The realities of proposal writing

A few clients will hire consultants, sight unseen, bypassing the usual proposal and selling rituals. Some clients still start projects on a handshake, though that's becoming as rare as an unlimited consulting budget. Such informal arrangements are the exception to the rule, so pay attention to the following realities:

Clients reject boilerplate: Include some standard language in your contract terms and conditions and in the description of your firm, but dump boilerplate whenever you're describing the results the client will achieve, the people you'll assign to the project, and your approach to working with the client. If you don't have a result clearly specified in your proposal, it's a loser.

Clients buy on emotion and justify on fact: They make a series of emotional decisions about which group of consultants to hire. For many executives, it's about the gut feel they get once they've met the team. Your proposal provides the facts to back up the client's initial reactions. The foundation of this emotional response is developed during the discovery process, which takes place long before a single word is written in the proposal.

Clients expect proposals of increasingly higher quality: Firms of all sizes now have access to the technology needed to create sophisticated proposals. Consultants are creating client-specific Web sites for proposals and delivering proposals in whatever way clients desire. To determine your capabilities, clients ask for greater disclosure of your ideas and approaches early in the proposal process instead of waiting until the project begins. Be sure your proposal delivery methods (paper, Web-based, CD, or other forms) meet professional standards.

A proposal is a simple document to define, but a complex one to create: A proposal is intended to help you sell what you have to offer, whether it's a service, a product, or both. Your proposal is an extension of your overall sales process, not a lifeless recitation of your qualifications. It's often very difficult to describe the complexities of a project in an understandable way, but a proposal must summarize precisely the results you'll provide, over what time, and at what cost. That may sound simple, but it never is.

Time isn't your friend during the proposal process: Given the resources you'll apply and divert to a proposal effort, you'll want as short a sales cycle as possible. As the selection process lengthens, your investment in business development grows. You'll have additional follow-up, travel expenses, and requests for more information. Also, as the sales cycle lengthens, the scope and objectives of projects tend to shift. It's essential that consultants stay very close to the decision makers to ensure that any project changes are included in their proposals.

The proposal process is a collaborative endeavor: Most projects are complex; and results are often influenced by internal politics, the client's culture, or other factors that outsiders can't always anticipate or understand. To minimize potential snags, enlist the client's participation in all aspects of the proposal process: planning, research, preparation, editing, reviewing, and delivery. Use the client as a source of information and as a sounding board. Obtain the client's input, perspective, and agreement on all the major points you propose—project objectives, scope, approach, benefits, and fees.

When clients receive proposals, they don't like surprises: As the proposal process unfolds, clients are always pulled in different

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