Wait! Eight Reasons You Shouldn’t Submit That Proposal

By Andrew Sobel

You’ve probably starred in this drama before. A prospective client calls, interviews you for 20 or 30 minutes on the phone, and then asks you to submit a proposal. Sensing they are too junior to hire you, you try and set up a meeting with their boss. You’re told, “He’s asked me to handle this. I work closely with him and can share his perspectives with you. You don’t need to speak with him.” In your gut, you know it’s a long shot. But it’s tempting—who knows, maybe it’ll come to something.

More likely, it won’t.

Each year, millions of hours of time are spent prematurely writing proposals that have little chance of being accepted. Part of the problem is that clients ask for proposals all the time, often after only a brief phone conversation. We’ve all heard this before: “Just shoot me a proposal with all your cost information."

Often, the person who makes the request cannot actually say “yes”—they are a feasibility buyer. Sometimes the client is on a fishing expedition, trying to learn more about the issue before they decide what they want to do about it. Sometimes they just want to do a price check to keep an incumbent honest.

Resist temptation. Here’s why: Proposals don’t win new clients. What does is a conversation—or series of conversations—during which the client starts to trust you and believe that you can add substantial value and help them address an important problem or opportunity. The proposal, really, just documents your understanding of how you’re going to work together. 

There are eight preconditions that must be met—eight milestones that must be covered—before you invest the time to write and submit a proposal. If most or all of them are not present, your chances of winning the sale will be dramatically reduced. I’ve expressed these preconditions in the negative—as a series of reasons why you should not submit a proposal.

Eight reasons not to write a proposal

1. It’s not the right client for you. Is this an appropriate client, given your strategy—for example, large enough, in the right industry, in the right geographic area, and so on? Is this issue in your “sweet spot” in terms of capabilities?  Is the executive with whom you will work an effective, respected individual in his or her organization? Will this client enhance or detract from your reputation?

2. There is not a clearly-defined issue—a problem or opportunity that the client is eager to address. You must have a thorough and mutual understanding of the issue or issues you are being asked to address. This could happen in one conversation, but more likely will only unfold over two or three discussions. If you think you know what the problem is after a 20 minute conversation, chances are you are going to leave a lot on the table by underestimating the real issue. The client must also have a sense of urgency around the issue—otherwise they could just do nothing and save their money.

3. The client’s objectives are not defined. First, you must understand the client’s overall objectives. Second, you and the client must have agreed on the specific objectives of the project or program—on the outcomes that are sought. 

4. You and the client have not agreed on the payoff from solving the issue and the value and impact that your work will deliver. It’s essential to learn what is most important to the client—in other words, what particular value they are seeking. For example: Is speed critical? How important is cost? Quality? You need to have explored the quantitative and qualitative impact that the client envisions. If the value is not clear, your fees will always be too high!

5. You don’t understand the client’s buying process. Do you know how your prospect is going to make a decision, who will be involved, what the selection criteria are, and what their time frame is? Usually, you will have to ask about this. It is completely appropriate to ask questions such as:

  • “Can you walk me through your decision-making process and timeframe?”
  • “Who are the major stakeholders who need to be aligned before you can go forward?"
  • “Who will make the final decision about selecting a firm to work with?”

6. You haven’t met nor do you have a relationship with the economic buyer or "executive sponsor." You need to have spoken to or met the person who is the overall executive sponsor of the initiative and who will make the final decision to hire you or someone else. Often, the first person who calls you is not the economic buyer but rather a feasibility buyer—someone who is screening service providers, who can say “No” but not “Yes.” If you haven’t met the executive sponsor, you are flying blind because—among other issues—you won’t know what their specific objectives and expectations are.

7. You do not have agreement on the outlines of the proposal.  You must have discussed the essential elements of your proposal with the client and reached “conceptual agreement” about it before you submit it. You might say, “Before I send you this proposal, I’d like to meet with you to walk through our basic approach. That way I can get your reactions and input before finalizing it.” If you don’t have this high-level agreement, you are at risk of turning in a proposal that is not quite on target and/or will get picked apart by the client.

8. You have not scheduled a follow-up discussion to review the proposal and the client’s reaction to it. You need to have an agreement to discuss the proposal with the client after you submit it. You don’t want to spend a lot of time writing a proposal, and then send it into a black hole. Schedule a phone call or face-to-face meeting to put the client on the hook to read the proposal and share his or her reactions with you.

These are all reasons NOT to write and submit a proposal. If these key elements are not positively in place, you may very well be wasting your time.



Andrew Sobel helps companies and individuals build clients for life. He is the most widely published author in the world on the topic of business relationships, and his bestselling books include Power Questions, All for One, Making Rain, and Clients for Life. His clients include many of the world's leading companies such as Citigroup, Hess, Ernst & Young, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cognizant, Deloitte, Experian, Lloyds Banking Group, Bain & Company, and many others. Andrew's articles and work have appeared in publications such as the New York Times, USA Today, strategy+business, and the Harvard Business Review. He spent 15 years at Gemini Consulting where he was a Senior Vice President and Country Chief Executive Officer, and for the last 15 years he has led his own consulting firm, Andrew Sobel Advisors.

He can be reached at andrewsobel.com


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