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Why You Need To Write Assumption-less Proposals


Earlier this week, I dug up the first real proposal I’d ever written for a client. It was from mid-2006, and the project was a marketplace for doctors to virtually consult with their patients (back then, this client and I were apparently blissfully unaware of the many legalities around doing this).

So as an eager young freelancer, I felt it my duty to put together a proposal. The cursory reading I had done at the time on freelancing informed me that two things were necessary: a contract, and a proposal.

The issue was, I didn’t really know what my proposal should look like, or let alone what it should actually contain.

After a bit of searching around, it seemed like a proposal consisted of the following elements:

  • A mission statement-y sounding paragraph about the project, called the “Overview”
  • Some boilerplate stuff about who I am
  • A scope of work — e.g. the stuff I’ll be doing
  • How much it’ll cost and how long it’ll take
  • How to get started (a deposit payment, sign on the dotted line, etc.)

I started using this formula, and ended up using it for years. After all, just about every proposal template on the Internet was developed off some variation of the above formula. If it’s good enough for the world, it’s good enough for me.

…Right?

Why most project proposals don’t actually tell the client anything

When my wife and I were shopping for our house, I remember always wanting the homes we saw that were fully furnished. “Deborah, that last one was GREAT. Let’s make an offer!”

I could picture myself coming home and relaxing on that couch, or grabbing a midnight snack from that refrigerator. The empty homes we saw just didn’t do it for me. And while my wife had no problem visualizing whether or not each house we toured would fit our family and our needs, my imagination only went as far as to really picture a house as a home if it was furnished.

Your clients probably aren’t that much different than me when I’m looking for houses. They might have a hard time imagining their business as a result of what it is you’re proposing to do. If you’re just proposing the technicals and the details of the project, you’re leaving a lot up to their imagination.

If you’re trying to sell your clients on working with you by describing the website, the app, or the details of a marketing campaign, you’re assuming that they can put two and two together and, like my wife, be capable of imagining how this project will fit with their business.

By forcing them to mentally telegraph the scope of work you’re proposing to them with what they’re really looking to do, you’re making an assumption — you’re assuming they know how what you’re proposing will benefit their business. And assumptions are almost always wrong or inaccurate.

The answer is to write assumption-less proposals

Ignoring the “Overview” section, the typical proposal leaves a lot up to the imaginations of your clients.

  • “About Us/Me” — Do they understand my business and my needs?
  • “Project Scope” — Will this actually solve the problem I have?
  • “Cost” — Will I end up making a return-on-investment? Or will I just spend a bunch of money?
  • “Getting Started” — Have they completely convinced me that they can help me?

These are the questions your clients are asking themselves as they read your proposal. And if you’re not answering them, you’re presenting yourself as high-risk.

By selling the how without the why, you’re forcing the client to assume how what it is you propose to give them will actually give them what they truly need.

I didn’t want a house, I wanted a home.

And when I was shown an empty room, devoid of decoration, I had to mentally translate what I was being shown into the home I wanted. But fortunately, my real estate agent — by virtue of her profession — knew how to sell. She helped me envision how this house I was looking at, a foreclosed shell draped in the grey of a Virginian winter, could be the home I raised my children in. And that’s what convinced me to buy.

When I started tying together how what it is I was proposing to do with why it had to be done, my sales skyrocketed. Literally. It wasn’t because I suddenly because amazingly persuasive or anything. I simply began to leave little for assumption, and little for the imagination. I was still selling websites and apps, but these were website and apps that were meant to make a measurable impact in the businesses of my clients.

If you’ve picked up Double Your Freelancing Rate, section 3 outlines the structure, tone, and content you want to include in your proposals to convey the why. But if you haven’t yet, here’s the structure I advocate:

  • “Why You’re Here” — What problem lies at the root of this project?
  • “Where You Want To Be” — What does it mean to solve this problem?
  • “What We Want To Do” — What paths are we proposing, and how do these options align with solving the problems of the client?
  • “What We’ll Be Preparing For” — What can cause this project to fail, and how do we plan on overcoming these risks?
  • “Why We’re Best For The Project” — What specific domain or business expertise do we have, ideally in the form of a case study, that demonstrates that we understand this problem and how to fix it?
  • “How We Can Do This For You” — From the different paths we’ve propose, how do each of these satisfy the solution we’re aiming for, and what kind of ROI can the client expect from each option?

I’m still ultimately describing who I am and my credentials, what we’ll technically be doing, how much it will cost, what it will take, and more. It’s all still there, it’s just not the focus.

Here’s a quick rule of thumb…
When writing proposals, ask yourself: Am I proposing a house, or a home?

I’d love to hear about a recent proposal of yours. Do you think you did a good job in selling why the project mattered? Let me know in the comments below.

  • I agree with most of your post. But this stucture is suitable when you know what your client wants and, when she knows herself what she wants to do. A the very begining, my client is just a lead, and this structure would not match. She wants to know who I am, where I come from, do I belong to her world, will I be able to understand her problems. The very first steps, you are like a blind man, without anything to let you guess the path.
    When the lead becomes more “hot”, then, your structure is okay.
    Thanks for your post.

    • Frederic, so I have a bit of a different perspective on lead cultivation and sales. You’re right in that this approach wouldn’t exactly work that great if you were, e.g., replying to RFPs. But my goal in all of the early conversations with leads is to get them to tell me what that why is, typically via Socratic questioning. I’ve rarely gone from first contact -> proposal with much success, and treat proposals more as a formality that recaps past discussions about a project and provides a path forward.

      • I agree, the proposal follows almost never the path contact -> proposal.
        But, for example, huge companies, have built their own steps to select their external consultants. You have not to answer to the man who need something, but to someone who wants to know who you are, what’s your price, how you work, etc… without any direct related project in the pipe. This man is called a “purchasing director” (I do not know the right translation in english). The socratic method would not work because you have to fill an excel before knowing if you will ever work with the company. In that cas, the traditional structure may be the best one.

    • Good point. Personally, I avoid RFPs. Most of the times, an RFP is simply a way to find the cheaper contractor. Since I now price higher than my competitors, I have never succeeded in getting a project using the standard RFP process.

      However, the following technique has worked for me: when I know that a (big) company is requesting proposals for a project, I contact some of the managers (decision makers) directly. Good networking helps, especially if it’s a local company. When I contact a few managers, I show them that I understand their problems and propose my solutions (that may require some research in advance) and I also justify my higher cost. As a result, the managers know that I care about their business and have a way to address their pains. I submit a proposal only after I have talked to them. Chances are they’ll notice it and they’ll remember our conversations.

      True story: A huge betting organization was searching for contractors 1.5 month ago. A few companies had already sent their proposals. I contacted one of the decision makers, described my solution and made an offer, which was 24% more expensive than my competitors’ quotes. I took the project because I had convinced the decision makers that I can deliver more value than anyone else. All this could not be done via the “standard” process.

  • Looks like my proposal template is up for another revision!

  • Great analogy to remember this by Brennan. Working up a proposal today, so this is very timely.

    • Caleb – how’d that proposal end up turning out? What’d you do differently when writing it?

  • durangoodyear

    Spent this week trying to explain why the clients assumptions explode budgets… good timing 🙂

  • Great article! As someone who is both house-hunting and proposal-overhauling I can relate to everything mentioned here.

    It’s such a simple concept it makes me cringe at my old proposals. Who (aside from me) wants to read 5 pages about …. me?

    • Most people chiefly care about themselves, especially when they’re putting their money on the line. Let me know how your upcoming projects pan out as a result of these changes!

  • As always, Thank you Brennan.

  • Joanne

    Brennan – this is the best mindset-changer I have ever read when it comes to proposal writing. I am going to save your bullet list and put it in my next one!

    • Great Joanne! Let me know how that next proposal turns out 🙂

  • Adam Rasheed

    Amazing as always! Quick question: Having met with the client the way you’re supposed (socratic questioning, figuring out their main paint points, price anchoring ,etc.) to in your book, whats a good rate of closing deals after you’ve submitted the proposal?

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