Agencies waste resources when they send out proposals too soon or incorrectly. In this post, I’ll explore strategic considerations around sending proposals outside of formal RFPs. When and why should you send a proposal—or not? If you send one, what are some important things to keep in mind?
First off, let’s be clear: proposals should always be the outcome of numerous conversations with the prospective client. A proposal formalizes these conversations and understandings, including your process and pricing, in writing. There should be no surprises in it.
The most important questions to ask yourself before sending a proposal are: Have you been through the process with the prospect to qualify them and uncover their true needs? And, are you and the prospect aligned on the problem and the solution?
There is nothing to be gained by sending a hastily patched together proposal—in fact; it may hurt your agency’s reputation. People notice typos and poorly organized writing. Often, they will remember how bad a particular proposal was and may remark on it to others. Additionally, if the proposed solution is misaligned with their expectations or the quoted price is out of the prospect’s reach, it will immediately fall flat.
Eliminate poor-fit prospects before wasting time on a proposal
Why send a proposal to a prospect that’s not even a good fit for your agency? It is counterproductive to pursue every query that comes your way; you have to manage your agency’s resources effectively (particularly amid widespread agency employee burnout). Determine if the business is worth having first.
Further, just because someone asks for a proposal doesn’t mean they are ready to commit. You need to find out why (and if) they are interested in your agency and how serious they are about pursuing a project.
When a prospect asks for a proposal out of the blue with little preceding conversation, the odds are good that they are not that serious about engaging an agency (or engaging your agency specifically). They may be just shopping quotes out of curiosity to determine whether they want to move forward at some unspecified point in time. Or they may already have another agency in mind and want to price-check and use competing proposals as leverage for lower pricing. That’s not worth your valuable time.
Here are some examples of questions you should ask the prospect upfront:
- What is your budget?
- What immediate challenge are you trying to solve? (Note that additional questions are often required to determine the true pain point beneath the stated challenge).
- Why did you reach out to us?
- Are you talking to other agencies? How many?
- Did you recently part ways with another agency? If so, why? What are you looking to get from our agency that your previous partner failed to deliver on?
- Who is involved in deciding whether to proceed and which agency you will work with?
- What is your time frame for making a decision?
Be sure to understand why they want to undertake this project now. What is the business imperative? This will help you understand what is at stake for the prospect and gauge the relative importance of the work to their business.
If the prospect can’t make themselves available to answer these questions before you invest your time, they aren’t seriously interested in working with your agency. Politely decline to honor their proposal request. If desired, invite them to circle back when they have more bandwidth to provide the resources you need to assemble a proposal that will do their project justice.
Here are some internal questions to ask as you decide whether to proceed with a proposal:
- How does this prospect compare to our ideal, best client profile(s)? Is this business that will be good for our agency?
- Can they realistically afford our services? How did they respond to our ballpark price range in conversations? Did they think it seemed reasonable and fair? (If not, should you be proceeding to write a proposal?)
- What indication is there that they want to work with our agency specifically? (If there is none, are you being used to price-check, and is it worth your time?)
- How well suited are we, honestly, to solve their problem? (Can you make an objectively compelling case to win this business?)
- Based on our interactions and their responsiveness, how serious do we think they are about moving forward with this work right now? (Are they just putting out feelers, or do they need this work done to meet immediate business needs?)
- What should we consider about the different needs and wants of the various decision-makers in this process? (Are we considering the whole picture of what pain points need to be addressed and how we should position our solution?)
- Do we have all of the information we need to deliver a compelling proposal that resonates from start to finish?
The importance of understanding prospect needs when writing a proposal
After you have qualified the prospect to your satisfaction and are fairly confident they want to work with your agency, you may decide it makes sense to proceed. But you can’t prepare a compelling proposal if you don’t understand what the client is looking for. If you are very organized, you may have extracted enough information during the upfront vetting process to move forward. Otherwise, you will need further conversation with the prospect before moving on.
Proposals must be tailored to the prospect and the opportunity. It is impossible to do that effectively without knowing their immediate challenges and goals. Even if you are familiar with their industry and read everything on their website, you may not understand their current business imperatives and planning for the coming year. Making educated guesses is a poor strategy when trying to win someone’s business.
Once you have the information you need, work with your team to figure out how you can help this prospect. At this point, you will start working on a written proposal, but do not share it until you’ve had another meeting with the prospect to present your ideas. You’ll want to get into specifics like pricing and deliverables during that meeting, so there are no surprises when you send your written proposal.
Based on what you learn, you may need to make some adjustments before sharing the written proposal. For example, you might want to ask your team:
- When we discussed potential deliverables and outcomes, did the prospect seem excited and on board with this direction, or do we need to make modifications?
Common agency proposal missteps
In addition to following the steps I’ve outlined above, here are some common ways agencies go awry when sending proposals. Avoid these missteps to improve your outcomes instantly.
- Sending a proposal too soon. If you haven’t met with the prospect, vetted them, ensured you understand the opportunity, and discussed your solution and pricing with them, you should not be sending a proposal. This overeager approach will not earn you new business. Worse, it may cost you the opportunity and is a waste of agency resources.
- Sending a generic “blanket quote” or proposal. If you don’t understand what the prospect needs and how (or if) your agency can help, you have no business sending out something in writing with dollar signs in it. Again, this is why it is imperative to first meet with the prospect and understand “the ask” to present a proposal tailored to their needs and objectives. It may seem like a time-saver, but the only shortcut this provides is a path to undervaluing your agency.
- Emailing a proposal instead of walking through it together with the prospect. Your proposal is important; give it the respect it deserves. Set a time to go over it together and make it clear that this is non-negotiable. If a prospect can’t commit to this meeting, they aren’t serious, and you shouldn’t be wasting your time on them.
“You should never just send over a proposal without doing a presentation of some type, whether in-person or over Skype — you have to be the one doing the selling.” — Jami Oetting, Hubspot
- Not setting clear next steps after presenting the proposal. Before you conclude your meeting, agree on next steps with the prospect. When will you hear back from them with a decision, or when should you follow up? If you leave it at “Let me think it over…,” I guarantee the only one who will be thinking it over is you.
- Talking about your agency instead of the prospect. Your agency’s “about us,” case studies, testimonials, and other relevant details should be included in an addendum to the proposal. I can’t stress enough that prospects do not care. They will only look at that additional detail if your proposed solutions to their challenges are compelling enough to get their attention.
- Sending trash proposals. This is an umbrella reference to all of the reasons most proposals go straight into the revolving file. Is it polished and error-free? Is it concise, skimmable, focused on value and results, highly relevant, and easy to understand? If not, don’t bother.
- Trying to compensate for a bad sales process with the proposal. If you didn't ask the right questions or present a compelling case during personal interactions with the prospect, a written proposal will not save you. It's not the time to try to "wow" a prospect with your agency's unbelievable thinking. The opportunity has already been won by the time you send the proposal (if you are going to win it). You won't change any minds at this point — unless it's for the worse.
- Including details that were not discussed in the meeting. Curveballs decrease the likelihood of closing. Keep your proposal free of surprises. It is just a review of deal points, and most people will only read the cover letter and flip to the last page to see the cost.
- Relying only on one contact in the marketing department for information. Decisions are usually made by a group. If you do not confirm the various parties who will influence the decision-making process, you risk overlooking their needs and concerns. Pleasing one person in marketing without regard for the other stakeholders is a sure way to write a tone-deaf proposal that misses the mark with your audience—and fails to get approval.
- Not including a cover letter. According to Jody Sutter, the cover letter may be the only section of your proposal that is read (besides the pricing section). She recommends writing it accordingly, with a strategic approach.
- Not including an agreement or contract. If the prospect is ready to move forward, don’t introduce any other obstacles to prevent that from happening. Include a place for them to sign your contract at the end of the proposal.
The truth is that proposal requests often aren’t worth your time. Protect your agency’s resources by being picky about the opportunities you pursue. If you follow the steps outlined here, you can have greater confidence about the likelihood of winning new business from the proposals you do send out.
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