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Starting a consultancy business: 6. Proposition design and pitching

In this series, Calvert Markham, former Director of the Centre, provides basic guidance on starting and running a consultancy business.

Consultancy as a service is intangible so much of the work in starting a consultancy business is about defining what it is that you are selling, the terms on which clients may engage your services, and promoting your services to those who might be interested. Articles 1 – 4 in this series covered these matters and in last month’s article 5 we looked at selling as a means of securing an invitation to tender (ITT) – the second stage of the consultancy sales process that includes:

  • promotion — in which you are seeking to establish relationships with potential clients, aiming to open a dialogue with them;
  • prospection — in which you are discussing opportunities to work together and securing an ITT;
  • proposition design — where you are fashioning the details of how you would address an ITT;
  • pitching — in which you present the proposition to the client.

We now move on to proposition design, usually documented in a proposal as a response to an ITT, and then pitched to the client.

It’s useful to have a checklist of what needs to be in a proposition; I refer to this as terms of reference, based simply on the following elements:

WHY? (sets the context for the project)

Key questions: Who is the client – the person who is commissioning this work – and what do they want to achieve?

A consulting project contributes to a client’s objectives and the benefits need to be couched in their terms; you must sell them what they need in relation to what they want.

Individuals also have personal objectives; ask ‘what are the unwritten objectives of this client?’

WHAT? (the project objectives)

Key questions:

1. What are the issues or problems that you are going to address?

It is also sometimes important to be clear on the presenting issues that you are not going to address.

2. What are the deliverables the client is going to get?

For each issue the client should know what you are going to provide that will help them address it.

HOW? (execution of the project)

Key questions:

1. What is the methodology or process that you are going to use that will lead from issue to deliverable?

Consulting practices sometimes have standard methodologies that they can use.

2. What is the programme of work?

This shows how the methodology will work out in real time.

3. What resources are needed?

This includes what the client needs to provide as well as your own consulting resources.

4. How will the project be managed?

The structure and process of the organisational arrangements need to be agreed to ensure that the project is embedded in the client’s systems.

Terms of reference will of course be project and client specific, but a proposal should also contain the more general terms of business (common to most of your proposals) which cover the other contractual elements in the proposal.

Ideally a proposal should simply document what has already been informally agreed with the client, but the insight it provides, although of great help, may also prompt a rethink. It’s not unusual for a client to want to change the work specification, which does of course add to the time needed for the sales process.

A proposal may need to be circulated to a client’s colleagues for their approval, so write it assuming this, starting with an executive summary of the key points. Bear in mind that your proposal may provide the only evidence that decision makers have about you and so it needs to do justice to your consulting capability.

Sometimes you may be called to present your proposal to a client’s executive team. It’s worth checking beforehand what the client wants from this meeting. Can you take your proposal as read or do you need to go through it in detail? Is the meeting aimed at checking the chemistry between you and their team? Should you run the session as a short project definition workshop? (And even when assured by your client contact what is needed, be prepared to adjust,  in case the reality is not what was expected).

You won’t convert all submitted proposals to sales, but whatever happens, get your prospective clients to agree to a win/lose review following their decision; this is a helpful input to improve your selling performance.


For more on this and other related topics, see Calvert’s book Mastering Management Consultancy


Sunday 19th September 2021
Swan taking off