Play nice: five strategies to ensure you get the best proposals out of consultants

Guest post from Maria Ross, founder and chief strategist of Red Slice  a branding and marketing consultancy based in the US. She is the author of Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget available on

We all know that entrepreneurs and business owners can’t go it alone. There’s just too much to be done and only so much that we individually know.

There are countless resources about hiring the right people and managing staff. But no one really ever teaches you how to effectively screen, hire and work with consultants. This often results in frustration, unmet expectations and feelings of resentment – on both sides.  I’m sure you’d love to have the most fruitful working relationships with your consultants and vendors. After all, you’re hiring them to make your business more successful, achieve your goals and delight your customers. And honest, knowledgeable and successful consultants want those same things. They want to please you and have a real, positive impact on your business.

In order to properly scope out a project and tailor it to your specific needs, consultants often engage in Discovery. Discovery starts when the professional has a preliminary conversation with you about your needs and objectives. Often this starts with a free initial call or consultation.

However, a consultant can only give away so much for free. They will spend more time digging into Discovery once the contract is signed so they can provide a more accurate assessment and statement of work for the project.  Discovery is the research and fact-finding phase of the project itself. But it definitely begins at that initial meeting. 

So how can you best prepare to ensure that first call and the subsequent proposal process go smoothly? By following these five simple tips, you can avoid frustration, start your project much faster - and become a star client for whom vendors will bend over backwards.

Tip #1: Articulate Your Needs and Goals

It’s not smart to waste people’s time by setting up a meeting or asking for a broad proposal for a consultant’s services. As mentioned, there’s probably a lot they can do depending on what you need. Be clear about why you are engaging with this person or firm. What are you trying to achieve? Why are you hiring them now?

“Increasing sales” is not specific enough. We all want to do that. But what is really at the heart of your need? A new market opportunity? A changing competitive landscape? A need for an updated brand story or look and feel? You have to define your goals so the consultant knows how to structure the project and which inputs are required.

Tip #2: Define Success

How will you know you’re successful on the project when it’s over? Some consultants can help you figure this out along the way: we’ve done this for clients that have engaged on a brand strategy with us. But they at least had an idea of what they wanted to track – even if it was fairly broad, like “Boost employee morale” or “Generate more social media buzz.”

You can work with the consultant you hire on this, but you absolutely have to have some idea in your own mind about what success looks like. When I work with clients, I often ask them to do a visioning exercise about writing their newspaper headline a year from now. What would it say? What would the customer quote be? This helps us get an idea of their desired “to be” state that would make them a happy client.

Tip #3: Be Honest

If you are merely information gathering or looking to contrast another vendor’s proposal, be honest Creating a useful proposal takes time, which costs money if you are a consultant. Every hour you spend on developing proposals for someone who has not yet paid you is an hour of revenue lost.  I don’t think entrepreneurs see things this way. True, there is always some business development investment cost.  But just bear in mind how much work the process takes. A good consultant invests time in a Discovery call and then spends a few hours reviewing your information and customizing the proposal – even if it’s based on a repeatable process.

Be courteous and honest. If you are just shopping around for a new designer for something a year or two down the road, tell them. If you just want ballpark costs for a basic 10-page website but have no intention of building one yet, tell them.  And if you change plans or delay the project, give them the courtesy of letting them know. I’ve worked on preparing and sending proposals and literally never heard from the prospect again. That’s just rude. Professionally and honestly close the loop so everyone can move on. You won’t hurt their feelings, I promise!

Tip #4: Determine a Realistic Timeframe – and a Deadline

Consultants budget their time and resources based on bandwidth.  Sometimes the nature of that work results in feast or famine.  That means anything you can do to help them determine if they can take you on or not is important. Can they slot your work in around the work they already have? It will also help determine if it’s unreasonable to ask for what you are asking in that timeframe.

I’ve had people call and say they want a full brand developed for them (strategy, messaging and design work) for their launch in four weeks. I’m not kidding.  I’ve also had people call to ask for a website – designed, copywritten, approved, coded and tested – in two weeks.

Can you get those things from someone, somewhere? I’m sure you could, but I can’t vouch for quality. 

Plan ahead. What is the compelling event that requires this project? Work backwards from that. If there is none– not a trade show or a merger or whatnot – then make one up. Declare a due date. Open-ended projects will drag on and on, I promise. Decisions get punted, feedback gets delayed and everyone gets frustrated.

An old consulting adage I love: Projects have three parameters: Good, Fast and Cheap.  But you can never get more than two of these from any one vendor! There’s good and fast (which costs a lot), good and cheap (which means you may need to be flexible on timing) or fast and cheap (which is almost always never good!)

Tip #5: Have a Budget Number in Mind – and Share This Information

The most frustrating thing to a consultant is when a client does not offer up any idea on what they are looking to spend.  You have to have some sort of number in mind and we’ll tell you if we feel it’s unrealistic. No one wants to waste time on crafting a proposal that you may not even be able to afford. If you are unsure what things cost, just ask what a typical range is on that type of project before going into proposal stage. But you also have to be a responsible business owner and have a grip on what you can afford to invest to achieve your goal.

What is the number in your plan or even in your head? Share this with the consultant. We’re not mind-readers: we all need to be adults and get expectations out on the table. If you have not budgeted money, consultants get worried if they will actually get paid. So go back to your financials and figure out what you have to spend.

Be open and honest. I’d much rather know upfront if a client cannot afford my services and then try to help him find a resource who is better suited for them than waste billable hours on scoping a project  that may go nowhere. Or I can tell them what they can afford to do based on their budget and help educate them. They may not be able to get all the bells and whistles, but at least something can be arranged.

Summing Up

In order to get the best work out of a consultant to grow your business, you need to:

  • Know what you want and why you’re doing the project
  • Define what success looks like at the end
  • Be open and honest
  • Determine a realistic timeframe and provide a deadline
  • Determine a budget and share this with the consultant

If you follow these simple steps, you are on your way to establishing healthy and fruitful business relationships that will help your business shine. 

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