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5 Reasons Your Consulting Proposals Don’t Close (and How to Fix Them)

We like to pretend (almost) all of our pursuits end in success. Every project yields a delighted client. Every speech inspires the audience to a standing ovation. Every breakaway culminates without an embarrassing fall to the ice with a goal scored. But, of course, it ain’t so.

Consultants often crow, “Once I’m in front of a prospect, I virtually always close!” And yet, the actual close rate on proposals that are submitted is under 70% for most consultants. Under 50% for many.**

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That’s three out of ten projects lost, or more. But what if you could improve your track record? Just one more success would be a 15-20% increase in business. That can be the difference between anxious and confident, between financially insecure and flush with cash, between Hershey bars and Knipschild truffles.

What’s stopping you? Let’s take a look at why opportunities fall by the wayside. Below are the most common roadblocks that halt consulting proposals in their tracks.

Common Obstacles to Closing

Lack of Desire

The biggest cause of unsigned proposals isn’t lack of value, it’s lack of urgency and desire. Not yours. You have plenty of desire. But you haven’t created (or tapped) sufficient desire in your prospect.  As a result, either your #1 competitor—inertia—wins, or internal staff nibbles away at the problem slowly.

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There are three counters to this obstacle:

First, only move forward with prospects who display an urgent desire to move forward.

Second, make sure you have uncovered the emotional, driving force behind the project so you can fan those flames when the client is distracted by a problem du jour.

Third, ensure the consequences of inaction and delay are brutally apparent.

Insufficient Credibility

The second most common cause of lost projects is insufficient belief that you’ll deliver the desired outcomes. This is often referred to as a lack of trust. However, you could also call it a lack of credibility or reputation.

In most cases, this stems from you trying to be the answer to too many problems for too many targets. When you’re a chameleon, you end up operating outside of your wheelhouse. As a result, your depth of experience and understanding is weak.

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Your two primary solutions in this case are:

Focus. Stick to your knitting and become a Picasso at your craft. (No, Picasso was not known for his knitting.) That’s when you credibility becomes unimpeachable. Conversely, it’s tough to develop a stunning reputation when you flit across industries and problems.

Listen better. Credibility and trust are often built less by what you say than by what you hear and reflect. Clients trust consultants who understand them. What’s the heart of understanding? Listening.

Desperation

Desperation shows up as too many proposals submitted too early and to the wrong people. You don’t win business that way. When you’re chasing business, prospects can sense it and it shakes their confidence.

I’m not suggesting you play hard-to-get. That’s silly in our business. I’m suggesting you always submit proposals to decision makers, and only after they’ve agreed to the Context; i.e., only when you’ve done sufficient discovery to become the obvious choice.

Reactive Approach

Many consultants simply respond to whatever their prospects request. This is especially true of consultants who focus on RFPs, but other consultants fall into this habit too. Unfortunately, when you’re in this reactive mode you end up being commoditized and dampening your appeal.

Most clients want to be led through the process, at least partially. After all, if they already knew how to solve their problems, they wouldn’t need you.

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The solution to this is to commit to inquiry with every prospective client. Inquiry consists of asking question, listening, reflecting and reframing. You can’t reframe unless you’ve listened, and if you don’t reframe, you’re just reacting.

What Else?

My analysis included some other major obstacles, but I’d like to have your help fleshing out the list.

What else gets in the way of you closing business? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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12 Comments
  1. Mary
    May 18, 2016 at 9:53 am Reply

    I believe our biggest competitors is the actual client. We are currently writing a proposal today, but my gut tells me that they are going to take our approach/process within the proposal and attempt to do it themselves. This is why we commonly keep our proposals at a fairly high level, and if they do wish to proceed with us, and we have a signed contract, then we provide a more detailed agenda.

    • David A. Fields
      May 18, 2016 at 1:33 pm Reply

      Mary, you’re right in line with most consultants. Our #1 competitor is inertia and our #2 competitor is internal staff. That said, if they can really get everything they need from reading a proposal, it’s unlikely they were going to pay you $50k or $500k for that project anyway, right?

      Thanks for sharing, and good luck with today’s proposal. I hope your gut is wrong in this case!

  2. Jaime Campbell
    May 18, 2016 at 9:53 am Reply

    We have a project for a financial statement consolidation template in our pipeline right now that was supposed to close yesterday but there is now a follow-up call to establish go/no-go. Client-expressed urgency is there. Credibility is there. The price is right. But we didn’t “uncover the emotional, driving force behind the project” and we didn’t “ensure the consequences of inaction and delay are brutally apparent.”

    That’s what’s next on this!

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • David A. Fields
      May 18, 2016 at 1:35 pm Reply

      Jaime, it sounds like you’ve done a bang-up job. The good news is that if there’s urgency, you know there is a emotional, driving force and you merely have to uncover it. Good luck with the follow up and let me know the good news when you close the project!

  3. Jim Stewart
    May 18, 2016 at 10:14 am Reply

    Regardless of whether I land the client or don’t or if I land the project and it terminates early, I never know why. People are so afraid (I guess) to “hurt your feelings” or say “no” that it’s impossible to know what worked and didn’t. And so you sit there wondering why this or that didn’t happen and minus feedback, you’re utterly in the dark.

    • David A. Fields
      May 18, 2016 at 2:05 pm Reply

      That’s very frustrating, Jim. Have you asked your prospects and clients for candid feedback? If you give them permission to “hurt your feelings” then you may find they’re more open to sharing. I’m glad you brought this feedback point up; it’s important for all of us to ask for feedback from prospects and clients.

  4. Irv Urken
    May 18, 2016 at 10:34 am Reply

    I get frustrated when prospects are interested and yet unwilling to move and even worse, don’t communicate whether they want to move on or cancel any further interaction with regards to the project. I have to send out a cut bait or fish letter to either move the process along or to get finality on closing the door on it

    • David A. Fields
      May 18, 2016 at 2:07 pm Reply

      Absolutely right, Irv. When a prospect goes AWOL, it’s best to send a final letter and move on with prospects who are more interested. In 9 out of 10 cases, “interested” prospects who don’t move have low want and low urgency.

      You may find this post from a few weeks back interesting: Reluctant Prospect? How (and When) to Win the Consulting Project

  5. Felix Vermette
    May 18, 2016 at 3:11 pm Reply

    David,

    I really enjoy your emails, examples, inspiration and comments.

    Getting in front of (by email, phone call, snail mail, etc.) the right people who have the authority, funding and need for our services. We might as well have a lid on our funnel!

    Felix

    • David A. Fields
      May 19, 2016 at 9:35 am Reply

      Felix, we definitely are our own biggest bottlenecks. We need to put ourselves in front of the right people, talk about the right problem and offer the right solution in order to open the floodgates on revenue. (You may find this article interesting:How to Attract Clients Without Trying)
      Thanks also for the feedback on the content – that’s always appreciated.

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