Excerpt: Becoming a Client's Obvious Choice

The following is an excerpt from The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients: 6 Steps to Unlimited Clients and Financial Freedom by David Fields. This excerpt from Chapter 17 explores how clients choose a consulting firm, as a lead-in to the next two chapters in the book, which detail a process for discovering clients’ needs.

Chapter 17: How Clients Choose

By now, your confidence is soaring because you know your high-impact offer, you’re visible to the executives who can hire you, and you’re hooking their interest. Your professional network is burgeoning, and you’re converting relationships into active prospects. And, of course, you’re great looking, charming, and a gourmet chef.

Now the money will start pouring in, right?

Not exactly.

You need to uncover, client-by-client and project-by-project, what will make you an irresistible solution in the specific area you are targeting. In typical product sales, once you capture a buyer’s attention you’re near the end of the buying process.

But in consulting, capturing a prospect’s attention is the beginning of the process.

Becoming the obvious choice is rooted in the process of discovery. You become the obvious choice by discovering what your prospects want, need, and value, then delivering solutions that fit them like a pair of comfy, old pajamas.

Before leaping into discovery, though, I’m sure you want to understand how clients make decisions.

In other words, what makes a prospect choose one consulting firm over another, or decide to work with internal staff rather than any consultant at all? Is it price? Is it experience? Is it a differentiated solution?

When you appreciate how clients choose, your discovery efforts will become much more effective and productive. When it comes to consulting projects, all clients’ choices rest on the Six Pillars of Consulting Success.

The Six Pillars of Consulting Success

For you to win a consulting engagement, the Six Pillars of Consulting Success must be in place. Every time you win a project, the six pillars are in place.

They are: Know Like Trust Need Want Value

Know is your prospect’s awareness of you. No consulting firm has ever won a project from a client who has never heard of them. The more well known you are, the greater the pool of prospective clients who could solicit your help on their pressing problems.

Like is your prospect’s impression of how pleasant working with you will be. Consulting is a human endeavor and when clients are considering a few consultants who are sufficiently skilled, they will choose the consultant with whom they experience the best rapport over a consultant who is objectively more qualified.

Trust is your prospect’s belief, on a number of fronts, that you can be relied upon. We’ll delve further into this pillar in a few minutes.

Need is your prospect’s perception that a specific problem or aspiration must be addressed. It’s the yawning gap between your prospect’s views of how the world is and how the world should be.

Want is your prospect’s desire to address specific problems or aspirations. It’s the hunger that compels a client to take action. When proposals don’t close for months on end, the problem is a lack of Want. Prospects frequently acknowledge there’s a problem and agree the consultant can help resolve it, but then fail to take action. Action is scary. Change is scary. Therefore, for a project to close, the prospects’ desire and urgency must outweigh their fears.

Value is your prospect’s perception that engaging you will yield greater benefits than pursuing any other course with the same time and money. Some consultants mistakenly think Value is about ROI. It’s usually not. Clients aren’t comparing the return from your project to the cost. They’re comparing the benefit of your project, financially and personally, to the benefit of doing something else. High Value makes for large, lucrative projects.

Know, Need and Value are the rational pillars. They’re why a project exists and you’re in the running to win it. Like, Trust, Want, and Value are the emotional pillars. They’re why the project actually closes and you win it. As you can see, Value has both a rational and emotional component: “hard” benefits like profit and “soft” benefits like status or work-life balance.

While all six pillars are required to support a consulting sale, some carry more weight than others. The number one driver of choice is… (drumroll please)… Trust. This is true no matter what type of project you’re working on, or what stripe of consultant you are.

Clients choose the consultant they trust most.

The Trust Triangle—It’s All About Me!

Entire books have been written to show you how to build trust. From a consultant’s standpoint, though, trust is absolutely indispensable. It’s also straightforward, and I’m going to shortcut the concept for you.

Trust is a triangle, and all three points of the triangle are about me! Except “me” in this case is from the prospect’s perspective: you’re considering me and have my best interests in mind, not just your own; you’re going to help me by solving my problem; you’re not going to hurt me by screwing up or making me look bad. The more a client believes you rock on all three points, the more he’ll trust you.

So, if the prospect’s perspective is that trust is all about him, that means the more you listen and attend to your prospect, the more opportunity you have to build trust.

You should always strive to be trustworthy, of course. Then layer on your solid relationship, a dose of good listening, and provide the credibility boosters, risk reducers, project approaches, terms and structures that knock it out of the park on all three points of trust for that specific prospect.

For some prospects trust is built by demonstrating your years of experience in the industry, but others may want to know you’re an industry outsider. One prospect may feel that adding extra analysts lowers the risk of missing a deadline, whereas another prospect may want fewer people on your team causing disruption.

What about testimonials, your pedigree, scorecards on previous projects and other contributors to credibility? You should absolutely develop all of those and keep them in your toolkit. However, remember that some prospects will be swayed by testimonials, whereas others may need more extensive evidence (e.g., a pilot project). It all depends. And that’s why I’ll reiterate: discovery is your key to becoming the obvious choice.

Who’d the Watchmaker Choose?

The CEO of a large watch manufacturer in New England told me he brought in a consultant on a major, multi-million-dollar engagement. The final three firms he considered were:

• Acme, a global firm he had worked with before that typically did a passable job;

• Breakthrough Group, a dynamic, innovative, boutique consulting firm that offered extremely aggressive (a.k.a. low) fees;

• ERP Associates a midsize firm that specialized in the watchmaker’s exact issue.

The CEO chose Acme. Even though that consultancy wasn’t the most experienced with his issue, or the least expensive, or the firm with the smartest people.

Here’s what the CEO told me about the decision: “David, I trusted that Acme could do the job. I’d worked with them before, and even though I knew they weren’t the very best, I knew they could do it and wouldn’t let me down.”

That’s the power of trust, and that’s why building relationships and conducting the discovery process you’ll learn in the next two chapters is imperative. If you want to win a project with, say, Yuri Yusimi at Sereus Dough, Inc., you don’t have to be the best; you don’t have to be the cheapest; you certainly don’t have to be the biggest. You have to be the consultant he trusts most.

Beyond Trust: More Drivers of Choice

Below are other, influential factors involved in a client’s selection of a consultant for his initiative. You’ll quickly realize most of the factors interact in some way with Trust or Value or Like. The factors we’ll cover quickly are:

• Situation Expertise • Outcome Expertise • Responsiveness • Rapport • Willingness to Push Back • Project-Specific Criteria

Situation Expertise

Yusimi (like most clients) first looks for consultants who have experience in his industry, with problems that look like the one he’s trying to solve, and with companies that appear similar to Sereus Dough. The consultant with the strongest credentials in those three areas will always be a front runner.

Outcome Expertise

“You will help me” is one of the three points on the Trust Triangle because that’s at the root of what clients are looking for: a favorable outcome. Since many clients believe they know the best approach to solve their problem, they look for the consultant that is most facile in that approach.


Being the most responsive consultant can absolutely win you a project. When a prospect calls three consultants and one calls back immediately and the others wait for a day or two, who do you think has a major leg up? Clients rightly assume that your responsiveness to them and their needs will be the same from the first contact through the final presentation. Nothing shows a client they’re important as much as getting back to them promptly.


Always keep in mind this is a human business. Clients prefer working with people they get along with and communicate with easily. The last thing an executive wants is to go home feeling angry or stressed out because of his consultant.

Willingness to Push Back

Most clients want you to act like a peer, not a vendor. Even clients who seem to want you to be subordinate appreciate your pushing back a bit if it makes them think and look better.

Just don’t make pushing back your most prominent attribute. Ultimately, clients want results, not more frustration. If you spend all your time arguing with them, they’re going to give you the boot and find someone who will just get the job done.

Project-Specific Criteria

Often there are criteria that are unique to the client’s particular project. Perhaps it’s experience with a particular piece of equipment, or the need to have people on site, or a requirement that results be written in Swahili. For the most part, those criteria aren’t the difference between whether you or another consultant is chosen. Rather, they determine whether you’re even considered. If you meet the project requirements you’re in the consideration set. If you don’t, you’re not.

But What About Your Unparalleled Approach?

You’re justifiably proud of your innovative, unique, better-than-chocolate approach, right? After all, you’ve spent years perfecting it, and it’s what separates you from all other consultants. Well, I’ve got news for you:

Differentiation doesn’t matter in consulting. Results matter.

Make no mistake: your approach to delivering the client’s outcome is pertinent. It will have a major bearing on whether he chooses you or chooses another consultant or whether he just sticks with his internal staff. But clients aren’t looking for an approach that’s different. They’re looking for one that works.

Think of toothpaste. Toothpaste tubes were invented forever ago. Since then, manufacturers have invented squeeze bottles, pumps, sprays, drops, pills you put on your toothbrush and pretty much everything else. But what do you have in your bathroom at home? A toothpaste tube. It’s easy to see how the tube works and it gets the job done. That’s what your clients want: simple, easy and obvious. They want toothpaste tubes.

Trust. Got It. Now What?

By now, you know Yuri Yusimi will choose the consultant he trusts most; the one he believes is most likely to put him front and center; the one who will deliver the outcome he wants without hurting him along the way.

And I’ve told you that the marrow of building trust is discovery—listening carefully, actively, and with intent, then showing you understand your prospect deeply. To accomplish that goal effectively, irresistible consultants rely on the Context Discussion. As you’re about to see, it’s the centerpiece of building trust and, ultimately, becoming the obvious choice.