Saturday, May 4, 2013

Tell the Client Why—And Why Not

When preparing to write a project-specific proposal, chances are your attention first turns to coming up with the right solution. But offering the right solution may not be enough.

Let me give you an example of what I mean, drawn from a real-life experience. Suppose your firm is invited to prepare a proposal to design an industrial wastewater system. Your engineers evaluate various treatment alternatives before selecting the one they deem the obvious best choice. 

You submit what you are convinced is a strong proposal, but lose to a firm recommending another, less expensive treatment option. Ironically, your engineers had evaluated that technology at some length, but rejected it for a number of reasons. Unfortunately, you didn't mention this in your proposal, nor your justification for selecting the option you proposed.

After the system is designed and installed, it fails to meet performance expectations—for all the reasons your engineers had projected in their initial assessment of the technology. Feel vindicated? Hardly. You still didn't get the job.

The outcome may well have been different if you had simply offered the client the benefit of your analysis. This may seem obvious in this example, but most proposals I review fail to discuss options and the reasons for selecting the one proposed. Perhaps it's a simple oversight. Or maybe the proposal team feels the choice is too obvious to need to explain it. Or more likely, they don't consider the proposal from the client's perspective.

Today's sophisticated clients are looking for more than what you are proposing; they want to know why. And if another alternative seems plausible, you should tell them why not

Ideally, you've already had this discussion with the client before you write your proposal. That way you're not guessing which option might be favored. But even if you've discussed it, you should include the evaluation and explanation of your selection in the proposal. 

Explaining both why you are proposing a specific solution and approach—and why you are not proposing something else—is a common-sense, yet often overlooked element of writing a successful proposal. Here are some suggestions:

State your objectives up front. Obviously these should reflect the client's objectives. These form the fundamental criteria for defining the best approach to the project. The objectives should respond specifically to meeting the client's needs and expectations. Clarifying these at the start of your project approach description provides critical context for justifying your selection.

Share your thought process. There are fewer clients today who simply want your conclusions without understanding how you came to them. Often they value your analysis as much as your advice. So share it in your proposal. Knowing how you came to pick one alternative over another gives the client greater confidence that yours is the right choice.

Compare alternatives. An important aspect of revealing your thought process is discussing various alternatives (assuming the client has not dictated your approach). Present the advantages and disadvantages of each option, and explain the basis for selecting the one you're proposing. This can help your proposal stand up to a competitor's offer to do something different (and especially when it seems less expensive), as in the example given above. 

Cover your weaknesses. Anticipate where your approach could be questioned or criticized. Tackle these issues up front. But do so in a positive way, not in the sense of seeming defensive or pointing out faults. The goal is to avoid being ambushed by objections you had not addressed in your proposal. Remember, in making tough choices between competing proposals, clients are as likely to look for reasons to not select a particular firm as for reasons in favor.

Leave your options open. If possible, don't give the client a take-it-or-leave-proposal—or one that could be interpreted that way. Make a case for your best option, but offer other alternatives that you would be willing to implement if the client preferred. While your proposed project approach can be the strength of your proposal, there are advantages in presenting your firm as the best choice independent of a specific approach or alternative.


Mac said...

Excellent advice. It's important to be prepared for the client. The more pushback we prepare for, the more success we'll have.

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Mel Lester said...

Thanks Mac, I appreciate the feedback!