Win contracts by asking questions

Have you ever wondered how consultancies get business when they seem to be staffed by novices with less idea about IT systems than your great auntie Flora, and the computer press is always exposing another great consultancy blunder?

The answer is that most fundamental of business processes: "The sell."

Consultancies use all the sales channels at their disposal and realise that selling resource is not about persuading somebody to buy something they don't want, but about competing for slice of pie that's already been cut-up - yet the invitations to dine have not been posted.

When a contractor is job seeking, usually the first person they must convince is the agent. The agent has a list of quality candidates on their desk. Not necessarily the best candidates but the ones they believe will win the business and then turn up at the assignment. If you can show you will get the contract for them, you will be put on the top of their preferred list.

Robert Wallace, contract developer, recalls being first on an agent's contact list almost regardless of the skills the position required.

"The agent rang me as each job came up to ask if I could do it. They didn't bother looking through my CV. I was rarely the best candidate on paper, but they trusted me to do well at the interview despite any inexperience."

Wallace says this was a result of regular contact and a managed relationship. "I kept phoning to remind them I was still looking for work. It paid off, but I treat contract hunting as a full time occupation, whenever I am between roles."

Contractors must use all avenues to work, particularly in a difficult market. Email is fine for sending CVs, but you must follow up with a telephone call. If you don't, someone else will, and their CV will go to the top of the pile. After all, if you can't be bothered to pick up the phone, can you be bothered to attend an interview or turn up to work? The agent may not think so.

One essential piece of advice Wallace gives to his fellow contractors is to make sure you are aware of who is making the buying decision.

"Over the years," he says, "there have been occasions where I misread who had the real power. Once, I thought an HR interview was a formality and I didn't take it seriously. After half an hour of easy banter, the interviewer refused to put me forward for the main project and sent me home."

The people who together decide if a product or service should be purchased are known as the Decision Making Unit, or DMU. One of the first lessons at sales school is learning how to discover who is in the DMU and their respective roles. Wallace encountered the gatekeeper – people who manage the flow of information to others – they don't sign the cheques, but they have the power of veto.

In contractor interviews, typically technicians are gatekeepers who decide if you can do the job and make recommendations to project leaders. But impressing Human Resources with a favourable attitude can be just as critical, and the elements of the DMU can be looking for different things.

"I swear I have been turned down at interview just because my suit was too sharp," says Wallace. "For technical interviews, I think you can dress too much like a consultant and give the wrong impression. At other times, smart dressing is essential. It's not always easy to determine which situation is which."

Of course, if your agent is doing a good job, he or she should arm you with information about who you will see and what might be expected, but asking the interviewer openly how a decision will be made can mark you as professional and identify where you must focus your attention.

The simple question: "How will you make the decision?" is a classic sales line, but using it forcefully makes you seem like a hard-nosed perverter of client's intentions. It merely offers a tiny advantage in a sometimes unclear world, and after all, a contractor is a small business person, any advantage should be seized with both hands.

William Knight


Wednesday 4th Jan 2006