Stop Writing Proposals to Win Business

John Tabita

In the last article, I showed you how to stop giving away too much free information, by selling your prospect on the concept of WHY—and leaving the HOW until after he agrees to become a client. If you’ve been following along with my series, then you may have noticed that each “action step” is actually a progression from one step of the sales process to the next.

Having a clearly-defined sales process is the difference between making things happen and wondering, “what happened?” If you don’t have a deliberate process that you’ve consciously thought out, let me assure you that you still have one … except your prospect’s the one in control of it, not you. It probably goes something like this:

  1. You define a “lead” as anyone with a pulse who inquires about a website; and you’ll gladly drive clear across town to meet with such a person.
  2. You attempt to build trust and demonstrate your expertise by offering ideas and suggestions. If they seem genuinely interested, you offer to prepare a proposal. Sometimes, the proposal ends up being a full-blown comprehensive project plan. (After all, how can you quote an accurate price without knowing each and every minute detail about the project and its scope?)
  3. You deliver your masterpiece to the prospect and wait. And wait some more. Oftentimes, you never hear back, and that once “hot prospect” seems to have disappeared through a tear in the space-time continuum. (Yes, I read too much sci-fi.)
  4. You convince yourself this is “standard procedure,” but in reality, you’d do anything to avoid asking for the sale—especially if it means looking directly into the prospect’s eyes and quoting a price. Instead, you hope your proposal will do the selling for you, and you bury the cost on the bottom of page nine.
  5. If the prospect does decide to hire you, you rush off to write up yet another document—a contract—to finalize the sale … praying he won’t change his mind in the meantime. When you do get the signed contract back, you can only hope he actually read it and that something in it won’t bite you in the butt a month from now.
  6. By the time this is over, you’re exhausted (and you haven’t even begun the actual project). You wonder how you got into this, when all you wanted to do was build websites.

In two previous articles, Don’t Just “Propose” … Sell! and Proposals are for Wimps, I called this the “prepare a proposal and hope” method of gaining new business. If this sounds all-too-familiar and you’re ready for a change, then fear not. The key to turning this around is Action Step #3.

Action Step #3: Ask for the Sale Instead of Offering a Proposal

What this Solves:

Preparing endless proposals and never hearing back

Believe it or not, it’s entirely possible to close the deal on a verbal agreement, and then write a proposal to finalize that agreement. I know because I’ve done it, more than once. And in every case, the client was more than happy to do it my way.

At the risk of tastelessly quoting myself, here’s what I said in Proposals are for Wimps:

Closing the deal is when the client agrees to hire you. Finalizing the sale is when the client actually signs on the dotted line and gives you a check. What most of us do is write a detailed proposal in hopes that the client, once he reads it, will agree to hire us and we’ll have closed the deal.

The simple solution is to turn that on its head. Ask for the sale first.

You see, there comes a point in every meeting where you’ve learned enough about the client, the project’s scope, and his objectives, and he’s learned enough about you and your capabilities to decide whether you are moving forward or not. I came to realize that, when this happened, I would be the one who suggested a proposal, not the prospect. So I simply stopped offering and started asking.

I’ll let you read the other articles for the details, but I know you’re just dying to ask: “How can I get a prospect to agree to hire me if he doesn’t know the price? And how can I quote a price without some type of detailed proposal?” It’s a classic Catch-22.

If you followed my advice in Action Step #2, then you sold the prospect on the basis of WHY: why he wants a website and why he should hire you. In case you missed it, let me recap. You can get a prospect’s verbal commitment to do business with you if the two of you establish and agree upon the following:

  1. What he’s trying to accomplish, his “big picture” objective
  2. That you’re the one to help him accomplish it

If both of these are firmly established, price is merely an incidental. The verbal agreement to hire you is conditional. He’s agreeing that, if the price is right, there’s nothing else preventing him from hiring you and moving the project forward.

Here’s where Action Step #1: Attempt to “Disqualify” Prospects Early-On set you up for success. Remember how you disqualified anyone who didn’t have a budget or who thought $300 was “too expensive” for a website? Assuming your prospect made that cut, he ought to have a ballpark idea where your prices start. Now that you’ve spent some time with him and have a feel for the scope of his project, you’ll need to have a more in-depth price discussion.

The nature of that conversation will depend on the project scope. For a basic 5-10 page static website, I already had an established base price, so I could quote him right then and there. For larger projects, I’d tell the prospect it’s going to be more than the starter price we spoke about over the phone.

I’m watching his reaction. It’s either going to be, “no problem, I figured it would be higher,” or a worried, “how much higher do you think?” Remember, the more time you invest, the harder it is to cut your losses and walk away; so if you’re going to lose on price, now’s the time … rather than a 10-page proposal and three follow-up phone calls later.

Assuming that doesn’t happen and you need time to prepare a quote, how do you go about it without giving away all your best-kept secrets? I’m glad you asked. We’ll be covering that next week.

Next week: Action Step #4: How to Quote a Price without Giving away the Farm

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It’s not too late to get my free guide, 27.5 Must-Ask Questions for Consultative Selling. Just follow me on Twitter and I’ll send you a link.

This is Part 5 of the series Putting a Stop to Abusive Client Behavior:

  1. Stop Client Abuse of Web Designers Now!
  2. Stop the Abuse! 7 Steps to a Well-Trained Client
  3. Stop Wasting Time with Prospects Who Aren’t Serious
  4. Stop Giving Away So Much Free Information!
  5. Stop Writing Proposals to Win Business
  6. Stop Doing the Same Things and Expecting Different Results
  7. Stop Waiting to Get Paid! How to Collect Even when Your Client Delays
  8. Stop Getting Walked on and Set Some Boundaries Already
  9. Stop the Slippery Slope of Scope Creep
  10. Stop Making Endless Design Changes
  11. Stopping Abusive Clients: The Complete Process

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  • http://ChiefAlchemist.com Mark Simchock

    You make some good points. Thanks I need this nudge.

    I agree there is a downside to being too giving and too accommodating. I have also found that more emphasis needs to be put on qualifying the lead. If that *phone* conversation goes well, and a meeting is proposed then be 100% *all* the decision makers are going to be there. If not, then reschedule. Whether they appreciate it or not, your time is as valuable as theirs. At this point I’m also asking for the names and titles, etc. of those decision makers so I can do my homework prior to the meeting.

    • http://smallbusinessmarketingsucks.com/ John Tabita

      … be 100% *all* the decision makers are going to be there. If not, then reschedule.”

      And if they block you from meeting with all the decision-makers, think twice about agreeing to meet at all.

      The hardest part is asking those very direct questions, such as: “Who else needs to be involved in this decision,” then standing your ground when you’re told you won’t be able to meet with them.

  • Pleccema

    I have fallen into the trap of delivering detailed, nicely layout proposals to leads and prospects too. And indeed, many times I never heard from them again or was being put on hold forever with all kinds of excuses and promises. Back in the day I sometimes even created design mockups for them. Free.

    Some years ago I decided that was not going to be my way of doing business, it was just a waste of time and energy, giving away too much knowledge in the process too.

    Since then I only give global indications of price ranges, when people call me and want to know “what a website cost”. I tell them that a very simple static template based site could be as low as 1000 euros, that complex datadriven sites could be many thousand, but that most typical (small and medium sized) business sites with a cms and custom design tend to fall in the range of 2500 tot 4500 euros.

    The people with no budget or no clue about what they want and need then thank me and tell me that’s too exensive or they will think about it. Most of the times I never hear back from them. My investment in them is maybe 5 minutes on the phone.

    Serious prospects however, agree on the price range and understand I need to have more information about their needs, goals and situation. Sometimes we agree to meet in person to talk it over, and sometimes a phone or email conversation is enough. After having a good indication of the project, I quote a price indication by email, referring to the conversation and global project scope. I always leave room to price adjustments, so I may say something like “based on what I understand of the project scope, the price will be probably around 2500 euros, with a maximum of 2850 euros”. Then I ask for their agreement if that’s okay. Just a simple “I understand and agree with that” in an email reply will do.

    After green light is given I create a simple project description in PDF and ask them to print it and sign it and send it back to me. No need for elaborate documents full of marketing crap ( I always tell them no to expect that, because it’s a waste of time, and they always agree), just enough info to let them know both parties understand the scope of the project and the price. After they pay 50% I start working on the site.

    After the project I bill the other 50%, and maybe some extra if needed. Sometimes I bill a bit less (100 or 200) , just to please the client :-)

    Some things I learned to avoid or not do:
    I never do mockups anymore, unless paid in full like any other work.
    I never visit clients or leads more than 5km away from my village, unless it’s absolutely necessary for the project, and only after they have committed themselves to me.
    I never work for clients that my intuition warns me for. I did that in the past, and always my intuition was right, not my intellect. When you don’t trust the prospect or really dislike hem/her, don’t work with them.
    I never start working before I receive 50% payment.
    I never work for private persons, charities, political organizations, clubs, NGO’s, associations, institutions, foundations, or any other non-commercial clients. I have had too many troubles with them in the past.
    I never give away too much free advice and information, just to position myself as a pro or to please/help the prospect.

    • http://smallbusinessmarketingsucks.com/ John Tabita

      That’s very similar to what I do. It seems you’ve developed a good, working process.

      “I never work for clients that my intuition warns me for. I did that in the past, and always my intuition was right, not my intellect.”

      Good point. I’ve been reading a book that talks about how the same part of our brain that controls our emotions also controls decision making, which explains why our “gut” decisions are often correct, in spite of what our intellect is telling us. Sounds like you’ve figured that out.

  • http://digitaloverflow.net Jeremy

    The best conversion tactic I’ve found is meeting the client in person. (I deal only w/ local businesses currently, so obviously not everyone can do this, but even a skype call works wonders)

    I’m not the most outgoing person ever, it helps you just be yourself and don’t be afraid to sell your skills. Building a little rapport goes a long way, and if I can figure out what the customer is looking for, direct them down the right path/site idea, and ease their concerns that I can make what they want happen, the proposal is usually just a formality to give some budget $ to the ideas.

  • Lamont

    I just created a web design business and am getting 5-7 calls/e-mails per week. I get people asking for a “website for my business.” They never know what they want, can’t be specific about anything, and if/when we meet in-person it doesn’t help the matter at all. They just seem lost. They have no technical web knowledge or interest in learning WordPress or anything else web-related. They say they’re interested but usually I never hear back from them after an initial phone call or e-mail asking for more information.

    How do you target the 15% out there who are willing to spend money on a professionally-designed website and serious?

    I’m sick and tired of losers just wasting my time asking for tutorials on how to embed video or how to open an Etsy store, or how WordPress works, or what SEO is, or why they should have a website or how I design them, but they can’t decide on anything and are just playing games. They’re time consuming and seem to be the majority of people out there.