Proposal Writing: Advice for Delighting Clients and Winning Projects
You’ve likely done a lot of work to get to the point in the sales cycle where you have secured a request for a proposal, so it is crucial that you finish strong. In this chapter, we’ll cover what to include in your proposals, and how to present them to ensure you have the best chance of getting a signature from your client.
When it comes to writing, knowing the building blocks of a great proposal can be your key to success. We’ll outline what is important to include, and how to effectively match the complexity of your proposal to the complexity of the project. Additionally, we’ll explore how to best tailor your proposal for different types of clients. Together, these factors will set you up for a strong proposal presentation.
Presenting your proposal provides you a final opportunity to make your case as to why you are the right team or person for the job. In this chapter, you’ll take away some key considerations and best practices for your presentation, including how to best play to your audience, sticking your ground on pricing, and protecting your profit margins. These tactics will put you in a position to win and create the most value for your client — all while securing a profitable project for your business.
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Writing your proposal
Getting proposal writing right is crucial. When done correctly, this document should summarize your understanding of the client’s business, their goals, the project, and why you are the best choice for the job.
There’s no exact formula for writing a great proposal, but there are some general rules of thumb that can help guide you. Here are two rules that our team swears by, which should help improve the quality of your proposal, and the likelihood of winning the project.
Rule #1: Match the complexity of your proposal to the complexity of the project
It’s important to keep the correlation between project scope and level of detail in mind when going into the proposal-writing stage of your sales cycle. Generally, the larger the budget, the more detailed the proposal should be.
Prospective clients with small budgets and project scope don’t need a full song and dance; simply a proposal made up of a few pages or less, discussing what they’re going to get, pricing details, and anticipated timelines. Small and medium-sized businesses usually don’t have a dedicated marketing director, which means you’re dealing with the owner of the business whose main concern is keeping the lights on — so cutting to the chase about pricing and results is usually the more effective approach.
Prospective clients with small budgets and project scope don’t need a full song and dance.
On the other hand, brands with larger budgets (midsize and enterprise level) and projects of larger scope will require a significantly more nuanced and detailed proposal. In this scenario, you are most likely dealing with a Director, VP, and/or C-level executive. With more sophisticated requirements comes the necessity to provide more detail around how your services will address pain points and accomplish objectives.
For example, if you have someone who is looking to migrate an existing website from one platform to another, the client is going to be concerned with factors such as SEO, downtime, integrations setup, ongoing costs, and more. You’ll want to speak to these concerns with the right amount of specificity to ensure that the client has no doubt that you’re going to execute effectively. In these scenarios, the financial investment in the project will be higher, and more decisionmakers will be involved.
For more straightforward projects, you should be able to address any concerns in your early conversations within the sales cycle, so that when you get to the proposal, all of those things have been hammered out and you’re really focused on getting your estimate approved.
Questions to ask before creating your proposal:
1. What are your budget expectations?
Bottom line: You don’t want to waste anyone’s time (yours or the prospective clients). Understanding the budget at the front end of the process allows you to quickly understand whether or not the project is worth pursuing, as well as the ability to correlate budget with scope.
2. What is your target launch date and/or timeline expectations?
Again, if the client has an unrealistic expectation regarding timeline, the project might not be the right fit for you. With this knowledge early on, you have the opportunity to 1) address any unrealistic expectations, and 2) effectively work backwards from the proposed launch date when mapping out the project timeline in your proposal.
3. What is your design aesthetic?
It’s good to know ahead of time if the prospective client has a specific design aesthetic in mind, so that you can sprinkle that into the design process where applicable. See if there are any websites that they like, and have them send links with notes on what they like about them if you can.
4. What integrations are needed?
This is an important variable that can have an impact on budget and timeline. You will want to secure a list of their current website integrations so that you can effectively estimate the level of effort needed for them on the new platform you’re going to produce.
Rule #2: Understand the needs of the client before writing your proposal
Before putting your proposal together, you first need to understand the client and their business challenges as much as possible. Put yourself in their shoes. This is vital in order to create a highly effective, personalized, and ultimately project-winning proposal.
Potential clients are likely going to fall into one of two buckets.
Some potential clients will have experience leading digital projects, and won’t need super granular details in your proposal because all those items have been discussed ahead of time in the sales process. Those clients just need to feel confident that you understand their core business goals, desired results, timeline, and budget expectations. When dealing with savvy clients, you can feel comfortable opting for a lightweight, condensed version of your proposal — so long as the core details have been discussed in advance.
Not so savvy clients:
On the other hand, there are going to be plenty of times where the client isn’t as savvy, and will need a lot of hand holding to ensure they understand the breadth and depth of your proposal. In this case, they may also need to run the proposal up the food chain for scope, budget, and timeline approval. This is a scenario where you’re most likely going to want to dig a little deeper into the core details of your project and implementation plan. Doing so will help build confidence with the client, and arm them with the right amount of ammunition to ensure the appropriate approvals are secured, and that they choose to work with you.
These rules, while not hard and fast, provide a solid guide for you to follow. The bottom line is this: put yourself in the shoes of your prospective client, ask the right questions up front, and tailor the complexity of your proposal based on project scope.
The building blocks of a great project proposal
You don’t want to overwhelm your client with a ton of unnecessary detail in your proposal. Keep things simple and try to showcase that you clearly understand their goals, objectives, timeline, and budget expectations. Different clients will have different needs, so feel them out as much as you can prior to submitting your proposal. Doing so will ensure that you have a strong grasp of what information should be included to ensure you close the deal.
Typically, the followings items can be included in your proposal:
Keep it simple. Client name, project name, name/title of the person you are presenting the proposal to, your name/title, and date. The cover page also provides an opportunity to integrate your brand assets and/or your client’s, through the usage of logos, color palettes, and other design elements.
You’ve put a lot of thought into the details of your proposal. It doesn’t hurt to request that the prospective client keep the information you’ve provided confidential, especially considering you may have included some relevant client case studies. A brief statement like, “we appreciate you keeping any concepts, pricing, and sensitive client information confidential” will do the trick.
This section is really the central nervous system of your proposal. It’s an at-a-glance area where you’re demonstrating your deep understanding of the project requirements, goals, objectives you will be accomplishing, your vision for the project, and why you are the best choice for the job.
This section is the place to articulate your unique process and relevant skill set (specializations), showcase your team, and outline your fee structure. Some considerations for this section are:
- Process: Provide an overview of your strategy as well as design and/or development process. This will allow your prospective client to visualize themselves in the process, and get an understanding of how things will flow.
- Capabilities: Highlight your firm’s relevant skill set. Place focus on the specializations that are relevant to the project directly, as well as highlighting subsequent offerings to consider in the future.
- Fee/rate structure: Provide an overview of your hourly and/or task-based rates for reference.
- Team composition: Showcase how your team will be structured as it relates to providing the most value to your prospective client.
Nine times out of ten, folks are going to flip right to your estimate first. That said, it’s still crucial that all the information provided in your proposal should reinforce why your estimate is what it is. Break up your fees section in the most easy-to-digest way possible. Based on your pricing strategy of choice, a simple table that outlines each phase of the project, along with the associated projected hours and costs, should do the trick.
You want your best advocates and champions listed here. The more relevance to the type of company that your prospective client has, the better. Provide the name, title, company, email address, and phone number for each reference listed. Feel free to include written testimonials in this section as well.
This is the place to tell your story. Here are a few items to consider:
- Company history
- Key team bios
- Client list
- Selected work (include any relevant case studies)
Making your case: How to pitch your proposal to clients
It’s always best to secure some time with the client in order to walk them through your proposal. This gives you the opportunity to showcase why you’re the best team for the job, while also addressing any questions or concerns they may have regarding the details of the proposal. Do this in person if at all possible, but if not, a video chat or phone call is the next best option.
Why face-to-face? It’s all about relationship building. Not only will you get some extra face time, you’ll also be able to address any questions or concerns regarding your proposal in real-time — building trust and confidence with your prospect. Clients will almost always choose to work with a person or team with whom they trust, and have developed a personal relationship with, even if the price is slightly more expensive than the others.
Here are some simple presentation tips you can follow when you go to meet with your prospective client:
1. Get key stakeholders in the room
As already mentioned, it’s all about relationship building. This will allow you to get face time with all the key players, address their questions, showcase your expertise, and demonstrate why you are the best choice for the job. Be confident (not cocky), make eye contact, and connect with your audience on a personal level. Personality is one of the variables in the buying process for your prospective client, so show them how working with you will be a pleasurable experience.
2. Understand and play to your audience
Different stakeholders are going to be focused on specific pieces of the project. Anticipate those needs ahead of time so that you can build confidence throughout the presentation. Also, try to get a sense of the personalities in the room as best you can before going in for the pitch. That way, you can showcase that you’re not only the most qualified developer for the job, but you’re also someone that they will enjoy working with on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes, this alone can be a deciding factor on whether you win or lose a project.
3. Focus on the most important stuff
It’s not necessary to go through every word in your proposal for the presentation. Stick to the items in your proposal that will be most important to the client. Demonstrate your understanding of the project scope and your vision for the project, as well as how you will accomplish goals/objectives within the projected timeline, and for the price estimated.
4. Check in with your audience at key points
As you flow through your presentation, be sure to take a quick pause at key points to see if anyone has questions. This allows you to address any questions or concerns regarding the information you just reviewed, but also allows for some interaction with your audience. Although you definitely want structure to your presentation, it’s important to make it conversational as well.
Standing strong: How sticking your ground on price helps win business
Throughout this book, you’re going to hear this advice again and again: stop selling on a discounted model, and start selling on the value you’ll bring.
Let’s face it — some clients are going to be more price sensitive than others. In fact, many are more cost-conscious than value-conscious. There are many variables that play a role in price sensitivity, such as provided budget, payment schedules / “payment spread,” end of fiscal year budgets, etc. This is why it’s always a good idea to ask about budget expectations at the front end of the sales cycle. This way, you can make an educated decision as to whether or not you want to pursue the opportunity or take a pass. The last thing you want to do is waste your time, or the client’s time, if the right budget isn’t allocated for the project.
The last thing you want to do is waste your time, or the client’s time, if the right budget isn’t allocated for the project.
If you feel good about the proposed budget expectation for the project, then it’s on you to clearly articulate why your estimate is in line with the value that you bring to the table. Sure, we’ve all been in a place where you need to get deals in the door to stay afloat, but if you’re at a point where you’ve grown out of that stage, you should stick your ground on price. If you’re not there yet, do what you need to do to get there ASAP. That will provide you with the leverage to say yes to the projects that fit, and no to the ones that don’t. Ensure that there is enough wiggle room in your pricing model so that you can negotiate a bit if necessary, without digging into your margin too much.
Here’s another tip. Clients often say, “I don’t have a budget” or, “tell me the budget.” In cases like these, we always let clients know what our minimum budget is, and also provide them with an average budget (usually a range) for completed projects of a similar scope. This information is always accompanied with the caveat that the range provided will depend on the final scope of work required. Do this early to ensure you and your potential clients are aligned on price, before spending a lot of time on the proposal process.
If I were to summarize all of this into one bottom-line statement, it would be this: focus on the value you bring to the table over price, but always make sure to qualify clients early on to avoid wasting everyone’s time.
Industry influence: How improving your process helps everyone
The responsibility we all share to positively influence our industry is immense, and we don’t even realize it. If we all do things the right way, we can influence an entire industry towards a better future.
Between the support team at Shopify and the ever-expanding list of industry experts, there are a wealth of folks out there to bounce ideas off and share best practices with. In the end, we’re all doing what we can to make web design and ecommerce better for business owners.
Dialing in your process by gleaning insights from every sales cycle should be standard practice for everyone. Not only will it help you close more deals, but — without even realizing it — it can help provide a positive light on our industry as a whole.
Just as you would work to test and optimize within client projects, you should be continually finding ways to refine your proposal process to ensure you’re always putting your best foot forward in every opportunity.
Discounting work only devalues the industry. If you look at other service professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, architects, landscapers (the list goes on and on), they all “charge what they charge” and don’t apologize for it. We, as industry professionals, should always sell on the quality and value of our work and processes. We’re worth it, and the more we all sell at a high level and with confidence, the more our industry will grow.
About the Author
Anshey Bhatia is the founder of Verbal+Visual. He’s a self-professed commerce nerd, people connector, travel junkie, and tech lover.