The 5 Big Mistakes I See When I Critique Proposals

Working with my coaching clients I regularly get asked to look at proposals before they’re sent out. Of the many proposals I’ve critiqued, here are the top five mistakes I see people make.

1. Rushing it.

The first mistake — and in many ways the root of all other mistakes — is that most freelancers rush their proposals. They get an email from a prospect and want to submit a proposal within hours. They haven’t talked to the prospect yet, or had any real chance to think about the project and generate questions they need answered.

This means that many proposals I read are sloppy. They’re written in vague ‘wiggle wording’ that could be interpreted 90 different ways, and always leave the freelancer a way out to be right about what they said they’d deliver. This means that the prospect can have almost zero confidence in the proposal and will be much less likely to accept it.

Combat this by having a defined workflow for proposals. I don’t get on the phone with a client about their project until I’ve had my initial questions answered. I don’t produce a proposal without at least one call about the project. I regularly tell prospects that it takes at least two weeks to get a proposal from me.

Sticking to this slow timeline and requiring contact from the prospect means I have time to think about the potential project and ask good questions so there are few surprises in the middle of the work.

2. Not knowing budgets.

Far too many people are afraid to talk about money. Money is part of business and you need to know the budget your prospect is working with to see if it’s even worthwhile. I ask prospects their budget in my initial prospect email and if they can’t give me some sort of answer I don’t get on the phone with them about the project.

Many prospects say they have no idea what the work should cost, but they almost always can tell you what’s too expensive. You may even start with a range and say something like, “Is $3,000 too much? What about $5,000, or $10,000?”. At some point they’re going to balk at the numbers you throw out, which is where the work is no longer worth it. When they balk you know they don’t see any value in the project if it’s over that dollar figure.

Knowing the budget means you can write a proposal that matches it.

3. Not knowing WHY the project is a good idea.

Your job as a professional is not to simply do what you’re told. At least it’s not if you want to be a well-paid professional. Those well-paid professionals are always going to question why a project is worth doing.

It’s far too common for prospects to have some great idea they should never spend money on. Last year I worked with a client who wanted some custom plugin features because it would make life a bit easier. From a value perspective she’d be saving maybe 10 minutes a week, which does add up to a bit of time over the year.

The problem came when I realized they had already thrown away a few thousand dollars on the feature with someone else and were looking at a few thousand more with me to get it landed in its initial form. Getting the feature built perfectly — in order save 10 minutes a week — would have been way too expensive. It would have taken a decade for them to save enough time to justify the cost of building it.

Once we did that math we realized the feature had no real business value at all. They could pay their assistant to do the work and not have to be frustrated and not have to pay many thousands of dollars.

If you don’t know why the project is a good idea for your prospect’s business, then you’re not ready to write a proposal for them.

4. Not offering options.

Your proposals should always have at least two options, but three is better. The first option should be the basics of what the prospect wants and should be inside their budget. If it doesn’t hit those criteria, then you’re doing the prospect a disservice and fooling yourself into an option. Clearly they’d never choose it if it doesn’t meet the criteria for project success.

Your second and third options should add on some of the dreams the prospect has. If you spend time talking with the prospect properly you’re going to hear “and if it did this…” That’s a prime candidate for one of your higher-priced options.

By offering options you’re changing the decision from one of deciding whether to work with you at all to deciding which option they like best.

5. Making it hard to accept and get paid.

Is your proposal a PDF? You’re doing it wrong! Stop sending PDFs and start using some system like 17Hats or Nusii. All of these services allow the client to get an email with the proposal, take a look at it and accept it right away.

Some of them (17Hats for sure) allow clients to accept the contract and pay online with a few simple clicks. This means I send over my proposal and don’t have to interact with it again unless the client has questions. It means I can send over a proposal at the end of the day on Friday and have money in my bank account over the weekend with a project ready to add to my calendar.

If your prospect has to email you for the contract, and then figure out how to send you payment, you’re increasing the friction and decreasing the number of sales you’re going to make.

I know you want to win work, but if you’re making any of these mistakes you’re limiting that win rate. Make sure you take the time needed to ask the proper questions of prospects. Make sure you offer them options and you make it easy for them to accept your proposal and pay you.

If you can start doing those things, you’re going to start winning more work.

photo credit: atin800 cc

2 Replies to “The 5 Big Mistakes I See When I Critique Proposals”

  1. Very useful post, and good things to keep in mind. It has come at a perfect time as I’ll be sending out a new proposal in a few days and definitely going to be referring back to this. Thanks for writing!

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