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Writing And Winning High-Value Proposals

This summer I’ve written a lot of proposals.

When I was running my agency, this was pretty much my job — I had to bring in six-figures of project revenue each month or it was out of business (or dramatically downsizing). So I was a machine when it came to pumping these things out.

But these days, I’m no longer running my agency. I’m more-or-less a freelancer (but remember, I’ll never admit that to a client) but with one big difference: I’m charging a heck of a lot more, and selling consulting instead of the usual design and development work I used to sell.

Just last week, I completed an engagement for a Bay Area client and have also been planning a few future engagements, and I wanted to take you on a behind the scenes tour of how I’ve been proposing and landing $10k+/week jobs…

Here we go!

How do I propose to clients, and what makes it different than the typical project proposal?

The first thing you’ll notice in my proposals is that they’re more like a story that a statement of work.

I start with the pain — why is this project on the table? Obviously, the client knows this. After all… they TOLD me this already. But by stating it right away at the top of my proposal, I remind everyone why we’re all here: there’s a business problem that needs to be solved.

And then I write a bit of realistic fiction — what does tomorrow need to look like for the client? What should suck less?

Finally, I bring in my offers — ways that we can connect today with tomorrow.

As I’ve been writing my proposals this summer, my focus has been exclusively on the business problems that I’m proposing to solve… which is totally different than the way most proposals read (e.g., who am I / who are we, what will we be doing, what will it cost / when will it get done).

Much of the inspiration for the way I write these proposals comes from my experience having written sales letters for my products (which is the result of having studied a lot of direct response marketers). It’s just psychology. Understand what someone’s needs are, and present a solution to that problem. Listing out requirements and deliverables, timelines, budgets, whatever are not solutions — and if this is how you structure your proposals now, you’re leaving it up to your client to mentally put two and two together… and this is where people fall off the wagon, because not everyone wants to think things through.

How do I make sure clients aren’t surprised by my rate?

Next week I’ll cover a bit about how I justify my rate, but the long and short of it is that I include other dollar figures before I ever present my cost.

In the early parts of my proposal, where I list out what’s at stake if this project doesn’t get done and what’s to gain if it’s done right, I throw out numbers. Big numbers. Based on back of the napkin calculations.

And if my final cost (which I’ll talk about how I present in second) doesn’t outweigh the potential upsides I can deliver, I don’t take the project. And I tell the client this, and give recommendations on what to do instead (and let me tell you… this has paid DIVIDENDS for me and my business).

But next week I’ll talk more about how I anchor my cost against the payoff, along with what to do what that numbers not clear or not determinable, so stay tuned for that.

How do I describe exactly what I’ll be doing?

I always, always, always present different offers, or packages, for the work I’m planning. This gives my clients the ability to choose an offer that fits their budget and gives them the results they’re looking for.

But most importantly, it allows me to compete against myself. Does the client pay me a little, or do they pay me a lot?

I can’t share exactly what I proposed for a recent engagement of mine, but here’s a sanitized version:

Option 1
As discussed above, you have three phases a typical customer goes through. The most important phase is the first — if we can make these early customers more successful, they’re more likely to buy from you again. I’ll work with you to make sure that we can onboard and educate early customers with what they need to be most successful with your platform, which will deliver a huge bump in initial conversions. This will cost $X (plus expenses).

Option 2
This will have me do what I described in Option 1, along with additional campaigns for later stage customers. Namely, if we can make your existing customers even more successful, and empower them to take your platform to the next level, they’ll not only be financially better off, but they’re much more likely to refer you to others. You’ll get more customers (per Option 1), but the lifetime value of your customers will also rise significantly. This will cost $2X (plus expenses).

I’m not saying, “I’ll do X, Y, and Z” — instead, I’m offering two paths to the solution they’re looking for, one intense (and more expensive) than the other.

How do I “close the deal” with clients after I send out a proposal?

Because I have rough calculations of what tomorrow will look like for my clients, I create a sense of urgency through hinting at the opportunity cost suffered by delaying that tomorrow. I don’t do things like, “This proposal is only valid until X date” or any other sort of artificial urgency tactic.

Rather, I plainly state that they’re literally losing money by not moving forward on this project right now. And I’m also busy, and I haven’t stopped all sales and marketing to wait for their positive response. I have upcoming availability, and while I’d love to work with this client soon and bring this tomorrow to them, if they don’t act I might get spoken for… which just means the opportunity cost is even greater.

Two other quick things I want to close with:

When I deliver my proposals, I never come across as desperate. Maybe this is because I’m now in a position in life where I don’t need to consult, but no one wants to work with desperate people who aren’t confident in themselves.

Secondly, you should never promise immediate availability. When hiring a professional, you typically tend to fit around their schedule (or pay a LOT more for rush service). So try closing your proposal with a strong sense of urgency, but list a starting date that’s at least a few weeks out. You can always start sooner — no one’s ever gotten mad because something they were expecting to start a month from now can now start next week.
I hope this gives you a little more insight into how I work and why I think you should work this way too. Is this helpful? Are you getting some good takeaways that you can incorporate into your business? Comment below and let me know.

And if you want to consult and freelance like a pro, then I’d strongly suggest enrolling in Double Your Freelancing Rate if you haven’t yet. We dive much more in-depth into both the mechanics and psychology around proposing projects.

Here’s an awesome testimonial from Cindy I got the other day:

“Since reading just the first couple of chapters and applying what you’ve suggested I’ve gotten a few more clients and many more leads. I am more confident and find it easier to ‘sell’ myself as a consultant instead of a freelancer. I’m more focused on the solution rather than just giving them what they want.”

Go win some deals!

  • Curtiss

    Great points, Brennan! I also like the matter of emphasizing your start date a few weeks out, and why. Bravo!

    • I second the delayed start date. I promise the earth and am then in the awkward position of asking for more time (like an email I just sent)… Will the work be lost if there is a waiting time .. I think Brennan is right again!

      • toobulkeh

        I’ve dealt with clients who push for hard deadlines that is seasonal in nature. Having been on all sides of the industries, they’ve survived without you for this long, so no matter how urgent they sound, it’s business. Go home and spend time with your family. No one is going to die. A large retailer might lose millions, some people might get fired, but that’s the worst that can happen.

        Startups on the other hand…

    • Yep, this came from needing to deal with scheduling 11ish people. It was a very imprecise science, so I always erred on the side of caution and didn’t promise availability immediately, and if we COULD handle it we’d just push up the queue (which is always better than telling someone they need to wait)

  • Vangos

    Overall, nice read. Thanks for sharing your methods 🙂

    Do you deal with competitors (other consultants) in your proposals? OK, you create urgency, etc, but a client may tell you that “another freelancer does the same thing for $X”, where “X” is three or ten times less than what you charge. Others may say something like “everyone else is charging way less” and think that I’m cheating.

    Here is what I say to justify my higher costs:

    – “My previous clients achieved the X, Y, Z amazing results through my work. If you think you can achieve the same results with another freelancer, I suggest you work with him instead.”


    – “Both Porsche and Fiat cars have 4 wheels and 2 pedals, but you are driving a Porsche.”

    Probably, the most important part of a conversation or proposal is the way you generate trust, so the client will blindly follow you. It has happened with some clients but I do not know if there is a specific method to achieve this.

    Any suggestions?

    • So this is a complex question, but the short answer is that I typically solicit the client directly instead of responding to RFPs. I should have made it clearer in this post, but the techniques above probably won’t work when dealing with RFPs. I think the two things you use — the Porsche example and the case study — are quite valuable, but again, I’m typically not in the position where I’m being pitched apples to apples against a competitor.

      • Boris Hristov

        Have you been in a such situation though? I would be interested to hear your opinion on this? Do you add one more paragraph describing your possible competitors (as Vangos mentioned) or do you approach it some other way? It’s clear that you may have familiarised the company with you and they know that you are a world-class expert that will solve their problem, but still…

        • toobulkeh

          +1 for a post on how to deal with being put in that position. We’ve often been shown other people’s quotes in response to RFPs

      • Nathan Lippi

        The fact that you aren’t typically responding to RFPs feels like I’ve stumbled upon a missing link. Thanks, Brennan.

        For the high-value clients you’ve worked with, do they they typically come to you via inbound marketing (blogging, speaking, et cetera) or outbound marketing (“Hey, your business is leaking a lot of money… I’ll fix that for you”)?

  • Hey Brennan, thanks for the post. I’m curious. “I’m more-or-less a freelancer (but remember, I’ll never admit that to a client)”. Why?

  • Niall Doherty

    Brilliant stuff. Keep it coming, Brennan. This was a huge a-ha for me:

    “And if my final cost
    doesn’t outweigh the potential upsides I can deliver, I don’t take the
    project. And I tell the client this…”

    I’ve struggled with price anchoring, having prospects give me very vague answers about how much the project would mean to their bottom line. I see now that I can be very direct and tell them that I need a clear sense of how much the problem is costing them so I can offer them a fair price for a solution. “If I don’t see a way to give you a 3-5x return on your investment, I won’t take the job. So it’s important that we both understand the real cost of this problem we’re trying to solve.”

  • Gergana Dimova

    Thanks, Brennan! That was very helpful.

    This is what really stood out for me:

    1. Never come across as desperate.
    2. Never promise immediate availability.

    Something else that I’ve recently realized is that the first job of a consultant is to adjust the mindset of the client, to show them the right path towards a solution, based on their business problem. That’s why I really liked your Socratic questioning and what you said here about starting with “Why”. A consultant has to uncover the actual problem and guide people towards the solution that they actually need.

    Oftentimes people come to me saying things like “I need a landing page” or “I need content which will make our blog popular and help us “launch” our software product”. A lot of times these are not the things they need to have done right now—these are not the most important tasks. And I have to dig deeper to find out what can actually help them.

    Then, there is also an ethical side of things—I don’t want to charge someone for, say, “content creation” when I know perfectly well this won’t help them. It’s easier to do what the client says, because you don’t need to take responsibility. They wanted content, you wrote the content and that didn’t move the needle for them. They are responsible for wanting the wrong thing. But if you are the one suggesting what should be done, you will take the responsibility, which may be a bit scary, but you will also stop being the tool/the contract worker and you’d be able to actually help someone achieve their goals which is what makes consulting rewarding.

    I drifted but I hope I’m making some sense. 🙂

  • Great read Brennan. Do you have an example proposal to share? This would give even more insights.

  • Hey Brennan,

    This is sweet! I really appreciate you diving into the HOW of proposal writing. No drive-by meme-esque advice from you, no sir. Thanks again!

    Can you share one more thing — how do you implement testimonials, success stories, etc. into your proposals?

  • Great post. Thanks for sharing your strategies.

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