Landing a new client is, as everyone knows, a difficult process. For every ten RFP responses your write, only a handful will result in actual work. And when you consider the effort that goes into building an RFP response, that means many hours of work that result in very little payoff. But it’s important to remember that the RFP is not about the researcher, it’s about the client. Writing a proposal, then, is more than a matter of research plan design, it is the first step in a courtship.
The proposal is, in effect, an intellectual (not legal) contract between you and the person or people asking for work to be done. It specifies what you will do, how you will do it, how you will interpret the results, and how you will make them useful for the client. In specifying what will be done it also gives criteria for determining whether it is an actuality done. In approving the proposal and awarding you the bid, the client gives their best judgment that the approach to the research is reasonable and likely to yield the anticipated results. And those results are about more than the research – they are about making the client look good in the eyes of their peers. The research may in fact demonstrate the smartest, most productive, most innovative work imaginable, but if it doesn’t address the explicit and implicit needs of the client, it won’t get off the ground.
The objective in writing a proposal is to describe what you will do, why it should be done, how you will do it and how it will benefit the client. A vague, weak or fuzzy proposal can lead to a long, painful, and often unsuccessful bid A clean, well thought-out, proposal not only secures a job, it forms the backbone for the long-term relationship with the client.
Proposals help you estimate the size of a project. Don’t make the project too big or too small – make it fit the needs of the client. This isn’t to say that the quality of the work should be compromised or that there’s no room for adding imaginative elements to the work, but it is to say that it needs to fit the scope of what a potential client has asked for. If they need a needs assessment and only have $50K to spend, then writing a proposal based on a lengthy, expensive process will be fruitless. If you’re unwilling to do the smaller job, walk away. The client will remember that frankness when they do have the time and money to conduct a project that fits your recommendation. The key point is simply this; write the proposal that fits what they’ve asked for first.
Proof read your proposal before it is sent. It is a simple enough task that is too often overlooked. Many proposals are sent out with idiotic mistakes, omissions, and errors of all sorts. Having been on both sides of the vendor fence, it is amazing how quickly a simple mistake can destroy all credibility. Clients have seen proposals come in with research schedules pasted directly from other proposals unchanged, with dates, prices and methods that are clearly irrelevant research tasks. Proposals have been submitted to the wrong person at the company. Proposals have been submitted with misspellings in the title. These proposals were, of course, not successful. Stupid things like this kill a proposal. It is easy to catch them with a simple, but careful, proof reading. Don’t spend six or eight weeks writing a proposal just to kill it with stupid mistakes that are easily prevented.
Finally, no matter how much experience, training, and expertise you have, everyone retains a bit of skepticism. “Does this guy really knew what he was talking about?,” is the question on the minds of those involved in the selection process. Remember that knowing your stuff isn’t enough. You will need to answer questions, make changes and compromise.