How to Write Quality Proposals
If you’ve been in any type of professional services business in your career you have likely written or been a part of developing a proposal of some kind. Whether your business is landscape architecture or legal advice – proposals are an integral part of the business development process and can often make or break a deal.
Good proposals that are well thought out tell a story. They also provide the prospective customer with the right balance of information are often a huge key to success in closing deals. Bad proposals that are too brief, too heavy or just completely off-base can tank a relationship and a deal all at once. Developing a quality proposal template for your organization will save time, improve communication among your team members, and make internal reviews go much more smoothly.
Proposal Writing for Consulting Services
In the management consulting world, proposal writing is a way of life and if you are in a busy, high volume firm you are likely to be juggling several at the same time. I’ve written many in my lifetime and they have ranged from self-indulgent, patronizing decks to concise, tight masterpieces. Most of the former were developed early in my career where I thought it was more important to tell the client about all the amazing things my firm could do to and for him or her while pointing out how hopeless they were without us.
Instead of talking about the client and how we could partner together to solve their problem, I focused more on what our firm could do vs. how we could collaboratively solve the problems at hand together. Unsurprisingly, many of these were unsuccessful. When we won the deal we usually did so due to other factors such as strong relationships, dominating capability or price.
The Seven Key Elements of Quality Proposals
I’ve reviewed so many proposals that lack the key proposal elements outlined below. It’s amazing how many times you’ll see proposals with little to none of the content described below in any discernible order. When you confuse clients and don’t cover these key points you lose. Bottom line – if you want to write quality proposals then make sure that these elements are included in your template in one form or another.
1) Understanding of the Client’s Needs
Here’s where you outline and agree upon the problem statement(s), goals and objectives for the client. It’s imperative that you establish this common ground in order to set the stage for the balance of your proposal. By demonstrating that you comprehend the client’s situation – you establish a baseline for moving forward. If you aren’t on the same page with your client about what you are going to be doing and why then you have no business proposing on the work.
2) Your Approach to Solving the Problem
Outlining how you intend to meet the client’s goals and objectives is critical. In this section, you’ll document your approach towards the project or program and walk through the major blocks of work with descriptive text and ‘how’ statements. The client should be able to understand exactly what strategies and tactics you’ll employ to help solve their problems and achieve their objectives.
3) How long is it going to take?
Everyone loves a good timeline slide. So here’s your chance to build a road map to success and graphically demonstrate the steps and order in which you propose to tackle the work. Whether you use clunky Gantt charts, swim lanes or whatever – just make sure it’s clear and not overly colorful and loaded with goofy emoticons. Also, avoid using a ‘key’ or ‘legend’ on your timeline. If you need to call out what all the shapes and colors mean then you’ve already confused everyone in the room.
4) What will the client get?
Believe it or not, this is where many fall down. All this good work is put in describing the problem, the approach and the timeline – but then the key deliverables get left off. Don’t be that guy or gal who forgets to tell the client what they are getting for their money. Make sure you clearly state what the client gets from this engagement in tangible terms. The last question you want to hear during your pitch is “So, I’m spending X million dollars for what?” You don’t need a laundry list of everything you’ll provide but make sure the big ticket items are outlined and easily understood.
5) Who will do the work
You do not need detailed bios and resumes for everyone on the proposed team. But you do need a brief 2-3 sentence summary of the key players. Who will lead the engagement? Who will be the key point of contact for the client for financials, escalations and issue resolution? Who are the key subject matter experts they are paying for? Build a high level project org chart and keep it to the top 3-5 people on the team and how they will fit into the client’s organization.
6) How much is it going to cost?
The money slide gets a lot of play – and for good reason. If you are selling a consulting engagement you’ll want to show the total cost with perhaps a breakdown by major milestone or phase. A lot will depend on the desired structure of the deal, the pricing model (fixed vs. hourly vs. risk-based or other) so pay attention to your client’s needs and outline the proposed cost in terms they have requested and will understand. And for the love of Pete – please don’t break down the hourly rate for each individual or each deliverable on the project.
7) Next Steps
The last and final slide in your deck should be next steps. I know it seems simple but listing out the expected decision points, timeframes and accountable parties sets expectations equally across teams and also tees up the follow up schedule. You do not want to be that person waiting for the phone to ring with resources in queue and partners breathing down your neck for answers. Sure, not every timeline is adhered to but by setting a follow up schedule up front you at least have some basis to communicate on next steps.
How to Avoid Writing Poor Quality Proposals
It wouldn’t be fair to just outline the things you should include in a proposal. So let’s have a quick look at some things to avoid:
- Playing with resources – It’s always the A-team that you’ll be providing for the engagement. The minute you start throwing in things like ‘blended resource model’, ‘junior analysts’ or ‘shared personnel’ you start to lose the trust and confidence of the client.
- The “War and Peace” proposal – As written earlier, you are going for concise, short, sweet and to the point. You aren’t getting paid by the slide or for the weight of your deck. I’ve closed more deals with quality proposals that are less than 10 slides than I have with 60 slide volumes.
- Line-item pricing – If you start to break down every single element of cost in a proposal then you need to be prepared to defend every estimate and argue for every nickel now and down the road. Boil up your pricing model so it’s clean and easy to understand. If there’s a discussion about a specific block of work, be prepared to discuss the associated cost and have supporting data at the ready. Avoid debating about minor cost elements like the plague.
- Self-promotion – Clients do not care how many ‘Best Places to Work’ awards you have won nor do they want to see a picture of you accepting your (insert local publication here) award. The fact that you’ve been asked to propose on the work already means that you have gained enough trust and confidence to be considered. Sure, having lots of case studies and accolades in your proposal looks pretty but it’s merely no more than chest thumping if you are nearing the finish line.
- Cutesy consultant bios – Am I interested in that fact that Consultant Rob is a world traveler, loves cats and surfs in his spare time? Maybe, once I get to know him personally. But I’m not reading a Match.com profile here. Keep it business-like and everyone will be happier. I can learn about Rob and the rest of the team when we build a relationship through our work.
- Endless Appendices – The Appendix section of every deck is where slides go to die. Be decisive and get rid of them. Have them in your back pocket if you need them but save some ink and keep those to yourself.
It took my several years and many bad proposals to figure out that short and sweet was preferred over heavy and pedantic. And, at the cost of many lost deals, I finally realized that there were just a few key things that every quality proposal needed to have.
The bottom line is that a quality proposal should clearly demonstrate your understanding of the client’s problem and how you or your firm can help them to achieve their objectives. If you can do this you just might get to ‘Yes’ more often than not.