Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Day 74: When They Ask for an "Idea" or a "Ballpark" and What to Do

There's a request I hear quite a bit in my role as an Account Manager. It gets asked any number of ways and could be at any stage of the relationship with a prospect or client. Do you have any idea what it is? You can probably guess:

"Could you just give me an idea of what it might cost?" Or another way it is asked frequently is "Could you just give me a ballpark figure?"

Our industry is interesting because we don't offer a standard product or set of services. While the general framework of what we provide is the same from client to client, the variance in our services is a result of what our clients are actually requesting and that is always different in one way or another. This is something I really like about what we do; we tailor our work, our solution, and in some sense our offering for each client, providing them unique experience and solid system.

So we might have an idea based on past engagements with similar companies or the conversations we've had with the prospect or any documents they may send our way, but ultimately initial estimates are educated guesses.

Invariably, and usually early on in the process, we will get the "idea" or "ballpark" question. Now another aspect of my role I love is that rather than talk and tell the client what I think they should hear, I'm supposed to listen, understand, and give them what they ask for. My role is to be as helpful as possible, establish that we know what we're doing, and build trust. I know I'm doing my job when I hear from prospects and clients alike that they are being heard and that we aren't pushy.

That being said, I struggle with when the client asks for an "idea" or "ballpark" on pricing. The more I'm asked this, the more I don't want to come back with an answer, but to respond with more questions and considerations. The big reason why is as much as I'm being asked for an "idea" or "ballpark" they already have one in mind and because they don't have the same kind of experience in our industry they don't know how much goes into crafting even an idea of ballpark. It's not a fault, by any means, but is merely a reality that needs to be addressed and gently challenged. This is a way to give them what they ask for, but in a way that provides more clarity both for yourself and the prospect.

In reflecting on this more, I've come up with some additional questions to consider before giving a direct answer to someone who asks for an idea or ballpark. If you're in a similar boat as me, you may find these helpful. Even if you're not, I think these apply to many aspects of life when you're confronted with a question that, if you answered directly, often ends a conversation rather than continuing it.

  • What are they really asking for? This is key. As I suggested earlier, when someone asks for an idea or a ballpark, they most likely already have an idea or a ballpark in their heads already. When someone says ballpark, he might be thinking of a little league field where its 60 feet to the bases and 150 to hit a home run. The term needs to be defined and the picture needs to be painted, preferably by them and not you. There are ways to gently prod at what is actually meant by those terms. In one conversation I had with a prospect I simply flipped it and asked, "what are you thinking?" and she was willing to share. At that point, I was able to steer the conversation and honestly told her that her ballpark was too small. This was after some trust had been established and I don't recommend it in every situation, but you will want to consider ways to find out what is really being asked for and it's best to ask more questions toward that end.
  • How can you deliver it? If you find yourself having to provide this kind of estimate, consider how it can be delivered. For example, there may be aspects to your offering that are more set in stone than others. Establish that baseline first, perhaps in a conversation or a brief presentation. The goal is to communicate as much value that you can confidently explain and price before jumping into the lesser known pricing. The intention is to show that you can be trusted with the numbers you provide, even if there are unknowns at this point. I've found this to be effective as well.
  • When is the appropriate time? I've noticed that I get asked the cost question in the first or second conversation most of the time. Too often early on in my work I provided it right way. To be honest, sometimes it's good to do that. It is good to give a general idea when you want to test the prospect and, in a sense, disqualify them. You are asking, "do you really know what you're getting yourself into?" I know that sounds harsh, but I also think it's leading them well, even if they don't end up being a client. However, for the most part, I am now of the tribe that says the more appropriate time is much later. It is good to communicate as much as possible to defer this until there is more shared understanding. This goes back to what are they really asking for? 

....

This is a bit awkward, but my 30 minutes are up. I have one or two other questions to add, but it will have to be for tomorrow. Stay tuned, yo!

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