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  • Writer's pictureDeb Zahn

Consulting Business Development Process, Part 2: Proposal to Repeat Business

For folks who are new to consulting or still need to build up a business, the path to getting in front of prospective clients and, from there, getting all the way to securing a contract can be a mysterious and daunting process.

Once you know how it works, business development doesn’t have to be a mystery or stressful. It tends to follow a typical process that can be broken down into manageable steps. The typical process is:

In my previous blog, Business Development Process, Part 1: Prospects to Proposals, we walked through the steps that got you to the client asking you for a proposal (Steps 1-2 in the graphic above). In this blog, I’ll talk about how to get from the proposal to repeat business (Steps 3-5 in the graphic above). I’ll explain what the priorities are and what some of the typical things are that you can do to get to the next step. I’ll also give you some tips about what I and other consultants have found works best.

3. Submit a Proposal

Congrats! The client has asked you for a proposal. This is a great step because now your chances of getting a contract have increased. Why do I say increased and not that you’ll get a contract for sure? Well, the truth is that not every proposal you write will end in a contract, even if they ask you to submit a proposal. Don’t worry. That’s typical and can happen for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with you. However, you want to eliminate anything that may have to do with you or your proposal.

The priority in this step is to write a compelling, irresistible proposal so that you get a contract and get paid what you should for the value you will bring to them.

Before you put anything into a proposal, make sure you are crystal clear about what outcome they want you to help them achieve, how they define success, what role they expect to play versus what they want you to do, what key parameters and dependencies there are, and any other details you need to create a winning proposal. If you did not get that in your first meeting, you can create a draft scope document based on what you heard in the meeting and suggest that you do a call with the decisionmaker(s) to review and adjust it. This is when you should also ask them to tell you if they have any budget or timing parameters. If they are not comfortable telling you what their budget parameters are, you can nudge once by saying something like, “I don’t want to put anything in front of you that isn’t anywhere near your ballpark, so any guidance you can give me would be helpful.” If they still won’t tell you, you can suggest alternatives (e.g., high-, medium-, and low-cost scope and budget options) in your proposal to increase the likelihood that you hit their budget parameters and select one of those options from the proposal for the actual contract.

The details matter because contracts are one of your primary tools to clarify and manage client expectations after you get the gig. That’s why it is critical that you clarify the details for the proposal. If you need help thinking through what kind of details you need to consider, I cover all the ins and outs of how to do that in my blog How to Use Contracts to Manage Client Expectations. You can also click here if you also want an easy-peasy contract checklist for what to put in contracts to clarify and manage expectations.

Be Responsive

This may seem obvious, but it’s essential that you create your proposal and get it to them quickly. You want to do this while they still have the glow from meeting with you! You should send them a proposal within 1 to 2 days after the meeting. If for some reason you can’t do that, then at least make sure they get it within 4 days. I’ve seen new consultants who are eager to get work wait a couple weeks to send proposals to clients. Then they were disappointed that the client moved on. Remember, you’re giving them an experience of what it will be like to work with you. The best experience you can give them is that you care enough about what they need that you’ll respond quickly.

Focus on Outcomes First

Your proposal needs to start with what outcomes you will help them achieve. The first thing they see in the proposal needs to be about them and their needs and desires, not you and how fantabulous you are. This will show that you listened and understand what they need you to help them achieve. If you discussed any big concerns or issues that create urgency, name those, indicate how you will address them, and indicate what the positive outcomes they will achieve through working with you. Basically, you’re saying, “I get it and will solve it.”

Focus on the “How” Second

I find that most clients want to see a logical articulation of the process you will take them through that will yield the outcome they want. Showing them that you know how to get to their outcome helps you build trust and credibility. Being specific about what you will do and how you will do it will also make it easier for you to price it. Also include any parameters and dependencies that impact your ability to work with them and get them to the outcome they want. For example, if the outcome depends on the client completing certain tasks or giving you access to certain individuals or information, include those specific dependencies the contract.

Sell Credibility Last

Include language in the proposal about your firm, team, and/or yourself so that you demonstrate your credibility. The person who wants to hire you may need to demonstrate to others or confirm for themselves that they are making the right choice. So, include customized language about who you are and your expertise or experience. It’s smart to have standard boilerplate descriptions and bios but it’s worth the extra step to change the language so that it matches what they most care about. If anyone else were going to look at it, you would want them to think that hiring you is a no-brainer. What’s more, you want them to think that hiring you at your price is worth it!

Lose the Fluff

Now, a word of caution. You have to sell yourself and what you’re going to do for the client but avoid unnecessary language or visuals. I’ve seen many proposals that have a lot of words or colorful visuals that ultimately don’t convey anything of meaning or value. In addition to keeping your proposal crisp and clear, avoiding “filler” language will also show your client what you’ll be like to work with. All value, no fluff!

4. Close the Deal

The priority of this step is to get a signed contract so that you can start helping the client.

Remember, not every proposal you write will end in a contract, even if you’re asked to submit a proposal and even if your proposal rocks. However, many of them will.

When I submit a proposal, I usually let the client know that I’m happy to discuss any changes they’d like to see. By doing this, I demonstrate that I’m flexible and care about what they need—and, again, that shows them what it will be like to work with me. Sometimes clients are good to go with the proposal I give them and sign it right away. Other times they want to negotiate or clarify some of the details of the scope or the terms and conditions.

Sometimes I don’t hear back from the client—even with potential clients that asked me to rush to get them a proposal! That’s just the way it is sometimes. It’s perfectly appropriate to call them or send 2 or 3 emails if you haven’t heard back in 4 to 5 days. In the first call or email, I usually check to make sure they got the proposal and let them know I’d be happy to talk about it. That prompts most folks to reply. If I don’t hear back in another 4 to 5 days, I usually send an email saying I’m just checking in to find out if they’ve had a chance to review the proposal. If they reply and say they’ve been busy and haven’t had a chance to look at it, I might email them one more time in a week. But, unless I know the client well, that’s the last email I send. If I don’t hear anything back, I leave them be. My experience is that it’s more important to stay on good terms with them than to push hard to get a contract. Remember, relationships are primary!

5. Deliver Value and Get Repeat Business

Let’s say it all goes well and, boom, you have a contract. You’re done with business development now, right? Nope. The business development process does not end at getting the contract. The last step is to give the client your best. The best process. The best work product. The best experience. That’s because one of the goals of business development should be to build up a pool of business and regular clients who you work with over time.

This approach helps you avoid the “feast or famine” trap that many consultants experience—that is, they cycle through having too much business to having no business. I’ve found that delighting clients by consistently delivering high value means that they come back to you over and over, and they encourage everyone they know to work with you. They become your best marketers and, therefore, your best sources of effective business development.

If your clients are truly delighted with what you did for them, they will often come back for more without you doing anything. However, you can increase the chances of them coming back again and again by continuing to deliver value to them even when you aren’t in a contract. There are a number of ways to do this. You can include them on an email list to which you send periodic emails with high-value, relevant content. You can keep an eye out or search for opportunities for them that match what they care about and send it to them with a friendly note. You can offer them free or discounted access to your online trainings or webinars that, again, offer high-value, relevant content. No matter what, make sure that the opportunities or offers are about them and not only about things you can help them with. That’s a way to show that you care about them regardless of whether you currently have a contract with them. When they express interest in pursuing one of the opportunities you’ve sent their way, this often leads to a discussion about a new gig and submitting a new proposal.

Some of my best clients market me to other potential clients without me asking. But, if you know that clients were thrilled by what you did for them and trust you, it’s also OK to ask them to promote you or introduce you to other folks they think you could be helpful to. Some clients love doing that because they get to show how wise they are to have found and be able to recommend an excellent consultant. Then make sure you honor the trust they showed in recommending you by delighting the client they sent to you!

If you follow these steps, you’ll be on your way to building the consulting business you want! Over time, you may even find—like I did—that you have to do less and less business development because you’ll be in consistent high demand. That will help keep revenue coming in and minimize the time you spend doing non-billable things like business development.

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