Here is a discussion of five key questions that I have found need to be addressed at the beginning of any potential consulting engagement in order to kick everything off on the right foot and to know that this is something that I really want to take on….
Do you have a budget in place?
It’s important to ask this question early. I’ve wasted too much time in the past with potential clients who’ve asked me in to discuss taking on projects for them only to find out that there is no budget in place for this effort yet. I’ve met as many as three times with one of these types only to end up with nothing to show for it.
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 this point. The client must have some idea of what budget they have available for it – even if that means we tailor what I can do for them based on monetary limitations. At least I know they’re coming into the discussions with some money approved. 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 there have been some corporate promises made, 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 – was “is there a drop-dead date on this activity?” There was, and it was as unmovable as the Rock of Gibraltar. To top it off, they forgot to tell me that the drug database they were using was from a third-party who had originally hoped to create the interactive site. Needless to say, that database vendor was less than excited about cooperating with me and the team I had assembled for the effort. 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 by this huge Fortune 500 company for the next 10 years to service their employees. But this incident taught me a valuable lesson and I’m more careful in several of the questions I ask – including the specific timeframe needs of the client.
What is the biggest issue that brought you to this point?
There’s always one big need that the customer is aware of that has caused them to seek out your service. Beyond that there are also one or more ‘elephant in the room’ type situations that you have to dig for and find out about. You ask the right questions to find the customer-perceived problem, and then you ask more questions to see if that problem is really only a symptom of the real problem or problems that need addressed.
If you address only the customer-perceived problem and fix that, you make the project sponsor happy for the short term, but the end users will not be satisfied and it won’t take long for that to become a major issue. If you dig and find the real need, you’ll save the day, likely have a longer and more profitable consulting engagement, and a happy, referenceable customer when the project is over.
What have your end users been telling you about the situation?
The end users of either the current process that you’re going to be working on or the end users of the potential new process you’ll be implementing need to be included – probably both if they are different groups. Make sure your customer hasn’t come to you without first discussing the situation with their end users. If he hasn’t, that will become your job, but you need to know this up front because it will affect your estimate and it will affect how you address these individuals going in. With no advanced warning you may be basically ‘cold calling’ them and if a new process affects – or eliminates – their jobs, then you may have a mutiny on your hands. It’s just very 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 the perception that you are coming in and immediately stepping on toes. That can lead to push back, dead ends, and an overall major lack of cooperation. You need to make sure that this isn’t a project thought up in the head of the client sponsor with no consideration given to those ‘experts’ in the organization who may be able to either shed light on the issue or may 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 is your ‘need to know’ information that you absolutely must gather before you can even say ‘yes’ to taking on the work?