12 tips for writing a winning proposal

By Michael W. McLaughlin

The words "send me a proposal" are music to the ears of many consultants. The invitation to write a proposal is a milestone in the sales cycle  — an opportunity to get one step closer to a client and a new project. Even though they might not really enjoy writing proposals, most consultants jump at the chance because they believe that exciting, lucrative work might be right around the corner.

A great proposal can be decisive in winning a project, while a poor one can cause you to lose a project, even if everything else in the sales process has gone flawlessly. Follow these 12 tips to a write a killer proposal every time.

  1. Create a powerful, but concise executive summary     Decision-makers start with and focus on the executive summary, so create this section with that fact in mind. When writing the executive summary, assume that the reader knows little or nothing about the proposed project.
  2. Quantify the results that the client can expect from engaging you     Some consultants create proposals that overemphasize their consulting process and methodologies. Clients buy results, not tools or methodologies.
  3. Be generous with your ideas     You may fear that revealing your ideas about how to solve a problem during the proposal process could result in clients taking those ideas and completing the project themselves. In rare cases, that may happen. But you'll have more success if you don't hoard your ideas. Use them to show clients that your team thinks and approaches problems in creative and innovative ways.
  4. Size does matter     Keep your proposals as short as possible, while meeting the client's request. Think quality, not quantity.
  5. Focus on the client     Many proposals begin with a long discussion of the consulting firm, describing its qualifications and history. Focus your proposal on the client's needs first, and then describe your firm's capabilities. Remember, clients care only about how you'll address their issues, so show them how you'll do that.
  6. Beware of best practices     The client may view your liberal use of "best practices" as a convenient crutch. Instead of relying on answers that worked for a previous client, find a blend of outstanding practices and innovative solutions that fit your client's particular needs.
  7. Be accurate     If you are using client data to support aspects of your proposal, double-check and triple-check that information. It's easy for facts to be misunderstood and misused in a proposal. You'll risk turning a winning proposal into a loser if you present inaccurate data to the client.
  8. Sweat every detail     Watch for typos, use high-quality materials, and make sure that the right people receive the proposal on time.
  9. Rewrite your resume for every proposal     Highlight the skills in your resume that demonstrate your qualifications for the project at hand. A boilerplate resume is rarely up to the task.
  10. Finish early     Let your proposal sit for a day after you've completed the final draft, and then reread it completely before sending it to the client. You're likely to come up with some new ideas that enhance your work, and you may find errors that you missed earlier.
  11. Let your personality shine through     Give clients a sense of your firm's culture and its style of working. The traditional, stilted language of many consulting proposals doesn't help clients answer the all-important question: What will it be like to work with these consultants?
  12. Don't let your claims outdistance your true capabilities     Some proposals tout the expertise of the consulting firm by referring to past successes with similar projects. These testaments to past achievements are important, but be sure that the capabilities of the proposed consulting team can live up to your firm's claims.

The proposal is a crucial step in the consulting sales cycle. Don't trip by providing a misleading, sloppy proposal. Instead, engage your client with clear, thoughtful explanations about how your firm is uniquely suited to meet your client's needs.

About the author     Michael W. McLaughlin is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and the coauthor of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants (John Wiley & Sons, 2005). As a practicing management consultant, McLaughlin has helped clients achieve their desired results through innovative strategies for project planning, client/consultant collaboration, project execution, and change management.

 
 
Applies to:
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