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The Top 3 Reasons Why Clients Don’t Buy By Michael W. McLaughlin


Handling a sales opportunity calls for juggling many skills at once: You have to forge a relationship with the client, work out the client’s issue, conjure up a solution, draft a proposal, and sell the project.

With everything you must do to navigate a client’s decision-making process, it may seem like a mysterious journey to convert a prospective buyer into a paying client. But some things about the process are knowable, including why clients who know they need what you have to offer might not buy from you.

It’s always helpful to keep in mind the three things that will derail any sales process.

1. They Don’t Really Understand Your Offer

In my experience, a common reason clients walk away from a proposal is that they don’t thoroughly comprehend the ramifications of what you plan to do. To develop that understanding, clients need to actively engage with you in the design of the project.

Maybe this “truth” seems self-evident, but I’ve seen many consultants drop the ball on this seemingly simple point. Most often, they befuddle clients’ understanding in one of two ways.

First, there’s the knowledge trap. We see this problem in other fields, too, of course. Medical specialists, for example, routinely use incomprehensible language and images to brief patients. They make the flawed assumption that patients can follow along with highly advanced medical terminology that specialists spend years mastering.

Consultants often do the same thing. In meetings, they zip through the basics, dive into the details, and lose the client’s attention (and the sale).

Second, some attempt to dazzle clients with their brilliance. I’ve been in meetings with consultants who have so much to say about themselves and their experience that the client has trouble getting a word in.

In both cases, clients end up scratching their heads and then go looking for help elsewhere.

In the early part of your sales process, focus on conveying a deep understanding and achieving consensus on three aspects of your proposed work: project outcome, its expected value, and your preliminary approach for completing the work. Preferably, you’ll achieve this consensus before you start writing a proposal.

The place to start is on desired outcomes. The goal should be to help clients answer the question, “What will things be like for us when this project is finished?” The more precise you are the better.

Without such a vision, the client won’t have a basis for evaluating your proposal—or selling the project to others in the organization.

Even if there is consensus on project outcome, don’t assume your client has a full picture of what that’s worth. A client will be aware of the obvious aspects of value, but you’re the expert. Expand your client’s thinking about expected value. Search for the quantitative and qualitative aspects your client may not consider.

Some consultants struggle to define the value for the outcomes they propose. But few things accelerate a sales effort more than a compelling perspective on the specific worth of potential results.

Once clients understand outcomes and value, then attention shifts to how you’ll deliver on that promise. Some people will tell you that clients care only about what they are going to get, not how you will do the work.

I find that clients don’t care about your approach until they have a credible vision for the value they stand to gain. After they can clearly see the potential future, then they want to know how you plan to reach it.

The trouble is that many consultants focus on their approach too early in the sales process. If you haven’t first settled the matter of project outcomes and value, don’t be surprised if your client’s eyes glaze over as you outline your 42-step blueprint for success.

Your challenge is to balance the discussion of outcome, value, and approach to ensure that clients grasp the full import of what you propose to do. If clients don’t get that, they’ll say no—every time.

2. They Don’t Believe You

I’ve seen clients reject well-conceived proposals—even from trustworthy consultants—because they didn’t believe the consultant’s claims. Mostly, these consultants committed errors of omission, not commission. They didn’t overstate their credentials or offer puffed-up references. Instead, they failed to present client-specific evidence that they were equal to the task.

You’ll bolster your client’s belief in you if you collaborate on every aspect of the project plan. Be willing to hash out the issues that could prevent the project from delivering anticipated value. Discuss specific roles, responsibilities, and the client’s potential level of participation. Resist the temptation to dodge the contentious issues until the project is sold.

If you make an honest effort to collaborate on the project plan, and not just sell, that will instill trust, help your client take ownership of the results, and create confidence that you will deliver as promised. Case studies, references, and war stories help, but nothing boosts the believability of your offer like a client’s first-hand experience with you during the sales process.

3. They Think They Can’t Afford It

Lack of “budget” and “too expensive” top the list of reasons for clients to reject a consulting proposal. When a client cites “budget issues,” that’s often code for something else. Assuming there isn’t a real budget crisis, you can usually trace a client’s reluctance to pay your fee to disconnect over the project’s perceived value, outcome, or approach—or your believability.

By the time the client tells you there’s a budget issue, though, you’re facing an uphill battle. At the very least, reopen a conversation to confirm agreement on the value of the project. You may find misunderstandings about expected value or uncover new sources of value you didn’t identify earlier.

Also, ask questions to test how well you’ve communicated the project outcomes, your approach, and your believability. Look for opportunities to clarify your offer—without being pushy. And don’t offer to reduce your price unless you misunderstood something about the project or you can change something in the project scope, timing, responsibilities, or objectives.

A Failure to Communicate?

In the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, Strother Martin’s character uttered the now-famous words, “What we’ve got here is [a] failure to communicate.” He could have been talking about the challenges of selling professional services.

Selling your services begins and ends with your skills as a communicator. Too often consultants attempt to sell before their clients are ready to buy and understand what they’re buying. The result: the sales effort falls flat.

Move at the client’s pace, not yours, to reach a shared acceptance of the project specifics, and you won’t lose sales due to any of the three reasons I’ve mentioned.
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Michael W. McLaughlin is a Principal with MindShare Consulting, LLC, a firm that creates innovative sales and marketing strategies for professional services companies. He is the author of Winning the Professional Services Sale and coauthor of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants.

-what was your biggest lesson learned in the article above?