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The words "send me a proposal" are music to the ears of many consultants.

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.

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.

The best proposal is one you don't have to write. Tip the competitive scales in your favor and try to eliminate the proposal process altogether. A competitive field reduces the odds of landing the business, so sidestep that challenge, if possible.

It's less costly for you to write a letter confirming your services than to prepare a formal document proposing your services. Consultants rarely ask clients to award them the business without a formal proposal, so distinguish yourself and ask whether you can start the work using a letter of confirmation. What do you have to lose?

A confirmation letter differs from a proposal in that it describes specifically what you will do, not what you are proposing to do. The confirmation letter will describe the objective, scope, schedule, fees and results. But since it's not subject to competitive bidding, many other elements of a proposal may not be needed, such as a long list of qualifications, case studies and detailed descriptions of your firm. Most importantly, the confirmation letter approach ends the sales cycle in your favor. So…

  • Explain to clients why they also benefit from skipping the competitive proposal process.

  • Point out that the consultant selection process takes their time and attention away from their business.

  • Stress that you have the skills to get the job done, and that the longer the process takes, the more it costs them and delays the resolution of their problems.

In one case, a client asked a consultant how to create a better process for communication between the client's engineering and manufacturing departments. The client intended to ask three other firms the same question and then solicit proposals.

Armed only with a white board and a marker, the first consultant led a three-hour discussion with the client team; that discussion dug out the real problem between the two groups, worked through a potential plan for creating the results the client needed and proposed a schedule.

At the end of the meeting, the consultant asked for 24 hours to solidify the work of the group and prepare a letter confirming the work. The client agreed and awarded the work to the consultant the very next day, without a competitive bidding process.

If consultants have done their homework in qualifying the project and the client, a request to confirm the project should seem natural. You have nothing to lose in showing the client exactly what you can do and then asking for the work. In the worst case, the client will say no.

Twelve Tips

For those times that drafting a proposal is inevitable, here are some things to keep in mind.

A public relations consultant once sent a proposal to a client for the design of a small PR campaign that was to be a test for additional campaigns in the future. The firm presented a beautifully packaged proposal with a description of their qualifications, their understanding of the project and their approach to completing the work.

After reviewing the proposal, the client noticed that the document footer showed a different client name, and in several places in the proposal the previous client's name was also used. The client threw the proposal in the round file.

To avoid this fate, follow a few guidelines before you send proposals to clients:

  1. Create a powerful, but concise executive summary.

  2. Focus on results, which matter more than methods and processes. Clients buy methods and approaches only when they know you can deliver results. 

  3. Be generous with your ideas; don't hoard them. Show clients how innovatively you think.

  4. The length of the proposal doesn't win, but quality does. Projects are not awarded because proposals pass a weight test.

  5. The proposal content must be about the client, not the consultant. Take a back seat and focus on how you will solve problems.

  6. Your liberal use of "best practices" will label you as uncreative. Find the blend of outstanding practices and innovative solutions that fit your client's needs, not answers that worked for someone else.

  7. Accuracy is essential. Validate all data and double-check to make sure it's right before you present it.

  8. Sweat every small proposal detail, watch for typos, use high-quality materials and make sure 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. Your boilerplate resume is rarely up to the task.

  10. Let your proposal sit for a day and then reread it completely before sending it out.

  11. Let your personality shine through your proposals. Give clients a sense of the firm and your style of working.

  12. Don't let your proposal claims outdistance your true capabilities. Write an honest proposal, or you'll pay dearly in the future with blown budgets and unhappy clients.

The consulting proposal is a necessary evil. A great proposal can be decisive in winning a project; a poor one can cause you to lose a project, even if everything else in the sales process has gone flawlessly. Use these guidelines to a write a killer proposal every time.

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Michael W. McLaughlin is the coauthor, with Jay Conrad Levinson, of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. Michael is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and the editor of Management Consulting News ( and the Guerrilla Consultant. For more information, visit