Practice management – Short and sweet

Practice management - Short and sweet

I confess to bafflement. I don’t understand why consultants get excited when a client asks them to write a proposal. As usually conceived, they are stress-inducing, time-consuming documents that take lots of pages to say very little of moment to the client. Worse, they usually don’t win.

More myths seem to surround proposals than almost any other consultancy activity – which is odd in a profession that prides itself on rationality.

For instance:

– Why do we believe we’ve achieved something when a client asks for a proposal? It may be that the client is just after free advice, or a candidate to make up the numbers, or a way to get us off his back. Usually, a proposal commits only us – and to a lot of work. It commits the client to nothing – not even to reading the document, much less recommending it or us to his organisation.

– Who believes their own firm’s hit-rate figures? Most consultants I know fudge their results by not always reporting a proposal they write-unless, of course, it wins. If it doesn’t win, they write it off as a speculative “letter”.

– Why – when we know that clients value above all a consultant who understands their (the clients’) business – do we produce documents that focus in mind – numbing detail on ours (our methodology and the CVs of our people)?

– Where’s the merit in selling to middle-ranking specialists? Show me an in-house buyer of anything, and I’ll show you someone who earns most brownie points with his or her superiors by squeezing the fees of suppliers.

The smarter consultants I know prefer instead to sell to operational chiefs who want a fix for a commercial problem; as long as they get results, they don’t give a damn about fees.

– What’s the evidence for the belief that a proposal’s size should rise in proportion to the size of the project on offer? All points in the other direction: the more complex a project, the more that senior decision-makers value a proposal which cuts to the key issues – and does it simply.

Drop the myths and a leaner, cleaner model emerges. From the client’s point of view, a proposal needs to focus on four main questions. Why should I hire you? How will you do the job? Who’ll do it? And what about costs and timing? More often than not, none of the answers needs to run to more than a couple of pages, and the last answer will normally run to less than one. In some cases, the second question won’t arise at all – because the salient parts of the answer will have been covered under the first “Why you” question.

That crispness makes drafting and editing vastly quicker; often the text comes down to a simple letter. The whole document, not just the logo on the cover, can be tightly targeted. Best of all, it works. It does for me; it might for you.

– Tony Scott, an independent consultant, specialises in businesses whose product is knowledge.

(c) Tony Scott, 1996.

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