In my previous IT Consultant post, I offered a few pointers on doing research as you head into an initial meeting with a potential new services client. If all goes well in these meetings, your next step in the courtship may well be to work up a proposal outlying a working relationship between the two parties.

Obviously, if you are responding to a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) for a specific project, knocking out the “proposal” part of the equation would have been the first step in the process – your first meeting (if you were lucky enough to get one) would be to discuss minutia. And at least in that scenario, you enjoy the good fortune of having a clear outline of what the client is looking for specifically.

However, if the client is looking for an ongoing services relationship – let’s say for SEO or business analyst hours – you must describe how you are going to meet its needs or fix its problem. Because for some clients, all they really know for certain is that they have a problem.

The trick is to explain the value you will bring to the relationship without telling the client exactly what you will do, at least in its entirety. This may sound a bit duplicitous at first, but remember that we are talking about scenarios where the client is really searching for expertise, not manpower.

Using the SEO example, if you spell out all 15 points of your page construction and metadata audit up front, you’ve taken all the mystery out of the relationship, so to speak. As a services consultant, you often find yourself making a mold for clients. After the contract is signed, your work becomes the client’s IP, but until that time, you can’t just tell them everything. And be forewarned – some of them will want you to tell them everything before that contract signing.

Here are three tips that I have found useful in creating meaningful, but flexible, proposals for a service relationship.

1: Focus on objectives

This is based on our scenario of a client looking for expertise, not deliverables that have already been defined via an RFP, so you need to describe a phased course of action. Dipping back into the SEO example, your proposal might look something like:

  • Audit page construction and metadata strategy
  • Review and modify page copy, if needed
  • Review and propose improvements to page load and performance issues, if needed.

Throw in one or two examples of potential tactics to illustrate your expertise and that you have reviewed the client’s need set in some detail. So, that third bullet point might flesh out to be:

  • Review and propose improvements to page load and performance issues, if needed.

– Minify stylesheets

– Move images to dedicated server

Or some other common-sense solutions that the client would probably arrive at on their own, after a little research. It gives you credibility without sharing the secret recipe.

2: Describe the anticipated range of benefits of each objective

Don’t make specific promises in your proposal unless you are absolutely certain of the results. In the world of services or strategic consulting, that’s tricky at best, but everybody is focused on deliverables. Describe a range of the benefits (e.g., page load time can increase up to 30 percent) to set reasonable expectations.

3: Prioritize your objectives into three categories

Every business wants the most payoff for the least expense. It’s a tad short-sighted, but that’s the way it is. Break your objectives into three categories: Vital, Best Practice, and Recommended (or however you want to describe it). Let the client know that undertaking the first three items on the proposal will create 60 percent or more of the projected benefit (that’s usually the way things work out) and lay the underpinnings of future incremental gains. Again, it will lend credibility to your proposal, and it will help the client evaluate its own resource commitments to the project, outside your fee. The last thing you want to do is get into a project with no internal buy-in or attached elbow grease.