Someone once defined a proposal letter to me as a letter “designed to quickly acquaint the reader with necessary information, while also convincing the reader that the letter’s author is the best choice for the job.” She went on to say that it “typically includes a brief discussion of the problems the proposal is meant to address and an overview of the salient information in the proposal.”
The State of Accounting Proposal Letters
In my 40-year career in accounting, and especially in my new role as a consultant and trainer for the accounting industry, I still believe that this definition is one of the most complete descriptions for a proposal letter I have ever seen. In my own experience, I have had an opportunity to write, read and review several hundred proposal letters. This is what I typically see: (1) they are not brief; (2) they do not limit themselves to sharing the “necessary information” and, most importantly, (3) they often don’t address the problems that a proposal is meant to discuss.
What do the proposals look like that cross my desk? I see mini brochures. They are generally well-written but wordy, they explain what seem to be all the features an accounting firm offers (even if not needed in this situation), and they try to position those features as benefits for the prospective client with little to back them up.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at the last proposal you authored or assisted with. How often does it say “we?” Instead of talking about yourself and your firm, how many times do you refer to the prospect? Count the “we’s.” If I was writing a proposal today, I would like that ratio to be about 70/30, with the 70 being references to the prospect and 30 being references to your firm. I’ll bet if you are honest—and what CPA is not honest—the result is at best 40/60, but most are worse. And the same is true for prospect calls—how many times do you say “we”?
But don’t fear. If you find yourself a victim of “we” syndrome, there is help. Here are some guidelines for conducting your prospect call and crafting an improved proposal letter. These together should help you win more engagements.
- Make sure you begin all prospect meetings by asking about their needs and aspirations. Your goal is to listen and to gain an understanding of what services are needed from you. Avoid offering solutions, just sit back and actively listen.
We like to think of this as naive listening. In other words, listen like you’re meeting the prospect for the very first time. Think of it like a first date. As you listen, try not to express any preconceived notions of what the prospect may need or want. Take notes; it shows you are concerned and that what your prospect is saying is important to you. Also, people tend to provide more detailed information if they know you are recording what they say.
Always ask dialogue questions to engage the prospect in discussing their goals, aspirations, fears, desires, etc. Dialogue questions are designed to query for explanations, not just yes or no answers. This has an enormous psychological impact, as everyone’s favorite topic is usually themselves. Below is a list of prospect-oriented questions. Pick and choose the ones that would work best in your circumstances:
- Please bring us up to date on the success of your business since ____.
- What are some of your most pressing business problems?
- How do you see us helping you address these challenges?
- We want to be prepared for your future. Please tell us how you view your challenges over the next 3-5 years.
What growth plans do you have?
Do you plan to exit any markets?
Do you expect capital needs? What about new financing?
Tell us about any modern technology investment and how it interfaces with the accounting
- We know you have been making an extensive investment in quality customer service and so have we. Please tell us the service standards you would like for us to provide you.
- When it comes to managing your assets more effectively, are there ways you need for us to help you?
For example, your _______________ seem to be improving each year. We noticed that
______ for _________ and for _______ were _____, Tell us about your goals here and how we might help. (What are the industry averages, specific other averages?)
- How important is our satisfaction guarantee to you?Is working with local professionals who have national and worldwide resources important to you?
- Is working with local professionals who have national and worldwide resources important to you?
- Do you anticipate any mergers, purchases, divestitures, recapitalizations or reorganizations soon?
Accounting and Auditing
- What are the vital elements you want from your accounting and auditing service provider?
- Are there some things, while not vital, that would be nice for us to provide you?
- How important is regular personal interaction among our executives and yours?
- How important is assigning our most experienced people to your engagement?
- How important is it to have continuity of personnel assigned to your work?
- How important is rapid response on accounting and tax questions?
What do you consider rapid response?
- How important are the national and international resources of our firm to you?
- Do you see any barriers to working with our firm?
- How critical is price to you? Approximately what is your pricing expectation?
- Why are you changing auditors? What did you not like about your former firm that you do not want us to repeat?
- What are the elements of our firm that can be of most benefit to you?
- How did you enjoy working with your former firm?
- Do you envision any other changes in your needs?
- Would you please review your audit committee meeting dates and how you would want us to interface with them?
- Would you review with us the best field work dates in which we can interface with your accounting staff?
- How do you envision your staff availability and capability to provide audit assistance?
- In addition to the company’s annual report, do you anticipate needing other reports from us?
If so, what reports and who will be the users?
- Are you concerned about any of your asset, liability or income statement accountants where we should pay particular close attention?
- Do you have any tax savings opportunities we should explore?
- Are there any tax audits in progress or contemplated?
- Will your new computer installation enable you to decrease your SG&A expenses? Are there areas we can help you explore to help you drive down these costs?
- How are your computers helping you?
- As a part of our engagement, we invest a certain amount of time understanding your business. For example, we are continuously training on, reading about, and studying your business.
In what ways do you suggest we best learn about your business so we can relate your operations to the financial information and so we can be more proactive in helping you maximize your business success?
- If we invested (non-chargeable time) in attending certain of your internal management meetings as observers, would you be comfortable with this?
- How would you feel about our partners regularly touring operations to better understand your business and find ways to help you be more profitable?
Once you’ve gathered what is likely to be a great deal of information, you can focus on the issues that are important for the prospect. Generally, you will find three to five critical items with which to guide the prospect’s decision. How you deal with those three to five issues may determine whether you win or lose the engagement. Do not include information that the prospect has not expressed an interest in. Remember you are writing to a high-level officer or an owner. (See Executive Summary, below.)
- I would include one page in the proposal letter for each of the critical items you have identified. Use the opportunity to explain the issue, as you understand it, and demonstrate how your services will resolve the issue and create value for the prospect.
- The prospect call is clearly more important in the decision-making process than the proposal letter. However, if you unable to translate your top-grade prospect call into a coherent letter addressing the critical prospect issues, you will not likely win the engagement. It is like winning the league championship then losing the Super Bowl because you failed to execute your game plan.
Assertions versus Proof
Once you assert that you can resolve the prospect’s issues, you need to offer proof of your claim. Keep in mind that your competition may be able to find out all the same things you discovered during the prospect call. So how do you win the work? Being able to show results will give you a significant advantage.
The strongest proof would be to make sure the prospect speaks with a current client who is willing to share your ability to resolve their same or similar challenges. Easier said than done. The next best thing would be a testimonial letter. I’ve had great experiences when I include excerpts from testimonial letters as a side bar in the proposal document. Lastly, you can add “war stories” or case studies showing how you resolved similar issues and added value to the client. Prospects will be comforted by being among others who have experienced impressive results from your offering.
The attention span of many of the readers may be short. Remember, the further up the corporate ladder the reader is, the less time he or she will want to spend reading details. To address this, you can write an executive summary that lists all the critical issues. Prioritize them so that you are dealing with the most important issue first. Reference the details in the proposal letter and remind the reader of how you have proved your firm’s value. Proof can—and should—be the deciding factor. After all, how would you choose a CPA firm?
Most of the time the fee summary is buried in the back of the letter. Firms do this because they feel the decision-maker must understand the entire proposal before he or she can understand the fees. Regardless, most readers go to this section first! So, let them have it their way. I suggest including the fee proposal immediately after the Executive Summary. If you do the Executive Summary properly, adding the fees here will work. Do not be shy about your fees. After all, if you deliver real value and can prove it, fees become less critical.
Deliver a Draft of the Proposal Letter
One last thing to consider is a strategy that I’ve used successfully involving delivering the proposal letter as a finished product but marked “draft.” In that meeting it is crucial to ask if you have covered all the critical issues. From time to time, additional issues may surface, even after your last meeting with the prospect, and your letter does not discuss these issues. In a case like this, bringing the document as a draft will allow you to easily adjust the final letter.
Focus the process on your prospect and the value you bring to them. Do not dwell on how good your firm is. Frankly, they are only interested in how your firm can help them. Ask pointed questions to uncover all the critical challenges facing the prospect, and follow the guidelines I’ve described above, and I guarantee you will win more engagements.