Project as a maze

The Effective Proposal

After decades of consulting, I’ve come up with an approach to a proposal that seems very effective.  I’ll agree that every consultant and every client has their own ideas on the “ideal” proposal.

Attorneys have their ideas which differ from what I suggest.  A proposal satisfying an attorney would center around a consulting contract/agreement.  That’s lots of legalese that protects the consultant, but will probably lead to more time spent in negotiations and possibly more legal fees.  However, without the provisions of a contract, the consultant may be open to unwanted risks and liabilities.  I’ll suggest you determine what is right for you after consultation with an attorney experienced in consulting contracts.

Perhaps we first must identify what makes the proposal effective.  Here are some criteria:

  1. It gets you (the consultant) the assignment, and does this efficiently.
  2. It is acceptable to the client. The client’s questions are addressed in a manner the client can easily understand.
  3. It builds relationships. By being easy to understand and showing that you “get it”, the client is more incentivized to give you the assignment.
  4. It is interactive. It is not at all unusual for a client to receive the proposal and to request modifications.  This is highly beneficial as these modifications help eliminate misunderstandings.

Although I am going to give some guidelines, I am not a proponent of one size fits all.  That is my format may not be the best one for your activities and your clients.  However, the objective of having the proposal effective is a given.  So, I am not proposing a prescribed format.  Also, this information is for a proposal that the client requests; it is not for an unsolicited proposal.  An unsolicited proposal is more of a sales document that would be structured differently.

When writing the proposal, like writing any document, you must have the reader in mind.  So who is the reader, or, another way to state it, who is the proposal for?  Here’s my list:

  • The client contact. This is the person who is leading the award of the assignment and is, at least initially, your principal contact.
  • The decision maker. The person who has final approval authority to award the contract.
  • The purchasing agent. The person who is responsible for contract details and possibly for getting competitive bids.
  • After all, this is your document that lays out the benefits and obligations for both parties – yourself and the client.
  • The client’s organization. Your work may touch on more than one person or department within the client organization.  Each person or department will want to understand what activities will take place.
  • Accounting – both the client’s and yours. As the assignment progresses, there will be expenses and payments.  How these are made, when they are made, and how they should be accounted for must be clear.
  • Third parties. Possibly the consulting assignment requires the participation of third parties.  These may be your associates or they may be other contractors to the client.

As you develop the proposal, there are always some essentials:

  • The desired outcome. This is not the output, your deliverables, even though those are important.  This is where you tell the client that you “get it”.  You understand their need and what results will satisfy them.  Of course, your deliverables should create the outcome.
  • The deliverables. This lets the client know what they will be getting from you.  It may be verbal advice, or some plans, or software code, or a working prototype.  It is up to you, the consultant, to support that your deliverables will have the desired outcome.
  • Of course, the client wants to know how much your services will cost.  They may also want to know the schedule of when you expect payment.
  • Of equal importance as price is for the client to know when they will get your deliverables.
  • When does the client need to pay you and, in some cases, how that payment is to be made.

It’s worth a few sentences to emphasize the difference between outcome and output.  Suppose the contract is to develop a HR policy manual.  What does the client really want?  They want to minimize employee problems and possibly problems with government agencies overseeing workplace practices.  If you write the best HR manual possible, but problems continue, the outcome was not achieved.  So, possibly your proposal needs to include training in implementing the policies contained in the manual.

Here’s another example.  Your assignment is to deliver a prototype of a new product design to the client.  For the client, the prototype is just a step toward having a new, profitable product.  You probably don’t have any control over the manufacturing and marketing of the product, and these activities can have a very large impact on the product’s success.  Also, you may not be an expert in the client’s market to even know if the product has the potential for success.  In your proposal, you need to reframe the outcome to be one where it positions the client to move into manufacturing and to prepare their marketing campaign.  This outcome may require you to produce additional documentation and actually expand the scope of your assignment.