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9 Ways Consultants Lose Sales

by Michael W. McLaughlin


Any consultant can tell you there are umpteen ways to blow it during the sales cycle. Many of those potential pitfalls lurk in the proposal process.


Most consultants salivate on cue when clients ask for proposals. After all, it’s exciting to have a chance to show your stuff and move closer to the client and the tantalizing prospect of a new, challenging project.


But creating a great proposal isn’t easy, and the process will consume your time and energy.


So, first consider whether you can conserve your resources with a letter confirming your services instead of a formal document proposing your services.


That won’t always be possible, especially for complex projects. But consultants seldom ask clients to award them projects without formal proposals, so dare to be different.


OK, so the client said no, and you do have to write a proposal. What about those pitfalls? There must be at least fifty, but here are nine sure-fire ways to completely botch your chances of winning the work.


1. Play the Lone Ranger

Some consultants do research about a client and the project and think, right, I’ve got it. Then they scurry off to create their proposals in “objective” isolation. Big mistake. You can’t produce a great proposal unless the client is an active participant in every part of the proposal process, including research, pinning down objectives, potential benefits, scope, approach, and, of course, fees.


2. Start with Your Qualifications

Proposals that begin with a recitation of your firm’s background and qualifications are a fast track to oblivion. Start every proposal with a focus on the client’s issues and objectives, not your firm’s illustrious history.


3. Omit the Executive Summary

Many decision makers only look at two items: the executive summary and the price. Yet, amazingly, some consultants don’t include executive summaries in their proposals. What are they thinking? Decision makers rely on the executive summary to make sure you understand what they are trying to accomplish. Fail to include that executive summary, even in short proposals, and you run the risk of having your proposal put at the bottom of the pile—if it’s read at all.


4. Focus on Your Tools

Blah, blah, blah. Clients care about results, not the tools, methods and approaches you’ll use to get there. If the centerpiece of your proposal is a discussion of your whiz-bang methods, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Think about it: When you hire someone to repair your furnace, you expect that expert to come with all the tools to do the job. Well, so do clients. You’re likely to need a discussion of your tools and approaches at some point in the proposal, but let it float back to the appendix.


5. Write a Phone Book

Studies show that, given a choice, clients will pick up and read a shorter proposal before they’ll wade into a tome stuffed with graphics and boilerplate. Keep your proposals as short as possible, while meeting the requirements your client has established. Consultants who routinely write encyclopedia-sized proposals will find their work moves very slowly from the pile of proposals to the hands of decision makers.


6. Use a Boilerplate Resume

Every opportunity is different in some way from every other one. So you must take the time to re-write your resume for every proposal. You may not have to change much—maybe you just need to add emphasis in one area or eliminate some text. It’s usually a quick task that has enormous payoffs. Let clients see that you have thought through how your experience matches up with their needs.


7. Load your Proposal with Jargon

Too many consulting proposals are chock full of jargon and buzzwords that make clients crazy. Reread your last proposal. Did you use phrases like “world class,” “organizational transformation,” or “seamless transition”? If so, see the word doctor. Your proposal has a greater likelihood of being accepted if you write using plain terms without the bull.


8. Ignore the Devil

I recently read a proposal that got the client’s name right, but had another company’s address in the proposal. There are hundreds of stories about similar gaffes in consultants’ proposals. Everyone uses cut-and-paste. But the devil is in the details, and clients will not forgive or forget errors. If you’re not a detail person, make sure someone on your team is. And make sure every proposal gets checked and checked again—especially every time it gets revised.


9. Miss Your Deadline

Clients won’t buy that the dog ate your proposal, so don’t even try that one. If you find yourself asking the client for an extension of a proposal deadline, or you submit your proposal after the deadline, your chances of getting the project plummet. Just get everything done on time.


A great proposal can be decisive in being awarded a project; a poor one can cause you to lose, even if everything else in the sales process has gone flawlessly. The nine common errors above are not the only ones to watch out for. But if you avoid them, your odds of winning will soar every time.




Michael W. McLaughlin is the co-author, with Jay Conrad Levinson, of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. Michael is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, and has over twenty years of consulting experience with clients in businesses of every size, from small start-ups to some of the world’s highest-profile companies. He is also the publisher of Management Consulting News. For more information, visit