Canadian Consulting Engineer

Business: Orchestrating Your Proposals

March 1, 2003
By Dan MacDougall, P.Eng.

Consulting engineers continue to search for ways to demonstrate distinctive value and earn the fees and compensation that the profession deserves. Unfortunately, many clients think that engineering se...

Consulting engineers continue to search for ways to demonstrate distinctive value and earn the fees and compensation that the profession deserves. Unfortunately, many clients think that engineering services are a commodity. This attitude reduces your competitive advantage because it links services to lowest price.

The consulting community is pursuing initiatives to promote “value-based” competitions to reduce the focus on the bottom line figure. While these activities may help the industry as a whole, what can individual firms do to enhance their own value and earn higher fees?

In an earlier article (August/September 2002), I discussed how engineers should strive to carve out a distinctive niche that will allow them to demonstrate and charge for true value.

Equally important is effective marketing of a firm and its uniqueness. One of the most important marketing tools is the project proposal. These documents offer an unparalleled opportunity to show your distinctive engineering abilities and demonstrate a keen understanding of the client’s situation and needs. Furthermore, the audience usually must read the entire document. You can’t get that kind of undivided attention from any other marketing materials.

Despite their importance to company marketing, few people enjoy writing proposals. Worse yet, many consultants see responding to the RFP (Request for Proposal) as a torturous exercise to be delegated to junior staff and administrators. Most have an attitude of “get it over with quickly” or “crank something out.” The approach leaves clients with haphazard cut-and-paste documents that don’t properly reflect your uniqueness, capabilities or the quality of your solution.

Clients demand proposals for services for good reason. They allow them to:

Compare alternate solutions

Make objective decisions

Clarify complex information.

Admittedly, clients can have less noble intentions as well. Sometimes, they use proposals to buy time or solicit free engineering ideas. Ideally, you should qualify companies to ensure that they are legitimately interested in buying your services.

The need for high quality proposals is particularly urgent for consulting engineers and other professional services firms. The intangible nature of your services makes it difficult for customers to compare your abilities against their needs. Your firm doesn’t have a “spec sheet” that defines your performance characteristics over a range of applications within specific tolerances. You must gain the client’s trust in your ability to perform. Your proposals are a valuable tool in developing that trust.

Unsolicited proposals

When you offer a proposal to a new or existing client without them defining the content or structure, you have a tremendous opportunity to distinguish your firm and win some high value business.

A good proposal should use a structure to maximize its impact and effectiveness. There are four key building blocks:

1. State the client’s needs. It is important to describe the client’s needs and expectations up front to provide a foundation upon which you build your proposition. If you don’t know their needs, you should step back and investigate further before committing to a proposal. Your readers will develop a sense of trust in your firm if they believe you understand their business and issues. Describing the client’s needs also ensures that your proposed solution is a solid match. Recently, one of my clients called back after I sent in a proposal for research into business opportunities in a new sector. When they read my description of their needs, they called to warn me that my definition of the industry they wished to pursue differed slightly from what they had in mind. We clarified the issue; I rewrote the proposal to reflect the changes and won the business.

2. Make specific recommendations. Don’t be vague in describing your solution. Explicitly detail how you can meet their stated needs — no more, no less. Without a specific solution to their needs, clients may not have faith in your abilities, regardless of your references or experience. Conversely, it is also important to avoid presenting a laundry list of services or projects. The customer may think that you are just interested in selling ‘something’.

3. Quantify value. Stand out from the competition by giving clients quantifiable evidence of the value you can provide. Describing return on investment, net present value, lower total cost of ownership, speed of deployment or other measures can differentiate you from the competition. Ideally, quantify your proposal’s value in terms that are of particular importance to the reader. For example, if you know a prospective client is under pressure to reduce its headcount due to a business slowdown, try to illustrate how your solution relates to that issue e.g. “Our proposed engineering retrofit will result in $400,000 in savings, comparable to eight full-time equivalent staff members, due to reduced maintenance and improved availability.”

4. Demonstrate your ability. Now you can finally talk about yourself. Notice this discussion is at the end of the document. It is amazing how many firms I have seen that dominate the beginning of a proposal with their “Capabilities” and “Project Experience.” When discussing your ability, provide specific evidence that you can successfully deliver the value you have just described. Include relevant references, testimonials, qualifications, awards etc. Keep company history, structure, size and other characteristics to a minimum unless it is important for a particular proposal.

The above approach will provide the greatest value when you are pursuing new business or fending off a competitive threat. For continuing business with existing clients, you may not always have to provide full proposals in the format suggested here. When the work you propose is a continuation of previous, successful efforts and there is no known competition, you may be able to provide shortened versions to avoid repetition. However, you must be alert for changes. If any of the following conditions arise, you should seriously consider developing a full proposal.

New players — If a new decision maker or person with strong influence has entered the client picture, protect yourself by putting your best foot forward. Impress them at the first opportunity, because it is much more difficult to do it on the second or third attempt.

New customer issues — Have there been changes in your client’s industry or organization that have an impact on the services they buy or how they buy? If so, dig into the issues and make sure your proposal directly connects your solution with their new situation.

If you are submitting short-form proposals, remember to follow the General Tips on proposal writing discussed below. They are valuable for any client communications.

Requests for proposal

Unfortunately, you don’t always have the luxury of dictating the structure and content of your proposals. To ensure apples-to-apples comparisons, organizations often used highly structured RFPs. The practice is typical in public sector projects.

RFPs require you to respond to specific questions, often in a set format or length. Invariably, the requirements can hamper your ability to differentiate your firm from the competition. Your clients are usually trying to make price the deciding factor. Even with the restriction of defined questions, however, you can comply and yet distinguish yourself.

Here are some suggestions for making better RFP responses.

Connect capabilities to client needs. Many RFPs focus on questions about your approach (engineering, project management etc.) and qualifications. You can tailor your response to reflect explicitly how your qualifications are consistent with the client’s needs and the conditions in their industry. Just as with an unsolicited proposal, start with a discussion of the client’s needs and circumstances and then lead into your qualifications.

Define the value. Where you are asked for a solution to a specific application or need, provide a measure of
the value your recommendation offers (Return on Investment (ROI), Net Present Value (NPV) etc.) even if it is not requested. In situations where the RFP defines the measure of value, don’t hesitate to supplement your response with other interpretations that better demonstrate value in terms that are specific to the client’s operation. Remember to include a rationale for using these more descriptive measures.

Follow the rules. Unless you have a very good reason not to, you should follow the structure provided by the Request for Proposal. In fact, your proposal will be easier to read if you precede each section by restating the question to which you are responding.

Make a pocketbook version. If you are responding to a particularly large and complex RFP, one way to stand out from the crowd is to produce a small-format summary proposal to accompany your formal RFP response. Commonly, this document is a 5 1/2 * x 8 1/2* booklet (8 1/2* x 11* pages folded in half) with 5-20 pages of content that can slip into the front cover pocket of most binders. The pocket book version is a glorified summary of your main proposal, but it allows you to control the structure, look and feel of the document just as with an unsolicited proposal. Make sure there are no restrictions in the RFP that prevent you from including a pocketbook version.

General tips

You have to pay attention to the details to make your proposal or RFP response really sing. Here are some tips:

Personalize. Don’t give the client anonymous boilerplate material. Use the names of the company or organization and, where applicable, specific individuals throughout the document. Like your statement of the client’s needs, the personalized approach reinforces their belief that you listened and truly understand them.

Write with style. Keep your writing short and concise. Avoid jargon, unless it is unique to the client’s industry. Using their jargon will convey your understanding of their business.

Use simple active verbs and keep passive verbs to a minimum. For example, say, “We recommend …” rather than “We are recommending” or “It is recommended.” Passive verbs take energy out of the message and add unnecessary clutter.

Check, check and check for spelling and grammar errors. Nothing says, “You’re unimportant” like a typo.

Use illustrations. Use graphs, images, bullet lists and highlighted text or quotations to reinforce key messages and add impact to the proposal. Readers pressed for time tend to skim proposals. By putting the key points in their face, you stand to make a better impression.

Name it. When preparing unsolicited proposals, give your document a title that conveys the solution to the customer need. “Boiler Plant Improvements for Superior Efficiency and Reduced Maintenance” says much more to a customer than “Boiler Plant Consulting Proposal.”

Tell them what you’re going to say. Use the cover letter and executive summary to prepare your client about your understanding of their needs and your solution. These first impressions are important to make clients receptive and to develop trust early.

Keep it short. Avoid the temptation to include peripheral or supporting information “just in case.” Your clients don’t have the time and none of it will make up for a lack of quality content.


By now you are probably thinking, “This is going to double the amount of time it takes to write a proposal!” Possibly, but that may not be a bad thing. If your improved proposals increase your success rate by just 5%, consider it an excellent investment. Furthermore, the added time will be most noticeable in the first few proposals after making the changes. As you make this approach your standard, it will get faster.

To take productivity one step further, you can create superior proposals and turn them around faster by using information technology. There are tools available that can “automate” the proposal process, giving speed, greater consistency and higher quality. Proposal software can help you by keeping your proposals properly structured and by storing multiple versions of standard sections for inclusion as required (perhaps different versions of corporate capabilities for different industries). The software personalizes the proposal by filling in database fields for customer name, location and other pertinent information. The table on page 51 provides a partial list of companies with proposal software tools.

In addition to speeding proposal production, these software programs eliminate the potential for errors that can creep in when you cut-and-paste using a word processor package. If proposal software saves you from using the wrong customer name just once, it is worth the investment.

Special versions of these software applications are even available for responding to RFPs. Some can scan the RFP, identify the questions and suggest specific responses from the database of proposal components. In most applications, the software will assemble all the parts and populate a document template in MS Word or other word processing program for final editing and formatting.

Proposals are an excellent opportunity to market your firm’s distinctiveness and capabilities to your clients. If you follow a disciplined sales approach, listen to your customer’s needs and prepare focused persuasive documents, you will view proposals as an opportunity, not a chore.





Dan MacDougall, MBA, P.Eng is president of Naveris Enterprises, a marketing consulting firm in Toronto, e-mail


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