Defining the Customer’s Commitments in a Proposal

In addition to clearly defining what we are not doing as part of a project (see What You’re Forgetting to Include in Your Proposal), we need to define what we need the customer to do to make the project successful. There are no magic wands, and vendors almost always need some level of help to deliver results. Sometimes this help is minimal. Sometimes it means weeks or months of close collaboration with key personnel who already have busy schedules. Sometimes it means access to sensitive documents or data. Sometimes it means obtaining, cleansing, and stitching together information that is available in theory, but not in practice. Typically, you need people to do things they don’t normally do, may not fully know how to do, on top of schedules that don’t have huge gaps marked “save for important future project.”

In my pricing consulting projects, 50-80% of the effort might involve gathering and transforming data into something useable. The exact percentage was unknowable at the start of the project, but was usually directly proportional to how confident project leaders were that they had the data at their fingertips. The ones who knew they didn’t have it could provide a more realistic view of the data challenges than the ones who didn’t know they didn’t know yet. Depending on your area of expertise, you will know exactly what critical issues are likely to cause problems. In these pricing projects, I wanted to make sure that not only did we have access to data, but also to people who could help interpret the inevitable discrepancies. Is the database wizard on vacation for 2 weeks at the start of a project? You might want to adjust the schedule.

Be clear and professional about your needs without being threatening. Think of a doctor, describing what they need a patient to do before, during, and after surgery. One critical issue you need to address, without sounding punitive, is what happens when the client doesn’t deliver. Does the project come to a halt, along with your billing? Do deadlines and budgets extend? Do deliverables get cut? You don’t want to turn this into another negotiation, or a battlefield that encourages clients to find fault with your work. At the same time, even clients with the best intentions need to know that the project deliverables involve real commitments from both parties.

I’ve had the best results by discussing this openly with the project sponsor, and crafting the wording for the proposal together. This not only means that this section will get approved by the sponsor and her peers, but that you develop a good working relationship based on everyone being successful before the real start of the project. If the sponsor refuses to have a reasonable discussion and insists that you carry all the risk, that’s a warning side that you should walk if at all possible. Most executives want results and they want to work with professionals who will help them get results, and being able to describe what you expect of them and how you can help will reinforce your credibility. People don’t generally try to find the cheapest surgeon, after all.

(Sometimes, even the best-laid plans don’t work out. After carefully defining the needs for a major industrial manufacturer during a paid scoping session, I once showed up to start the real project to find that the project leader had just accepted a job at a competitor and would be unable to help us.)

Got any good/funny/sobering stories on this topic? Leave a comment…

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