The Worst Error That Consultants Make in Writing Proposals

The Kitchen Sink

How much free advice should you give away in a proposal?

If you work in professional services (think: public relations, management consulting, lobbying), one of the perennial questions you face is this: “How detailed should I make my proposals?”

On the one hand, you want to show that you grasp the situation and to demonstrate your expertise. On the other hand, you don’t want to work for free. Nor do you want to give away so much info that the client-to-be no longer needs you.

Consider the following example (from P.R.): Should you share the names of the relevant reporters you have relationships with? In my experience, most proposals will drop names but not contact info. I think that’s a smart compromise.

Here’s where things get tricky: Should you go further? For example, should you work up a sample pitch? Should you mention that TechCrunch is always hungry for scoops about a startup’s latest fundraising round? Should you reveal that Ellen Pollock is the business editor at the New York Times, or which outlets, if you pay them, will publish your op-ed?

In other words: Should your proposal include a plan?

Share the Sink

My take? Yes, absolutely! Provide as much info as you need to in order to make your prospect conclude, “These guys know the industry!” Or: “Wow — they really did their research!” In short: Throw in the kitchen sink.

You need not share the Signal address of the metro editor at the Washington Post. But you do need to show how you’d approach top-tier media. (Feel free to include a caveat that these recommendations are preliminary, tentative, and subject to change upon further research.)

A Little Knowledge Is a Fruitless Thing

Why am I so sanguine, whereas others are so protective? Simple: Just because I recommend that you do X doesn’t mean you know how to do X. If I say, with respect to your résumé, “Consider replacing your objective with a summary,” you may not know what the difference is, let alone how to execute that transformation. And even if you do, you may not know how to do it well — or you just may not want to spend the time.

Indeed, awareness is worlds apart from accomplishment; because I watch a video on YouTube about how to fix a broken toilet doesn’t mean I’m now a plumber. In fact, by watching that video, I realize how much work a project entails — which is why my next step is to contact a professional.

Put another way: In writing proposals, don’t merely whet your reader’s appetite. That’s what your competitors are doing, and it’s hard to stand out if you’re not, well, standing out. Instead, dispense a little free advice.

Point out a mistake in their existing work — along with a correction. Ask them a question they’ve likely never considered. Raise an idea that ignites their imagination. The more reasons you give someone to hire you, the more likely it is they’ll do so.

Is Sharing Scaring?

Does sharing a thought-out strategy make you uncomfortable? If so, here’s a middle ground: Try beefing up the other parts of your pitch, like your case studies, your process, or your unique selling proposition. If you’re afraid to get detailed with those prerequisites, then you may be in the wrong line of work.

Here’s another consideration: The bigger the contract, the bigger your proposal is expected to be. I’ve been a member of teams that are bidding on six-figure, even seven-figure, deals. In these cases, not only is giving away your counsel table stakes; it’s also de rigueur to pitch the client in person, at their office.

Indeed, forget about wasting hours writing down your ideas and forking over your intellectual property. Now you’re talking about days of prep and travel. and shelling out for tangible property such as custom props, printed and bound reports, taxis, trains, meals, and hotels. To piggyback on a famous quote: “Ya gotta spend time to make money.”

The Best Things in Business Are Free

If you follow my approach, the next question you must answer is whether to charge for these open-kimono works of art? In theory, you should: After all, you’re handing over more than your credentials; you’re handing over your research and recommendations.

But, again, there’s a catch: Few people will pay for a proposal; too many consultants view this as the cost of doing business.

To be sure, you can offer more middle ground:

1. You can charge for the proposal, then deduct the cost from your first invoice if the prospect decides to move forward. (The service departments of auto dealers have mastered this stratagem.)

2. You can offer an oral proposal (via a phone call), not a written one. (Talking is far easier than writing.)

3. You can limit your proposal to, say, two pages.

I’d advise you to think carefully before venturing down these roads, for three reasons:

1. The time to prepare an invoice, complete procurement paperwork, follow-up if necessary, and record payment — all to collect a fee that’s nominal — can sap your strength.

2. No one likes to be nickel and dimed.

3. If you’re concealing counsel, then you’re pitching with one hand tied behind your back.

If, at this point, you remain dubious, chances are, you’re worried about being taken advantage of. You think the client may steal your suggestions without hiring you. Maybe they’ll even share your proposal with the cheaper consultant they went with.

You’re right: This happens. It’s wrong, and it sucks. But instead of fuming, try celebrating the positives:

1. You fortified your prequalification radar; now you know how to spot a red flag.

2. You fine-tuned your proposal language; now you have a sharper template that you can apply to other prospects.

In other words: Don’t focus on administrivia. Focus on the big picture: Coming up with ideas; forging long-term relationships; and delivering work that exceeds expectations. Not only will your clients be happier. So will you.

Jonathan Rick is a ghostwriter in Washington, D.C. As a freelancer, he’s also a businessman.

A version of the above article appeared in Entrepreneur on April 24, 2023.

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