How to write epic proposals that win business
When it comes to new business, I’ve learned three things: be clear, concise, and ask for the sale. In a former life, I was a partner in a social media agency, and I grew our portfolio from $1MM to $20MM in four years. I got grey hair in the process, but that’s a conversation for another day. When I went out on my own five years ago and started consulting, I used the tools I’d acquired to convert prospects into clients. In 5 years my win rate has been 95%.
How? I’ve cultivated a simple three-step proposal process that starts with a conversation and ends with a solid proposal. I’ll outline the process in an upcoming medium post, but for now I’ll share the nuts and bolts of writing a winning proposal.
Restate the goals and objectives
You’ve had the initial call with your prospective client. You’ve learned about their company, stakeholders, and more importantly, their pain points. To close a sale, you have to know the client’s challenges and explain how you can solve for those challenges. Many consultants make the big mistake of using the proposal to talk about THEM — their experience, portfolio, and capabilities. This is what the intake call is for. The proposal is all about the client. Start the proposal with a recap of your discussion and what you believe to be their goals + objectives. The goals and objectives set the stage for the story you’re about to tell.
Define what you bring to the table
Although I just went on a mini-rant about how to not make the proposal all about you, you do want to reiterate specific aspects of your experience that make you their ideal partner. For example, you can call out industry/vertical acumen and expertise. You can highlight previous case studies using the CAR format:
Proposals are often circulated internally for feedback and review, and you want to show the team that you’ve heard their concerns + why you are the best person to address them.
Tell them the solution + the services you offer
This is the most important part of the proposal! I’ve seen so many proposals that are vague, which is an open invitation for scope creep. In concrete and succinct terms, articulate your services and the components of those services that will ultimately satisfy the client’s goals and objectives. For example, if you’re offering to write content for a client’s social media channels, you should define:
- How many posts you’re creating per channel, per week (original + 3rd party reposting)
- Are you responsible for creating original visual content? If so, what kinds of content? Images, video, gifs, etc. How many pieces of visual content Will you be editing and formatting the visual content?
When it comes to your services, BE SPECIFIC.
Get specific about your process + approach
Believe it or not, this is the second most important part of the proposal because in this section you’re communicating how you work. Not setting clear expectations from the onset is often the reason projects become a psychological nightmare. This is the place to define:
- Your process: Your communication + workflow — the tactical nuts + bolts of your day
- Communication: Get specific on when and how often you communicate. Do you have weekly check-in calls? Do you guarantee a response within 24 hours? Do you not work on the weekend or do have specific office hours? Do you send call recaps to ensure you and your clients are on the same page? How a do you structure the review + feedback process?
- The software, tools, and technology you use to get the job done. For example, I use Dropbox, Asana, Google Drive, Skype, and Slack for file and workflow management. Do you use Hootsuite to manage social media? Show what’s in your toolkit. Know that some of this will be a negotiation with your client because you don’t want to impose a process that impedes progress. Each client is different, and you’ll have to negotiate the tools you’ll be using.
- Your approach: This is your secret sauce. Your big-picture strategic workflow. This is how you get to the solutions that will solve your client’s problems. For example, on my brand strategy projects, I outline the first two week’s of activity to get to positioning statement, key messaging, benefits, and narrative. I’ll also show where the clients are involved in the process:
- Week 1: Asset Request + Review (FS)
- Week 2: 2-day discovery work session (FS + Client), recap report, which details key learnings and opportunity
- Week 3: Delivery of brand provocations, positioning + purpose, benefits
You’ll gain tremendous insight into your client relationship based on their response to your proposal. I joke that the proposal phase is when all the crazies come out of the woodwork. The, wait, you’re not going to respond to emails within 3.2 seconds of receiving them? I can’t expect that you’ll make edits at 2:30am when I have insomnia and I’m firing out emails?
Give clarity on the deliverable, i.e. what they get.
While clients appreciate the strategy, advice, and best practices, they also want to understand the tactile part of the relationship I often create a chart where I outline my services in one column and in the next column I’ll specify the resulting deliverable. Let’s say a client wants you to manage all of their influencer marketing efforts on a monthly basis. You would detail all the components of the service and the deliverables:
- Influencer strategy in PPT format (<- Yes, I inform the client of the format because you would be surprised the level of confusion and frustration that ensues in the sending and opening of documents. And no, I’m not joking)
- List of targets, asks and assets, budget, timeline
- Campaign copy, influencer pitch + all communication in MS Word format
- Monthly recap and performance report in XLS format
BE CLEAR on what they get and when they get it.
Define success and how you’ll measure it.
Clients LOVE this because it allows them to rationalize their investment and determine whether your proposed solution actually worked. You’ll sometimes hear marketers use the term “KPIs” or Key Performance Indicators. That’s just a fancy way of saying what kinds of data they use in evaluating the success of a particular strategy or tactic.
Metrics can also be tricky because not all measures of success are quantitative in nature, and they shouldn’t be. With brand work, or anything that involves driving awareness or consideration (preference) for a brand, the results aren’t something that can be immediately measured. Your proposal should be clear on the ways in which you’ll work with your client to establish a benchmark (i.e. a starting point from which to measure) and how you’ll evaluate the efficacy of your work.
Include a project timeline and resources
Every project, even retainer work has a contracted start and end date. Set parameters for the project as well as any additional resources involved and what their roles will be on the project. This is important because some companies actually bar the use of subcontractors. Also, your client will want to get to know their partners and all the members of their success team!
Deal with the money part
Ah, the moment we’ve all been waiting for with bated breath. This guide isn’t about how to set your pricing or whether you should charge a project rate or hourly (I do project and sometimes a project with an hourly cap), however, what is important about this section is to set a fair rate for your work, when they should pay you, and any fees you can collect if they are negligent in payments.
I will say this — draft your ideal terms. Don’t draft what you think a client would want. Remember, this is about YOU making money by providing THEM with a solution. In the past year, I’ve had two clients who have paid upon receipt of invoice. That’s where I start and I’ll go up to N30 from there. I also require 50% of payment up front. If it’s a mix of project deliverables and monthly, I’d do a 50% of project at sign and 50% at term, and then I’ll bill at the first of the month for the retainer.
If your client is legit, they will never have a problem paying for your work. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and deserve.
Close with next steps
In marketing, we have a phrase that there should be no dead ends. Every action should lead to another action. I employ this in proposals by setting up a time for review and discussion. For some clients, I’ll outline what the next two weeks will look like (proposal finalization, SOW/MSA, onboarding, etc.)
End the story the way you started it. You heard them and now you’re excited to get started on the solution.