One might suspect that, somewhere in the world, a formula exists for interpreting what a client needs, not by what they say, but by “hearing” what is in their head and heart. One of the toughest parts of learning to be a consultant is scoping work. Those first calls for help rarely seem to materialize into what is originally discussed.
It seems that you average three to four calls or more before you can actually land in a place that is true to your client’s problem and your ability to help them solve those problems. In some ways, that extra time taken is a testament to your ability to counsel and guide your client to solutions. But it’s not a smooth road. And as you learn the skill of accurate scoping, you may be leaving money on the table.
I have been tracking the project timeline - start to finish. On average, when I first receive a call, it is not until the third call that I start to understand why I am being contacted. I generally send a scope document to the client right after that clarifying call occurs – just an outline, to make sure we are both landing in the same place. Then I wait for the client to either agree or change his/her mind. Sometimes this can take five or six calls and about 10 hours of work. Sometimes you nail it after one call. But most of the time, your client is not completely focused until you have had several conversations.
The art of focusing your client and making sure you are meeting their needs from the very beginning, is very hard. Sometimes you hear them articulate a problem, and you reach an understanding, only to have them call the next day to reshape the challenge. I have spoken to many seasoned consultants and agency professionals, and they share that this doesn’t exactly get easier with experience.
I just completed a contract that went exceedingly well from the start. I tried an approach to documentation, scoping and sign-off that seemed to be efficient and satisfying to the client. While it is very detailed and thorough, once completed, the work was able to move quickly.
My new approach to scoping projects:
Be very careful with steps 1 and 2. You can easily change the process, but you do not want to deviate from the goals. Always agree in the beginning what success looks like.
(Note: I do not ask IF there is a back-up; I require one. There are always crises and distractions for my clients, and having an empowered #2 keeps the proactive and important work in motion, even if your primary client is whisked away with the urgent.)
I like to, whenever possible, provide menus of costs rather than bundled project costs. Although some contracts lend themselves to a summary project fee, many can be staged, and the client can have the option to hire me for all or for certain steps in the process. I like to be very honest. There are some things the client would be better doing themselves, if budget is an issue for them.
With a client who calls and has been very thoughtful in advance, I am spending a minimum of four hours to prepare the scope of work documents. For a client not focused, well, it takes many more hours. That’s $1,000 or more of my time spent even before a contract is awarded just determining if there is a match for my client and myself and/or how we can work together to make them stronger, more knowledgeable, or more focused.
Over time, I suspect that I will get better at this part of the new gig. But for now, the initial agreement on the tasks ahead and keeping the client focused, is very challenging. You know, it’s funny. Sitting on this side of the consulting fence has made me think about how I may have acted when I was on the client side. In my short time consulting, I would like to end this post with an apology to all my contractors over the years. I know there were times when I was that initial, unfocused inquirer. But you always stuck with me. And, I am grateful. Here’s to happy scoping!
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