Consulting proposals: A Waste of Time?

There’s a lot of focus on writing effective consulting proposals. You’ve likely signed up for our Consultants Toolkit list and received this guide. (UPDATE: The Consultants Toolkit has been deprecated. Please signup for the Consulting Blueprint instead).

But these proposals aren’t always as important as people often make them seem.

In fact, they can often be a waste of time. And I’ll illustrate this by telling you a true story from my early days as a marketing consultant.

Size Doesn’t Matter
I connected with a large international manufacturer. This company was doing some great things and seemed to have a strong product.

The president of this company was interested in having me consult for them to assist with making their online lead generation system more effective.

I spent the time to speak with this president. We exchanged several emails and calls. I took the time to review their current online situation and made notes on what areas could be improved.

I charged nothing for this and did so happily ‘knowing’ that a much larger project was imminent.

The president expressed his desire to move forward and we scheduled a sit down meeting in his office – about a 30 minute drive from mine. Two days before the meeting the president sent an email requesting a proposal.

Shopping Around
Knowing that it takes a good deal of time to create a solid proposal I told him I wouldn’t do that. Instead, I offered to give him a brief summary (one-page) of what I felt I could bring to the table and what we’d work on.

He agreed and said that would be fine. The day before our meeting I received an email from him saying that they’d hired a full-time employee to work on this, so the meeting was off.

You meet all sorts of characters in business. I took no offence and wished him well.

Now, just imagine what it would have been liked if I had spent a full day or two putting together a proposal that would blow him away. Only to be told that the meeting is off.

Digging deeper into this you realize that this president wasn’t really all that serious. He was leading me on to believe he was fully interested, but really was more or less shopping around.

A real solid proposal isn’t for people that are shopping around. For them, you can hand them a one-page outline, or a generic form that you slightly customize.

Real Consulting Proposals = Real Value
Consulting proposals are in themselves a set of deep analysis, strategy and insight. That’s why I charge a fee for them.

This isn’t some new technique I’ve made up. Painting companies often provide a free in house consultation. When you’re ready, they’ll have a designer come in and suggest actual colors and give you a proposal – which they charge for. Then they do the painting – which of course they charge for. That’s how this business works.

My recommendation here is that you have some materials at the ready so you can give them to any business that comes calling. As their interest becomes more and more serious, you can get them invested deeper into the level of value you can deliver to them.

This ultimately leads to an ultimatum where you really get to see how serious the client is. Pay for a real consultation where we really get into details and options or take some information that will help you decide how serious you are.

Consulting proposals can be a waste of time. But it’s a shame to let that happen.

Please Share This Article If You Enjoyed It:

  • This was a great post. Thanks!

    There is also a fine line in writing a proposal and not giving “too much” away in the process.

    Be careful of sharing too many strategy-laden details. This I learned the hard way.

    • Teri, glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for the feedback. Would be great to hear more about your experiences.

  • Bart McDonough

    Hi Michael,

    Great post, and I love the valuable information you've got on your website. I've tried some of your SEO techniques and other advice, and so far, everything works!

    Quick question: I was wondering about the difference between a Proposal and a Statement of Work. I know some consultants who use only one or the other and some who use both. Are both necessary, or does it depend on the client? (For example, some clients will require a very formalized document like a Statement of Work that's basically a high-level project management plan.)

    – Bart

    • Bart – Thanks for the comment and feedback! A one to two page consulting agreement and proposal is effective in most situations. However, documents of this type do depend on the company. 20-50+ page proposals are required in some industries.

  • I used to write proposals for free and it was a nightmare – so much time wasted. Now I’m just clear as possible on my website – listing my services, pricing, what I can bring to the table and even how to do it (I have lots of tutorials). Very open about everything and now people rarely ask me for a proposal because it’s all right there – that has really worked out for me.

    However the larger companies and universities still ask for one. Since these are the best clients at least pay wise, do you give them special consideration? I want the project but I don’t want to write a free analysis – but to have the best proposal I feel like you almost have to especially when you know there’s other reputable companies providing them with a solid proposal.

    Any advice on how to go about this?