The IT Consultant’s Guide to Writing a Winning Proposal
When it comes to building a consulting business, your ability to craft effective proposals will be one of your most important skills. Truth is, if you are not working, you are typically proposing or pitching work…or should be.
Done correctly, a proposal is the final step in the sales cycle. It is where you culminate previous meetings and research and turn your sales cycle into work and, ultimately, income.
Here are the basics for crafting a proposal that offer some guidance to ensure it is accepted and can win you clients.
The Proposal Starts with the First Meeting
This is critical to understand. The entire sales cycle has been leading to this point, so it is important that your language and message up to this point and what you include in your proposal is consistent.
There are common themes and philosophies that your prospects are used to hearing from you. It is likely that is part of the reason you are being asked to propose the work. They like what you’ve been saying and have developed some trust in you.
Listening is your most critical skill in crafting a winning proposal. Hopefully you’ve been listening to your prospects throughout the sales cycle. In conversations, email, and other communications, prospects give clues or completely reveal their pain points. They let you know what is important to them.
You need to ensure your proposal speaks to these issues and gives them a clear message that you can help them remedy those issues. If they have confidence you can take away their pain, you are almost sure to win the work.
Speak to Their Business, Not Your Technology
A mistake that many technology consultants make is constantly affirming their own technical aptitude. Instead, focus on your prospects’ business. Show them you understand their business - not just their technology - but their market, their product or service, their industry, their competition.
Any technology skills you mention or reiterate should be referenced in relation to how it will be used to advance their business’ position, growth, or strength in their market. Whether simply efficiency due to systemwide upgrades or specific automation or tools, your prospects will always be more interested in their business than your technology.
The above ideas - listening well and speaking about their business - create trust. Trust is the critical component to winning proposals. You are asking prospects to turn over a critical aspect of their business to you or your firm. The more trust you create, the more likely it is that your prospects will choose your proposal over the competition.
IT MUST BE LEGITIMATE - NOT SIMPLY LIP-SERVICE.
The Importance of a Template
When I coach organizations and individuals on communication, I talk a lot about communication frameworks. Communication frameworks are predetermined models or outlines meant to help streamline and guide the communication process.
For instance, I have a framework or a one-page essay: five paragraphs of five sentences each. Each paragraph and the essay follow a basic formula:
- Sentence/paragraph 1: Intro idea - introduce two to three points
- Sentence/paragraph 2 to 4: Body ideas expounded
- Sentence/paragraph 5: Conclusion/call to action or call to reflect
Rather than stimy creativity, it liberates it. By removing the energy and time needed to determine the document’s map, a framework allows the focus to be on the content, not the structure.
I use the same strategy with proposals.
To turn proposals around as quickly as possible, it is helpful to have a working template. More than having some ready language, a template takes the guess work out of which sections to include in a proposal. This allows you to focus on the value message of the proposal.
My proposal template includes the following sections:
- Scope of Work
- Schedule and Fees
- Additional Services
Consultive and Assumptive Language
To give your proposal the greatest chance for acceptance, ensure that your language is both consultive and assumptive.
Consultive Language Is About Value
In your proposal (and all during your sales cycle), you should be adding value to your prospect. Your prospects should walk away from every conversation with more true knowledge - knowledge they can take with them regardless of whether they choose you. I call this “giving away the farm.”
The concern that, by doing so, they will take the knowledge you’ve given them and go elsewhere is unfounded. Providing knowledge adds value. Adding value engenders trust. Trust is what you are truly selling.
If prospects go elsewhere, they simply had more trust in someone else or they were driven by some other factor. Many times this is price. I’ll touch on that a little bit later but suffice to say, price is the NOT where you want to spend the bulk of your time; value is.
Consultive- or value-focused language is speaking to the specific impact of your products or services on their specific business. It is not speaking about the general benefits of a given technology. This is similar to the admonishment earlier to speak to them about their business rather than your technology.
Write Assumptively About Their Acceptance
Write as though the prospects have already accepted your proposal. Avoid terms or phrases that suggest that they might not choose your proposal.
“During our implementation, we will provide ongoing training and support including 1.5 days of training each week for the first month. These will be conducted in your training room unless otherwise directed.”
This assumes the project is moving forward and includes a specific plan. It is better than.
“If accepted, we will provide ongoing training and support…. We believe these should be conducted in your training room….”
In general, do not speak about what you will do if the proposal is accepted. Write about your specific plans and schedules as though the proposal has already been accepted.
This is true for the letter/introduction at the start of your proposal and in every email.
Speak as though the project is yours - better yet, believe that it is. Even if you know that there are other vendors competing for the business, your confidence can actually drive acceptance of your proposal.
I am fond of telling coaching clients that I act (and believe) that my consulting company has NO competition. I believe that due to our business-centric mindset and value-focused technology, that we are “qualitatively superior” in what we do.
Pricing and Terms
If you established trust and you’ve convinced the prospects that you are interested in their business and adding value to that business, price becomes a much simpler discussion.
This is an area in which many consultants, especially during lean times or as they launch their business, make too many compromises. I know I’ve been guilty of it. Here are some ideas to help you price your proposal effectively.
Fixed Pricing Ideas
If you are providing a fixed bid proposal, you incur greater risk. You need to understand clearly what you are delivering and things that might impact price. A model I use is 80% of worst case scenario.
For instance, let’s use a small project with very clear numbers.
Let’s assume we have a project that I believe we can do in 10 hours. But I also recognize that, based on factors that could arise, it might take 20 hours. I will add 80% of the difference between the optimal time/price and the, “if things went badly,” time/price. In this case, 8 hours. I add that to the optimal time/price to arrive at 18 hours.
Then I multiply this by my nondiscounted rate.
As I explain to both prospects, I am happy to offer a fixed bid proposal so that they can budget effectively. But I am unwilling to lose money on a project.
This is important because you cannot deliver great service to a client if you are losing money. The chance of project failure is much higher. Ensuring you earn a decent rate on a project is actually a benefit to your clients.
Price and Negotiations
Just a few words on price, fees, and negotiations. I plan to cover this in more detail in a later article.
A mistake that many consultants make when proposing their service is to apologize for their pricing or to start negotiating their fees. You do not need to negotiate your fees; let your prospect do that.
If you’ve made your case for the value you will provide their business and created trust in your ability and understanding, state your pricing and then, as many sales trainers have said through the years, shut up!
Your prospect will tell you if the pricing is too high or will ask if you can do anything on the price.
As a general rule, pricing should be reduced based only on a commitment for future work, rapid and prepayment (cash flow), and actual (not potential) referrals into paying clients.
In all cases, make sure any negotiations involve both parties bringing something to the table - not simply you reducing your fees to win the business.
This advice and the linked proposal template/guide should provide you a great basis for putting together winning proposals. Keep in mind, however, that your proposal process started with the first meeting. The written proposal is simply the culmination of every conversation and communication up to and through the time you submit your proposal.