How to spend less time writing proposals (and still land the gig!)

Are you spending hours on your proposals and still not getting the gig?

Maybe it’s time to give your prospects less to think about.

I received this email from a frustrated freelance copywriter:

“When clients ask me for a proposal, I spend at least 3-4 hours working on it. I review their site, run keyword research, make a list of how I can help, etc. The end result is a 15-20 page proposal that looks great. I’m not getting the jobs, and now I’m wondering if I have to add more information? Help!”

If proposals are a part of your business, you understand this woman’s pain. It’s like spending hours to get ready for a date that never shows up. You’re sitting there looking pretty, and find out that your prospect decided to “date” someone else (assuming you hear back from them at all!) Ouch!

Plus, from a business perspective, that’s three to four hours of billable time out the window.  ::poof::

The answer?  Give your prospects less information packaged in a different way. Here’s how to “dumb down” your proposals and give your prospects what they really want.

Rule #1: Don’t give it away.  

It’s common for new freelancers (or anyone new to the proposal process) to blur the lines between “proposal” and “billable work.” Proposal-time is not the time to figure out a strategy, run a bunch of time-consuming research and outline your process. At best, you’ll overwhelm the prospect with your reams of material. At worst, the prospect has no reason to hire you – after all, you’ve already told them exactly what you’d do and how to do it. If a prospect needs strategy in addition to hands-on work, explain that it’s a separate deliverable.

Rule #2: Try to set up a phone chat before you create a proposal.

Email only goes so far – so take the time to set up a quick, 30-minute chat. This gives you the opportunity truly understand the project’s scope before you develop a proposal. Otherwise, you may include services that the customer really doesn’t want. The end result? The client may feel that you “don’t understand their needs” and look elsewhere for a provider.

Rule #3: Ask the prospect what he needs to see (and make sure that you deliver exactly what they ask for.) 

I’ve had (many) prospects tell me, “I don’t need anything fancy. Just a short email outlining the deliverables and deadlines is fine.” And that’s exactly what I give them.  Be warned:  don’t try to out-think your prospect and throw in a bunch of extra stuff that you’re “absolutely sure will seal the deal.”  You don’t want your prospect to think, “If she can’t follow directions now, what is she going to be like to work with later?”

Rule #4: Keep it simple and short.

This is a mistake that I made early in my career. I would sit down and create 20+ page proposals until my eyes bled. What I didn’t understand is that I was making my prospects’ eyes bleed as well. Think about how much time you have in your day. If you saw a 20-page proposal waiting for your review, would you hungrily tear into it? Or “accidentally” round file it? Yeah. Me too. Shorter proposals are definitely better.

Rule #5: Don’t forget to include benefit statements.  

Your prospect may be sold on why your services are so important. But remember, your proposal may be passed around to multiple team members – and they may not quite understand your brilliance. Don’t forget to clearly outline how your services can help your client boost her bottom line. While you’re including your benefit statements, don’t forget to…

Rule #6: Remind your prospect why they should hire you over your competition.

Don’t lose the sale because you didn’t make your unique sales proposition clear. A quick reminder of your expertise is a smart idea, especially for team members who aren’t familiar with you. You don’t have to send them your extended resume.  But a few statements like, “I’ve written for catalogs for over 15 years, and have increased conversion rates 67% or more. I’m confident that I can achieve the same results for your company” can go far.

Rule #7: Try to review your proposal with your client.

It’s tempting to push “send” on your proposal as soon as you finish. However, try scheduling an appointment with your prospect so you can review the proposal together. I learned this trick from Denny Graham (one of my instructors in my Copywriting Business Bootcamp,) and it’s increased my close rates tremendously.

What about you? What are your favorite proposal-writing tips?

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11 replies
  1. Scott Salwolke
    Scott Salwolke says:

    Great post Heather. I’m like copywriter who contacted you. I develop my proposals and then get little response. I’ve streamlined it so it doesn’t take as long, but its still lost time. You’ve pointed out I forgotten one of the main rules in marketing. I’m focusing too much on my services and not on the benefits. Or on the unique sales proposition. I’m anxious now to try out your advice.

    Reply
  2. Lyena Solomon
    Lyena Solomon says:

    Heather,
    You outlined some great points. It took me a while to figure out that, as you said, “proposal is not billable work”. The prospect of a new project gets us excited, we have all those ideas going, see potential… And end up working instead of offering our services. Some companies gather proposals just for that – ideas to give to their chosen company.
    These days my proposals are mostly legal agreements. They protect me and protect my client. I include generic scope, what’s included (phone calls, emails, presentations, training, etc.) and that’s it. The rest I cover in the initial phone call.

    Reply
  3. Daphne Gray-Grant
    Daphne Gray-Grant says:

    I’d flesh out point 3 a little bit more. In my view, it’s not just asking the prospect what s/he needs to see: it’s about identifying the prospect’s PROBLEM. WHY do they need to hire someone right now? What is causing them pain?

    If you can identify these issues, and can explain how you will solve them, you’ve dramatically increased your chance of making a sale.

    Reply
  4. craig wright
    craig wright says:

    Another great post. Maybe I am a bit unusual, but I don’t spend a lot of time on proposals at all! I just give a quick overview of what I think their existing site is failing to do, then mention of the benefits I can offer and the type of approach I will take. I don’t give too much away about what I am going to do and just keep things simple and honest. I’d say this is usually about 3-4 paragraphs. If the client wants more details, we can discuss those later.

    This approach seems to appeal to clients who don’t want a hard sell or to hear lots of self-promotion from a copywriter.

    Reply
  5. Teresa
    Teresa says:

    Great post! Nothing was more frustrating that spending a hour+ writing a proposal only to get a no when I was first starting out! I think this is why the majority of people who start out give up.

    Reply
  6. James Daniel
    James Daniel says:

    I’ve found it helps to give the proposal a title that matches a stated objective, e.g. “Increasing online sales through organic search traffic”. If it feels like a direct response to the brief (and it’s phrased to suit the reader’s way of talking) they’re generally more likely to give it the time of day.

    Reply
  7. Katherine Andes
    Katherine Andes says:

    Thanks, Heather. I need to do two estimates today for SEO copywriting and I’ve been dreading them. Not so much that I do long proposals, I learned that lesson a long time ago … I just still hate the pricing thang! I especially liked your #5,6,7 … I think I’m not doing what I should there, so I’ll print out your article before I do my estimates. Thanks, again.

    Reply

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