The Most Expensive Question

The most expensive question you can ask a consultant is, “What else do you recommend?”

This seems like a simple thing. At least if you’re a consultant. Potential clients approach you and they know they need something done. They may have a good idea of what that something is and they may even be able to provide a wish list of things to get done. However, for all that preparedness they ruin it all for their budget by asking, “What else do you recommend?”

Now some consultants do business this way. They are paid to help the client understand their needs and map out a solution. However, understand that this is a very expensive proposition in most cases. Hours of meetings and calls and emails exchanged back and forth can go into defining the scope, as we call it.

What's the Point?
Image by skipnclick on Flickr

We’ll usually approach the client with open ended questions to get a high level view of the client project.

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • What is your ideal end result?
  • What problems are you trying to solve?

Once I get a broad picture of the project, I can schedule conference calls with relevant parties to discuss each answer to each question. This is for the purpose of defining the details. Each call could take an hour or more and might span more than one call. This is all billable.

At the end of these series of calls/meetings, we still might have a bunch of email exchanging to do. This is even before we begin doing actual work. You can easily rack up thousands of dollars during this process.

The next phase of the project involves deliverables. Having defined all the scope details, the project probably goes on Basecamp or some similar project management service. Most consultants have a “floor” that is a minimum threshhold. I know people who will not work on projects below $50k. Others won’t work below $25k.

At this point, if the client is still not mentally committed to a path, there can be a lot of potential for “Scope creep”. That is, when the scope of the project slowly expands to incorporate other areas not defined in the agreed upon scope. Good consultants see this coming and can either agree to it pro-bono (bad policy), agree to it as an added service/feature (billable) or convince the client the idea is bad (it might be).

Scope creep is rarely good for the client, though. You’re definitely going to get billed for it when working with most consultants.

Bringing this full circle, however, you can mitigate your costs when dealing with consultants by having a really firm idea as to what and why you want to do from a high level. Leave the details to the consultant to work out, but strategically know where you’re going. If you can define the scope (wireframes are always helpful), you can lessen your cost even more.

The more we as consultants have to do, the more you’ll pay. We don’t mind helping, but if money is an issue, be careful and come prepared.

And for God’s sake, don’t ask “What else do you recommend?” We can make a mint off that question.

4 Replies to “The Most Expensive Question”

  1. Aaron, This is sound advice across the board. The problem a lot of clients run into is that they don’t even know what the options are or what’s possible. A little research and organization by the client goes a long way toward saving them a lot of money and would keep then from getting sold things they don’t need.

    I frequently give my clients options, explain the benefits and then try to help them understand whether or not they actually need it. Better to spend a few hours of my [billable] time figuring out if you need something than a few days of my billable time only to find out you don’t.

    Almost makes me think there is a market for “pre-consulting” to help people figure that out but that starts to sound like glorified project management (uh).

  2. Very good article. I’ve found that for those clients who are unsure of what the want that learning the general process flow of their company helps develop a scope that is both accurate and less costly. This is not the right approach for every client but for some it is perfect.
    It’s good that you state clearly the scope development is billable. I know with our scopes, as with any good scope, the potential client with a bit of know how could take it and run on their own or give it to another company and say “I want this”.

  3. That is actually a very funny, but true post. What do you recommend? Hmm, let me see. You can do this and this and this and it will cost you this plus this plus this. Our government seems to understand and encourage this practice a lot. Great post!

  4. The issue in my line of work is that clients often come with some intended solution in the head of how they see things going, and with my expertise I can envision a much more effective solution. Or for instance they fail to see some obvious extension or addition to the project that would add considerable gain for little cost. Because of this I think it the consultants responsibility to pose the “what if” questions.

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