The Games That Clients and Prospective Clients Shouldn't Play

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What are the games that clients and prospective clients actually play? Here are the most common:

GAME 1. O.K., HOTSHOT-HOW GOOD ARE YOU?

Prospective clients are continually on the defensive during exploratory interviews with consultants. And this defensiveness usually borders on hostility, resulting from a fear of being "taken." The initial interview, when the prospect has his way, resembles that of a personnel officer interviewing a prospective employee. Most clients have the effrontery to request a resume! And most consultants I know actually offer one!! The words "curriculum vitae" don't camouflage a resume!



Don't play this game. You are a consultant with a particular body of expertise, which is for sale on a freelance basis. You are not looking for full-time employment. But, since we all, at one time or another, have been in the uncomfortable position of applying for a job, the client immediately tries to put us back into that same state of discomfiture in his office.

My own method of responding to a request for a resume, credentials, or any other form of "credibility" is to offer the prospect my client list and suggest that he call those people for references. I don't play his game by offering a laundry list of my accomplishments, hobbies, virtues, and skills. Another method I use is to change the subject right away to "What is the nature of your problem? How can I be of help to you?" I am reminding the client that he is the one with the problem(s) to be solved, not I. My cool, calm, professional voice in asking these two questions bespeaks the fact that I am an expert; no more is to be said on the subject at that meeting. If he wants to tell me about the project at hand, he will have ample time to assess my expertise, experience, and proficiency when he receives my proposal. My credibility will come to the fore in that document.

GAME 2. "TM THE BOSS."

This game is merely a variation of game #1. It, too, is played out of fear by the client. He wants to assure himself that:
  1. he will never lose control of you or of the project,
  2. he can ultimately dictate your fee,
  3. he and his organization will not ultimately be forced to lean upon you as a crutch, and
  4. like an employee, you will always be available to him, no matter what your time constraints or schedule.
Of course, you and I know - and he knows - that your time is always your own, to be sold to him in segments of your own choosing; that, as an ethical consultant, you wouldn't fudge the project to keep yourself on board longer than you must; and that ultimate control of any project always belongs to the client.

You avoid playing this game by merely stating these facts as a matter of your professional policy.

GAME 3. "WE HAVE NO MONEY."

The serious prospective client always has money for an assignment or project. You must learn to distinguish between the prospect, the suspect, and the deadbeat. Poor-mouthing on the part of the client is still another method of attempting to keep your fee down. As a professional consultant, your fee structure is set. You merely let the client know this in no uncertain terms. If he is not budgeted for this particular project, then offer your card, request that he call you when funds are available, and politely leave. Any other kind of discussion in this instance is unprofessional on your part, and the client knows this. In other words, engaging him in this kind of nonsense will cause you to lose your credibility in the client's eyes, so you have nothing to gain and everything to lose by "bargaining."

GAME 4. "I'M A VERY BUSY MAN."

This "pulling rank" is still another ploy to put you down. He is no busier than you are. You must politely let him know this. He is conducting a business, and you are conducting a practice. Remember that this interview is still exploratory. No client has ever tried this game once he is paying for the consultant's time; at those prices per hour or day, he's never too busy.

When I see a prospective client looking at his watch or taking telephone calls in my presence, I turn the tables. I never say, "Well, I see that you are busy, so I won't take up any more of your time." Never. Instead, I tell him that I must leave for a previously appointed consultation (whether true or not). This puts the client properly in his place (and me in mine) without offense.

GAME 5. "THIS IS ONLY A SMALL PART OF A BIG PROJECT."

Translated, this means once again, "Keep your fee down. Whatever you do for us isn't that significant in the larger scheme of things." Notice now that all of these games are extremely aggressive behavior on the part of the client. And all for the same reasons. Perhaps he has taken an executive assertiveness training course. No matter. His motives are still the same: to put you down and thereby control the interview as well as the fee. Never play this game by behaving in an equally assertive manner. It will avail you nothing. On the other hand, you must never play this game by toadying, either.

Again, you don't play the game at all. Understanding his motives is all you need to win. Your part of the project is terribly important, or you wouldn't be sitting in his office. You know it, and the client knows it. You merely respond by reminding him-even though you both know that it isn't necessary-of the importance of every element for the success of the entire project. You may then tell him of a similar circumstance in which your expertise facilitated the synergy of the larger whole.

GAME 6. "I'M A VERY IMPORTANT PERSON IN THIS FIELD, AND I CAN RECOMMEND YOU TO MY COLLEAGUES."

This kind of "payment" is supposed to be in lieu of part or all of your fee. Promises of this kind are not only idle, but usually mendacious. My experience has been that corporate and organizational clients rarely recommend me to their competitors, colleagues, and peers. They are very jealous of the work I have performed for them, and they don't want anyone else in the field to benefit from it. Also, despite my ethical standards concerning confidentiality, they fear that I will divulge some part of their business to someone else. Only clients who are individuals recommend me to other individuals.

So the "carrot" is worthless, and I answer this with: "Of course, I appreciate all referrals, and I'm certain that you will find my work and expertise commensurate with my fee."

GAME 7. "ARE YOU OR YOUR COMPANY BIG ENOUGH TO HANDLE THIS?"

This is yet another ploy to keep your fee down. Little guys should get little fees, is the implication. As an independent consultant with a small staff or no staff at all, you have no business charging Booz Allen fees, is the further inference. Nonsense. The client has done a good deal of investigation before you set foot in his office. Know this, and ignore this game.

GAME 8. "WE'RE IN A BIG HURRY ON THIS PROJECT."

This game is calculated to make you "shoot from the hip" and quote a fee on the spot, in hope that you are in immediate dire need of work. Don't do it. Nine chances out of ten, a bit of investigation or questioning on your part will reveal the fact that the client has been keeping this project on the "back burner" for a very long time. And five will get you ten that it will be months before he awards the project to any consultant and starts up - if he ever starts at all. Take your time. Be understanding about his "time constraints," but insist that you will get back to him in a day or so.

GAME 9. "YOU'VE GOT LOTS OF COMPETITION."

This is a variation of game 8 for the same motives. Don't play. Tell him that you always welcome competition, if true competition it is, considering your expertise. Since the client brought up the subject, I force the issue by demanding a discussion of the "competition." No names, of course. But, how many? How long will it take the client to evaluate all of us? Etc. And never, never knock another consultant. You cannot raise your own light by dimming another's.

GAME 10. "WE WOULD WANT YOU TO ASSUME THE FOLLOWING RESPONSIBILITIES."

Absolutely! The more the better. But that should be only one side of the exploratory interview. Consultants don't operate in vacuums. What are the client's responsibilities? Be prepared to list his, and to request that he agree to them in advance. Let him know that consulting is a mutual effort between client and professional. This game is being played by the client to weight the forthcoming agreement or contract in his favor. You would do well to scotch this game early on.
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