How To Write A Consulting Proposal

by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLab®

I’ve just posted “1,000 FREE cover letters” at The section called “Proposals” is full of real world examples. Well worth a visit.

In 40 years of consulting, I’ve sold our services to 357 brand-name corporations, and I can sum up my ideas in one dictum: Never submit a proposal until after you’ve agreed to all the terms—and keep it short.

I’m not a lawyer, so this is not legal advice. It is strategic or conceptual advice. I never use the word “contract” with a client, but rather, “agreement,” or simply “letter.” The purpose of a proposal is to “get the business” and document terms and fees, preventing future disputes. The admonition to “Get it in writing” is good; anything written and signed by both parties is hard to dispute. Everything written is binding, though, so be careful what you submit to paper. Before floating any written documents to prospective clients, have them reviewed by competent legal counsel.

To put things in perspective, our average job is $2500 to $25,000. We’re talking about simple, straightforward consulting assignments, not $1.5 million proposals. They are a different animal entirely, and many of these words will not apply.

Prospective customers love to say, “SEND ME A PROPOSAL,” and beginning consultants are thrilled to hear these words, because they think work is at hand. Nothing could be further from the truth. Prospects love to see vendors burning dozens of hours creating works of art, so they can then say, “No, it wasn’t quite what I had in mind.”

Therefore, I seldom write a proposal until I have talked through every phase of the project with the soon-to-be customer. I ask dozens of questions until the scope and duration of the project are crystal clear—then I put it on paper. “Is this for all the managers or just the senior management team?” I ask. “Do you want to cover X and Y, but not Z; or would you prefer X and Z, but not Y?” And most important of all, “What is your budget for this?” I find that prospects who don’t want to help me clarify the issues will seldom hire us, and proposal-writing is fruitless.

Well-worded proposals create business. Often, the winning of a contract boils down to “menuizing” the product. Making it sound inviting. An upscale restaurant wouldn’t say, “a chunk of beef on a bun,” but rather, “pan seared ground sirloin cooked to perfection, nestled on a bed of young spinach, wrapped in a red-onion baguette.” You get the idea. A winning proposal must be pretty, grammatical, and spell-checked. Have three bystanders proofread for you.

Short is better. Many consultants disagree with me, because they create 27-page binders complete with Excel spreadsheets and pie charts. I prefer writing a one or two-page, bulleted proposal structured like this:

  1. Warm opening and statement of the issue(s);
  2. Our qualifications. Why we’re the best to take on the assignment;
  3. What we will do to solve the problem(s);
  4. What is INCLUDED;
  5. What is EXCLUDED;
  6. Professional fees;
  7. Warm ending.

Beside my signature, I include a simple line that says, “Agreed to __________” (They sign their name) and “DATE _________.”

The words, “I thought this was included,” horrify me—especially if the terms are unclear. After a leadership training, a client company claimed we owed $2600 in hotel charges. A clause in our agreement that read, “The client will provide meeting facilities, A/V support, and meals” saved us. And a written agreement once allowed us to collect a $20,000 bad debt.

A proposal is a warm letter, like a letter to a friend. It should not sound legalistic. Here is a sample ending from a winner:

Susan, each coaching program is tailored to the executive, so we can design an approach that produces quick results. We have a 23-year history of success with similar executive coaching projects, and we’re looking forward to continuing that tradition with your valued employees and colleagues. Thank you for allowing us to help you. With best wishes.

Are written agreements always necessary? No, not really. That is a judgment call. We almost always use written letters with new clients. Many times we forego the formality with repeat customers, with no adverse consequences. Our bad debt is non-existent.

Surprisingly, in 1995 we delivered $500,000 in consulting to one company without any kind of written agreement. (We hired a senior human resources manager from the company who brought us the business, and the relationship was based on trust.) I’m not recommending that—no written agreements—simply reporting it.

One last thought: if you under-promise and over-deliver on your consulting services, you’ll seldom find yourself in a contract dispute with a client.

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