chapter 4

The Proposal | How to Write and Present Proposals That Close Deals

If you’ve spent any time running a freelance practice or web agency, you’ve likely been asked to present a proposal for your services. If you’re like many firms, you whip together a quick Word Doc with a list of the things your client told you they wanted in their website and how much it’s going to cost. Unfortunately, this method is likely to fail in producing a 100% close-rate. In this article, we take a look at best practices in crafting and presenting your proposal to help you increase your odds of winning a deal.

Why write a proposal?

Will an awesome proposal win you a project by itself? Unfortunately, no. Could a crappy proposal lose you a project? Unfortunately, yes.

Not all sales opportunities will put you directly in front of the sole decision maker where just a call/meeting/email alone can close a deal. It’s very likely that you’ll need to submit some sort of proposal. It’s very likely that you’ll be competing against other agencies. It’s very likely that your proposal will be circulated around to other stakeholders that might not have met you and don’t have context/ background on your company. Because of this, you’ll want to make sure you’re putting together and delivering your proposal in the best method possible.

What’s really the goal of a proposal?

The first mistake I see other agencies making is rushing through the sales process so they can get to the proposal as quickly as possible. At its core, a proposal is a tool to help you express your understanding of your client’s problems and needs. If you don’t take the time to thoroughly identify those problems and needs, chances are your proposal will fall flat with clients.

Even if your process/deliverables are almost 99% the same for every client, you need to craft the proposal in a way that matches the language and perception your client has of their problem. You might suggest the same solution for each of the following problems:

  • A client needs a better way to manage the content on their website. 
  • A client needs to integrate their ecommerce website with the other tools/software they use to run their business. 
  • A client needs a design that is more focused on conversion and helps drive sales.

In each of these cases above, you might still end up designing and developing a new custom Shopify theme, but the core problem you’re solving is actually quite different for each. You want to sell the ‘content management guy’ on the ease of product and page management with their chosen ecommerce platform, even if you need to build the same custom theme you would for the ‘platform integration guy’. It’s crucial to remember that the real goal of your proposal is to demonstrate your understanding of the client’s issues and reason for the project.

Getting to a proposal

So how do you properly assess the problems and needs of your client? Although this article isn’t meant to provide sales process strategies, here are some of the key steps that most agencies experience as they’re selling a potential client:

Qualification

Once you’ve received an inquiry or referral, your first step is to ‘qualify’ them and determine if they’ll be a good fit as a client. You’ll want to get a sense for the constraints/requirements they’re dealing with on the project regarding budget (how much cash do they have to solve this problem?), timeline (are there any driving deadlines for this project?), technical (what are the high-level features needed?) and partnership (are they looking for specific attributes in the partner they’re looking to work with on the project?).

Defining the problem and requirements

Once you’ve determined they’re a good fit at a high level, you’ll need to dive into understanding what’s driving the project. You’ll want to figure out what business problems they’re facing, the magnitude and impact of those problems and why they’re choosing to do something about it right now. You’ll also want to dive into a full breakdown of all the technical requirements surrounding their problem.

Scope analysis

Once you understand the problem and requirements, you’ll need to draft some sort of solution. This solution might only need to be explained conceptually or as a list of defined requirements and not necessarily approached using any spec work (I highly recommend avoiding spec work at all costs). You’ll want to determine the process and methods by which you’ll be solving their problem once they’ve moved ahead with the project.

During each of these steps, I suggest having at least one interaction with the client either face-to-face (ideally) or via Skype/phone. Do not create a proposal for anyone not willing to communicate either in person or via phone. You won’t win any email-only deals.

What does a proposal look like?

I’ve seen a variety of proposal structures, styles and formats. At the core, however, most proposals seem to focus on the following areas:

Company

This is your moment to brag and demonstrate why you’re the perfect fit. You’ll want to answer questions such as:

  • What makes you an expert on this subject? What experience/ accolades do you have that set you apart?
  • Who is on your team and more importantly, who will the client work with specifically?
  • What philosophy/approach/secret sauce do you have that makes you a good fit for this project?
  • What other case studies/references/testimonials do you have that can help instill trust?

Problem

This is where you demonstrate your full grasp of the problem your client is trying to solve. You’ll want to answer questions such as:

  • What are your client’s key business issues and objectives? 
  • How do you measure the impact of both solving or not solving those problems? 
  • Why are these problems being addressed now? What is the real motivation behind the project? 
  • What has the client said regarding the partnership requirements they have, and how do you meet them?

Solution

This is where you want to demonstrate your insights and ideas (without giving too much away for free) on how you’ll solve the problem. You’ll want to answer questions such as:

  • What are the business goals you’re trying to accomplish in solving this problem?
  • How will you measure success when looking at how you solve the problem?
  • What constraints or limitations have been identified regarding how the problem could be solved?
  • How do you differentiate between ‘mission-critical’ requirements and ‘nice-to-haves’? What are those requirements?
  • What is the process or series of steps/phases you’ll take to solve the problem?
  • What tangible deliverables will be produced while following your project’s process?

Logistics

In this final section, you’ll want to get into the specifics on how the project will be executed. You’ll want to answer questions such as:

  • What are the costs in fees, platforms, media and additional services in the project? 
  • What is the payment schedule and how does that correlate to time or deliverables within the project? 
  • What is the expected timeline for the project and what drives the ability to stick with that timeline? 
  • What will the communication policies/practices be like during the project? 
  • What other policies/contingencies/terms exist with this project?

How do you present a proposal to a client?

Despite all of the above, I look at a proposal as one of two things: a Presentation or an Artifact. A Proposal as a Presentation is one that must be presented in context (i.e. in-person or over the phone) and can’t simply be sent over in an email. These types of proposals are those that require your narration. There is a story to tell/sell and it must be presented as such.

A Proposal as an Artifact is really just one that articulates everything that has been already said and agreed upon during prior sales conversations. This method requires that you get almost full agreement from the client on the project before presenting them the proposal. In this instance, the proposal then serves as more of a reference/recap of what has already been discussed.

In either situation, there are a few tools I use that make crafting/ presenting proposals a little easier:

Proposal management

I’ve used Tinderbox for years as my proposal management software. They allow you to create templates with dynamic variables such as client name, track analytics of how your client views the proposal, and manage team collaboration.

Sales presentation

If I can’t do it in person, I typically use a screen-sharing tool such as Zoom to walk the client through the document. I prefer to not send it to them directly and instead control the viewing experience from my computer. This prevents them from just jumping right down to ‘budget’ and making a quick decision.

Sales communication

If you’ve ever doubted whether a potential client has received or read an email, check out Yesware. Yesware sits in your email client and provides email templates and analytics to help you more effectively manage your sales communication and process.

Sales management

There are a ton of CRM solutions on the market with Salesforce as the notable leader. Personally, we’ve used PipelineDeals for years. It’s a far simpler interface and works perfectly for agencies who do project- based sales.

In the end, everyone is bound to take a slightly different approach to crafting their proposals. Regardless of your approach, there is one thing I’ve found crucial to remember. Don’t get too comfortable with your proposal templates. It’s easy to think that once you’ve built a great proposal you can go on ‘repeat’ with all new deals going forward. We work in an ever-changing industry and as such, your proposal needs to change often too. In addition, you need to make sure that each proposal speaks to the unique needs/problems your client has identified. You can’t assume your template speaks to those problems flawlessly with every prospect, so keep it fresh!


About the author

Since 2008, Ross Beyeler has run Growth Spark — an agency helping ecommerce companies design interfaces that convert visitors and streamline operations. Growth Spark has completed over 250 projects, with Ross named as one of BusinessWeek’s Top 25 Entrepreneurs under 25 in 2010.

Next chapter

5. Value-Based Pricing | Deciding How To Charge Your Clients

3 min

Grow your business with the Shopify Partner Program

Learn more