The days when clients would engage you to conduct an assessment as part of a ‘paid selling opportunity’ are long over. Instead, clients want you to spend your own time to understand their problem and propose how to solve it. Further, preparing a competitive RFP response requires senior practitioners to spend hours gathering information, responding to questions, and checking for referrals and conflicts. As one client put it:

You do a third of the work before the project even starts.

While it’s tempting to reply to every opportunity that comes your way, the reality is that when proposals require such a significant time commitment, you have to prioritize and focus on the ones where you’re most likely to win. And the best way to figure out where you’re most likely to win is to work backwards from the four factors that make a client most likely to choose your firm in the first place.

Four questions to ask before preparing a proposal

1. Do we know what the client’s problem really is?

Before you even move into the proposal phase with a prospective client, you need to make sure you have a clear understanding of what they’re trying to solve. If you can’t clearly articulate the client’s challenge in terms of their business, you need to either spend more time trying to diagnose the client’s problem or ask clarifying questions about their RFP. It’s not enough to say that they need a specific offering or service – if you don’t know the problem driving the need, you won’t be able to design a solution to address it.

2. Is this a problem my firm can solve with our toolkit?

Clients need to know that you not only understand their problem, but that you’re equipped to solve it. Further, you need to know that if you win the work, you’ll be able to deliver it profitably. This isn’t a question about the capabilities of any individuals in the firm, it’s whether or not your normal processes and practices are well suited to the matter at hand. In most firms, there’s expertise and skill available beyond what the firm is naturally designed to handle. But you’re less likely to win business, and less likely to succeed in the business that you do win, if you continuously pursue projects that you’re not set up for.

3. Do we know anything about the client’s problem?

If you’re going to win business solving a problem, you need to know something about it. A client wants to see that you have more than a passing familiarity with their issues, they want to know that you have expertise. That can come from past experience in the firm, but also from a team member who’s worked on similar problems, someone who was in the industry, or thorough research about the scenario. Where that knowledge comes from is less important than the fact that you have it and can demonstrate it to the client. Understanding the problem also protects your firm from the sorts of scope-destroying surprises that plague new projects.

4. What makes your firm unique?

Finally, to win a proposal you need to have some sort of unique advantage that helps you stand out from the crowd. Maybe you’re local to the client’s business and able to provide a higher level of service, or you have a unique perspective on the problem, or you have already worked with the client in another area and have a deeper understanding of their business. Perhaps you have a network of partners, a deeper bench of expertise, or some proprietary tools in your toolkit. If you’re not responding to a competitive RFP, your unique advantage may be that you’re the only one pointing out the problem to the client. In any event, there needs to be something that makes you different, that gives a client a reason to choose you over others.

How do you use these questions?

Prioritizing your efforts

If you look at these questions, you’ll see that they aren’t binary yes or no – there are shades of gray in each of them. Rather than giving you a go/no-go decision, the questions help you to prioritize your resources by focusing on the best opportunities available. When times are slow and you have fewer opportunities, you may invest in proposals that don’t look as good. When things are busy, you’ll need to take a pass on opportunities that might otherwise pursue. Either way, structuring your thinking around how you decide where to invest energy will help you avoid common traps like listening to the most demanding rainmaker, or pursuing an opportunity with a big contract value but a small chance of winning.

Identifying areas of opportunity

Tracking your answers to these questions also provides you with good market intelligence. If you’re missing out on opportunities because you don’t expertise in a certain area, you may need to invest in a lateral hire who can round out your practice. You may also realize that your marketing is bringing in a lot of leads that you’re not well equipped to win, and you need to rethink how you present your firm.

Making your efforts more efficient

Finally, these questions are helpful to answer in the qualifying process because they naturally progress into the questions you need to answer in your proposal. Answering them earlier will reduce the amount of time you have to spend before a contract is signed and make your business development process more efficient.