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Consulting Proposals: Bad, Good, and Very Good

You write good proposals. I know this because your consulting firm wins consulting projects.

You could write better proposals.

I know this, too, because your consulting firm loses some consulting opportunities and some of the projects you win are smaller than they could be.

Let’s say you’ve been chatting with Herbie Handsmacker, the dexterous CEO of Clapper Enterprises, about a potential consulting project. He asks you to shoot him a proposal.

Perfect. This’ll be easier than devouring a pain au chocolat!

(As an aside, combining flaky dough, butter and chocolate should be illegal.)

Let’s unravel your consulting proposal and see if we can improve it.

For today, we’ll ignore everything other than what matters most: the story your proposal is telling Herbie.

All consulting proposals tell a story.

A typical consulting firm’s proposal follows this narrative:

  1. Here’s what we think is important about ourselves.
  2. We’ll do these specific tasks for you.
  3. Here’s some evidence that we’re really, really awesome.

That story is entirely upside down, self-serving and, overall, pretty poor. So, why can a consulting firm win consulting projects with it?

Because most other consulting firms follow the same narrative, and because a strong enough relationship with the decision maker masks the proposal’s deficiencies.

You can do better.

The first step toward winning Herbie’s heart (and wallet) emerges when you start thinking Right-Side Up. Specifically, you realize…

Your proposal isn’t about your consulting firm and what you can do. It’s about the client and what they will achieve.

Shifting your story to be about the client gives you a huge advantage over any competition (including inertia and internal staff). Now your story is:

  1. You, Clapper (or Herbie), have a problem.
  2. Imagine a beautiful future without that problem. (a.k.a. Nirvana)
  3. We can get you there.
  4. Here’s why we’re the very definition of awesome.

Now Herbie is reading about himself, not you, and the future you’re promising him is enticing him to hire your consulting firm.

Don’t stop reading yet. You can elevate your proposals from good to very good.

When a prospect declines your proposed consulting engagement, usually an objection over fees or some other concern is to blame.

As a result, proposals that speak to your prospect’s concerns and the value of success will generate more wins. What does that story sound like?

  1. You, Clapper (or Herbie), have a problem.
  2. Imagine a beautiful future without that problem. (a.k.a. Nivrana)
  3. Here’s the value of reaching Nirvana (to Clapper and to Herbie).
  4. You’re concerned about this ‘n that.
  5. We can get you there. (We’ve got your concerns covered.)
  6. By the way, we’re the bees’ knees

That’s a darn, strong proposal story and you’ll boost your close rates when you utilize it.

Surprise bonus for readers who’ve made it this far:

The Best Proposal Story

One more tweak to your story enables your consulting firm to leap from winning more projects to winning better projects:

Present alternative bundles of scope and terms and, very importantly, explain why your alternatives add value for Herbie.

  1. You, Clapper (or Herbie), have a problem.
  2. Imagine a beautiful future without that problem. (a.k.a. Nivrana)
  3. Here’s the value of reaching Nirvana (to Clapper and to Herbie).
  4. You’re concerned about this ‘n that.
  5. We can get you there. (We’ve got your concerns covered.)
  6. Here’s why an alternative bundle is even better for you.
  7. Our alternative bundle.
  8. Here’s why our final alternative generates humongous value for you.
  9. Tada – the pinnacle of consulting projects.
  10. (Optional section: By the way, we rock.)

This Right-Side Up story leads Herbie on a journey that calms his anxieties, stokes his desires, and elevates his vision.

It’s a simple format that will win the Clapper engagement, supersize your consulting firm’s bottom line, and fund a pallet of pain au chocolat.

Are there other story elements you like to include in your proposals?

  1. David Gritz
    July 24, 2019 at 5:59 am Reply

    For the alternative bundles, do you make them performance based with a performance based comp or are they just different offerings to solve the problem?

    • David A. Fields
      July 24, 2019 at 6:59 am Reply

      Great question, David! Fee structure is one of the terms you can vary in an alternative bundle. That’s the great magic of using bundles of approach and terms: everything that shifts risk and value can be mixed to learn what’s most attractive to the prospect.

      So, you could use a performance-based fee structure for all the alternatives (I’ve done that on some proposals) or you could make the performance-based fee structure part of one or two alternative bundles (I’ve done that also on a few proposals).

      I’m very glad you raised that nuance about fee structures and alternatives, David.

  2. Michael Appiah
    July 24, 2019 at 6:16 am Reply

    Hi David,
    I’ve been reading your content for a while and find them so valuable.
    Referring to the proposal examples you provided, how would you structure a proposal if you are helping a senior executive with people management issues and possible threats of employee turnover?


    • David A. Fields
      July 24, 2019 at 7:08 am Reply

      Michael, you can always follow the same story structure, regardless of the client. A senior executive with people management issues still needs to be reminded of his problem (including why he has it, that it’s not his fault, and he needs outside help), and that Nirvana beckons.

      He wants to know his concerns have been heard and are addressed by your approach, and he’ll appreciate having choices for how to proceed. Putting the value down in black and white will help you close the deal.

      All the story parts are there. Take a look a the sample shown in the Perfect Proposal Template.

      Great example, Michael.

  3. Lauren Cook
    July 24, 2019 at 7:01 am Reply

    Great suggestions David! I’m gonna try to be more Nirvana-y.

    The one thing I add to my proposals is the word DRAFT in Stencil font in red bold at the top of every page. I always refer to the first version as a draft to reinforce the idea that it could be changed. About 50% of the time, the recipient will say “Please remove the word DRAFT and resend it for signing.” The rest require some kind of change, which leads to a further discussion and clarification a revised proposal.

    • David A. Fields
      July 24, 2019 at 7:22 am Reply

      What a great idea, Laura! I love that communication to the client that you’re flexible and working with him to develop the ideal partnership.

      Thanks for sharing your terrific tip!

  4. Debbie
    July 24, 2019 at 9:01 am Reply

    David, loved the visuals of the proposal processes!
    When thinking about alternatives, I like to think about what will be necessary to sustain the success after the implementation of the solutions. Will they need process documentation, coaching during implementation, quarterly revisit, etc.

    • David A. Fields
      July 24, 2019 at 9:42 am Reply

      That’s a good way to approach alternatives, Debbie. You can think about what a client might need long term (as you suggested), or what you would do in a client’s shoes if money were no object, or you could also look at other “Contract Tuning Keys” such as timing, publicity, future access, etc. to vary the value of the bundle for you and for the client.

      Thank you for sharing your process, Debbie, which is very instructive.

  5. Patrick
    July 24, 2019 at 12:04 pm Reply

    I try to implement the trusted advisor equation in my dealings and proposals (trust = credibility + reliability + intimacy /self-promotion) meaning the less you make it about you (denominator) the better…also I try to avoid as much as possible unless strictly requested to price my first draft – at best I keep it blank, at worst I provide a ball park either on writing or better verbally to gauge the response.

    • David A. Fields
      July 24, 2019 at 1:13 pm Reply

      Patrick, focusing on Trust is critical to winning consulting projects, and the more you build Trust in your proposals, the better off you’ll be.

      You’re absolutely right to not move into fee discussions too early. Thank you for reinforcing that point, Patrick.

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