How to get your proposal accepted (almost) every time

Contract // photo by shho: there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a salesman. But as the owner of a small design agency, it’s part of my job. Without being able to close a sale, I’d never get to move on to the fun stuff—building websites and building relationships.

There’s a seemingly endless supply of books, seminars, and websites devoted to sales, many of which offer a great deal of insight. Countless professionals have devoted their careers to mastering the art, and science, of closing the deal. But in my experience, it’s pretty simple:

Selling starts and ends with giving people what they want.

This doesn’t mean that you need to give your product or service away, or that you should be a doormat in negotiations. You just have to step back and put yourself in the client’s shoes: Find out what their need or problem is, and demonstrate that you can make it go away.

Some prospects make up their mind quickly—especially if you’ve got very bad (or perhaps very good) people skills. However, I’ve found that when it comes to hiring a designer, most clients base their final decision on the contents and quality of the proposal(s) they receive.

For this reason, I know that if a prospective client is serious about moving forward with a project (i.e., they have the motivation and the budget to act), they will almost always accept my company’s proposal—particularly if we’re competing against other vendors. Why? Because I’ve learned, mostly through trial and error, how to write a proposal that gives the client all they need to know about who we are and what they’re getting from us. More often than not, it’s simply a matter of making the effort, and taking the time, to be thorough.

Here are some specific approaches that I’ve found to be instrumental in crafting a winning proposal:

  • Be approachable – Before you even write the proposal, make it clear to the client that working with you will be an easy and pleasant experience. For example:
    • Offer a free initial consultation by phone or in person.
    • Treat clients with respect, and allow them to ask dumb questions.
    • Don’t force people to comply with unnecessary formalities, like filling out paperwork when a brief conversation will do.
    • Don’t try to run the show if they request a meeting—but do ask the right questions when given the opportunity.
  • Be fast – When I decide to make a big purchase, it can take days or weeks before I make a commitment. But when I’m ready to buy, I want it immediately. Clients often are the same way; in fact, within the past year my company lost out on a business opportunity simply because the client accepted the first bid, which happened to be someone else’s. So now, I have a simple rule: Inform the client that they’ll have a proposal within three or four business days, and whenever possible, deliver it in one or two days.
  • Be descriptive – Detail is crucial. If the proposal looks like a template, you will probably not get the client’s business. However, if you organize and expand upon the client’s vision in the form of a detailed project description, you’ll add value to the proposal while showing the client that you were listening to them, and that you actually care about their needs. Most importantly, you’ll demonstrate that you understand the scope of the project, which reduces the likelihood of a misunderstanding, and signifies that your asking price is well thought out.
  • Be precise – Eliminate the client’s doubts and concerns by specifying exactly what they’ll get, such as:
    • how much they’ll pay,
    • what the deliverables are,
    • when they can expect the project to be completed,
    • how many design revisions are included,
    • when payments are due, and
    • who owns the design.
  • Be flexible – Deals have a tendency to fall apart over little things that can often be worked around creatively. More often than not, money is the issue. Rather than negotiating on price, I’ve found that it’s much easier to get a proposal accepted by doing two things:
    • Allowing clients to choose their own payment schedule (e.g., 50% x2, 25% x4, etc.).
    • Itemizing the costs and giving clients the choice to eliminate or simplify the more expensive components of a project, whenever possible.
  • Be generous – Think of ways that you can offer additional value to the client, without giving away your core services or competing on price. For example:
    • Offer a free competitive analysis, comparing the client’s website or online marketing efforts to those of their closest competitors.
    • Share your opinion and experiences. If someone asks you to bid on a project that’s riddled with bad ideas, it usually doesn’t hurt to offer suggestions for improvement, especially if you’ve seen the same mistakes made by other clients in the past. In my experience, clients appreciate the honesty because it’s likely to save them money.
    • Go above and beyond to answer the client’s questions, even if you could just as easily refer them to Google.

Needless to say, each client is different (i.e., “your mileage may vary”), and it’s impossible to please everyone who inquires about your services. Furthermore, it can be difficult to resist the urge to win clients by reducing fees and bowing to their every whim. In the long run, however, that approach can be detrimental to the relationship and to the quality of the services you provide.

By focusing on the client’s needs, resolving questions before they’re asked, and enabling clients to make informed decisions, you might find proposal writing—and the entire sales process—to be a much more enjoyable and effective use of your time.