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Why You're Losing The Deal Before You've Even Sent The Proposal

Writing a great proposal is about more than just writing and design

It's about making sure you address the needs and concerns of the person you're looking to sell to.

Let me just make this one statement and then everything else can flow from here. The proposal is just a presentation of what you've discovered. If you don't do any discovery with the client then what on earth are you putting in your proposal? I do a lot of support work on live chat at Better Proposals because I love taking strategy questions and helping people do a better job with their proposals. It's why we do our Proposal Breakdown show and produce this blog. Something that has been coming up a lot recently is people wanting to use the pricing table features as a way of their client "choosing their own adventure". I want to cry when I see this. It was a digital agency who came through and said he wanted the client to be able to type in the number of websites he wanted to buy. I asked him why he didn't know and he said the client never specified so he wanted that option. How the fuck can't he know?! He just sat with the guy and had coffee or took him through his questions on a discovery call... right? Nope. This guy had done ZERO discovery work so I straight up told the guy there wasn't any point sending the proposal because he'd lost the job already. I helped him round in the end but the point stuck with me. Here are 5 reasons people lose the job before they've even written a word of the proposal

#1: Not doing a discovery session

This is simply non-negotiable. You absolutely must be doing some sort of discovery session with your client. It can be coffee, it can be a 30-minute quick-fire call, it could even be them filling in a form but you need to get information from them somehow. My preference was always to have a super quick and easy to complete form which would let me know if they have a budget, they're serious and on a basic level, it's the kind of work we do. From there I'd set up a call. I'd allow an hour and at this point would riff my way through but that's only because I was 14 years into the game at that point. It might be better if you're fairly new to work from a pre-written set of questions. This keeps everything uniform, all deals are being evaluated the same way and you can compare one to the other. Only when you've done this discovery work do you actually know what the proposal needs to consist of.

#2: Not asking the right questions

Doing the discovery session is the first step but once you're doing it you need to make sure you ask the right questions or you're simply wasting everyone's time. If you're doing discovery with a potential client about rebuilding their website, asking them what other sites they like is a stupid question. Asking the conversion rate of the existing site is a good question. You need to reverse engineer the information you need to write the proposal and if you're going to make a compelling business case for someone to invest the results of their hard work in your service, you better make sure you have all the info you need. Don't be afraid to ask why.

  • Why did you make that decision?
  • Why did you go in that direction?
  • Why do you do it like that?

Asking why is an open-ended question, ask it and shut up. Let them talk. Don't be tempted to "help them out" by asking why, then giving them a set of multiple choice answers, just ask the question then let them talk and talk. That's where the gold is.

#3: Not having any examples or proof/portfolio

This will come with time but you need to make sure your work speaks for itself. Ensure you have an up-to-date portfolio and it's available on your website. You should have a comment from every single client on there. You should be building up a library of case studies. It's not enough to show what you can do, it's about demonstrating that your work generates results. Case studies are the way forward and should be told more like stories to keep them interesting. If you don't have examples or any real evidence that you can get results you are going to seriously struggle. You'll have to do something else to proactively balance the risk like offer a guarantee or do results in advance or chunk down the project so you're doing smaller tasks first to prove your worth.

#4: Personal presentation, in person and online

It's a shame that in this day and age we can't be ourselves, express who we are and have people accept that some of us are different and have different opinions. That said, if you're quite outwardly spoken, find a way to curb it on Facebook. It's being used more and more as an online networking tool these days so make sure your profile is up to scratch, is somewhat tidy and has clear links to your website. Get good photos and make sure it passes the "new girlfriend's mum" test. If she saw it, what would she think? Assuming that's all good and you get in front of your potential client, it doesn't matter what line of work you're in - look sharp. There's no scenario where turning up looking anything other than your best will do. It's simply non-negotiable. Even if you're creative, not turning up looking your best, being well-groomed, with a well-fitted suit is just going to let you down. In the creative space, there seems to be this idea that people will buy from you because of your work, not because of how you present yourself. I can tell you with complete and utter certainty, that is simply not the case. If you rocked up on a first date, looking great and the guy turned up in a hoodie, joggers, and trainers, you might like him but it would be hard to understand why he didn't make an effort. It's the same thing here, you are selling more than simply an end product, you're selling an experience and that experience includes how you present yourself.

#5: Reputation

Your reputation is something that is built over many many years. It's not something you can quickly fix but it's something that can be quickly wrecked. You've only got to look at the media scandals that social justice warriors drag people through. Look at Tony Robbins, arguably the most respected man in his field yet with 1 missplaced, but not entirely inaccurate comment about the #MeToo movement he found himself in a crazy amount of hot water. Did he have a point, yes he did but in an uncharacteristic moment for Tony he presented his argument badly and got himself in trouble. Is he going to lose his business or trust overnight? No, not at all but it's amazing how one stupid comment can almost undo years of hard work. So, careful, behave and remember that in close circles in business, networking and in communities people will talk a lot more about you than they will to you. A few little things:

  • If you can't say anything nice, don't say it at all. I know you want to be honest, but seriously, it's not worth it.
  • Be really careful on Facebook comments.
  • Try to always help people.
  • Take the extra time to sandwich criticism with positivity so it doesn't come across harsh. In general, women are much better at this than guys.

Think what you want to be known for. Think what someone might read out about you at your funeral. "He was a bit of a dick but at least he was honest" probably isn't great. If you want to be known as someone who's helpful then help people, set aside hours each week to just help people with nothing in return. Maybe you want to be known as someone who's super well connected, if that's the case then spend several hours a week connecting with people and introducing contacts you think would benefit from knowing each other. Remember... Your reputation is who you are when you're not there to defend yourself.

Adam Hempenstall's profile image
Adam Hempenstall is the CEO and Founder of Better Proposals. He started his first web design business at 14 and has since written four books and built an international movement around sending better proposals. Having helped his customers win $500,000,000 in the last 12 months alone, he’s launched the first ever Proposal University where he shares best practices on writing and designing proposals. He co-runs a once-a-year festival called UltraMeet and is a massive FC Barcelona fan.