By John Tabita

Proposals are for Wimps

By John Tabita

In my previous article, I shared some hard lessons learned in the early days of my web career. One mistake I made was offering to write proposals even when the prospect didn’t ask. But after time, the “prepare a proposal and hope” method of gaining new business began to wear on me. Then I learned something utterly profound that changed the way I did business …

The proposal should finalize the sale, not close the deal.

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.

But then we rush back to the office to write up yet another document—a contract—to finalize the sale (hoping he won’t change his mind in the meantime). Imagine instead a world where you didn’t have to write a proposal to close a deal. What if you could close the deal on a verbal agreement, and then write up a proposal to finalize it?

Suppose the proposal merely documented everything you and the prospect agreed upon during your initial meeting and, by signing it, you were hired? If that sounds too good to be true, let me assure you, it’s not. But first, you must pass the Wimp Test …

The Wimp Test

You’ve been with the client for more than an hour now. You’ve asked the right questions and have a good grasp of the client’s objectives and the project’s scope. You’ve offered ideas and proposed a solution to which the client seems agreeable. You’ve reached the point where you’ve discussed all there is to discuss and it’s time to move to the next step. This is where great courage is required on your part. Instead of wimping out and offering up a proposal, you must do something you’ve never done before:

You must ask for the sale.

I don’t mean in a heavy-handed or assumptive way, like asking if he’d like to pay by check or credit card. I do it by recapping the conversation, then asking a simple question:

So what’s a logical “next step” for you, Joe? Are you ready to move ahead or is there anything standing in the way?”

Anyone not ready to move forward will respond with something like: “I have to think it over,” or “I have to talk to a few other firms.” But let’s assume Joe is ready to proceed. Up to this point, I’ve yet to discuss price, and that’s intentional. Everything up to now has focused on value—what Joe is going to get, what his objectives are, and what he wants to accomplish. If you’ve done likewise, you can count on the subject of price coming up here.


Wimp Test #2

Okay, so I lied; there’s more than one Wimp Test you must pass. As you face the second challenge, keep in mind that prospects don’t necessarily know what the “next step” ought to be. It’s at this stage that I suggest one (and, no, it doesn’t involve me scurrying back home for some proposal writing).

I’ll need to go back to the office and prepare a quote. I can have that ready by Wednesday. Assuming the price is acceptable, Joe, is there anything else preventing us from finalizing this when we meet again?

Notice what I’ve done here. I’m setting it up so that my final document gets signed at the next meeting. If Joe accepts my price when I phone him back on Wednesday, all that’s left is to craft my final document and meet with him one last time for his signature. The paperwork I bring to that meeting is simply a proposal and contract combined into a single document. What used to be two separate documents—and two separate steps in the sales process—now becomes one.

Wimp Test #3

Here is your third and final Wimp Test. What will you do if the prospect absolutely insists on a proposal? Keep in mind that people may have ulterior motives when requesting a proposal, such as:

  1. They may already have a favorite provider, but are required by company policy to get multiple bids.
  2. They may already have a provider, but intend to use your proposal as leverage to demand a lower price.
  3. You’re too expensive, but they’re hoping you’ll include plenty of great ideas in your proposal that they can to hand off to a cheaper bidder.

Or it just may be the way they’re accustomed to doing business. Unless you are a very savvy sales person and you’re willing to ask some very pointed questions, you simply are not going to be able to find that out. So you have a choice. You can stand your ground and risk losing the sale. Or you can cave, knowing there’s a small chance of winning the bid if you submit a proposal. Or, summoning your courage once again, you can offer a third option: a one-page Executive Summary.

Since I have to go back to the office to work up a price anyway, I would agree to provide a one-page Executive Summary in lieu of a detailed proposal. I found that, so long as I summarized the main points we discussed and included the price, the client was happy.

Are you tired of “prepare a proposal and hope”? Will you try to pass all the Wimp Tests at your next client meeting? Let me know how you did.

Image credit

  • Absolutely brilliant – I’ve been writing way too many proposals, and lately I’ve been erring on the side of providing a generic quote without properly flushing out the requirements – both of which make me lose money. What you suggest is a happy medium where all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed and everyone is a winner.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been trying to work this out too, swaying both ways to much. But these word are the one “Are you ready to move ahead or is there anything standing in the way?” it puts the ball in their park and the executive summary if they ask for proposal sound very professional. thank you

  • Hey John. I love that list of 3 things in the third wimp test.

    That’s on the money.

    Here’s what I also like to get verbal commitment on before delivering contract:
    1) Start meeting (kick off meeting). If they say everything looks good. I suggest setting a date and time for the kickoff meeting.
    2) Payment terms. If the fee looks good, I clarify the payment terms and get verbal agreement.

    I absolutely abhor writing contracts. I even hate them more if I’m less that 99.99% sure of getting the work.

    I remember how I used to spend hours on writing proposals thinking (hoping) that if I made it nice it would sell itself. Bah humbug!


    • Kenn,

      You’re right. Any place in the sales process where there’s going to be a transition (i.e., “I’ll work up a price and call you back”) you should get a commitment … especially when you’ve made a commitment to do something (like call him back with the price). In fact, I would first work up a price and call to get his verbal agreement on that before even delivering the one-page summary.

  • John Natoli

    In my book, you’ve not closed the deal until you have agreement on all factors of the project, especially price. If you’re waiting until Wednesday to give a price, you have just as much chance of being rejected. This seems like a good tip for productivity, combining the documents, but not for getting more jobs. Correct me if I misread something.

    • Essentially, yes—you have not closed the deal until the prospect agrees to your price on “Wednesday.” If you’re prepared to quote a price right then and there, by all means, do so. I found it difficult to work up a price on the spot.

      Keep in mind that there’s more to the price discussion than I included in the article. I’m not going to offer to quote a price unless I know what the client had in mind to spend. If the client’s thinking “$600,” but my prices start at $1,500, I going to want to know that before I run home to work up a price.

      To your last point, no, this isn’t a tip for getting more jobs, but it’s more than just a productivity tip. There’s a saying in sales that goes, “If you’re going to lose, lose early.” I’d rather lose the sale within the first 45 minutes than after an hour-and-a-half long meeting, 2 hours of proposal-writing, several email exchanges, and perhaps another trip to the client’s office. So it’s a tip to help you avoid all of the above.

      Hope that helps.

  • Excellent post! Agree with all points made here….and have also found that verbally addressing all figures, concerns and expectations even if it’s overkill will eventually get you to find out what is really driving the client. You want the client to essentially agree…so that the paperwork/proposal is just a back-up to what has been discussed. Thanks for your candidness on this topic, it’s very refreshing.

  • Pure gold. Thanks John :)

  • Jean-Marc Lagace

    Very happy to see I’m not the only one thinking that way, a lot of people just forget to ask for the business and think that the proposal is the actual discussion… nothing beats doing all that face to face and resolving the important questions that would otherwise be lots in all the effort and pages of the proposal.

  • Great article! Some great ways of shortening the process and also saving the workload at the same time! Genious! I will put this into practice straight away! Thank you!

  • Oh, another quick side note …

    Before you

  • Best article I’ve read in a long time. Good stuff.

  • Anonymous

    I agree in theory with the premise of not writing proposals “on spec”. But I disagree with the method described in this article. I have found that “how much will it cost?” is almost always asked in the first five minutes of a discussion with a prospect. I can try to defray the question by saying, “Well, before I can give you an accurate quote, I need to understand your requirements and goals.” Sometimes that works, but sometimes the prospect wants a ballpark figure.

    In a response to another commenter, you said “If the client’s thinking “$600,” but my prices start at $1,500, I going to want to know that before I run home to work up a price.” That’s spot-on, but the problem is that you’ve just wasted an hour talking to a prospect whose budget is less than half what you need to charge. Unless you can somehow win the work anyway (maybe by cutting out features and/or lowering your price) that “lost time” ultimately gets paid for by clients who do sign on.

    I think the real challenge for us in the web design business is setting expectations and educating our prospects. To be fair to them, most people have no clue how much work is involved in designing and building a web site, nor what the typical costs are. To complicate matters, we have things like SquareSpace, GoDaddy’s “Website Tonight”, and the neighbor’s cousin’s high school son cranking out web sites in a 10-year old copy of Dreamweaver at apparently very low prices.

    I have been trying to shift my procedures so I can quickly assess the prospect’s budget, knowledge of web design costs, and PITA factor. I need to determine (fast!) if the amount of money he’s willing to pay is even within the same ballpark of what I’m willing to work for. It is quite hard to do this, so I welcome any thoughts and suggestions others might have.

    • I’ve learned over the years that, if the first question out of a client’s mouth is, “How much?” then I’m dealing with a certain type of client … one who values the lowest price above all else. Those who start talking about what they want to accomplish and why they want a website are a different breed of client … ones who value finding a provider that can get them what they want. Yes, they want a fair price, but they are also willing to pay for the right person.

      Once I know the type of client I’m dealing with, I can adjust my sales process to match. If I’m going to lose, I’d rather lose early. So for the first client type, I’d probably lead with, “Well, we’ve built high-end sites for as much as $XX,XXX, but a basic site starts around $X,XXX. Is that in your ballpark?”

      I find that most of these types of conversations occur outside of a formal meeting, usually at a networking event or via a phone inquiry. If the answer to that question is, “No, that’s out of my price range,” then I’ve wasted 5 minutes, tops. To avoid having that type of conversation at the actual meeting, I would pre-qualify the person then and there by asking a few basic questions and seeing where the conversation leads. If the “how much” question gets asked, I can deal with it on the spot.

      I don’t agree that we should be “educating our prospects” at all. Yes, they have no clue how much work is involved in what we do, but they also don’t care. All they really care about is: “What can you do for me?” “How can you help me make money, solve a problem, retire early, or send my kids to college?” Show them how you can do that, and you’ll have clients eating out of your hand.

      Educating them by telling them that your price is $X,XXX is because it will take you 75 hours, and that the reason you are more qualified to build his site than “the neighbor’s cousin’s high school son” is because you went to an expensive college to earn a degree and invested in an expensive computer with the latest software … then you’re fighting a losing battle.

      What you need to show him is how that neighbor’s cousin’s high school son or that GoDaddy website isn’t going to get him what he wants.

      • Anonymous

        I agree that someone for whom price is a top (or maybe the only) criterion, is probably not someone I want to work with. And I also agree that we have to sell *value*, ROI, etc. and not the actual web design and functionality that leads to those things. But in this economy, and unless you’re dealing with large organizations, just about everyone seems concerned with cost.

        I’ve tried using the tactic of saying something like, “Well, we’ve built high-end sites for as much as $XX,XXX, but a basic site starts around $X,XXX. Is that in your ballpark?” Maybe it’s a good thing, but none of the people I said that to ended up signing on. Usually they just had a shocked look on their face.

        I didn’t mean to imply that “educating clients” has to do with linking hours of effort to cost, but rather explaining that there’s good design and bad design, good usability / navigation and bad usability / navigation, etc. and that you generally get what you pay for. Sometimes when I’m asked “How much does a web site cost?” I respond with, “How much does a house cost? It depends on a lot of factors.”

        I do still agree about not doing proposals if they’re not asked for. But a client conversation can only go so far. Sometimes clients assume certain things, and if they’re not discussed or in writing, there can be a problem later. Simple example: Some clients want the ability to edit their own content. Well, if they just assume it’ll work that way and don’t mention it to me, I’m going to do my pricing calculation a different way from how I’d do it if I have to add that functionality. If that doesn’t come out until they read the detailed proposal I’ll eventually present (“to finalize the deal”), or maybe only after launch if they don’t read or understand the details, we’re going to have a problem.

        I’ve found that when things are in writing (we can call it a proposal or something else), there’s much less chance for a misunderstanding and a blown deal.

  • Jason Oney

    This is a great read, and great ideas!

Get the latest in Entrepreneur, once a week, for free.