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HOME::Selling Tips

Top 7 Deadly Proposal Preparation Pitfalls

By Tom Varjan

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Let's face it, the name "proposal" is a great misnomer, but since many businesspeople take it literally, they often paint themselves into a corner of chasing buyers, many of whom requested the proposal to collect idea for in-house implementation. Yes, it is a scumbag approach to drag honest folks arounf by their noses, but apparently there are many scumbags who practise this dishonest technique knowingly, and some innocent folks who believe this is normal and have fallen into the trap.

In this article we discuss a few ideas on how you can protect yourself against slimeballs who expect you put in the time and effort to create proposals and want to use them against you in a comparative "the cheapest wins" scenario.

So, first let's look at the purpose of your proposal. Here is the basic concept. Your "proposal" is nothing more than a written summary of what you have already agreed with the economic buyer. It is NOT, re-read, NOT a sales document.

Make sure you never use your proposals for the following purposes:

Peddling your solutions

Building relationships with buyers

Using it as a basis for competitive comparison

Proving your credentials to be able to do the gig

Justifying your proposed course of action

Using it as a tool to close the deal

Using it as a negotiation document

Allowing one-sided project scope adjustment, a.k.a "scope creep"

Using it as a protective document between parties

Positioning your approaches in terms of tasks and deliverables

  1. Not finding the true economic buyer - You must always talk to the economic buyer, the only person in the client’s company who can both authorise and finance the project. Yes, you will bump into some self-important busybodies but make sure they do not take you for a ride. They may pose as decision makers but they are not. Here is a way of testing it.

    "So, am I hearing correctly that you can write me a cheque now, shake hands and begin the project tomorrow morning?"

  2. Not asking the prospect about the value the project’s completion will mean to the company - Ask prospects to stipulate the value their organisations (and them personally) will derive from the project. The more you focus on the value buyers receive from collaborating with you, the less opportunity you give them to "grill" you about your fees. Remember, buyers must not know your fees until they have reached the last section of your proposal. However, you can demonstrate how much better off they will be after the project, that is, you expose them to the gap – often the proverbial Grand Canyon – between the before and after project situation.

    "As a result of this project, what will you be able to do what you cannot do right now?

    "What improvement do you expect on your personal life after successful completion?"

    "What is your expected financial improvement on an annual and decade basis?"

  3. Not establishing metrics for the project - Establish how prospects want to measure the progress of the project. These are quantitative, qualitative and – very very important – personal indicators. Also, make sure you have both long- and short-term indicators set for measurement. Remember, "writing a 70-page manual" and "running a half-day workshop" are not metrics. They are deliverable, thus totally useless for value-based consulting.

    "How will you recognise the achievement of your objectives?"

    "What measures are you using now?"

    "What kind of short and long-term indicators do you plan to use?"

  4. Falling into the trap of discussing tactics – The proposal is a "big picture" document. It is not for outlining minor details. That is something you will put together later jointly with the implementing team. Prospects know their businesses (content) and you know your stuff (process), and the synergistic application of the two will create the desired improvements.

  5. Failing to deliver to proposal in hard copy format – Regardless of the ease of email, people prefer to read important materials on paper. They also prefer to read them several times with highlighter and pen in hand. So, make your proposals easy to read and submit them in hard copy format. Also, serve your proposal as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more the buyer’s interest wears down. Besides, if you got your small payment before writing the proposal, it is just ethical to be quick and effective.

  6. 6. Failing to establish relationship with the economic buyer, based on mutual trust, respect and peer-level credibility - Make sure you create a trusting relationship with the buyer. And this trust is defined by your initial interview. If you just match needs and wants with service packages, then you are in trouble. Find out about the deepest values of your prospects and let them inspire themselves into action by their own values. Never use false motivators like fear, greed and guilt to make prospects take action. You will end up with paranoid, greedy and neurotic clients. And at that moment you can wave good-bye to your sanity once and for all.

  7. Talking in terms of deliverables and tasks - Jointly lay out the objectives of the project, that is, what kind of improvement you want to achieve. Forget about number of working hours, deliverables and tasks to be performed. Consulting is like medicine. Just because one pill a day will cure you in ten weeks, it does not mean that 10 pills a day will cure you in one week. Consulting is about the intensity of the collaboration not the poundage of deliverables and the number of hours manual labour is preformed.

    "What improvement do you expect to see at the end of the project?"

    "What are the three most important issues we must handle first?"

    "What would you like to have more of and less of by the end of the project?"

This article was written by Organisational Provocateur, Tom “Bald Dog” Varjan of Dynamic Innovations Squad.
Tom’s web site offers a broad range of tools, resources and services for professional service firms both gigantic and microscopic. For a FREE copy of Tom's Executive Black Paper: Ten Deadly Management (Mal)Practices That Often Bring Professional Service Firms to Incalculable Suffering or Even Agonising Death!", visit his site at


Article Submitted On: May 21, 2005