One of the main challenges of selling consulting services is a "knowledge gap", the dissonance between what you know about the client and their reality. When companies hire you, they're not paying for your advice but results. But to propose effective solutions, you need a good understanding of the client and their problems.
The only way to solve this problem is by having conversations to learn about their current challenges and worldview before you propose solutions. Guessing what they need is not professional, and will hurt both the client and your reputation. Just like a doctor, you need to diagnose before you prescribe.
The two most common ways specialized consultants do discovery are:
- By selling paid diagnostic, in the form of an audit or assessment. If you're looking at adding or improving specific processes or capabilities, you might have a methodology or benchmarks that help you identify and prioritize what needs to change.
- By selling workshops, in the form of strategy or innovation conversations. If you're engaging with the leadership team (founders, C-level execs), your work will likely require a deep understanding of their culture and organizational structure. While pushing for existing methodologies might not work, a free exploration of their goals is a good starting point.
The goal of both of them is the same: increase clarity. The focus is not on problem-solving, but on problem definition. Since problem definition is at least as valuable as problem-solving, you have every right to charge for that discovery.
It's your duty to ensure every project starts with a discovery. When you don't, many clients will come to you self-diagnosed - and we know this doesn't end well. There are many ways to do it, but what works for most consultants is to:
- Treat it like a company policy, and
- Adopt simple and weighted pricing.
Let's say you're a content marketer for SaaS companies in the healthcare space, for example. If a client shows interest in hiring you and your team to deliver written content to their blog, the first thing you do is share that your process includes strategy + delivery. That's your company policy.
You should tell prospects about your process early on, and if they push back against the discovery just stand your ground. Don't negotiate, and walk away quickly but politely if they continue to resist. This will ensure you stay upstream, and avoid the kind of clients that will see you as a contractor instead of an expert.
The right pricing is also an important element of selling discoveries. The trick is to find a good balance between:
- Low % of expected project value: The prospect should see it as a "small" part of your typical engagement, so it can be quickly approved and paid without the need for any formal proposal. You want to skip all of that.
- High anchor: Setting a respectable pricing for your discovery will make it easier to justify higher fees for the rest of the project or a retainer contract.
Many consultants argue that since discovery is a good way to "get your foot in the door", you're better off pricing it lower than what you instinctively would. This is a valid argument - almost always the economics justify it.
I personally believe you should do the opposite. A higher price leads to higher perceived value. And for most of the companies out there, $2,000, $4,000, or $6,000 is a relatively small amount of money anyway.
What You Get From A Good Discovery
The 3 biggest outcomes that you should look for in any good discovery are:
- A personal connection with your contacts in the client, giving both of you an idea of how working together would look like.
- A better understanding of your client's context and circumstances, their goals, and the real root problems they face.
- A high-level plan or framework for solving their problems (or at least to start looking for solutions).
These things will also make it much easier for you to define the scope of the work and write a proposal. At the best, it will save you time and money. At the worst, it will give you a huge advantage to win competitive deals.
You need clarity to deliver good work. Don't be afraid to charge for it.