From landing seven-figure enterprise deals to winning $500 freelance clients, everything starts with a project proposal. How easily you’re able to sell your services will depend a great deal on the quality of your proposal.
Writing great proposals is an exercise in marrying the hard, objective metrics that define your business with the soft, subjective principles that often lead to big wins. You have to pass muster on all the technical fronts – structure, pricing, deliverables, etc. – but you also have to win over the client with your positioning and understanding of their business.
So what exactly goes into creating deal-winning proposals? What factors should you look out for? What should you prioritize when you start writing? I’ll share some detailed answers below.
Understand the Client’s Problems
Far too many project proposals make the same mistake: they focus on the service provider’s skills and capabilities, not the client’s needs.
Remember that project proposals are essentially sales documents. Just as a great salespage always talks about the customer’s problems, a great proposal too should emphasize the client’s needs and issues.
Here’s a great example of this “benefits-first” approach on a landing page. Note how Buffer focuses on the benefit – “save time” – and not the features.
Buffer’s homepage focuses on the core benefit, not the features (Image source: Buffer.com)
Your capabilities, results, and approach, while important, should always serve to illustrate two things:
- How you’ll solve the client’s problems
- Why you’re the right firm to do it
For example, consider a client who wants a website made. To sell them your web development services, you can take two approaches:
- Approach #1: You can talk about your years of experience, proven track record, and the quality of your team.
- Approach #2: You can dig deep to understand why the client wants a website in the first place, and how your experience can help you solve their problems.
Both approaches share the same content (case studies, team profiles, etc.). But while approach #1 is inwardly oriented (i.e. it talks about yourself), approach #2 talks about the client’s issues.
You can only guess which of the two approaches would be more successful (hint: it’s the latter).
Always remember: clients don’t hire you because they want 10 years of marketing experience or 15 people skilled in ReactJS. They hire you because they have a problem that needs to be solved.
Focus on these problems and your proposal will easily stand out against the competition.
On that note…
Factor in Your Competitors
Another common point of failure is businesses assuming that a potential client is talking only to them. Even if the client says so, you should always assume that they are shopping around.
Essentially, this means that your proposal will never be seen in isolation. Rather, it will be compared to your competitors.
This brings up some important questions:
- Should you bother sending a complete proposal if the client is going to buy the lowest priced offer?
- How should you change your value proposition to counter a client comparing your prices to a competitor?
The first question is often ignored but is crucial if you want to avoid wasting time on tire kickers and window shoppers. If you have sufficient data on lead quality, you should invest the effort into sending complete proposals.
However, if you don’t have good lead data, a better approach would be to send a “pre-proposal” that only includes a price quote and final deliverables. Based on the prospect’s response to this proposal, you can consider sending a full-fledged proposal later. This saves you the trouble of investing time into creating detailed proposals for clients who are shopping for the lowest possible prices.
To deal with the second question, you have to consider the positioning of your proposal. A prospect comparison shopping will invariably bring up your competitor’s pricing and ask for a better quote.
When this happens, you should have a clear explanation for your price. Prospects should know exactly why your solution costs more than your competitors, not just in terms of features, but in terms of the value it provides.
Focus on Your Value Proposition
Your value proposition is what makes your service unique.
Although often neglected, a strong value proposition is vital for creating a viable project proposal. Without it, you will encounter resistance from clients and a poor understanding of the value you deliver.
To understand it better, work your way backward. Start by listing the deliverables clients will receive at the end of the project. What problems are these deliverables intended to solve? How are these different from what competitors offer?
For example, a web development agency might have a “hand-coded website” as its final deliverable. Being “hand-coded” implies that it wasn’t just culled from a pre-existing template, and that everything was created from scratch by experienced developers.
A developer would understand the value of writing your own code, but a client might not. Thus, you have to attach a value proposition to this “hand-coded” feature. You might emphasize that a hand-coded website is better than a template because:
- It is more modular and can grow with the client’s business
- It is easier to maintain
- It can be easily customized to integrate with the client’s existing tools
Your goal is to list out each deliverable, what makes it unique, and why clients should care about it. It’s not enough to describe the uniqueness; you should also justify why it should matter to end-users.
Work on Your Positioning
Your positioning describes the way you sell your services. It goes beyond value proposition; it encompasses everything your business does.
Positioning can change how clients approach the exact same deliverables. For instance, both Apple and Microsoft sell operating systems that let you achieve the same end results (be productive), but their positioning is entirely different.
Nothing made the difference between Apple and Microsoft’s positioning clearer than the Mac vs PC ads (Image source: Wikipedia)
Strong positioning can help you overcome a weak value proposition or lower prices from a competitor.
Getting your positioning right starts way before you send a proposal. In fact, by the time a prospect asks for a proposal, he/she would already have an impression of your business based on your brand and interactions with salespeople.
Your goal should be to have a positioning statement that aligns with your broader brand approach. If you’re pricing your services as a “premium” provider, your brand should reflect it as well.
Start by asking yourself some fundamental questions:
- What are your brand’s values? How are these conveyed and experienced throughout the buyer’s journey?
- How well do clients understand your brand before they see your proposal?
- Does the price you charge reflect your experience, expertise, and brand?
Understand that your brand isn’t just your look and feel. It’s a sum of everything you offer – how much time you take to deliver the project, your expertise, past clients, experience, and even the technologies or marketing approaches you use.
At its heart, positioning is more about perception than reality. If you can create a perception that you are a “premium” provider (through your price, past results, and existing clients), you’ll find that prospects are happy to overlook higher prices.
Over to You
Writing deal-winning project proposals isn’t just about what you write in the actual proposal; it’s about how you approach the proposal as well. Stronger positioning, clearer value proposition, and a deeper understanding of the client’s problems will help you create a proposal that is more aligned with your prospects’ needs.
The result? Faster wins, bigger deals.
Jeff Sullivan is a marketing manager for Workamajig, a leading management system for creative and digital agencies. When not working with agencies to scale their businesses, he can be found fiddling with his guitar or perfecting his surfing technique.