Has this ever happened to you?
You spend ages assembling the perfect proposal.
Then you wait anxiously for the client’s response.
And you get…
“Sorry we chose someone else.”
I’m sorry this happened to you.
But there are steps you can take to reduce the regularity of rejection.
You can’t win every bid, but you can improve your odds of success.
Everyone writes proposals all the time
Before I get to the good stuff, I just want to define who this is for.
I’m a freelancer, so my experience is primarily as an independent professional submitting proposals to a range of clients, from very small to very large companies and charities.
But this advice is applicable to all kinds of proposals. You might be an agency, or part of a larger company. Or you might be writing internal proposals, and striving to get your colleagues interested in your project. Most of these ideas can be adapted to any application.
4 forces underpinning the proposal process
We’ll cover lots of specific tactics in this article, but I think it’s useful to think about the forces at play. Because this will help you think about your own proposals more broadly and find original approaches to create more compelling proposals and pitches.
There are 4 forces that lurk beneath the proposal process. These are often hidden, sometimes unmentioned, and rarely addressed adequately.
Do everything you can to support, appease and mitigate these forces, and you will stand a better chance of winning the business.
The 4 forces that influence the success of your proposals:
Let me expand on these a little further.
The most obvious element. You know that your prospects will be considering the value of your proposal. So it’s important that you make it easy for the client to discern the answers to their questions. More on this later.
Your prospects will be asking:
- How much value are you offering?
- What forms does this value take?
- How does the value compare to the costs?
- How does this value compare to competing proposals?
- How will this proposal change our business?
You know you’re trustworthy, so it’s easy to forget just how nerve-wracking it can be for your prospects to pick a new supplier. In the supplier’s mind, every potential supplier is also a potential point of failure. Suppliers can make mistakes, delay projects, lose valuable information, leak money, and generally be a nuisance to work with.
Part of any procurement process is simply about weeding out bad actors and picking a supplier that is capable of delivering on promises.
As much as clients may want a creative maverick who can push the boundaries of modern marketing, they also need someone who’ll turn up to meetings on time, hit deadlines, be polite and respect the brief.
Do everything you can to build and maintain trust. We’ll cover tactics in just a bit.
This is, obviously, the flipside of confidence.
As much as you want to build confidence, you must also minimise fear.
This one is rarely given the importance and prominence it deserves. No matter what you might be offering in your proposal, you are more likely to succeed if you make life simpler for your clients or stakeholders.
Make yourself easy to work with. Make projects easy to start. Take tasks off the hands of your clients. Do as much as you can without any involvement of the client. And when you do need your client’s support, try to confine your requests as much as possible.
Okay, so that’s the 4 forces at work when you submit a proposal. Now it’s time to explore how you can work with these forces.
Demonstrate and enhance your value
How can you assure the client that your value exceeds your costs?
In short, you can:
- Build excitement about outcomes
- Add extras
- Quantify value
- Build the project with your client
- Know their budget
- Offer pricing options
- Spread the work
- Make the client look great
Build excitement about the outcomes
I’m a price-sensitive person (i.e. I don’t have piles of cash) so I tend to assume that everyone else is equally concerned about costs.
But this kind of focus on price represents a huge pitfall when you are writing proposals.
Yes, your clients have budgets and financial constraints.
And yes, you need to be able to justify your pricing.
But focusing on price can prevent you from focusing on the positives.
Put yourself in the client’s shoes.
Their backstory might be something like this…
Sue Bartholomew has worked in her company’s HR department for 12 years. During that time she’s risen up from a junior role to leading the team. Throughout her tenure, she’s been frustrated by the lack of tools and support for her and her colleagues. After years of petitioning senior leadership, she’s persuaded them to implement a new intranet platform. This project promises to transform how the business communicates, shares knowledge and conducts routine tasks. The new system will eliminate a stack of repetitive tasks and empower everyone to focus on projects that deliver value to the business. Sue and her other project stakeholders are enthusiastic about the project and keen to get started. But first, they need to find suppliers to help them implement the software and develop the content. It’s at this stage that they reach out to you.
Now, not all prospects are like Sue and her team. Some proposals are sought under duress, in the midst of a crisis, or out of some tedious compliance requirement. Your contact might be overworked, under-supported or seeking alternative employment. The project might be a ‘poison chalice’ rather than the beloved pet of C-suite executives.
But there are also plenty of ‘Sue’ clients out there.
Clients like Sue are not purely focused on price.
Clients like Sue are excited about the potential of your services. Your prospect might be imagining the transformation your support can deliver and picturing a better business.
You can help clients get excited about outcomes and deliverables by defining precisely what you will do, when you will do it, and how you will achieve it. Make it feel real, and really achievable. Help your clients see their future with you.
There’s a reason why so many products are offered with bonus gifts or additional features. These extras make us feel that we’re getting a better deal. If you’re not sure what extras to offer, think about what your competitors might be offering, and then try to find something they don’t provide.
For example, you might offer a free e-book to go along with your project work. Or a guide to leave with the team. Or a free check-in after 3 months to see how the team are progressing post-project. What can you offer that will help the client feel supported? How can you ensure the client’s project is a success?
How can you put a number on the value of your work?
You might be able to estimate:
- Time saved through your involvement
- Employee satisfaction and retention improvements
- Additional orders
- Higher profit margins
- Reduced support costs
- Improved brand recognition and/or perception
Build the project with the client
Rather than simply taking a brief, consider working more closely with the client so you can truly understand their needs. If you can explore their reasons for initiating the project, and the changes they hope to achieve, you can precisely shape your proposal around their plans, and also understand the value of what you’re offering.
If you take a genuine interest in the details of their project, they may begin to feel that you understand their needs, which already puts you in a strong position.
Questions to ask include:
- What prompted you to get in touch with me?
- What’s the background to this project?
- What are your key goals?
- How will you measure success?
- How does my work fit into your business ecosystem?
- What are your schedules, timings, deadlines?
- Which other teams or colleagues are involved with this project?
Know their budget
Clients don’t always know their budget. And if they do, they may be wary about sharing.
But you are still free to ask. You can ask in a vague, non-threatening way. Like…
“What sort of budget do you have for this project?”
If you can’t get any clue about their budget, you may want to give them options…
Offer pricing options
Everyone has a limit.
When you don’t know a client’s budget – or even their general expectations – then you can try giving them a range of options.
Start with the ideal approach to doing the project. Figure out a cost. Let’s say it will take you 2 weeks and cost the client £15,000. This is now your Silver tier.
Now figure out a way to deliver a shadow of the client’s expectations for a fraction of the budget. Let’s say it will take you 1 week and cost the client £8,000. This is the bronze package.
Take the silver tier and add everything you would do if money wasn’t an issue. This is your Gold package.
Alternatively you could create a ‘Core’ service that contains a basic version of the client’s requirements, and then package up a variety of bolt-on services and products. This allows the client to develop their own service package to suit their needs and budget.
Spread the work
If you suspect that a client may baulk at a hefty price tag, you could reframe the cost as a monthly expenditure. This only really works when the project is also dispersed across many months, but this could help your client to manage the cost.
Could you give the client some value early on, and then spread the remaining work over a longer period? For example, you might tackle a couple of pressing priorities, and then schedule the remaining tasks over 3-6 months. Some tasks might even be worth delaying until next year – it really depends on the nature of the project.
Make the client look great
When a client chooses you, they are taking a risk. Their professional reputation can be dented if you fail to deliver what you promise. By understanding this dynamic, you can look for ways to deliver work that supports the company’s goals, and also advances your contact’s career.
For example, you might find ways to integrate the company’s strategic goals into your work, something your contact can then chalk up as a win. The work you deliver for your contact will be seen as part of their individual effort, so you have a big opportunity to make them look good.
Once again, the better you understand your client’s business, vision and goals, the better you can support their individual goals.
Build and maintain confidence
How can you demonstrate to potential clients that you are reliable, trustworthy, and guaranteed to deliver?
- Include client testimonials
- Share your backstory
- Deliver rapid value
- Write clear proposals
- Respond to every item in their brief
- Think about the ‘before and after’
- Create flexible policies
Include client testimonials
Yes, you might have these on your website, and perhaps your client has seen them. But can you be sure that the client’s other stakeholders have also seen them? No, you can’t.
Your proposal can be as interesting and entertaining as you want it to be. Don’t hide your brilliance. Put it right there, in front of all the eyeballs.
Share your backstory
Few people want to buy from a faceless corporation. Tell a short story about how you reached this point in life. Why are you submitting this proposal? What do you bring to the bargain? Why do you care? How do your previous experiences enable you to do this job well?
Deliver rapid value
How quickly can you show your customer some results? The sooner, the better.
Even if the project is long and complicated, find ways to deliver incremental value. This will reassure the client that you’re both on the right track, and also help them rationalise the expenditure. For example, you might be able to complete a small but visible piece of work early on. Even if it’s a strategy document, or a section of copy, it will at least break down the project into milestones and make the entire endeavour feel less risky.
Write clear proposals
We all want to sound important and clever, but opaque proposals can create an air of mystery that does nothing to build confidence. Be explicit and transparent about what you will deliver. Set boundaries. Define limits. Clients will appreciate the clarity and respect your professionalism.
Don’t be tempted to inflate the value of your offer by using management jargon. It rarely works. Most people will see through the mirage.
Respond to every item in their brief
Sounds obvious, but this really counts for a lot. Pay attention to what your prospects are asking for. Even if you think it’s stupid, or irrelevant, or you can’t deliver it, you need to address everything mentioned in the brief.
And by ‘the brief’ I mean everything written down and everything mentioned in subsequent conversations or dropped as afterthoughts in late night emails. Everything.
This shows that you’re paying attention and that you care.
Any proposals omitting key factors are likely to be chucked out immediately. Don’t join this pile.
Think about the ‘before and after’
Your proposal is part of a chapter in the story of your client. If you can understand the beginning of this story you can make sure your proposal is in harmony with previous chapters.
And if you can show that you’re also thinking about how the story continues after your involvement, you can help the client to get excited about the long-term future.
For example, if you’re a copywriter, think about how you can establish good practices that will help your client write effective copy for years to come. What can you leave behind that will support this? How can you support lasting change?
Or perhaps you’ve been asked to help with a small part of a project – right in the middle of multiple processes. If you can understand what comes next, you can ensure that your contribution fits neatly and prepares the ground for the next steps. This might mean formatting material for future editors, or providing guidance for the next people in the chain.
Simply showing that you’re thinking about the wider context can impress your clients and demonstrate an awareness of the bigger picture.
Create flexible policies
Your desire to constrain clients within legal frameworks or a mesh of terms must be weighed against the client’s desire for freedom and flexibility.
Terms and conditions are a healthy, normal, professional thing to include in your proposals. Just make sure that your policies leave room for the client to adjust their plans, shift schedules and do whatever else they need to complete the project.
How can you stop fear creeping into the client’s mind?
- Look solid
- Get insurance
- Show logos and credentials
- Explore ‘what if…?’ scenarios
- Present and explain your proposal
When preparing proposals, having a logo, your own website and a domain-specific email address counts for a lot. Same goes for having a limited company. None of these things are essential for every business (or freelancer), but every detail will contribute to your appearance as a legitimate enterprise that has a past and a future.
Why not mention your professional indemnity insurance and/or public liability insurance as part of your business credentials? Some clients will require this as part of their supplier onboarding processes.
Logos and credentials
Are you part of any professional associations, or do you have any training credentials that can demonstrate your commitment to your career or profession?
Such details don’t need to be centre-stage, but they can help to reinforce the weight of your brand.
What happens if things go wrong? What happens if the client doesn’t like your work? Or if the client has delays? Or if you get sick? Or if you decide to move to Mongolia?
While you don’t want the client to focus on negative outcomes, it’s good to show that every contingency is covered. This would normally form part of your terms and conditions, but for freelancers who work alone, it can be useful to think about ‘Plan B’ well in advance – just in case you’re unable to finish a project. For most of us, this simply means getting to know other copywriters and asking people if they would be happy to jump in to a hypothetical emergency situation.
Present and explain
When your proposal is ready to send, don’t send it. Seriously, why would you do that?
Now is the time to schedule a meeting with the client so you can explain the proposal. Talk about their challenges, their goals, their requirements. Talk about all the bright ideas you had while thinking about their project. Get them excited by sharing your excitement. Take their questions. Listen to their perspective.
And then you can send them the proposal.
By presenting your proposal you can ensure that the client understands precisely what you intended. You can focus their attention on the value you’re offering and the benefits you promise. You can help your proposal to stand out against the rest.
How can you make life easy for the client?
- Identify the client’s pains
- Plan around the client’s needs
- Take tasks away from the client
- Start quickly
Identify the client’s pains
What are the biggest headaches your client is facing within this project? Are they dreading having to navigate complex sign-off processes? Or is a single stakeholder obnoxious and rude? Is there a shortage of time? Or an abundance of ambition?
Every project is different, and every organisation has its own foibles. Spend some time getting to know the shape of the client’s pains, and then do everything you can to take the pain away (and be sure to tell them about it).
Plan around the client’s needs
Once you understand the client’s organisation and their challenges, you can structure your own services and project plan to deftly weave through the barriers.
Can you help to circumvent some complexity? Can you help to soothe an intransigent stakeholder? Can you schedule your work to suit their regular meetings or planned holidays? Can you use the formats they prefer? Or adopt their software tools or platforms?
Look for ways to become part of the team, and tell them about it.
Take tasks away from the client
If you can be the service provider that just gets things done, you will go far. Of course you’ll need your client’s input and support, but do whatever you can to minimise requests and demands.
Whenever you notice your client having to field a lot of requests or complete a lot of tasks, consider if there’s a simpler way, or a way to work around them.
How can you complete jobs without making work?
Clients always want work to start yesterday. And while you might not be able to travel through time, you can find ways to get the ball rolling a little quicker.
For example, you might find a very small, achievable task that you can get started with before the main work kicks-off. You might be able to start onboarding, or setting up interviews, or scheduling meetings, even if you can’t start in earnest.
Starting quickly helps reassure the client that you’re motivated to deliver rapid value.
How to implement these proposal ideas
This sounds like a lot, right?
But most of this article’s advice can be summed up with two bullet points:
- Collaborate with potential clients. Talk more. Ask questions. Get closer.
- Create a better proposal template. Make it great. Save as template.
You don’t have to do everything every time
Some projects aren’t worth all this effort.
If a client has a few hundred pounds to spend, you probably don’t want to invest hours in winning the work. A few minutes would be more appropriate.
When you really want the work – either because the pay is great or because the client is right up your street – then you might want to employ more of these tactics.
You’ll never win them all
There’s no secret formula to make your proposals better than all the rest. There’s nothing you could possibly do to make every client choose you.
While you should think creatively about making your proposals more effective, it’s also healthy to keep this harsh reality in mind. Don’t feel bad if the client chooses someone else. That’s life!
Over to you!
What tricks do you use to win more projects?