5 Questions Consultants Should Ask Prospective Clients

By Brad Egeland

Your advertising has worked and you’ve made contact with a potential client who has a need and thinks they might want your consulting services. That’s the easy part.

business people at a deskNow you’re ready to sit down with and get details on what it is the client thinks they need. The easy assumption is that clients always know their requirements, but in reality they rarely have a good handle on their situation. They usually know a symptom or a portion of the problem, but what we as consultants must uncover is the root cause of the issue and what really needs to be done.

Here are five key questions that I’ve found must be addressed at the beginning of any potential engagement in order to get off on the right foot. The answers also help me gauge whether this is a project that I really want to take on.

Do you have a budget in place?

It’s important to ask this early on. In the past, I’ve wasted too much time with potential clients who’ve asked me in to discuss taking on projects for them, only to find out that they’ve got no money budgeted for the effort. I’ve met as many as three times with some of them, only to end up with nothing.

So, I’ve changed my process. This is the first question I ask of all prospective clients, even if we really have no idea what it’s going to cost at that point. The client has to have some idea of what budget they have available, even if it means we tailor what I can do based on their monetary limitations. It’s not necessary to know how much they can spend, but it is necessary to know that they can spend something.

Is there a deadline?

If the client has made promises to others in her company, then you need to know about them. I once led an effort to create an interactive website for a pharmacy. What they didn’t tell me at the beginning — and what I failed to ask about — was that there was a drop-dead date for the project. There was, and it was as unmovable as the Rock of Gibraltar.

To top it off, the team of this Fortune 500 company forgot to tell me that the drug database they were using came from a third party who had originally hoped to create the interactive site I was to work on. Needless to say, that vendor was less than excited about cooperating with me and the team I had assembled. It took my best negotiating skills to get them to cooperate.

Thankfully, the project was completed successfully and on time, and the website was used for the next 10 years to service the company’s employees. But the incident taught me a valuable lesson, and I’m more careful in the questions I ask — including about the client’s specific time frame.

What is the biggest issue that brought you to this point?

There’s always one big need that’s caused the client to seek you out. Beyond that, there are usually one or more elephant-in-the-room-type situations that you have to dig to uncover. You have to ask the right questions to find the customer-perceived problem, and then ask some more questions to see whether the issue is actually a symptom of the real problems that need to be addressed.

If you only address the customer-perceived problem, you’ll make the project sponsor happy for the short term, but the end users won’t be satisfied and it won’t take long for that to become an issue. If you dig to find the real need, you’ll save the day and probably have a longer and more profitable consulting engagement, as well as a happy client who’ll give you good references when the project is over.

What have your end users been telling you about the situation?

The end users of either the current process or the potential new process need to be included — probably both if they’re different groups. Make sure your customer has discussed the situation with his end users. If he hasn’t, that will become your job, but you’ll need to know this up front because it will affect your estimate as well as how you address the end users going in. With no advance warning, you may end up cold-calling them. If a new process affects or eliminates their jobs, you may have a mutiny on your hands. It’s just helpful to know what you’re walking in to.

Have you taken the issue to your subject matter experts?

The last thing you want to happen is for people to perceive that you’re coming in and stepping on toes. That can lead to pushback, dead ends and an overall lack of cooperation. You need to make sure that this isn’t a project thought up in the head of the client with no consideration given to in-house experts who may be able to either shed light on the issue or have their own potential solution to the problem. These are the people that you’ll be working with to come up with additional requirements that weren’t derived from just seeing the end users’ perspective.

Call for Responses

Let’s hear from other consultants. What’s on your list of questions for new or potential clients? What’s your need-to-know information that you absolutely must gather before you can even say yes to taking on the work? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. Brad is married, a father of 9, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad’s site at http://www.bradegeland.com/.