How To Scope A Consulting Project In 4 Steps

This article was originally published by Forbes.

A dear friend was recently approached with a consulting project, which she wasn’t sure how to price. As we talked through her prospective client’s goals, I shared my process to scope and price consulting projects, which I broke into four steps.

1. Approach the scoping call with curiosity.

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In your first meeting, your goal is to ask relevant, open ended-questions, which allows you to provide real-time support in the scoping call or conversation. Simply asking the questions below and using active listening can help the client clarify their goals and feel understood.

I start with a “landscape analysis” to fully understand where the client’s organization is struggling and why they reached out to me. I ask questions such as:

  • What prompted you to reach out?

  • What’s the challenge about the current situation?

  • What are you scared of now?

Then I focus on visioning questions, which encourage the client to imagine their best case scenario. As my coach Rebecca Aced-Molina told me, these questions allow you to understand exactly what the client needs from you as a consultant, so you don’t have to guess. Visioning questions sound like this:

  • What would be possible for your business if all of these challenges were resolved?

  • In the context of this project, what’s your ideal outcome?

  • If our partnership went perfectly, what would be different at the end of our time together?

Get a sense of their timeline, or, alternatively, create urgency by asking:

  • What’s the cost of not taking action?

Aced-Molina recommends many of the above questions and uses the analogy of “islands” to help illustrate the goal of the call. Your client starts on the Island of Pain. You want to demonstrate that you fully understand and aren’t scared off by the Island of Pain – whatever is causing their distress and prompted them to reach out.

Then, you want to help them understand what’s possible and envision the Island of Resolution.

As the consultant who understands both their current situation and where they want to go, imagine you have the boat to get them from the Island of Pain to the Island of Resolution. All of this, of course, presupposes this is a target client that you’re qualified to help.

For additional context into my approach for preliminary scoping calls, I often integrate the ‘sales as service’ model, which was taught to me by Jen Vera and Michelle Villalobos.

2.  Follow up with an email that outlines what you heard they are looking for in a consultant.

This is your opportunity to demonstrate that you fully understand their challenge. Here’s the template I use for my emails, again inspired by Aced-Molina.

Below is a preliminary outline for how we might work together, which we can co-design from here.

Based on our conversation, it sounds like you’re most interested in [activity focused on getting them off of the Island of Pain]. With [this situation resolved], it will ensure [ultimate goal/Island of Resolution].

Through our work together, we’ll build out the following: [list deliverables]

We can talk more about how much support you want throughout the process – for example, if you want me to [perform these specific elements of the project vs offer more oversight to the implementation team] How does this sound?

I'm excited about this project and to talk more about how we could work together!

3. Determine their budget or budget range.

At a certain point, you’ll need to find out what their budget is, and there are many ways to approach this conversation. Sometimes I use this pre-survey before the scoping call in which they answer a question on “project budget”. Other times, I host the scoping call first and tackle budget after I have clarity about their goals and they recognize that I understand their challenges.

After I used the above email template, my recent client Royal Design House told me they felt like I had a good understanding of their needs, writing, “This is exactly what we need and will be invaluable for our business moving forward.” Then they asked for an estimate.

You can follow up by saying “I work with clients with a wide range of budgets. Now that we’ve gotten clarity about your goals, would you give me a sense of what you’re planning to spend on the project? I’ll get back to you with a few options of ways to align your budget and goals.”

4. Send a simple proposal that provides three pricing options.

When you give a client three options, you give them greater discretion and “buy in” to the process.

  • Low: This price is aligned with what you know their budget to be, but it’s a no frills, very basic version of the project.

  • Medium: This is the optimal price for you and includes all of what the client said they wanted. You’re trying to guide them to this option.

  • Premium: While it’s fantastic when a client comes through at the highest level, this option is primarily there to help make the medium option look reasonable.

Resilience speaker Courtney Clark uses the three-tier model with all of her proposals. She uses a cover letter to try to recap what she and the client discussed in the scoping conversation and point them in the direction of which tier she thinks makes most sense – usually the middle one.  

This approach can pay dividends. Clark shared a story about a nonprofit client she was excited to partner with for their upcoming conference. She made their budgeted amount her lowest tier, but because she had won them over in the scoping process, they ended up hiring her at the middle fee.

The three-tier pricing model, combined with a thoughtful scoping process, can help ensure you land the client and don’t leave money on the table.