Why a Prospect’s Stall Tactics Could Be Good for Your Consulting Firm

When a prospective client responds “Now’s not the right time” to your proposal, you could feel dejected. Don’t. Delayed consulting projects can be a blessing.

Benefits of Delayed Projects

  • You have time to plan your resources. This is particularly important if you’re already stretching your capacity to deliver quality that delights your clients.
  • You have time to cogitate about solutions. Like sleeping on a problem and waking up with the answer, a bit of downtime on a project often rewards you with a more valuable result for your client or a more elegant, efficient path through the project.
  • You’ve seeded your future revenue. Every project you put in place for later, reduces your future anxiety. This may be the biggest benefit to delayed projects. You’re giving your future self a gift of revenue, and what nicer gift is there than that?

Of course, not every delay delivers on those benefits. Sometimes, “Not right now” is tantamount to “Never.”

Determine your response to a proposed delay by posing a very important query:

How will you know when it’s the right time to do this project?

What’s the trigger for us to move forward?

When you dig into your prospective consulting client’s desire to delay a project, his response likely falls into one of the following buckets:

  1. Not a Priority – Most excuses and all AWOL prospects indicate a lack of urgency. This is the most common cause of delays and unsigned projects.

Assumption #1: You were diligent during your discovery process (a.k.a. the Context Discussion), and you uncovered the prospect’s compelling, emotional reason for hiring you.

Assumption #2: You attempted to ignite your prospect’s urgency by pointing out the consequences of delay.

  1. Soft Obstacle – Prospects sometimes insert conditions that seem reasonable, but aren’t truly necessary. New personnel is a common example; e.g., “We want to wait for the new VP of Gravity to start, and let him weigh in on your project.”
  1. Hard Obstacle – Sometimes clients are facing an obstacle that literally prevents them from moving forward. For instance, your project can’t start until a pending law goes into effect, or until a certain IT system is installed.

Did you notice that none of those three buckets actually answers the questions?

You didn’t ask, “Why are you delaying?” You inquired, “What’s the trigger to move forward?”

Push for the signal that you can start your project. The trigger (or lack of one) will tell you how happy you can be about the delayed project.


No Trigger/Fuzzy Trigger – If your prospect can’t give you a definitive indication of how he’ll know to when to start your project, then mark it down as a lost project and move on.

Excuses that amount to a lack of priority tend to lead to fuzzy triggers. Let go, turn your attention elsewhere, and feel good that you won’t waste any more time on a prospect who’s not serious about jumping into action.

Condition-Specific Trigger – If your prospect identifies a specific condition that must be in place in order to move forward with your consulting project, then it’s not always clear what to do. This is the toughest situation.

A specific condition based on a Soft Obstacle (e.g., the VP of Gravity starting) is often bad news for your consulting project. In these cases, set a reasonable date in the future to check the status of the condition. (Did the VP start? Is he ponderous?) Don’t count on these projects, and don’t feel badly about them either. Occasionally one will blossom into future revenue.

A specific condition based on a Hard Obstacle (e.g., an IT system in place) is fairly good news for your consulting project. Again, set a reasonable date in the future to check into the status of the condition. In these cases, though, you can feel reasonably positive about delivering revenue to your future self.

Date-Specific Trigger – If your prospect has a Hard Obstacle and can name the specific date the obstacle disappears, you’re sitting pretty. For instance, “The IT system will be running on October 3or “The regulation goes into effect on January 1.”

Projects delayed with a date-specific trigger are highly likely to close, assuming you’ve overcome all other obstacles. Try to lock the project in by signing a contract, setting up a kickoff date, and getting the client into action on the project already. Then give yourself a pat on the back for helping your future self.

Are there other benefits to a prospect stalling on your proposal?

By | 2018-07-25T09:32:16+00:00 July 25th, 2018|14 Comments


  1. Doug Reed July 25, 2018 at 7:56 am - Reply


    I know this response well. Most sales training courses also cover this. It is potentially a Slow Loss which is painful and expensive. You need to act fast and make it a Fast Loss. My experience is that a response like this drops the chances of the prospect becoming the client drops to under 10%. It is best not to linger or push. The client revealed that your services are not urgent. If you thought you had screened them to determine this, you might review what you did and revise your approach for the next prospect. Many executives make it seem like they want to move forward but the reality is they are weighing priorities of many business activities. When you present them with an agreement and they balk, what you did was help them to finally make a choice. And that choice was not to hire you. Move on and learn.

    • David A. Fields July 25, 2018 at 9:24 am - Reply

      You’ve raised a number of important points, Doug. “Getting to No quickly” is an important principle for anyone responsible for bringing in new consulting revenue. If a prospect is going to say “No” then find that out early–preferably during the Context Discussion.

      You’ve also hinted at the idea of borrowed passion, which is when a prospect professes a strong desire, but that desire dissipates when you leave the room.

      As to whether your chances of closing drop to below 10% if a prospect says, “Not now,” that’s a belief taught in many sales courses and it’s not correct. The whole point of asking “What’s the trigger for moving forward?” is to understand whether your odds are low (in which case you walk away) or whether your odds are, in fact, quite high, in which case you sustain the flame.

      Excellent insights, Doug, and I’m glad you shared them.

  2. Gary July 25, 2018 at 11:21 am - Reply

    No doesn’t mean no, it just means not right now. Circumstances change constantly. Stay in touch with the prospect.

    • David A. Fields July 25, 2018 at 11:46 am - Reply

      Staying in touch always makes sense. You’re absolutely right about that, Gary!

  3. Debbie July 25, 2018 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    Another benefit…you learned a bit about their decision making process and you have the opportunity to build a question about the decision making process into your earlier conversations.

    • David A. Fields July 25, 2018 at 1:26 pm - Reply

      That’s a really good perspective, Debbie. Every “No” or “Not yet” definitely teaches you something if you’re open to learning. Very nice!

  4. Kyle Gillette July 25, 2018 at 6:14 pm - Reply

    Fail #1: You weren’t diligent during your discovery process (a.k.a. the Context Discussion), and you didn’t uncover the prospect’s compelling, emotional reason for hiring you. (arrg!)

    Thanks for adding this Assumption in. It reminded me of the importance of the Context Discussion. If I’m honest, I’m only half-way doing these. Not purposefully working through the questions.

    • David A. Fields July 25, 2018 at 7:33 pm - Reply

      The Context Discussion is the key to closing more business. To be fair to you, Kyle, it takes some practice. Keep working at it and it will serve you well.

  5. Neil July 27, 2018 at 9:11 am - Reply


    These two questions and the excellent comments on the article would make great additions to your script bank.

  6. Victoria Brown July 31, 2018 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    Hi David, Loved your article. A rare passive-aggressive behavior that I have come across is what I call “Flip-Flop”. The client is close to signing and then changes his mind, assures you that you will be back on in two weeks (or some other, specific period of time), providing you with credible reasoning as to why he cannot sign now. After two weeks, you check back with him to make sure he is ready, and he says yes. When you swing back around to get the agreement signed, he has a reason why he can’t now, citing something urgent has come up, but in two more weeks he will be ready, then again he is not, and so on. In the beginning, he sounds reasonable and enthusiastic, but after a couple of times of this flip-flopping, you begin to feel you are in a game of cat-and-mouse. For me, I tolerate 3 goes, and then I drop them like a hot potato. I don’t check back with them, and if they approach me later wanting me to work with them, I tell them my plate is full, but I know a great consultant who would love to work with them. This has only happened to me once, and I found it unpleasant. I walked away. So glad I did, and still happy that I made that choice. This doesn’t really add to your list but is a great example of why it is important to learn as early as possible in the sales process what is their emotional reasoning behind why they want to buy your services. In this particular case, the person was sly and not altogether truthful. Sometimes, you have to be prepared to deal with peoples’ fallible natures, beyond just a normal reluctance to do business.

    • David A. Fields July 31, 2018 at 1:39 pm - Reply

      Wow, Victoria, that’s quite the story. I’d guess many other readers can sympathize with the situation you described.

      Some prospects trouble saying “No” to your face, and you need to be very clear with the triggers to uncover that there aren’t any. (This phenomenon is particularly true in a few cultures where politeness is valued over directness and candor.)

      Fortunately, while a few prospect will flat-out mislead you, most will respond honestly if you ask the right questions.

      I’m glad you added your example to the conversation, Victoria– it’s very helpful.

  7. Joe Frisbie August 1, 2018 at 1:08 am - Reply

    Sorry to disagree. I understand the hard obstacle a little bit. But really they cannot even commit to a date to go forward.
    Secondly, I don’t know to many people who have the time for a looky loo meeting. If they have committed to the time to go through your process and you encounter the first two obstacles then you may have to revisit your presentation.
    The whole idea of the presentation is to stay on those hot button, emotional issues, show the fit, and get the deal. The logic and detail, the due diligence phase comes later. You didn’t nail the hook point, that you are uniquely qualified to provide the solution. Of course this is a very difficult process achieved through trial and error usually. We all need to constantly refine our presentation.
    Neuroscience shows that optimum attention can only be held for 20 minutes. So if you can’t get you point across in about 15 you are most likely going to run into some form of the obstacle pattern highlighted in this article. The signs are obvious; the eyes wander, they look at their watch, note taking stops. The worst is when they start looking at their cell phone. Besides most meetings are scheduled for an hour time slot. So think of all that time you would get to spend seeing if they are qualified to be a good counterparty risk.
    To often the pipeline is not full enough that we forget that no matter what the price some people are just not good for us to do business with. First sign is asking for price concessions.

    • David A. Fields August 1, 2018 at 8:00 am - Reply

      Thanks for the interesting perspective, Joe. You can certainly pick up many clues about a client’s urgency during a meeting with them–particularly if you’re conducting discovery in person.

      However, consulting projects are rarely signed during a discovery meeting or credentials presentation. Often there never is a credentials presentation!

      My wildly speculative guess is that upwards of 90% of consulting projects that close include at least one delay during the pursuit phase. A rescheduled meeting, an extra round of negotiation, a detour through the Procurement department, the “Not right now” response explored in this article, or something else. If we dismiss every prospect that introduces a delay, we’ll soon find our pipelines empty.

      Great contribution to the discussion, Joe.

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