Proposals are an elaborate shell game

surprise inside cracker jack
Credit: hermanturnip

How do you know if the proposal you are reviewing is trustworthy? These are the questions to help you discern killer from filler.

I submitted my resignation notice a month before my actual end date. I wanted to leave a firm on good terms. I was responsible for a number of internal initiatives as well as a client facing engagement, so we needed to wind things down in an orderly manner.

During my notice period, I continued to support sales pitches and request for proposal (RFP) responses. Most of this work consisted of reviewing and editing drafts before they were submitted to the client. Two days before I was scheduled to turn in my laptop, the lead partner asked me to make a sales call to a client, positioning myself as the engagement lead.

I didn’t make the call, but any consultant with a degree of experience has been asked to make questionable moves in pursuit of a sale. 

Proposal teams become proficient at creating decades of delivery experiences and standard frameworks from thin air. I learned how to sell the client on how we would approach their problem, even if our firm did not have any direct experience with their problem. When your individual sales target is in the millions, you get creative. 

Mobile solution design and build? Sure thing. We have been doing that for fifteen years, assuming you include using an on-call pager as mobility experience. Agile implementation? Absolutely. I just ran through the streets of New York City with this presentation in my bag and managed to avoid getting hit by any lost Uber drivers.  

How do you know if the proposal you are reviewing is trustworthy? Here are some suggestions:

Does the proposal include relevant case studies? Ask to see the supporting deliverables. Look for details such as team size, project schedule, and amount of client time needed to complete the project. If they don’t feel relevant without a lot of explanation, they were included as filler, rather than killer.  

Most firms will be happy to remove the client references and provide a guided tour of the case studies that they reference. Ask the proposal team to tell you the case study stories, in their own words. Nothing reveals a bad magician quite like putting them on the spot and asking to see their tricks on demand.

If a current state analysis phase is included in the proposal schedule:

  • Review the sample interview questions and workshop agendas.
  • Cut the number of questions and communicate them in advance.
  • Do not let current state team interviews become interrogations

If a benchmarking exercise is suggested or included in the proposal:

If metrics and reports are listed as deliverables:

  • Agree on the definition of "done."
  • Review recommended formulas, layouts, and intervals.
  • Reset any expectations in terms of style, level of detail, and quality.

If new processes or tools are listed as deliverables:

  • Walk through training materials and demo environments.
  • Determine if the tone, as well as the content, will resonate or fall flat.
  • Articulate the reason for change quickly to avoid having the team check out quickly.

Consulting proposals tend to be full of half truths or outright fiction. Test them to see if you are dealing with a wizard that can deliver magic or a carny that will take your money because you are “this close” to the prize.

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