Ep011: When to Write a Consulting Proposal

Writing a proposal can take a lot of our time and can be incredibly expensive depending on the scope of the project. The problem is, not all proposals get accepted and all those hours you spend could add up to nothing. Here’s a solution that will save you a ton of time, and only write the proposals that you’re most likely to win.


Full Episode Transcription:

Hello there, and welcome once again to the Liston.io Show. I, of course, am Liston Witherill, and I want to help you build a better consulting business. I am so excited to have you here. Today, I’m going to be talking about, in part one of two episodes, going to be talking about proposals, and today I’ll be covering when to write a proposal, tomorrow I’ll be covering how to deliver it, and the spoiler for tomorrow’s episode is to never, ever, under any circumstances ever, ever send your proposal over email. I’ll tell you why tomorrow.

Now, before I get into today’s episode, I do want to ask you if you haven’t done it yet, please go subscribe in the podcast catcher of your choice. I don’t want you to miss an episode, particularly tomorrow’s part two episode. And of course, if you are so inclined, leave a review on iTunes. It helps get the word out to other people who’d like to conspire with you and me to build themselves a better consulting business.

And today, I also wanted to give a shout out to DS Quaz, that’s DS Q-U-A-Z, who left a review on iTunes, and he or she said, “True, wise consulting advice.” Gave a five star review, and said, “I’m just starting in the consulting arena, and I’m not looking for another ‘closing the sale’ podcast, and Liston’s podcast is excellent. This is great for those of you who are just starting out or experienced consultants alike. I appreciate his passion for helping clients, not just maximizing sales revenue.” So thank you so much for leaving that review.

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Now, enough about all that. Let’s talk about proposals. So this is a crucial step, and often when I’ve interacted with especially professional services firms, they view basically the entirety of their marketing and selling program as writing proposals. I’m not saying that’s you necessarily, even if you’re a professional services provider, but I’ve seen that before, and the question that a lot of people want to know about is, when should they write a proposal? That’s not the question that they’re actually asking. Usually what they’re asking is something like, “How do I know if I write this proposal it will be accepted?” And of course the answer to that question is, no one can know that. But we can take some steps to give ourselves a better chance of having our proposals accepted. And the truth is, writing proposals, it can take a lot of time, it can be really expensive, depending on the structure of your proposal. I would say if it’s extremely costly for you to write proposals, you may start to think about what you can do to reduce the scope and length of them.

Back in episode three where I talked to Blair Enns, his advice was to never write an unpaid proposal that’s more than one page. That is a great rule of thumb. I think in order to get to that point, you really have to run your sales process very, very well and effectively, but certainly it’s true that you shouldn’t be writing a tone for free because it’s not really how clients decide to buy anyways. Other than the time it takes, me personally, I just think they’re really long and boring. It’s not how I want to spend my time. I absolutely dread writing proposals. Like sitting down and actually pounding them out, so I avoid them like the plague. That’s not to say I don’t give any documentation about what I can do for clients or that I don’t have scope of work on my larger engagements, however, they’re a pain in the butt, let’s admit it. Writing proposals sucks. No one got into their own business or got into consulting because they really enjoyed writing proposals, and of course, you know you’re not going to win them all.

So I guess maybe we should start with the question, why do we write proposals in the first place? And the short answer is because we think clients want them, but I think the real answer is, that’s just the norm. That’s the way that most people think of doing business as a consultant. Now, I want to take you into a concert for a second. I recently saw Paul Simon perform here at the Moda Center, I live in Portland, Oregon, and he gave a really good show, it was really surprisingly packed, and he like every other musician played his entire set, walked off, and then everybody started cheering for him to do an encore. So he came back on and he did another song, and then he walked off, and then everybody started cheering for him to do an encore. So he came back on and he did a second encore. He played a song, and as you might imagine, he walked off, and everybody cheered again, and he came back and played a third encore. He assured us this time, this would be the final encore, and he did two songs, and it was the final encore.

Why do we do encores at concerts? I think often, it would be a better experience for the musician to play their most popular or most demanded song by their fans and walk off in that moment because they’ll never be able to duplicate that level of energy. And the reason musicians do encores is because that’s what the fans expect. And I think that a lot of consultants write proposals, and especially lengthy ones filled with legalese and every possible contingency that could ever come up in a project, I think a lot of consultants are writing those because they think their clients want them, and they think that’s the norm. And A, that’s not necessarily the case, and B, it may be.

So like all good business advice, the answer is really, it depends. It depends on the people that you’re working with. But what I can tell you is there is a way to write more targeted proposals so you can answer this question, how can you avoid writing proposals that have absolutely no chance of bringing in business? And the short answer is this. The time to write a proposal is only after you’ve gotten verbal agreement. What that looks like is fairly simple. You fully qualify your prospect first. I talked all about qualification in episode eight, and of course that should be done way prior to writing a proposal or maybe even having a long sales call, but you can go back and listen to episode eight for some of my advice in the qualification stage.

You should also have completed your discovery. You should have a really, really crystal clear picture of the problem that your client is experiencing. That includes, how does it feel, what is the business costs, who is involved, what are the ramifications and implications of the problem to your client and to their business? I’d also want to know, what have they done to fix that problem, and I’d also want to know, what other potential solutions have they considered or are they considering? After the discovery of course, I want to understand the goals and value of doing the project. What is my client really after? If I can understand that, I have a much better chance of delivering a service that my client really wants and that they really, really value. So I want to know the value of doing that project, and of course I’d also want to know why they’d chosen to speak with me.

So if I know all of this stuff, it gives me a chance to get verbal agreement that they actually want the proposal while understanding enough of the context of their own problem, of the solutions that I can provide, of the breadth of opportunities and options in front of them, and yet they still want to work with me. So keep this in mind. Here’s a simple rule of thumb. Whenever you sit down to write a proposal, there shouldn’t be any new information in there. No surprises. That means there’s nothing in the proposal you haven’t already spoken about specifically, and if you do this, the proposal is simply a mirror of the sum of your conversations prior to writing that proposal, which means you’ve already gotten verbal agreement on everything contained inside. So what you want verbal agreement on, here’s a big one, price. Or at least a range of prices. There’s no sense in going off and spending a bunch of time writing a proposal until you have vetted whether or not it falls within the budget of your client.

Of course, it is up to you to build value for your client, to help them understand the full value you can deliver and why you’re different, but if you’re asking for a price that’s absolutely out of the question, you’re not even in the same universe, let alone the same planet. If you’re in one of those situations, you’re obviously not going to want to take the time to write a proposal. So I would recommend that is something you should clear up first. Really get a sense and a verbal agreement on the range of prices that you may charge for a particular engagement.

Next, I want you to do a deep dive on the problem you can solve for your client. Really understanding that problem, again, is a mandatory precursor to writing any proposal because if you can’t or don’t understand the problem that they have, there’s no way you can deliver value in the proposal, let alone in the engagement. So that’s something you really, really need to clear up, is understanding that problem, elucidating that problem, getting agreement on the scope of the problem from your client. I would recommend to some degree you tell your client a story about what it’s like to work with you. What I mean by that is as you start to paint a picture of how you work, and how you work with other clients, and how other people have been successful, and some of the pitfalls, and some of the concerns you might have, it starts to make a relationship with you feel a lot more real. And the reason you want to do that before you write a proposal is it really allows your client to imagine what it might be like to work with you and before you seek verbal agreement to write a proposal, they would have imagined that working relationship, and when they do give you verbal agreement, it’s that much stronger.

I think you should also qualify on timing, and when you can start, and make sure that all works. I’m a big believer that if you deliver a ton of value, most people will wait a month, or two, or three, or even six months to work with you, especially if you’re a renowned expert in your field in a very narrow group of people or even the only person who can solve a particular problem. People will wait to work with you, but I think it is good to clear that up before you go to the trouble of writing a proposal.

I got a message from Lloyd on LinkedIn, he commented on a post that I wrote about this topic, and he said, “Agreed. I want a verbal commitment and timeline with a complete understanding of pricing and terms before sending out that proposal.” So a lot of people have found success and I’ve gotten messages from people who said they haven’t gotten verbal agreement on the proposal and it’s turned out to be a problem, and I think there’s a big reason that’s happening, but it is something you should keep in mind, getting this verbal agreement is the precursor to when you would write a proposal.

So now, if you’ve covered all of these bases, that’s awesome. It’s time to craft a proposal. But the big question is, how should you do that? How should you actually write it? How should you deliver it? I’ll be covering that in the next episode, that’s part two of this two part series on when to write a proposal and how to deliver it, so make sure, subscribe to this podcast so you don’t miss that next episode. I hope that you got something out of this. If you have any questions for me about when to write a consulting proposal, just head over to Liston.IO/podcast, leave an audio question for me, I’d love to tackle it, and once again, my name is Liston, thank you so much for listening, and I hope you have a fantastic day. Bye.