Center for Executive Coaching

How to handle coaching prospects who sit on the fence and can’t seem to decide about hiring you

One of the most frequent questions I get from coaches is:

"I have a prospect who keeps saying he is interested, but won't make a decision and actually hire me. How do I get him off the fence so he signs up as a client?"

There are many different ways that prospects sit on the fence. Some just need time to think. Some say they are too busy. Others want more info from you, or references, or a proposal. Some say they need to wait until the next quarter. On and on….

You have two choices with a fence sitter:

Choice one: Let them control the situation and waste your time and energy.

Choice two: Take control of the situation.

If you choose the second option, here is how you take control:

1. Qualify the prospect better at the beginning. Do they really have a big enough problem to hire you? Have you gotten the answers you need about what the problem is costing him personally and professionally, and what it is costing others in the organization? Does he have a budget? Does he have a clear timeline for getting started? Is he able to sign a big enough check to hire you, or do others need to be involved?

If you don't get good answers to the above questions, you are wasting your time. Part as friends, encourage him to contact you when he is ready, and move on.

2. If you have qualified him fine, then we get into a variety of strategies. The key to all of these is that you are willing to be open and honest, and hold your ground. Also, you have to realize that a "no" is always better than an "I need to keep thinking about it." A "no" frees you up to find more qualified prospects. An "I need to keep thinking about it" can drain your time and energy. Worse, it can give you a false sense of hope that your pipeline is strong, when it might be weak; it can keep you from doing the amount of business development needed to find more prospects.

So, I take a respectful but hard line with fence sitters. If they want another meeting, I agree — if they agree to make a final decision within 30 minutes of the meeting. If they want a proposal, I agree — If they agree to sit down with me and tell me what I should put in it, from budget to scope (I can't read their minds! Trying to do so by guessing at the terms of a proposal is a fool's game). If they want 3 references, I am happy to oblige — if they agree to hire me after getting rave reviews from all of them.

Of course, you will get all sorts of objections. My best response to any objection is usually to ask them a bit more about why they have that objection. Sometimes the prospect just needs reassurance that they are making a great choice, and in these cases, we must patiently reassure them. Other times they have a legitimate issue, and we must work with them to understand it and decide if there is a creative solution, or if now is not the right time.

Ultimately, I don't mind saying to a fence sitter, "I am concerned. In the start of our conversations, you seemed to have a strong reason for hiring me. Now it seems like you aren't as serious about solving your issue. Can you help me understand whether there is a fit or not?"

As a colleague shared with me, we are coaching our clients how to buy from us. As with any coaching conversation, if they seem to be un-coachable, we can only do so much and — after being open and honest, and standing our ground — have to move on.

If you have lots of fence sitters in your pipeline, ask yourself what you are tolerating from prospects, and why.

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