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How to Write Consulting Proposals Like McKinsey (with examples)

Updated: Sep 25, 2023
How to Write Consulting Proposals Like McKinsey (with examples)

A significant part of your success in consulting comes down to your ability to create high-quality proposals. The top management consulting firms know this and have all optimized their proposal writing methodology for maximum effectiveness.

A great consulting proposal requires the right content and structure. This post aims to teach you how to get both right so you can craft effective proposals with a high win rate. 
Drawing from our consulting background — with a combined experience of creating 500+ consulting proposals — we're here to share our proven methodologies with you. 

Two elements to every great proposal

What is a consulting proposal? 

A consulting proposal is a slide deck or text document sent to a potential client that outlines a specific project's objective, scope, cost, and timeline. Like a sales pitch to a prospect, a consulting proposal highlights the problem your prospective client is facing and positions you, the consultant, as the solution.
 

Before writing the proposal

The first step in any consulting engagement is typically an initial meeting or call with the prospective client to understand their business, industry, and specific challenges and goals. 

Half of your proposal work is asking the right questions in your early conversations with the client. Getting this right will make writing the proposal easy. You need to figure out the problem, why it's important, why they can't solve it themselves, and why they need you to solve it.

Structure of a consulting proposal 

Proposals will have slight variations across different firms/projects, but proposals from McKinsey, BCG, and Bain typically consist of the following elements (in this order): 

consulting proposal structure

Sections 2, 3, and 4 comprise your proposal's core. This is where you demonstrate you understand the client and their market, situation, challenges, and goals - and present them with a clear and compelling way forward to achieve the objectives. 

These three sections should follow McKinsey's Situation-Complication-Resolution structure (SCR), which offers a simple and compelling story structure. 

Parts of a consulting proposal

Let's go through each of the sections one by one:
 

1. Executive Summary

A one-page summary repeating the main points covered in sections 2, 3 and 4. Again, we recommend you structure your summary using the Situation-Complication-Resolution framework (See: How to Write an Effective Executive Summary)

2. Background and context (situation)

This section is where you create trust by demonstrating that you've understood the client, their situation, and their market. 
If your proposal is a response to an RfP (a request-for-proposal) then this is also the section where you play back the request in your own words to show that you've probably understand the assignment.

Ask yourself:

  • What are their business goals? 
  • What do they want to accomplish with this project, if relevant?
  • How is their current performance?
  • What have they done so far? 
  • Why are we in this process?
  • Who are the decision-makers?

You do not necessarily need to explicitly state all this in slides, but make sure any background or situational slides you do include are correct and to-the-point around the specific problem/opportunity area you'll later cover in your proposal.

3. What is the problem? (complication)

Once you've set the background and context, you want to highlight what has/will change, given a threat, challenge, or opportunity. 

Ask yourself:

  • Why is the current situation not sustainable (either because a threat will become a reality or an opportunity cannot be grabbed)?
  • What are the key barriers between the client's desired future state and current situation? 
  • What is the business impact of leaving challenges unresolved? 

You should clearly outline the complication and expand on the underlying issues. Include your best estimate on the impact if nothing is done. 

The ability to do this again showcases to the client that you understand their business and its dynamics and further builds trust that whatever solution you propose will work.

4. Objectives of the project and proposed solution (resolution)

Clearly articulate the objective of the project and your proposed solution. When you lay out the solution, we recommend you follow the Pyramid Principle and start with the high-level components or overall main answer. 

Once you've presented the high-level solution, you want to start detailing what is included under each solution element, showing which underlying questions or hypotheses will be investigated and which specific methods will be used to get to an answer.

Consider ending this section with a short business case that estimates the measurable impact the customer can expect in return for their investment in the project. 

Example
A simplified example based on a real-life Bain proposal to UC Berkeley - illustrating the situation-complication-resolution storyline:


Background and context (situation)
Like many universities, UC Berkeley has recently come under significant financial pressure. Inconsistent and declining funding from the State of California and rising operating costs have led to a budgeted shortfall of $145 million for the FY 2008-09. 

What is the problem? (complication)
UC Berkeley has already taken several dramatic steps to reduce the budget shortfall - including increases to student fees, faculty hiring slowdown, staff hiring freeze, and furloughs. 

These steps have solved the problem in the short term, but the cost reductions are not sustainable on a prolonged basis (as shown in this forecast). 

Accordingly, UC Berkeley seeks to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its operations and organization so that the $145 million budget gap can be reduced. 

Objectives of the project and proposed solution (resolution)
The primary objective of this project is to identify options to reduce the University's addressable operating cost structure by as much as $80 million to $100 million (vs. 2022-23 baseline costs) through more efficient and effective operations.

To achieve this, we will deliver a gross list of cost-spanning options to select from spanning these cost-areas: Labor costs, processes, policies, organizational structures, and systems. 

Experience has shown us that the most important factors... (continues)

5. Project approach/details

You have now demonstrated that you understand the client and their situation, challenges, and objectives - and you have outlined a clear and compelling way to solve the challenge. In this section, you lay out the project details covering the following sub-sections:

Approach
What steps will you go through to arrive at the solution or recommendation? Break down the projects into steps or work streams and unpack the activities and goals for each of them. Start with a high-level overview. 

Example 
We propose a five-stage approach to develop options to choose from in making operating cost reduction:

  1. Build baseline
  2. Identify opportunities
  3. Design options
  4. Validate and select options
  5. Communications and stakeholder management

The goals, activities, and timing for each stage are outlined in [Figure 1] below and are described in more detail in the following slides...

Deliverables
Describe what each project deliverable will contain, when it will be delivered, and the acceptance criteria. 

Examples:

  • Business cases for 15 high-potential cost reduction and organizational restructuring opportunities, including implementation options
  • Targeted messages and communication strategy for each stakeholder segment
  • Marketplace MVP operational with priority features  
     

Scope
Clearly define the scope of the project. What areas of the business or opportunity will you investigate, and how deep will you go? (E.g. customer segments X & Y in market Z).

Project plan & timeline
Give a more detailed project plan with work stream/activity breakdowns showing sub-activities, timeline, and key milestones, as well as key meetings or decision points (especially those involving senior stakeholders).

Project timeline slide

Project timeline slide example. Slideworks template

Project management & team
What team members will be on the project, and what are their roles and high-level experience?
Team members are often divided into the following groups: Engagement management, project management, project team, and expert advisory. 
 

Project team slide

Project team slide example. Slideworks template

Project governance & client resources
What client stakeholders will be involved in the project - project management, steering group members, expert input, etc. - and how much of their time is needed (this provides both an indication of the disruption level and allows the client to factor in the time and costs associated with their own resource need).

Project organization slide

Project organization slide example. Slideworks template

Risks & mitigations
Depending on the type of project you might include an overview of key project risks and how to mitigate them. Consider ranking your identified risk areas according to "likelihood of risk" and "impact of risk". 

Including risks and mitigations once again shows the client that you've thought things through and gives them assurance that you can solve this problem.

Craft your consulting proposals with McKinsey's insights.

6. Costing/Pricing

There are two common ways of doing pricing: Fixed fees or hourly rates.

If you do project-based pricing, you should break down the costs in a table according to sub-deliverables or work streams. If you do hourly pricing, you should break out the hourly rates for each category of consultants working on the project (Senior consultant, 80% allocation for 8 weeks at xx $/hour, etc.). 

McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, typically charge their clients a fixed fee on a project basis. The fee size is based on the project's duration, team size, and the required expertise level, rather than the hours an individual may work. 

In the consulting industry, the exact pricing of engagements is a closely guarded secret. However, now and then, a government RfP response finds its way into the public domain. One example is this 16-page McKinsey proposal on COVID-19 response to the State of New Jersey. In this proposal, you can see how McKinsey has broken up their fixed fee according to work streams, the number of consulting staff assigned to each one, and the project duration. 

Pricing breakdown from McKinsey proposal

Pricing breakdown example from McKinsey proposal

Hourly price breakdown example from Deloitte proposal

Hourly price breakdown example from Deloitte proposal

Other expenses 

A list or note of approved expenses (like travel, food, accommodation, etc.) might be added. These costs are not included in your project price, but you will incur them during the execution of your work. Typically, these costs are billed to the client "at cost". You need to address reimbursable expenses in your proposal. Otherwise, don't expect to get reimbursed for them.


7. Why [your firm]?

Use this section to reinforce your expertise in solving challenges similar to those your prospective client faces. What makes you uniquely qualified for this project? 

Consider including the following slides/sections:

  • We have successfully managed many projects of this size, scale, and complexity in [client industry]
  • We bring access to unequaled expertise and insights
  • We deliver results (as proven by these cases)
  • This list of past clients can be contacted for reference
     

8. Appendices

Appendices will include relevant supporting material and additional details on key points.

  • General introduction to [Your firm].
  • Detailed CVs for the project team.
  • Additional reference cases.
  • Relevant details about methods and tools which you propose to use during the project.
  • Detailed terms and conditions if there is no framework agreement with the customer.

Get practical examples to complement the techniques in How to Write Consulting Proposals Like McKinsey.

Tips for writing an effective proposal

 

Always put client needs first

A common mistake is to write proposals with a 'your firm-first perspective' instead of a 'client-first perspective'. A good business proposal is remembering it's all about the client. Resist the temptation to write about yourself in the proposal.

client-first perspective


A good proposal is short, relevant, and actionable


Short: No one wants to read 100 pages, especially when it's not about them. Use the pyramid principle (say the most important things first) and keep all the details in an appendix. Try and limit the main proposal deck to 20-30 slides or 10-15 pages. 

Write the proposal in simple language that your client understands. Keep it free of consulting jargon and acronyms to the extent possible. 

Relevant: Most people don't care how the sausage is made. Take out everything that doesn't directly relate to the client's situation/problem or solution you're proposing. Prune out anything that is a departure from the central problem. 

Actionable: The clearer the path forward, the easier it is to say yes. Don't burden the customer by making them guess the next step or resources needed. Make the ask on money, people, and time clear.

Use a template to strengthen your proposal

As you know by now, an effective consulting proposal requires both the right content and structure. 
And while you cannot write a proposal based on a template and just make a few tweaks here and there, a template can speed up the process, ensure you follow the structure, and inspire you on how specific types of slides can be designed and structured. 

Our Consulting Proposal Template for PowerPoint follows the methodology presented in this post and includes 244 template slides created by ex-McKinsey & BCG consultants as well as a full-length (winning) consulting proposal sent to a Fortune500 company in 2023.  

 

Frequently asked questions

How long should a consulting proposal be?

Proposals can be for sole source or competitive projects. They can be based on a casual conversation or on a formal Request for Proposals (RFP). As a result, they vary from short letter proposals (3–12 pages) to full-size proposals (20–80 slides). Some Federal Government contracts may run to 150 pages or more. 

What format should the proposal be? 

The proposal format will typically be a condensed slide deck unless the client specifically requests a plain text document. Final proposals are always shared as PDFs. 

Often, consultants will be asked to pitch the proposal after submitting it. A well-structured presentation will help here - and it is a lot easier to pitch than a text-document. 

Proposals vs. LOP and SOW?

Proposals are sometimes called Letter of Proposal (LOP) or Statement of Work (SoW). Different names, same content. 

Can this proposal structure be used for an RfP? 

Where there is an RfP, proposal writers should always follow the RfP instructions and evaluation criteria regarding the specific format and areas to emphasize. E.g., If an RfP requests specific pricing information or breakdowns, you should always follow these instructions.