The consulting proposal is a cornerstone of an independent consultant’s business. This resource will guide you through how to write a consulting proposal for your client projects, with tips and examples.
- Should you even write a proposal?
- Context Discussion with the client
- Additional questions to ask
- Ask the client to write the proposal (essentially)
- Contents of a good proposal
- Proposal template download
- Customer experience during the proposal phase
- SPIN selling
- What comes next — after the proposal is submitted
- Resources for proposal writing
- Examples of consultant proposals
Should you even write a proposal?
When thinking about how to write a consulting proposal, the first question to ask is: should you even submit a proposal for this particular client or project?
Umbrex member Mary Kate Scott says there are five factors she considers when deciding whether to submit a proposal for the project:
- Is the work interesting and challenging?
- Am I going to work with great people?
- What’s the working environment going to be like?
- Are the rewards worth it?
- Is it going to build my business?
Scott’s rule-of-thumb is to invest two hours for every $10,000 in fees the project will bring. For example, if the project will result in $50,000 of fees, she would spend no more than 10 hours on the proposal.
She talks more about the decision-making process for evaluating potential projects, including if you even want to submit a proposal, in Episode 142 of Unleashed.
Hold a Context Discussion with the potential client
Now that you’ve decided to create a proposal to submit for the potential project, there’s an important first step before you sit down to actually write it up.
First, you should have a Context Discussion with the client if at all possible. The term “Context Discussion” was created by David A. Fields — you can read about the concept in chapters 18 and 19 of his book, The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients.
The elements of such a Context Discussion are covered in the video below. A context discussion should cover the following six topics, as covered by Umbrex Managing Partner Will Bachman in an Umbrex Events Video:
1. Why is the prospective client looking for assistance?
What has changed in their company or situation that they need your help, and why now? This will help you uncover any important events that have happened. What is going on now that is different? Did the CEO or the board ask for this assistance? Has a competitor made a move? Is an acquisition on the table?
2. What are the desired outcomes?
Go beyond the immediate target to ask the client what the ultimate outcome is that they’re hoping from this initiative.
3. What are the client’s indicators of success?
How will we know if the project is successful? What would some leading indicators be? How would we know that we’re on the right track during the project?
4. What are the perceived risks and concerns?
Here you want to unmask the prospects apprehensions and have an awareness of the possible objections. This prepares you to design a perfect approach to allay the concerns of the prospect. Most consultants avoid asking about risks, because they don’t want to raise objections. But if you put this on the table from the beginning, it will differentiate you and build trust with the potential client.
This question also gives the client a chance to show some vulnerability, which creates intimacy to help build your relationship. You don’t want to argue with the risks — you want to acknowledge them, and understand them.
5. What’s the actual business value in dollars and cents?
How will this project increase revenues, or reduce costs, for the client? In terms of revenues, try to determine how much it’s going to increase — attempt to quantify the value to the bottom line.
For example, let’s say that you’re working to increase the conversion rate, in which case you want to estimate how much your project will actually increase the conversion rate of the website traffic. Let’s say you decide it’s going to go from 2% to 2.5%. You do the math, and you see that translates to an increase of $10 million in annual revenue. Now, let’s say that the gross margin on that revenue is 20%. So your project would lead to an increase of 20% on $10 million in revenue. That’s $2 million in gross profit for the client — presumably, that would be an ongoing annual figure.
Or perhaps the project will lead to reduce costs, in which can you could run a similar “back of the envelope” formula. You are transforming the broader objective into a specific quantified dollars and cents figure. Avoiding losses can be a strong motivator, and the client may not have done this math. This process helps quantify the value of your proposal and anchor your fees for the project by putting them in context of the overall value to the business.
6. What are the parameters in terms of people, time, money, and possibly geography?
Are there people issues you and the client need to keep in mind? Are there timing issues? Is there some big meeting coming up or board deadlines to keep in mind? Ask about money and cost issues. Who has signing authority on this?
You should also ask about budget. As Fields writes in his book, sometimes the client won’t have a specific budget. If not, you can frame it as, “What sort of number would give you a heart attack.” That figure can give you an upper boundary — a general rule-of-thumb is to divide that number in half, and that’s probably pretty close to what their budget is.
Fields talks more about this in Episode 1 of Unleashed.
How to write a consulting proposal: Additional questions to ask
In addition to the Context Discussion, some other questions are helpful to pose to the potential client:
- What have you already done internally to work on this problem?
- Why aren’t using internal resources — why are you thinking about going outside the organization for help on this?
- How are you thinking that we’d be able to help? The client must think you may have something to add.
- What’s your mental model of what our support would look like? I never like to assume that I know the answer to that question, and it’s a whole lot easier to sell a solution that the customer already wants to buy.
- How do you envision your team being involved in this effort?
Bachman advises letting the client tell you exactly what kind of help they need.
“Often the answer is not what I would have guessed. And if they struggle with the general question about the mental model of support, I get more specific. I say, ‘Well, there are a variety of ways we could approach this. There’s always different levels of detail that we could go, and different levels of involvement from your firm’.”
There could be a range from one expert providing light touch advice, one day a week, to a team with a project lead and two direct reports working full time for three months. Try to get more specifics on where on that spectrum the client feels their project will land.
Bachman also likes to see if the prospective client has a specific idea on the approach.
“I might say, there’s a number of ways of getting at these consumer insights. We could do a big consumer survey, we could do some intercept interviews as customers leave stores, or we could interview consumers one-on-one on a Zoom call and record those. What sort of approach if any of these did you have in mind?”
Ask the client to write the proposal (essentially)
A great proposal addresses all of the exact needs and requirements of the client — so what better way to create a winning one than to essentially let the client write it for you?
What this means is letting the client tell you exactly they want from the project and in the proposal. The client may have already given you detailed parameters or a Request For Proposal (RFP), but delving deeper with certain questions can elicit details that will enable you to craft the exact solution the client is looking for:
- What is your mental model of how the project should go?
- What do you see as the right approach?
- What should the team look like?
- What activities will we be doing?
- How long should the project last?
“I let them educate me,” Bachman says.
How to write a consulting proposal: Contents of a good proposal
After this depth of discussion, in some cases the client may already be convinced of your value and services and won’t even require a formal proposal.
If they do want a proposal, the next step is crafting it. The typical options are to create a vertical document in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, or a horizontal proposal in PowerPoint. A vertical document is usually the easiest to put together, and the easiest for a client to digest and approve. A horizontal deck proposal, on the other hand, may be best if there are a lot of visuals.
We have a simple Word proposal template that you can download here. Please note that this proposal template doesn’t have all the terms and conditions. For that, go visit our resource page on Consulting Contracts.
A good proposal includes the following:
- Project context
- Expected client support
- Professional arrangements
- Use of this proposal
- Next steps
- Contact info
“USE OF THIS PROPOSALThis proposal is provided for the exclusive use of CLIENT and its Executive Team. This document cannot be shared with any other organization or person outside CLIENT. This proposal does not represent a contract between CLIENT and Umbrex. We retain the right to modify or withdraw this proposal prior to a signed contract.”
Bachman goes through each of these components in more detail in this Umbrex Events Video:
An optional component of the proposal is to include a few sanitized examples of work product. It’s always far more powerful to show than to tell. Sharing such work samples from a similar past product gives a potential client a lot of confidence that you know what you’re doing.
Additional tips and resources:
- Unleashed Episode 260: How to Write a Consulting Proposal.
- Unleashed Episode 121: Portfolios of sanitized work.
- Agree on a timeline. Establish the date you will submit the written proposal by, and schedule a call on your calendars to review the proposal.
- You might consider sending a draft proposal first and ask for the client’s feedback, rather than polishing to get it perfect without such feedback.
- Send the proposal well before the due date as a draft, asking the client for a scheduled time to go through the proposal for feedback. That way, you can iterate and resubmit the proposal if needed.
- If there was an RFP, or a list of things the client specifically wants you to address in the proposal, consider structuring your proposal in the same order as that list. This makes it clear you’ve met all the requirements. You might even include that list of requirements on the first page, and show the page number of your proposal on which that item is addressed.
- Your proposal should be formatted nicely with the branding of your firm. This can be incorporated in the above template, or other templates you might use from online services.
- Include a sentence at the end that says this proposal is your intellectual property, and may not be shared outside the client firm, and specifically not with other professional services firms without your written consent. You’ve put hard work into the proposal, and a client respects a provider who politely assert her rights.
Proposal template download
We offer a Consulting Proposal Template resource which you can download to customize for your project proposals:
Offer a great customer experience during the proposal phase
User experience is an important aspect of any business transaction. There are a number of practices you can adopt to improve your potential client’s experience during the proposal stage.
- Treat this period as phase zero of the project. Don’t try to win the work, but rather try to actually get real work done. If the client feels that they’ve actually made progress towards a solution before they’ve even hired you for the job, that is far more powerful than impressing them with case studies.
- Over-prepare, but be indifferent to the results. This means researching the client and situation more than is reasonable, but once in the room focus on what is best for the client — which may be an introduction to someone else. Put yourself on their side of the table.
- Enhance your LinkedIn profile. First impressions count, the potential client will probably check your LinkedIn profile before meeting with you. So do a tough review of your own profile, and improve it if necessary.
- Make sure your website and email address/signature reflect your brand. Do they clearly communicate who you are and what services you provide and what clients you serve? Your email should be a professional domain name address (not Gmail or other generic email), and your email signature should include your cell phone number and a link to book time on your calendar.
- Be responsive. Always respond within eight hours — two is even better. In the proposal phase, you’re signaling how responsive you’ll be during the project itself. And your client will assume that this is the most responsive you’ll ever be as you’re trying to get hired.
- Send a follow-up after every interaction. After the context discussion, and after every discussion with the client, send a follow-up note that summarizes the interaction, including the action items you and the client have agreed to, and the due dates discussed.
To delve even more deeply into the customer experience, check out our six-part podcast miniseries, Client Experience, in which Will Bachman shares suggestions for how to improve the client experience during the four phases of a project lifecycle:
- The proposal phase
- Onboarding / kickoff phase
- Project execution
While the previous approaches are based largely on David A. Fields book, The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients, there is another approach based on another book with valuable insights for independent consultants.
SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham is a classic for marketing and selling. This model is based on a four-step process:
- Situation: Establish the client’s current situation.
- Problem: Identify problems the client faces that your solution solves.
- Implication: Explore the causes and effects of those problems.
- Need/Payoff: Show why your service and solution is worth it.
Ask the client, “How do you think I can be helpful to you?” Bachman explains. “And then let the client sell themselves on why they think [you] might be the right solution.”
What next? After submitting your proposal
Once you’ve submitted the proposal, there’s a possibility that some follow-up will be required.
In Unleashed Episode 254, Will Bachman discusses some tips for following up after the proposal, and what to do if the prospective client goes silent on you.
“The client doesn’t exist to give us feedback. We exist to serve the client,” he says.
Thoughtfully consider the various scenarios that might be going on from the client’s side. Perhaps something else came up to delay the project, the project got cancelled, they hired someone else, or perhaps have not even yet reviewed your proposal.
Whatever the case may be, Bachman’s advice is to be “pleasantly persistent.”
Perhaps follow up every two or three days, depending on how urgent the project seemed — and mix up your communication methods. Perhaps send an email, and then later a LinkedIn message, perhaps a text another time. You can ask if they have any questions about the proposal or when they would be available to touch base and discuss it.
Another good strategy is to consider what the project was about and the client’s needs, and follow up with some thoughts on how your proposal will address those. You can even share some news or current events that are directly relevant to the client’s business or the proposed project.
Resources for proposal writing
- Watch the Video: One-hour video workshop on How to Write a Consulting Proposal from Will Bachman.
- Proposal Template: Our Word template for proposals.
- The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients by David A. Fields.
- The Consulting Bible: How to Launch and Grow a Seven-Figure Consulting Business by Alan Weiss.
- SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham.
- Getting More: How You Can Negotiate to Succeed in Work and Life by Stuart Diamond.
- Episode 1 of the Umbrex Unleashed podcast: Winning clients.
- Episode 128 of Unleashed: Improving the client experience.
- Episode 174 of Unleashed: Setting fees.
- Episode 254 of Unleashed: What to do if a client ghosts you
- Episode 260 of Unleashed: How to write a consulting proposal.
Examples of consultant proposals
Michael de la Maza’s Agile Certification Course and Coaching Proposal includes sections on Situation Assessment, Course Options, Payment Terms, Risks & Assumptions, and Next Steps: