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Heather Townsend

The Excedia Group


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When to write a proposal or not?


Having recently missed out on a £50k annual recurring contract, I know from bitter experience that coming a close second is no consolation! Part of that bitterness stems from the amount of time I spent crafting the proposal. Time I will never get back. (Yes, I know, get over it!) 

The question is, how much business development time are you or your firm wasting on writing proposals for projects or potential clients that go nowhere? How can you limit your exposure to these doomed projects?

Here are my thoughts....

1. Test out their commitment

Sadly, many prospects will aim to get you off the phone or finish the meeting by asking for a proposal. This is their way of bringing the business development process to an end. You and your firm then waste huge amounts of time writing the proposal, then more time following up with them, whilst they never return your calls. We've all been there before.

If you are asked to write a proposal, do make sure you elicit some kind of commitment from the client before you go ahead and spend hours and days crafting your proposal. Our recommendation is you suggest to your client the following:

“Shall I put together some draft thoughts via email as to what you want. We can then go through these in a call next week, to check to make sure that there is a match between what we are proposing and your needs.”

If your client doesn’t commit to this, then explore how motivated they are to take action... No commitment to take action = a massive red flag. Also, don’t spend anymore time than the draft thoughts via email.

2. Check they can afford you

Whilst you don’t want to be inflexible about your firm’s fees, or frighten potential clients away - you do want to be open about the likely costs of what hiring you or your firm may be. This will help to weed out any unsuitable clients without the right level of budget BEFORE you waste time on a lengthy proposal to find out that you are too expensive for them.

If you don’t have commitment to a budget which matches your fee levels, then take the time to explore whether they could have the budget before writing your proposal. You may these questions useful to help you do this exploration:

  • Have you got a budget in mind for what this work will cost?
  • Have you budgeted for this work?
  • Who will need to sign off this spend, before we can proceed?

3. Check they actually want a proposal

You may find that your client doesn’t need much written down in a proposal to be able to say yes. One of our largest projects, actually only required 2 sides of bullet pointed notes. (Yes, these clients were a dream to work with) Before you get the proposal template out, do check to see what they actually need to proceed.

4. Have a firm 'go/no-go checklist'

Within your firm you probably collectively have a good knowledge of what tends to convert and be a good piece of work for a client, and what the firm should steer clear of. Use this knowledge to build a weighted 'go/no-go' checklist for fee earners and partners to use BEFORE they commit firm resources to a lead or tender.

If you find that you are struggling to get the conversations to even be asked to write a proposal, how about downloading our free step-by-step guide to writing a successful marketing plan? (E-mail required.)

How does your firm minimise it's risk on projects or clients which are not going to go anywhere?

Author Credit:

Heather Townsend helps professionals become the Go-To-Expert. She is the author of 'The FT Guide To Business Networking' and co-author of 'How to make partner and still have a life'

2 Responses

  1. Scope the project

    These are the first 10 questions I ask in a meeting to scope out a project. You can even ask these over the phone so you know whether to meet with a client F2F. This list of 10 questions should give enough information to work out whether the meeting should proceed or if a F2F meeting should happen. 


    1.     Why do you think we would be a good match?

    2.     Is there budget allocated for this project?

    3.     On a scale of 1-10 how important is this need?

    4.     What is your timing to accomplish this?

    5.     Who, if anyone is demanding this be accomplished?

    6.     How soon are you willing to begin?

    7.     Have you made a commitment to proceed or are you still analysing?

    8.     What are your key decision criteria in choosing a resource?

    9.     Have you tried this before – or will this be a continuation?

    10.  Is your organisation seeking formal proposals for this work?

  2. Excellent advice

    This is excellent advice, Heather. I recently spent two days, including a whole Sunday, preparing a detailed proposal for training for a prospective new client who was hugely enthusiastic and asked for a plan with costings by Monday. Three days later, they wrote that "it looks like a large proportion of the … training can be managed in-house."

    Funny that – it hadn't been the case when they were looking for answers the week before!

    I think that asking the questions you and Lisa suggest might well have identified the level of their commitment – and saved my weekend.


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Heather Townsend


Read more from Heather Townsend

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