Repeat after me: setting schedule expectations with clients
Expectations management remains one of the most common issues when scheduling a professional services engagement. Although I have previously stated that scheduling calls are a waste of time and that Professional Service managers should publish general schedule availability on their company intranet, I will occasionally make an exception and join a call. These calls mostly remind me of the value of providing the sales team a few simple phrases to use during the sales cycle, before suggesting a scheduling call.
“Generally speaking, our consultants are booked four to six weeks out.”
“We only have senior consultants.”
“By policy, we cannot mark dates as tentative.”
These phrases are not magical incantations though I’ve learned that training sales teams to invoke them in front of clients is nothing short of magical.
Very efficient sales teams use the availability of senior consultants to drive deals to closure. As part of the sales cycle, they ask the client the date of when the project must be finished. You should subtract the project duration, and then another four to six weeks. The resulting date is when the client must complete their purchase without risking their schedule.
By comparison, I was invited to participate in a scheduling call with a customer last fall. The opportunity followed a pattern – an extended sales cycle, followed by a prolonged purchase cycle. The sales team that had closed the deal was relatively new to the company and had not finished our basic training in selling professional services.
The call was on a Thursday, and the client asked to start their project the following Monday, in a city where we did not have an office or any field personnel. The rest of the call followed the classic Kübler-Ross model, with more time than necessary spent on the bargaining phase. We eventually found a middle ground, although the client expressed dissatisfaction that we “weren’t actually working with them.” The fact that our senior consultants were all deployed in the field had not occurred to them and they resolutely believed they could negotiate a solution where we would cancel another Fortune 500 customer’s engagement for theirs.
There is no diplomatic solution to this problem of mismatched expectations beyond deploying an executive to apologize and explain further. If you are not training your sales teams about how consulting services are scheduled, you can anticipate a near-endless stream of unproductive scheduling calls that reduce your firm’s credibility.
The strategic best solution is to train sales teams or senior partners to set expectations with the client that your consultants are in high demand. Consistently repeating this as a fact reduces the odds of a disappointed customer.