- the client doesn't pay your fee,
- the client is involved in something shady or illegal,
- the client is "using" you for purposes other than the ostensible assignment, or
- the client claims later on that he wasn't sure of your terms or your fees.
Next, is this person trying to get a free session with you under the guise of an exploratory meeting? You can determine this by the specificity of his questions. Also, even though it would appear that he is interviewing you, you should be deftly interviewing him at the same time. Find out whether he is considering any other consultant for the job, whether he is shopping for price alone, or whether he is merely using you and/or your subsequent proposal to bring another consultant "in line." I don't know about others, but I have found it extremely difficult to charge a client for a proposal. He seems to have every right on his side when he objects to the fact that I would charge him for the time it takes me to convince him to retain me (which is what a proposal is). But most often, the proposal shows the consultant in the best light by offering innovative methodology for problem-solving. Savvy clients who know this could act on the proposals without retaining the consultant. These proposals are neither copyrighted nor the exclusive property of the consultant, once submitted. So the proposal can be the first piece of solid advice offered to the prospective client, and I never offer to write one unless I am more than 90 percent certain that the client is "for real." The most direct method I use for ascertaining the seriousness of the prospective client's intentions is confronting him or her outright. I ask:
- When do you propose to start on this project?
- Are you properly funded for it?
- When do you expect to have this project completed?
- To whom would I report?
- Who will be working with me? Who can answer any questions I might have? Etc.
Beware of the executive who calls you in and requests a proposal, outlining not only the problems but the solutions as well. He is usually trying to convince another member of his organization or board of directors that he is right-and wants to use the documentation of "an outside impartial consultant" to prove his point. Nothing more. He has no intention of retaining you.
Finally, I am wary of the prospect who uses this meeting for trivial or personal talk.
You can spot a "live" prospect when he or she is forthcoming about the task ahead, about the organization's problems to be solved, and about what is expected of the consultant in this instance. If it is a miracle worker they want, withdraw (unless you have been successfully walking on water lately). If the person sitting on the other side of the desk from you seems to know the problems, articulates them well, and doesn't pridefully try to cover them up, you would do well to offer a proposal. It is al-ways a pleasure to do business with someone who knows his business. On the other hand, if the executive is obviously inept, he won't understand a good proposal any-how-so why bother?
Another clue I use is the due date offered for receipt of my proposal. If he needs it "yesterday," then the entire project will be an impossibility, and, once again, I withdraw. Conversely, if he has no due date at all, then he is not taking the project seriously in the first place, and we are merely chatting about nothing.
But whenever you have any kind of positive feeling about the client and/or the project, always offer a proposal, even if the client demurs. Remember that your proposal is your greatest sales opportunity and the only real chance you have to exhibit your expertise.