In every project proposal lurk potentially costly, hidden items that can drain consultants of their time, energy, and resources. These threats often manifest themselves as miscalculated labor or unspecified client and consultant expectations.
We asked consultants and managers who field consultant bids about the items most often omitted from a consultant's project proposal. What can unexpectedly cost consultants time and money, and what will most try the client's patience?
To protect your interests and provide better customer satisfaction, keep in mind the following five areas when writing up your project bid.
Project management time
Before you set a dollar amount on any bid, consider the project management time involved, suggested Madeline Brane, a project manager for 19 years at IBM and most recently for a consulting firm in Silicon Valley.
Time for weekly status meetings, travel to and from a client's site, creation of status reports, phone calls, and e-mail add up, Brane said, and should be accounted for in a proposal, under its own section, as billable time.
"Status meetings—the stuff technical people think is stupid or doesn't take any time—they need to add that in and charge for that," Brane said.
Also, including detail about what the client can expect in terms of such status reports aids in improving communication. "If you're going to give them a status report once a week, give an example of what it looks like," she said.
In a rush to submit a proposal with a fixed dollar figure that would grab a potential client's attention, a consulting company Brane previously worked for omitted all project management time to win the bid.
The company garnered the high-profile account, but as a result, Brane estimated the company did nearly five times the amount of work for the client beyond the original bid partially because the way the project would be managed between the two was left in the air.
"Project management is the first thing…cut out. They think it doesn't make any difference, or that they can do it," Brane said. "It's invisible."
Project boundaries and communication goals
Another consequence Brane's employer suffered by not spelling out the project management and communication details in advance was that scope creep set in, and the project spiraled out of control for the consulting firm.
Setting communication expectations in a proposal, especially for the early stages of a project, can curb such scope creep later, explained Kristin Linder, principal, K. Linder & Associates.
As an IT sales and communications consultant, Linder said she believes "reality checks" delivered on a regular basis in the form of planned status meetings and reports to the client keep their expectations in line and prevent them from adding items down the road.
"You do these regular checks so you don't wait a month for the client to say, 'We needed this and we needed that,’" Linder said. "A single-proprietor consultant might think this is an expensive proposition, but think about what it would cost if you didn't do that."
For Brane, as a result of the experience with the client from hell, future bids included increased detail that set bounds for a project and gave examples of what the deliverables might look like. At the same time, she also began to include what a project was not.
For example, Brane explained, "I put, 'This is a non-e-commerce system, but it could be expanded to include e-commerce. That would be bid under a separate proposal and it is outside of the scope of this work.'"
Before you can complete a project for a client, often that client must first take other actions to enable your work to begin, explained Holly Parrish, an IT attorney at Weintraub, Genshlea, Chediak and Sproul law firm in Sacramento, CA.
To assure those actions are taken, Parrish suggested consultants list a set of "assumptions" in the bid that tick off what the client is responsible for, and when. For example, maybe the client must first purchase certain hardware or software, or a Web site or other application must launch before work can begin. The list could save both the client and you a major headache later, said Parrish.
"It's just being proactive. What are the responsibilities and duties of each party?" Parrish said. "The more detailed that consultant is, the better chance the consultant has."
One of Parrish's recent cases dealt with this situation, she noted. The client and consultant firm deadlocked over what the client was to provide before the consultants could begin work. The two sides were able to agree, but not without hours spent by both parties determining who was responsible.
"The expectation needs to be set up in the proposal, that in order for this project to be a success, the client has to be doing their part too, because it's a two-way street," Linder said. "Most deals these days are about both parties."
Hiring outside help
Besides time taken to manage the project and communicate with the client, the time you take to hire and work with any subcontractors should also be figured in, according to Shelley Grabel, a Delaware-based design consultant.
"If you've got three people working for you, then you've got a level of administration around them that you have to include—that means their time and materials processing," Grabel said.
In addition to managing a freelancer or a team of contractors, factor in the time to check the materials submitted to you. In one project Brane worked on, the Web site required translation into almost 20 languages. While the consulting firm had agreed to hire outside translators, Brane had not planned enough time to work with them. "I naively thought, 'Oh I don't have to consider that in,'" she noted.
Once she had the materials, the resulting foreign language sites also required "several testing cycles" to get the project in gear, Brane said.
Testing time, finishing criteria
Planning for such testing should be extended to the entire project, suggested Grabel, and the exact testing specifications in the proposal should be spelled out—including which test results are acceptable. You should also specify how the testing environment will be set up.
In one situation, a testing environment Grabel had planned was out of sync with what the client had expected. While both parties were able to come to an agreement, Grabel believes the situation could have been avoided had it been initially spelled out.
"You set it up in the beginning," Grabel said. "You don't want to deal with a situation where you say, 'OK, I'm going to test this and it's going to work on a single server with 100 users,’ then come to find out down the road that [the client] wants it to work with 100,000 users and with a load balance between 100 servers."
Besides considering the way the alpha and beta deliverables were to be tested, Brane discovered through trial and error that the developers she managed included their own internal testing time before they released the goods to her. Brane suggested that in a bid, consultants include time for their personal QA testing before they turn over materials to the client.
Once materials are finished, Brane also recommended consultants include in their bids "completion criteria"—how the project must operate—for it to be deemed a success. Grabel agreed, and said consultants and clients must "get the agreement up front...that says, 'I will consider this a tested environment if X, Y, and Z function, and if these other things don't happen.'"