How to Propose and How Not To Propose? That is the Question

“Can you send me a proposal?” How often do you hear this, and how do you respond?

When it comes to Business development for professional services, being asked for a proposal by a client is common. And for most professionals, they equate getting asked for a proposal with a client’s desire to move forward and engage them. But is it really?  More often than not when asked for a proposal, the automatic response is, “Yes!” However, we advocate professionals hit pause before automatically saying ‘yes’ and submitting a proposal. For many clients, it’s no skin off their nose to ask for a proposal. Yet for you, it can involve a significant investment of you (and your colleagues’) time. I frequently meet consultants who are routinely submitting proposals prematurely, proposals that never eventuate in an engagement. Sound familiar?

My advice is: slow down to speed up. In most cases, consultants – and yes, that includes those working in professional services – have not adequately qualified the opportunity, nor have they understood why the client has asked for a proposal. As hard as it may be, I encourage you to resist the temptation to jump to the proposal phase. The following are some steps I’ve tested that work.

Let’s start here: is a proposal actually necessary? Is the client genuinely wanting a detailed solution to their problem, or are they simply needing more information? The responses to these questions may take you down two very different paths, either of which may not be a proposal.

Let’s step back and take a moment to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of proposal? In most cases, it is intended to provide decision makers and stakeholders with the information they require to enable them to make a well-informed buying decision that’s in their best interest. Yet proposals are typically a very poor way to support a well-informed buying decision.

I often ask clients if we might explore alternatives to a proposal such as arranging a meeting with their stakeholders to co-create a solution together.  By involving the client in a collaborative process of co-creation, we build rapport and trust through the process. Thereby, dramatically increasing the likelihood that our solution is fit for purpose. Furthermore, we’ve both had the opportunity to start working together and determine if it’s going to be a good fit or not. I’ve found that at this point an Engagement Letter (LoE) or Statement of Work (SoW) simply documents what has already been agreed verbally by outlining deliverables, scope, deadlines, and fees. All that is required to proceed is documented confirmation.

Unless you are in the ideal position of documenting solutions you’ve co-created with an Engagement Letter, a proposal isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Mahan Khalsa and Randy Illig, authors of one of my favourite books, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play, say, “The more we guess, the longer the proposal.” Yet, I commonly observe many professionals who are pulling together proposals without the involvement of the client so they make numerous assumptions that often are erroneous and result in a proposal that misses the mark.

The philosophy of Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play is a foundational part of our BD Accelerator Program for many reasons, in this case, the concept of “mutual exploration” or, co-creation, is critical. As they write in their book, “As the cost of face-to-face business development keeps climbing, the cost of guessing becomes enormous.”

Before putting together an often time-consuming proposal, get clear on one thing: are you qualifying the opportunity (the proposal), based on your opinions or on what your client actually said? Khalsa and Illig say we’re only guessing if we’re asking ourselves questions such as:

  • What do I think the client needs?
  • What actually is the program?
  • Why haven’t they fixed this problem before?
  • What should I propose?
  • Have I been talking to the right people, are these the decision-makers?
  • Do they have a budget to pay for this?
  • How much should I charge?

When we take the time to strategically develop relationships, to genuinely understand our client and their business, we earn their trust. With earned trust comes valuable insights that support us in helping our clients meaningfully and efficiently. As Khalsa and Illig say, “While it may appear mutual exploration takes more time, it just uses time differently and more effectively.”

When it comes to BD for professional services, it’s important to remember, through mutual exploration we are able to answer the question, “To propose or not to propose?”.

If submitting a proposal is the right BD activity for your client, then check back for our upcoming blog where we discuss the two most critical components in your proposal.