The beauty of this response is that it’s true and it can most likely stop the “client” from continuing to press for free consulting advice. Brazen types may threaten to snatch the “opportunity” away from you but if that does occur, take it as a clear sign that there never was an intention to hire you or anyone else.
Graciously and immediately end the meeting. If by some miracle the client is real, your statement will be respected and taken as a sign of integrity. Your candor might even win you the contract.
Good luck and thanks for reading,
Kim L. Clark is an external consultant who provides strategy and marketing solutions to for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Kim is the founder and principal of Polished Professionals Boston and she teaches business plan writing to aspiring entrepreneurs. Visit polishedprofessionalsboston.com for more information.