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What it’s like to be a proposal consultant vs an employee

What is it like on the other side of the fence?

There are so many directions I could take this. This is not a tutorial for being a consultant or being an employee. Or about whether you should hire proposal consultants or employees. This is about what it’s like to experience being an employee or consultant and work in proposals. None of what you see below are rules. There are no rules. There are just people trying to figure things out and this is just how it commonly goes.

The proposal experience for an employee is to develop the routine and improve it over time. You know what you’ve got to work with and won’t lose time at the beginning figuring that out. Your tools are your own and this matters a lot (for both good and bad). Much of your success depends on how well the executives have defined organizational territories, put in place a growth-oriented culture, and how well thought-through their ROI strategies are.

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The proposal experience for a consultant is often to show up, discover what there is to work with, do a gap analysis, figure out the best way to proceed, and do it in minutes not days. For consultants, things start off with a written agreement and budget. This creates a scope that is far more explicit than employees typically have. Employees get a handoff and are expected to make it work. Consultants get high-level conversations, a written agreement, and budget scrutiny. That changes things. You get a chance to discuss the company’s capability and process gaps.

For an employee, you find out that another proposal is going to start. Maybe you find out ahead of time and can prepare, and maybe you’re jumping right in. You look at the process as steps: Distribute the RFP, schedule the kickoff meeting, prepare the assignments and schedule, etc. Most of the people involved know what’s coming. And your boss has expectations. You are working to do the best you can within the routine.

For a consultant every proposal can start off like a job interview to determine whether you and the client are a match. Part of this is an orientation to the pursuit. And part of it is a gap analysis to see what you’ve got to work with and what gaps you’ll have to fill in. Your preferred way of doing things may need to adapt to the client’s existing infrastructure and realities. Even though a consulting agreement may not have been signed yet, you are already working on proposal planning, if only to be able to prepare the estimates you’ll need. The company may or may not have much in the way of expectations. They may or may not be looking for you to define their process. The less mature their process, the more people will not know what is coming and the things you ask will be new to them. A major part of your efforts may go into explaining how to do things and not simply directing traffic. Your first couple of days will be largely consumed by discovery.

Note that the size of the company doesn’t necessarily dictate this. I’ve parachuted into large companies and found that their process lacked key artifacts like written proposal quality criteria and that their review process amounted to simply having a specified number of subjectively defined draft reviews and had to put together training for the reviewers on the spot while managing the proposal. That’s the life of a consultant. Proposal employees are supposed to work this stuff out “in between” proposals during breaks that never come.

Some of the subscribers to PropLIBRARY are consultants. They use it to educate themselves and their customers, and provide tools to fill gaps in their client engagements. Most of the subscribers to PropLIBRARY are employees. They use it to educate themselves and their coworkers, and to provide tools to fill gaps in their process documentation. I love that it helps people in both roles. 

There is also a form of working as a consultant that is a bit of a hybrid. Companies with mature processes often use consultants as staff augmentation. There is a lot less discovery and more routine when doing staff augmentation. You get an assignment and you follow directions. You may be doing the exact same work as their employees with the exact same expectations.

I personally see benefits to being an employee as well as being a consultant. They are equal in my mind, even though my life has taken a path that keeps me in a consultant role. Employees can build glorious empires because they don’t start from scratch with each new proposal. Then again, just how glorious an employee’s empire can be is often limited by their boss or corporate culture. Your relationship with your company matters. If you didn’t negotiate a seat at the executive table before you were hired, you might be stuck in a support resource role. But that could be good or bad. Finding the right place for yourself depends on knowing yourself as much as it does knowing about the place.

While it’s easier for a consultant to nudge a company in the right direction, it’s rare that you’ll get to stay involved over the years it takes to completely transform an organization. Your long-term success as a consultant depends on your ability to handle extreme peaks and valleys in your pay, or whether you need your income to be predictable. This in turn means success as a consultant depends on finding client after client. You need a strong sales pipeline right from the start. Only part of your experience will be parachuting into companies and turning chaos into accomplishment. A lot of your daily experience will be performing bookkeeping and sales instead of proposal heroism.

Your ability to sell your services is more important to your success than your skills at doing the work. It helps to find your niche. Then again, this is somewhat true for employees as well. Only for employees it’s more like selling your ROI and avoiding getting confined to a niche. 

Both employees and consultants occasionally wonder what life’s like on the other side of the fence. Be careful what you wish for. You might just find out.

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More information about "Carl Dickson"

Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

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