A consultant asked us, “After taking up a couple of months of my time, the HR director at my prospective client got involved. She asked me for references and past examples of results with the process I proposed. I’m new. I don’t have these references? What do I do now?”
First, don’t panic. Remember that every single coach and consultant in business today had to start with a first engagement. This means that they found a client that didn’t ask for references and past examples of results.
Second, next time around, make sure to ask about everyone involved in the decision process sooner rather than later. Get a clear understanding of the timing, steps, and who is involved throughout the process. Also ask your direct sponsor how big a check he or she can sign without asking for approval. Some coaches and consultants frame engagements based on the signing authority of their primary sponsor, to avoid these problems.
Third, when you are asked for references or examples of work that you don’t have, don’t lie. There are ways to show finesse without being dishonest. The best approach is often the direct approach, something like, “As you know, I just launched my firm and so I don’t have client references to provide. However, I have X years of experience doing work just like this for a few companies, and I can share those examples if you would like. I am also using a methodology that I’m certified in, and that is proven to work. And of course I can connect you to people who will rave about my work when I was an executive. Before we move forward though, I want to make sure that’s okay with you. I don’t want to waste your time or mine if this is a deal breaker.” Often the prospective client will move forward anyway.
However, if they do tell you that your lack of experience is a deal breaker, then you have saved yourself time and can move on to more likely opportunities.
If you are wary of sharing references because you don’t want to impose on them, use this approach: “I have a lot of people who will speak highly of me. Let’s say I connect you to them and they say great things? What happens next?”
If the client doesn’t tell you that they will hire you, then that indicates that there are other issues, or they are just throwing up a red herring by asking for references and they have no intention of moving forward. You might say, “I want to respect their time, and it seems like you are not ready to move forward — with or without references. Could I request that you and I go through all the steps needed so that we can move forward first? Then, if you still want references as the last step before committing, I am delighted to connect you.”
If you are credible and persistent, eventually you will get hired. Everything becomes easier after your first couple of clients. Don’t lack a lack of client references, or the fact that you are new to your practice, hold you back.