Writing proposals that cut to the chase

This is part three in a three part tale (read part 1 and part two)

If you’ve read the first two posts in this series, I want to take a moment to thank you for sticking with it as I ramble on. If you haven’t, now might be a good time to skim through them. They give context to how I approach proposals, what I include and more importantly, what I omit.

We hate writing them.

Proposals are a chore. There. I said it. It’s not the writing I loathe as much as the underlying stress that comes with crafting such a document.

“I must not forget this. Did I state that clearly enough? Does this have the right tone? Do I need to elaborate on this item?”.

You know once you hit that send button, it’s out of your hands and all you can do is hope that your client reads, understands, and interprets everything as you intended.

Our clients hate reading them.

Author Nicholas Carr writes about the erosion of his attention span: “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

We are all busy and our attention is constantly being pulled in a million directions. In my experience, no matter how much care you pour into your proposal, clients will skim through and head straight for the dollar sign. The longer and more detailed you make it, the less likely they will read it.

Proposals are a one-way affair.

Many freelancers send off proposals like a note attached to a carrier pigeon, waiting with baited breath for its return. At that point, you are no longer involved in the process. You can’t see the puzzled look on the client’s face if they don’t fully understand a section. You’re not around to address the confusion or false assumptions they are making. The consequences of this disconnect often come to light after the project has kicked-off, and an uncomfortable game of “you wrote this, I meant that” ensues.

Many freelancers send off proposals like a note attached to a carrier pigeon, waiting for its return. Tweet

Schedule your proposal with a call.

Before I send off my proposal, I schedule a short “read-though” call with my client. If the call is early morning I will send it over the night before; if it’s in the afternoon, they will receive it that morning. Why? Because I want to read it through with them.

They will glance it over before we meet, but they know there is a time-slot dedicated to this document and any questions it might raise. It is an opportunity for me to emphasize and elaborate on any items which I feel are critical. By the time we reach the end, we are on the same page, with every point clear as crystal.

It’s the final stage of the sales process. It’s important.

Ok great, but what do you include in the actual proposal?

This is going to feel very anticlimactic, but the short answer is: not a whole lot.

Most of my proposals are rarely longer than a page or two. Because I spend so much time discussing my client’s unique problems and desired outcomes, 90% of the work is done. By the time I get to writing up that final document, I’m basically summarizing options and approaches we have already discussed. The fruit of all that interaction is the proposal.

I spend so much time discussing my client's problems and outcomes, 90% of the work is done. Tweet

So let’s get to the meat of it and take the structure of a standard proposal, addressing each section:

I. Title & Introduction

I don’t do RFP’s (Request for Proposal) or write up any proposals for clients with whom I have not had a least one extensive meeting. Therefore my intro section is pretty light. If my title is descriptive enough (ex: Increasing sales on mobile for Jane Smith), I may skip the intro altogether. Remember, we’ve discussed it ad nauseum. We all know who we are and why we’re here.

II. Challenges (Why are they coming to you?)

This is where the client’s pain points go. In our discussions, we spent a great deal of time drilling down to these core issues. The items here are the very reasons the client has come to need my services. I write them up in a sentence or two (maybe even a bullet list). Under no circumstances will I use technical terms which may be fuzzy for my client.

This is not the time to be clever; it's time to let your client know you fully grasp their predicament. Tweet

The more you can use their language here, the better. For example:

  • Jane Smith’s website is not easily accessible on mobile, resulting in missed sales opportunities.
  • Jane rarely updates her content. She feels that uploading new products in the current dashboard is too time-consuming and prone to error. As a result, the website feels stale and new products rarely get sold.

III. Goals (What does success look like?)

This should be the reason(s) your client ends up hiring you. It should be all about them and their business/organization. A year down the line, they should be able to tell their friends that you made their life better by delivering this stuff.

By the way, this great thing you did for them, the stuff they brag about to their friends and colleagues (your potential next clients), is never going to sound like:

They gave us the sexiest nav on mobile ever. No really Bob, you gotta see this! They used “a flexbox”. Tweet

The techniques we use may help in reaching the goal, but they are not it. A much more successful conversation would be:

“6 months ago Lucas redesigned our site and we’ve already had a x% increase in donations!”.

This is what your client wants. It’s also what their colleagues and friends want! Naturally then, it should be the stuff that goes into the goals section. Here are a few of examples:

  1. Increase revenue by x% over the course of y months.
  2. An additional 10 donations per month over the next 2 years.
  3. Reduce admin costs by 10% starting in January
  4. Help writers update content twice a month.
  5. Bring in sales from a french-speaking market.

You get the point. What do these all have in common? They are tangible, measurable results which justify the investment your client is making in the website/app/marketing campaign on which you will be working.

IV. Solutions (How are we going to achieve the goals??)

Oh great, we can finally talk about the CMS and Gulp and CSS animations, and oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!

Um, nope.

Unless your client is in “the biz” and really wants to know this stuff, you probably shouldn’t volunteer it. At best it will be white noise. At worst it may confuse or alienate them.

A formula I like: take the stated goals from the previous section and match them up with the plan of action designed to reach them. Using our examples above:

Goal: Increase revenue by x% over the course of y months.
Solution: Redesign current website and shopping cart to reach customers on mobile devices.

Goal: An additional 10 donations per month over the next 2 years.
Solution: Add large call to action in header and online payment gateway (no more donations by phone!).

Goal: Reduce admin costs by 10% starting in January.
Solution: Automate monthly staff reports as exportable PDFs (data will be compiled each time the database is updated). Integrate an auto-renewal process to reduce admin hours during the membership renewal period.

Goal: Help editors update content at least twice a month.
Solution: Create a streamlined backend with two different user profiles: “contributor” and “editor”. Each new piece of content will go through the creation -> editing -> publishing process. No more word docs and email!

Goal: Increase sales from a french-speaking market.
Solution: Update the current site to be fully bilingual. A language switcher will be displayed in the header and footer. All content types and product categories will be easily translated in the back-end.

Notice that I have not included any industry jargon, and the proposed solutions are clear as day.

One last word on solutions: packages!

The examples and solutions above are stripped down for the purpose of illustration. In reality, projects are more complex, and it is always a good idea to offer two or three “packages” for your client to choose from. It gives you the possibility of increasing your sales, but more importantly, it shows your client you have given their project a great deal of thought. You do not just do “good enough” work, you exceed their expectations.

I generally offer three options:

  1. Option one: Provides the strict minimum to fix the pain points and reach desired goals.
  2. Option two: For a slightly higher price, this option will deliver a more elegant solution or a slightly different approach with more value for my client. Simple example: Rather than having all messages from a contact form sent to a general office email, a conditional form based on specific queries could direct incoming messages to specific departments or staff members. More often than not, option two is a winner. The added features tend to provide a great ROI, and they can usually be implemented without derailing budgets or timelines.
  3. Option Three: This is where you can get really creative and surprise your client by offering solutions to problems they may not have even realized they had. People get very excited about the higher-end package. They may decide that it is worth stretching their budget and timeline to get the added value now, or set it as a phase-2 project to revisit at a later date. Either way, they have seen what’s possible and if you do a good job on the first phase, you can nearly bank on repeat business.

V. Next Steps (Now what?)

This section is all about rules and getting the show on the road.

Kick-off

I keep it very short and explain that the project starts when I receive a deposit via one of several payment options.

Time Limit

I also state that the proposal is valid for 2 weeks. If I get a call to move forward on a project which I scoped out three months prior, it might no longer be possible for me to make room for that client. Being explicit about the time limit saves me from any awkward discussions regarding necessary adjustments to the proposal. It encourages clients to pull the trigger and allows me to manage my schedule with peace of mind.

Pricing

I have price ranges and rough timelines attached to each package, so my client knows exactly what’s what. My pricing methodology is the subject of another post, but in a nutshell:

I break down the content of each package into broadish categories and itemize those. I am a big fan of price ranges, so each item gets listed as between $x and $y, where $x is what we’re aiming for, and $y is the do-not-exceed top number. For example:

Package A
Item 1…………………$x — $y
Item 2…………………$x — $y
Item 3…………………$x — $y
Item 4…………………$x — $y
Total…………………$x — $y

I do not bill hourly, and hours do not figure in my line items.

Payment Schedule

This varies by project and scope, but for the most part, I break down my payments into 50% — 30% — 20%, where 50% is the deposit, 30% is at an agreed-upon milestone/deliverable, and 20% is due to go live.

If the project budget is over 10,000k I may break it down into 4 payments differently, but I keep the ratios balanced in my favor: the further into the project we get, the less risk I face should the project get canceled for reasons out of my control. By the time a client has invested 80% into a project, they are more likely to see it through.

The further into the project we get, the less risk I face should the project get canceled. Tweet

Kill Fee

This is inherently tied to the risk mitigation above. If at any point during the project the client needs to pull the plug and “kill” the job, there should be a fee to compensate you for the loss. Some practitioners stipulate that the client will pay for all work up until that moment. Others will also request a percentage of the overall project to make up for the time slot they may not be able to fill on such short notice.

I use the latter approach. This way I am sure to be compensated fairly without needing to hold grudges should things go south, and clients are definitely in the mindset to see the project through when they sign. YMMV based on your client relationship and the scope of the project.

Conditions

I include a general contract (more on that in a second), but I also make sure to be very explicit about conditions specific to this project. Image licensing, special software, hosting, or design revisions, can vary from project to project. I make sure these non-standard items are bold and clear and I read them over with my client.

Contract

I have used my own version of Andrew Clarke’s Contract Killer for years. It is a great document which strikes a perfect balance between legalese and human readable text. The content is solid, with a friendly tone very much in line with my approach. After all, my clients and I are playing on the same team with the shared goal of getting them to succeed. These are just the rules we agree to follow.

Obligatory disclaimer: I’m no lawyer and Canada is not as litigious as other countries such as the US. You need to figure out what will work best for you, but there is no doubt you need something!

A little less writing,
A little more conversation.

By the time we reach the point of writing up our proposal, we have gone through a lot with our clients. Why would we walk out on them at this very crucial stage: closing the deal?!

For many of us who spend so much time in front of our screens, the talking and interaction can feel uncomfortable. It means pushing past insecurity, discussing money, having some difficult chats, and occasionally not having all the answers. It takes energy. Thing is, if you’re a practitioner whose endgame is to run a business for the long haul, it is a critical competence you should be fine-tuning with the same rigor you apply to your craft. The good news is you already have the blueprint to work through it!

If you’re a practitioner running a business, it is a critical competence you should be fine-tuning. Tweet

On what seems like a daily basis, we get thrown into a state of insecurity and hesitation as new technologies force us to learn, adapt, and change our workflows. It’s par for the course. Yet every day we push aside the self-deprecating, imposter-syndrome soliloquy in our head. We roll up our sleeves and we read the docs. Why not apply that same “get ‘er done” approach to the client-facing side of your business?

Any solopreneur will tell you that we simply cannot avoid managing projects and clients. But, the more we put ourselves out there and truly get to know the people who are calling on our expertise, the easier and more fun the process becomes!


Questions or comments? Tweet at me!