Teresa here: When project management consultants land a meeting with a prospective client, it serves them best to think of it not as an interview, but as the initial meeting between two companies who can partner to their mutual benefit.
As a consultant, you want to make the most of this initial meeting and drive it toward the point where the client is convinced you’re the project manager designed to manage the new project: the project management match made in heaven!
Here are some tips for preparing for that first crucial meeting.
- Research the company. Research the company as well as the department you’re meeting with. Learn as much as you can about the type of project you might be asked to manage. If this industry or type of project is new to you, do even more homework. Draw commonalities from your past experience to foster the conversation and prove you can manage a project in this situation.
- Prepare questions. While doing your research, jot down questions you have for the client. The nature of the questions will depend on how much advance knowledge you have of the potential project. The questions not only direct your preliminary research and your drive toward getting the information necessary to prepare a proposal, they show the client you’re already an active participant in this project. You’re already thinking like a partner.
- Show and tell. Consider taking some kind of “show-and-tell” piece that can demonstrate how you initiate, plan, execute, manage, and close your projects. A recent project notebook is a good place to start. However, project notebooks typically contain proprietary information and are often too large to be practical for this situation. You might prepare a “dummy” project notebook based on a real one with proper names and extraneous detail removed. Another alternative is to assemble a notebook of templates, forms, checklists you use through various processes. The point is to show the potential client that you are well-schooled in all aspects of project management and that you are organized and methodical, with tools and processes that you’ve developed through your experience and can lend to their effort.
- Prepare a leave-behind. Because you won’t leave your “show-and-tell” piece with the potential client, prepare a leave-behind for the client. This should be something concise for the client “to remember you by.” This can be your resume or company brochure. One idea is a list of past clients, the projects you managed for them, the budget, and any available indicator of project success. If you work with associates, perhaps include summaries of their skills and background. The point of the leave-behind is to show the client you’re a professional outfit with a successful track record.
At the meeting itself, your preparation pays off. Maximize your opportunity with the following tips.
- Take an active part. Remember to present yourself as a business owner seeking a potential partnership. Don’t be passive, just waiting for the client’s questions, answering them, and waiting for the next one. Instead, actively engage in the discussion. By all means, answer the questions, but follow up your answers with questions of your own. Don’t take over the meeting, and certainly take cues from the client about the best approach. Aim for more of a conversational give-and-take than an interview-like Q&A.
- Sell yourself. Within this fruitful conversation, sell the project management skills, background, and services you have to offer. Most of all, sell yourself! The personality and demeanor you demonstrate during this meeting gives the client a great sense of the kind of project manager you are. The client should be left with a good idea of how you would relate to the team members, customers, and other managing stakeholders.
- Identify project details. If it hasn’t already been the sole topic, guide the discussion to the upcoming project as soon as you can. You don’t want the client to dash off to the next meeting without your knowing the particulars essential to developing your proposal. Find out as much as you can about the project scope and if any schedule or budget has already been imposed. Does the organization have quality control or risk management processes? Is a built-in team already in place? If not, where would team members come from? What limitations do you need to consider? What assumptions will you have to make?
- Learn the project rationale. Is this a pet project of the executive vice president? Is it the solution to an identified problem? Does the project capitalize on a new opportunity? Does it fulfill a goal in line with the organization’s strategic plan? Does the organization have a strategic plan? The answers to these questions will clue you in to the organization’s maturity and its level of steadiness or impulsiveness. You might also get hints of political realities in the power structure. These clues can be predictors of roadblocks and challenges you might have as you manage the project.
- Walk through the project. Paint a picture for the client that illustrates what your first steps would be, based on the information you’ve just gathered. Then briefly walk the client through the phases of this project as you envision it so far. Also highlight those details that distinguish you as a project management consultant. Where you see challenges, relate how you solved similar problems in the past. Find every opportunity to demonstrate how you are the ideal match for this project. You want to leave the client with the impression that they’ve found the perfect project manager for the new project.
- Highlight your added value. If you provide more than project management, describe these options. Perhaps you are a skilled facilitator in strategic planning or root cause analysis. Maybe you provide project management training or mentoring. Your expertise might be setting up a project management office or assessing an organization’s project management requirements and helping them transition toward a more efficient model. Anything that adds to your value as a project manager can set you apart and make the client see you as an amazing opportunity for the organization.
- Schedule the proposal. Tell the client you now have enough information to develop a proposal, and indicate when you’ll have it ready. Try to schedule the next meeting so you can present the proposal in person. When the client asks about your rate, explain how you charge, whether it’s by the hour, a flat rate, or something else. Don’t be tempted to give the client a “ballpark” estimate. Even though the client might say you wouldn’t be held to it, that number is out there, and you’d have to work that much harder to justify your real estimate. However you charge, explain how you arrive at the bottom line. Give a brief overview of your contract terms and invoicing. Provide just enough to let the client know your worth and that you’ll quote a more-than-fair bottom line given all the value you’ve already demonstrated.
The initial meeting with a prospective client is a great opportunity to introduce yourself, prove how you would add value, and demonstrate that you’re the perfect match for the new project. The next hurdle is to develop a well-informed and competitive proposal, present it, and have the client accept it. Soon you’re both signing on the dotted line. Score!
p.s. I’m leading a related “table talk” at the STC Technical Communications Summit in Chicago this week. My talk, titled “Transforming an Initial Client Meeting into a Signed Contract,” is scheduled for 8:30 am Tuesday, May 22.
Talk back: How do you distinguish yourself in a first meeting about potentially managing a new project? If you’re a consultant, what do you do differently than you might if you were interviewing for a staff project management position?