Would You Buy Your Own Services?

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

Do you ever wonder why after spending many hours on drafting, editing, proofing, and polishing—and proofing and polishing just once more—your engagement proposal efforts did not result in winning the engagement? And if this happens on a semi-regular basis, the frustration is never easier to take.

You may have the requisite knowledge and experience and perhaps even a broad view based on a diverse set of clients. However, you may have become complacent by maintaining a “cookie-cutter” approach to developing your proposals. Like the old joke defining a consultant: “A person who takes off your watch, tells you the time, and gives the watch back to you,” implies an approach that you believe is best for your potential client, yet reflects no understanding of what the client actually needs.

If you use a “template” or “generic” approach with a potential client (“client”), then you believe the engagement requirements resemble work you did for other clients. But if it doesn’t, you are falling into the trap of telling the person what he or she needs without really understanding the business problem. You may have used flowery prose combined with consultant-speak, but it got you nowhere.

When developing a proposal, the intended recipient should be at the center, not the consultant. I have seen the overuse of “I,” “me,” “our” and “my.” What happened to focus on the “you”? It is completely dismissed out of hand. The client wants to know what you will do for them. Sure, your credentials are necessary to assure the potential client that you know what you are talking about, and what you have done for other clients.

But that’s not enough.

Building the Proposal

In structuring your proposal, the eventual reader should know about you, your experience, what you are capable of, and how you plan to address the business challenge(s). This means that not only can you offer solutions, but that you can deliver positive results. In discussions with the potential client, you can enumerate the steps in your action plan after you have understood what results are desired. If this means working backward, so be it. At least there will be a logical connection between the steps you undertake and the expected results.

Say What You Mean

Your proposal should be clearly articulated; there is no confusion about what you believe are the required steps and why you are taking them. Your proposal is like a speech: you begin with an overview or an executive summary that captures the client’s needs and current status; you work on the body of the narrative that includes necessary research, analysis, interviews, and any other salient elements; and you finally deliver a conclusion (typically an action plan and timeline).  The conclusion is really the “eye-grabber” because you’ll want to convey a call to action, which oftentimes means a follow-up and the delivery of a contract.

You may want to build in some flexibility to allow for possible “scope creep.” This occurs when your research uncovers an issue(s) you did not budget for or highlight as part of your action plan. This will eliminate the chance of the client being hit with an “11th-hour” change. It may require a phone call or an in-person discussion to let the client know of this possibility.

As far as the deliverable or final product, be clear about—and be committed to—what you are promising in the proposal. And be sure that it comports with the client’s expectations and needs.

What’s Your Value Proposition?

As stated earlier, the proposal is not designed to extol the virtues of your practice, or of you personally. Instead, it should explain how your skills and background as a business advisor can bring value to the client. Why should the potential client select you to handle his or her needs?

This question is your guiding light. It should explain how you can add benefit, such as where your solution(s) increases the long-term success of the client; your level of familiarity with the business problem; what your process is for solving problems; what will be your solution’s impact on the client; and how you will continue to support the client (in any type of follow-up or post-engagement assessment). This last item is particularly important because as a business advisor, you are a partner for success with your client — not just to get paid after delivering the product.

Think About Do’s and Don’ts of What to Put in a Proposal

“…see if you would accept yourself as the consultant to solve your own business challenges.”

While your goal in creating the proposal is to be clear and comprehensive, and to offer the potential client a compelling reason to select you, here are some things to consider (and to reinforce):

• Throwing everything (including the kitchen sink) into the proposal but not focusing on the specific business needs. If you use a “template” (one-size-fits-all approach), you demonstrate a lack of understanding of what the client wants. As a business advisor, your task is to understand and react to the person’s expressed needs.

• Your credentials are fine; they are just not the answer. Again, understand what the client needs and clearly explain that what you are offering is exactly what is needed. In short, there must be a meeting of the minds. Make sure you are selling prospective value and not resting on previous laurels.

• Consultant-speak and confusing jargon. Wow! The information sounds complex and high-brow, but will it appear to the potential client that you are the one to solve the problems, or will it just result in an open mouth, eye-rolling, and headshaking? Dispense with the irrelevant verbiage; seek to educate rather than impress. The reader of your proposal will lose interest in 10 seconds and place your work on a pile containing other rejected proposals. I suggest you read your proposal as if you were the client, and see if you would accept yourself as the consultant to solve your own business challenges.

• Avoid “me,” “myself” and “I.” If your proposal is only about you, this will turn off the client. Remember, the proposal is to convince the client you are the one to offer and deliver solutions; it is not an autobiography.

•  Don’t think you are the only one bidding on the engagement. There are many competitors in the market, and if you cannot distinguish yourself from the rest, your proposal will be tossed on the same pile as the ones with all fluff and no substance. As you try to show how distinctive your approach is, do not include anything “cheesy” or “cutesy,” or anything that looks like stock photos.

• Forgetting to explain the benefits. If there is no stated economic benefit for the potential client, then what is the purpose? Clearly explain how the client will gain financially: for example, how much additional revenue or increased profits will be generated; or how much will be saved in operating costs.

•  Include client testimonials in your proposals. If you don’t include positive feedback from previous clients, it raises a red flag. Promoting your work from satisfied clients and placing accurate and truthful quotes (with permission) will only enhance your prospects of winning the engagement.

Finally, the proposal should contain an eye-catching, thought-provoking overview that lets the client know the proposal is worth reading. The purpose of a well-constructed proposal is to convince the client that you are the individual to deliver success. Explain what you will do, how you will do it, and what the expected results will be. Understand your audience and what financial and intellectual support there will be for your work. Without having this understanding at the beginning, well, you know what pile your work will end up on.

 About the Author

Steven Sacks is the owner of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms, and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com.