Write Proposals That Sell

Chris Yeh
Chris Yeh

In today’s market, if you can’t write good proposals, you won’t be able to sell. Let’s face facts: we’re in a buyer’s market when it comes to freelance services. For every job you bid on, you’re competing with five, ten, or even more other freelancers. I recently put out an RFP for a Web design contract and received inquiries from 65 different designers!

When you’re stuck in a crowd like that, you’ve got to find a way to set yourself apart, or face 20:1 (or even longer!) odds on winning that contract. As I’ve described in past columns, the best way to set yourself apart is to build a personal relationship with a potential client before you ever pitch your business, but writing a good proposal comes a close second. Even if you have a prior relationship, a good proposal helps reinforce your ability to deliver. And if you’re part of a cattle-call, a good proposal can push you to the top of the stack.

If the thought of writing fills you with trepidation (and memories of that darn paper on Moby Dick that you never quite finished), here are five simple steps you can follow to write proposals that sell.

  1. Steal a proposal that works
  2. Understand (and flatter) your target
  3. First the end, then the means
  4. Use simple words
  5. The price is right (and this is a buyer’s market)

Let’s look at each of these now and see how you can apply them to turn your next proposal into a winner!

1. Steal a Proposal That Works

The best way to write a good proposal is to start with a good proposal that’s already been written! Unlike your school days, the business world is built on plagiarism. The next time you receive a standard document from someone, use Word’s “Properties” command to check out the names listed under the title, author, and company fields. Chances are, one, two, or all three will be different from the person who sent you the document. Checking the document in which I’m typing this column reveals that I stole this template from an article that appeared last year.

If you find a document that works, adapt it to your own purposes. My proposals borrow from several documents; in my last proposal, I took the best ideas from a few sources and applied them to create this structure:

  1. Background
  2. Situation
  3. Project Specification
  4. Project Pricing and Return on Investment (ROI)
  5. Action Plan
  6. Proposal Acceptance

While I wrote the proposal document from scratch, I borrowed the flavor and style of sections 1, 3, 4 and 6 from my wife’s market research proposals, and sections 2 and 5 from some proposals I wrote when I was freelancing. While you shouldn’t stamp out proposals with a cookie-cutter, you can and should reuse successful ingredients as much as possible.

2. Understand (and Flatter) Your Target

The most important thing you can do with the introduction to your proposal is demonstrate that you understand the prospect’s needs and wants. This doesn’t take long; usually a quick Google search suffices to provide background information on your client that you can include in your introduction.

You may ask, “Why tell the client what they already know?” Think of this way: if you can’t show that you understand the basics of your client’s business, they sure as heck aren’t going to trust you with a mission-critical project.

The other thing to keep in mind is that flattery seldom hurts. If your prospective client calls itself “the leader” in its field, it’s probably not a good idea to argue with that claim in your proposal. Instead, acknowledge the claim, but keep your own independent opinion in mind as you work with the client.

Here’s how I applied this principal in my successful proposal:

“Client X has developed a strategic promotions platform for Global 2000 brand marketers and their agencies. Currently, this platform offers three promotion engines: Tournaments, Preference Auction, and Collectibles. Client X uses this platform and its concept of “Mechanism Design” to help clients build consumer interactions that will tie together consumer motivations and brand objectives.

Client X needs to develop a strong set of reference accounts and a readily “transferable” client value proposition that will allow the relatively small company (of 22 employees) to use a leveraged sales model.”

Much of the language describing my client was paraphrased from its own Website, but I made sure that I had a clear understanding of what the VP of Sales wanted, and why.

3. First the End, Then the Means

Before you dive into the details of how you’ll execute the project, make sure that you clearly state the concrete end goals. This makes it easier for the client to compare your proposal with those of other vendors, and prevents misunderstandings from occurring later on. If I’m reading a ton of proposals, the last thing I want to do is to wade through pages of implementation details while waiting for a vendor to get to the point.

In my last successful proposal, I decided to state the goals up front:

“Client X would like YZ Consulting to help Client X generate reference accounts and develop agency relationships. YZ Consulting would generate qualified leads from a targeted account list provided by Client X.

Client X has targeted 100 agencies to pursue as channel partners. Client X would like YZ Consulting to design and implement a lead generation and qualification program that will generate 15-25 qualified leads over a period of three months. A qualified lead is an account director or its equivalent at a targeted agency that agrees to meet with Client X and indicates that the agency has a client that would be interested in conducting a trial of the Client X platform.

Given Client X’s staff constraints, YZ Consulting would identify, train, and manage the resources required to conduct lead generation and qualification. YZ Consulting would hand off qualified leads to Client X to actually close sales. Our proposal assumes that all targeted accounts are in the United States.”

As you can see, I clearly specified and quantified the deliverables and time frame for the project. One key element was defining the term “qualified lead” so that we could build our pay-for-performance proposal on clear metrics. Don’t forget to specify where your involvement process ends — otherwise you can end up experiencing the horrors of “feature creep” as your client asks you to do more and more work without adjusting the contract terms!

4. Use Simple Words

While proposals aren’t high literature, this doesn’t exempt them from the laws of good writing. If you strive to be as clear and concise as possible, take an active rather than passive voice, and use simple language, you’ll make your potential client’s job easier and less aggravating — both factors that will help push your proposal to the top of the pile. This rule applies regardless of your freelancing activity; even for graphic designers, a well-written proposal (backed up with strong graphical examples) is more likely to sell than a poorly-written one.

For example, consider how you might describe Client X’s situation:

“Client X’s Sales Department is organized in the following manner. The head of the department is John Doe, the Vice President of Sales. Underneath him is a sales consultant, and also contributing are the Director of Marketing and CEO Jane Doe. The sales process that Client X has employed up to this point in time is to leverage the management team’s personal contacts, along with the investors’ contacts, to identify likely sales opportunities. It is up to the VP of Sales to close those opportunities. At this point in time, Client X has achieved a single-digit number of sales.”

Now look what happens if we describe it in short, concise language:

“Client X has one full-time employee dedicated to sales — John Doe, the Vice President of Sales — one sales consultant, and two other contributors (the Director of Marketing and CEO Jane Doe). To date, Client X has used a combination of personal and investor contacts to generate sales leads, and has sold a single-digit number of accounts.”

While both examples say exactly the same thing, which is more likely to appeal to a client?

5. The Price is Right (and This is a Buyer’s Market)

Finally, though this may seem obvious, be sure to price your proposal realistically. This is a buyer’s market for services, and it’s essential to price your services in a way that reflects both their value and your competitive landscape.

Here’s where it again pays to develop a good relationship with your potential client. Ask the client what range they’re willing to pay; if it’s too low, you’ll know not to waste your time writing a proposal; if it’s too high (a problem we’d all like to have), this is your cue to present a sound proposal as quickly as possible (before the client talks with one of your competitors!).

One vendor I talked with discussed her usual rates with me, and amended her proposal when she realized that my budget was ½ to 1/3 of her usual range. Had she simply presented a standard proposal, I might not have even gotten back to her, thinking that the gap in prices to too wide to overcome.

In the case of my client, the company needed to generate high-level, high-quality leads for its sales team, without adding staff. We priced the project on a retainer plus incentive basis, allowing us to cover fixed costs, but requiring success to turn a profit. What clinched the deal for us was the nature of our success bonus:

“XY Consulting will earn a success bonus of $ABC for each qualified lead generated. Client X judges whether or not it considers a lead qualified.”

By making a significant concession — allowing the client to judge when we had qualified for our success bonus — we significantly reduced the client’s risk and made it easy for them to sign the proposal. In practice, we never had any problems with the client trying to cheat us; it was happy just to have results. Most buyers aren’t trying to cheat you; they’re simply afraid that you’ll let them down. Giving up some of your leverage may be the best way to close the deal.

Writing an outstanding proposal won’t guarantee sales. You still need to follow up, court your client, and close the deal. But in this market, submitting a poorly-written proposal will guarantee that you lose the business.

Pointers For Your Next Proposal

If you’re procrastinating over your next proposal, these five pointers should help you get started.

Remember: plagiarism is ok! Take ideas from other documents to create a sound structure that meets the expectations of your prospect. How will you know those expectations? Through research — you’ll need this in order to show empathy, and flatter your client!

Stating the goals of the project up-front will make it easier for your client to evaluate your proposal, and entice them to keep reading right through to the end. Take care to use clear, concise language, and to ensure your pricing suits the potential client’s budget.

Follow these pointers, and you’ll be five steps closer to winning the gig! Good luck.