Good proposition/Bad proposition

The definition of “proposition”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a suggested scheme or plan of action, especially in a business context”.* It’s a word we hear bandied around frequently in the consulting world, but it’s often misused. Consultants will often confuse service lines with propositions; service lines describe what the consultant does. Sometimes, simply a need that a firm has identified in the market is described as a proposition; in effect, they’re saying, “You should do something about this,” but it doesn’t quite get to the specifics of a course of action. 

Creating genuine propositions for services is notoriously hard in professional services. Part of the difficulty is the absence of a clear product you can hold in your hands, and part of it is that consulting is so broad—there are so many different plans of action that could be proposed, whereas law, audit, and tax feel a bit more defined. So with this in mind, what makes a good consulting proposition? 

The only way to approach this is to think about it from a client’s point of view, rather than from a firm’s. A good proposition from a firm’s point of view encompasses more than I’m about to set out, including whether there’s a market for it, how well it fits with the firm’s existing capabilities, the commercial model behind it, and more. But for clients, a good proposition is quite simple:

  • What should the client do? (The suggested scheme or plan of action)
  • What does the firm offer to help them do it? 
  • Why should the client do it?
  • What’s different about this solution or firm?

To test this out, I’ve selected a few real-life examples at random (as an aside, it’s very hard to find propositions on firms’ websites—most stick to describing the industries they serve and the services they provide). 

Up first is KPMG’s Powered Enterprise, specifically the part aimed at finance functions. And overall, I think KPMG does pretty well.

What should the client do? KPMG addresses this straight away—move to the cloud! 

What does the firm offer to help them do it? KPMG has an out-of-the-box solution based on all the latest techie stuff that will help you do this faster than you could without KPMG. Big tick. 

Why should the client do it? KPMG talks about the opportunities for greater agility, better value from data, providing insights and control (good), and then a bit more vaguely about accessing the latest innovations and embracing change (not so good). 

What’s different about this solution or firm? KPMG has already mentioned speed as an advantage, and it goes on to say the solution reduces implementation risks and leverages its knowledge of finance/business/technology best practice across the globe. This is perhaps a bit weaker than other parts of the proposition because lots of other firms might say this too, but KPMG is helped by its already huge reputation for all things finance. 

So overall, pretty good. Except that to find it, I had to Google “KPMG Powered Enterprise” specifically—I couldn’t easily navigate to it from the firm’s UK website. 

Next up, McKinsey’s Enterprise-Wide Performance Lift. I include this because it’s labelled as a “unique approach to sustained performance improvement” on its website, and if that’s not to all intents and purposes a proposition then what is? However, when you click through, it reads much more like a description of a service line. 

What should the client do? McKinsey falls at the first hurdle. It talks about offering clients interventions to “achieve sustainable performance improvement”. This isn’t specific enough, and it talks about what McKinsey does rather than what the client should do. 

What does the firm offer to help them do it? McKinsey helps organisations with its “proprietary and tailored execution assessment based on fact-based analysis”, which leads to a roadmapping process which creates performance objectives which leads to identifying capability-building activit………… Oh I’m sorry, I fell asleep. 

Why should the client do it? Not clear. I even watched the embedded video and it doesn’t help. The overall aim of “performance lift” is too vague to be useful here—all clients want to improve their performance. It’s a given.

What’s different about this solution or firm? Nothing. McKinsey follows a process and has some tools. So do all other firms. 

Lastly, EY’s Insurwave. EY is rightly proud of this proposition for many reasons, and the firm mostly does a great job of describing it. 

What should the client do? This is where EY does least well. Other than an implied message of “Get Insurwave,” it’s not explicitly stated what the client should do. 

What does the firm offer to help them do it? Insurwave gives clients access to a blockchain-enabled platform that’s the first of its kind and unique to EY. 

Why should the client do it? The key benefits are summarised, and though I do not understand all of them as a non-insurance professional, some are clear even to a layperson: claims paid in hours, not years; premiums agreed and settled in seconds. Anyone who has tried to claim on their holiday insurance policy for a stolen backpack will know that these are common pain points when dealing with insurance companies. Transparency, speed, and efficiency are at the heart of this proposition. 

What’s different about this solution or firm? It’s the first of its kind, using blockchain technology, and EY has also collaborated with insurance industry leaders which adds to its credibility. 

EY benefits from specificity here—it’s a managed service for marine insurers. Many firms get into trouble when they try to create propositions to appeal to all people in all sectors, as this naturally makes it harder to have a clear call to action and solution. 

Why does this matter? Our latest research into how the current crisis is changing client behaviour reveals that what clients want to use consulting firms for is changing. Rocking up with a proposition that was relevant in 2019 may be irrelevant now. Knowing the angles that start conversations rather than close doors is critical; having clear propositions will help you win work, while poor ones will hamper you. Firms also spend a huge amount of time and money developing propositions, but the results are often warped by the firm’s internal jargon, politics, and view of itself. Few firms invest in testing their ideas externally while they’re formulating their propositions, which is why so many lose sight of who it’s all for—clients. And the result is pages like “Enterprise-Wide Performance Lift”. 

*For those interested in “proposition” as a verb, this is the wrong blog for you.