What Does Your Prospect (Really) Think of Your Proposal?

As a consultant, how many times have you wished you could have been a fly on the wall as a prospect reviewed your proposal and those from your competitors? We might be gratified. We might be mortified. But oh, what we could learn!

I recently helped a client prepare a request for proposals (RFP) for consulting services that are outside my core area of business. And, I thought the client’s comments would make for an interesting mini case study on proposals and the proposing process. Although it’s only one data point, I think a lot of my client’s observations had to do with human nature rather than the particulars of this client.

Background: The client sent an RFP to 10 firms, nine of whom responded. This was a “short list” of firms recommended by the senior executive team and board members. The fee for this project will be in the $150–200K range. There’s also an opportunity for repeat business with the client for projects in the high five-figure range. The RFP clarified that my client was reaching out to a “select list” of firms.

Here are some of the standout comments my client made in the review process:

  • “They didn’t bother to respond.” One firm (and an assumed leading contender on the client’s internal list) sent a perfunctory response that they would “carefully review the RFP” but didn’t submit a proposal nor did they communicate further. Will this eliminate this firm from future business? No. But did they put a small dent in their relationship with my client and disappoint the board member who recommended them? Definitely.
  • “They were just going through the motions.” The first cut in the proposal review process was to eliminate the boilerplate responses. These were the proposals that explained the consultants’ processes but didn’t connect their processes to the client’s needs.
  • “They were one of the few firms that bothered to ask questions.” The proposals that rose to the top were from firms that took the time to engage with my client. In fact, one of the smaller firms made it into the final three because the two principals of the firm got on a conference call with my client. That action made a positive impact on my client, but, more importantly, their proposal showed a sophisticated understanding of the client’s needs. Their actions and proposal stood out.

So, what were the characteristics of the proposals that made the final cut?

  • They took the time to connect. They didn’t just lob a proposal at the prospect.
  • They demonstrated a track record of experience on similar projects for similarly situated organizations. Pretty basic, right? Still, some of the proposals missed this point.
  • They connected the dots. They went beyond including the perfunctory “situation analysis” and made a strong connection between my client’s situation and other work they had done. They demonstrated both situational understanding and a directly related competency.
  • They gave the client perspective. They drew on their experience, and in one case, publicly available research, to highlight things that would be a focal point of their approach – things that my client might not have thought of. They went beyond the “required information” outlined in the RFP.

In the final analysis, the proposals that made the final cut were from firms that did nothing more than pay attention to the basics. They made a human-to-human connection, demonstrated their competence, connected the dots with the client’s situation, and brought their perspective into the proposal. But it’s how they paid that attention that’s important.

Now, it might be easy to discount this because of the fee involved. You might be thinking, “of course, you can swing out there when a six-figure fee is at stake!” I’m sure that these proposals were all 90% boilerplate. But it’s what they did with the 10% that made the final cut.