How to Write Winning Freelance Proposals

When it comes to new business, I’ve learned that you have to be clear, concise, and comfortable with asking for the sale. In a former life, I was a partner in a digital agency, and I grew our portfolio from $1MM to $20MM in four years. In the process, I gained thirty pounds, got grey hair and frequent anxiety attacks, but that’s a conversation for another day. When I quit working for a narcissistic sociopath six years ago and started consulting, I used the tools I’d acquired to convert prospects into clients.

My win rate exceeds 95%.

How do I do it? I’ve designed a simple three-step process that starts with a conversation and ends with a bulletproof proposal. Here are the keys to your win rate.

It’s Not About You

You’ve had the initial call with your prospective client and you let them do the talking. In thirty minutes, you learned about their business and pain points. Closing a client comes down to demonstrating that you know the client’s challenges and you’re the one to solve them. Many consultants make the big mistake of using the proposal to talk all about them — their experience, their portfolio, their capabilities, and their fluffy cat. If your prospect doesn’t know your background and experience before the intake call, you’ve lost the business. As soon as I get a lead, I send a brief note outlining my background and experience, attaching my portfolio and case studies. Making the case for “why you” is about their assuaging doubts and cultivating comfort. Clients want to know they’re talking to a seasoned, results-driven pro. You want zero doubt before that first call.

After the call, it’s all about the client.

Open the proposal with a recap of your discussion, restating their challenges, goals, and objectives. The rest of the proposal is proving you’re in the solutions business.

Remind Clients of Your Results

Although I just went on a mini-rant about how to not make the proposal all about you, you do want to reiterate specific aspects of your experience that make you their ideal partner. For example, you can call out industry and vertical expertise. You can highlight previous case studies where you’ve solved for similar challenges using the CAR format:

  • Challenge: Define your mandate.

  • Action: Outline the action you took.

  • Result: Show the results.

Essentially, you’re reminding them that you’ve done what they’ve tasked you to do before and successfully. Also, proposals are often circulated internally for feedback and review, and you want to show the team that you’ve heard their concerns and why you are the best person to address them.

Speak to the Solution

This is the most essential part of the proposal! I’ve seen vague outlines that are an open invitation for scope creep and agita. In concrete and succinct terms, articulate your services and the components of those services that will ultimately satisfy the assignment. For example, let’s say a client’s social media content strategy is serving as the primary cure for insomnia. They’re making too many rookie moves and they’re not connecting with their customer. They have zero engagement rate and the CEO is frantically waving their phone with your competitors’ social channels bookmarked. Your proposal would outline:

  • Outline your discovery process: how you’ll immerse yourself in the brand, business, and target customer. Although you’re a direly needed fresh pair of eyes, you also want to make sure you can craft a strategy and content that compels and converts.

  • Define your social media content strategy approach: Be clear and specific on the steps you’ll take to design a winning content strategy. From competitor and adjacent industry research and mood boarding and brainstorms to mapping out their 3-H content strategy, share what your client should expect to receive.

  • Explain how you’ll optimize and measure for success: Marketing is all about measurement, so you want to be precise on the qualitative and quantitative measures you’ll employ to establish benchmarks and define success. Also, be clear on your optimization approach. Do you plan on evaluating content performance on a monthly basis? Do you A/B test, etc.?

  • Quantify and specify how often you’ll create content calendars, how many posts you’ll create per channel, per week (original and 3rd party reposting), and whether you’d be responsible for creating original visual and video content. If so, what kinds of content? Images, video, gifs, Lives, etc. How many pieces of visual content will you be editing and formatting? This is important because this is where scope creep can take a project from profitable to blood-sucking leech-level unprofitable.

When it comes to your solutions, BE SPECIFIC.

Explain Your Process

Believe it or not, this is the second crucial part of the proposal because in this section you’re communicating how you work. Not setting clear expectations from the onset is often the reason projects become a psychological nightmare. This is the place to define:

  • Your process: Your communication and workflow — the tactical nuts and bolts of your day.

  • Communication: Get specific on when and how often you communicate. Do you have weekly check-in calls? Do you guarantee a response within 24 hours? Do you not work on the weekend or do have specific office hours? Do you send call recaps to ensure you and your clients are on the same page? How a do you structure the review and feedback process?

  • The software, tools, and technology you use to get the job done: For example, I use Dropbox, Asana, Google Suite, and Slack for file, communication, and workflow management. Do you use Hootsuite to manage social media? Show what’s in your toolkit. Know that some of this will be a negotiation with your client because you don’t want to impose a process that impedes progress. Each client is different, and you’ll have to negotiate the tools you’ll be using.

  • Your approach: This is your secret sauce. Your big-picture strategic workflow. This is how you get to the solutions that will solve your client’s problems. For example, on my brand strategy projects, I outline the first two week’s of activity to get to positioning statement, key messaging, benefits, and narrative. I’ll also show where the clients are involved in the process: Week 1: Asset Request + Review (FS); Week 2: 2-day discovery work session (FS + Client), recap report, which details key learnings and opportunity; Week 3: Delivery of brand provocations, positioning and purpose, benefits, RTB, and key messaging statements.

You’ll gain tremendous insight into your client relationship based on their response to your proposal. I joke that this is the phase when all the nightmare clients come out of the woodwork. The, wait, you’re not going to respond to emails within 3.2 seconds of receiving them? I can’t expect that you’ll make edits at 2:30 am when I have insomnia and I’m firing out emails?

Be Clear About The Deliverable, i.e., what they get.

While clients appreciate the strategy, advice, and best practices, they also want to get clarity on the deliverables. I often create a chart where I outline my services in one column and in the next column I’ll specify the deliverable’s format and timeline. Let’s say a client wants you to manage all of their influencer marketing efforts monthly. You would detail all the components of the service and the deliverables:

  • Influencer strategy in PPT format (<- Yes, I inform the client of the format because you would be surprised the level of confusion and frustration that ensues in the sending and opening of documents. You don’t want to send a Keynote file when everyone in the organization uses PowerPoint.)

  • List of targets, asks, and assets, budget, timeline

  • Campaign copy, influencer pitch and all communication in MS Word format

  • Monthly recap and performance report in XLS format

BE CLEAR on what they get and when they get it.

Define Success and How You’ll Measure It.

Clients love this because it allows them to rationalize their investment and determine whether your proposed solution worked. You’ll sometimes hear marketers use the term “KPIs” or Key Performance Indicators. That’s just a fancy way of saying what kinds of data they use in evaluating the success of a particular strategy or tactic.

Metrics can also be tricky because not all measures of success are quantitative, and they shouldn’t be. With brand work or anything that involves driving awareness or consideration (preference) for a brand, the results aren’t something that can be immediately measured. Your proposal should be clear on how you’ll work with your client to establish a benchmark (i.e., a starting point from which to measure) and how you’ll evaluate the efficacy of your work.

Include a Project Timeline and Resources

Every project, even retainer work, has a contracted start and end date. Set parameters for the project as well as any additional resources involved and what their roles will be on the project. This is important because some companies bar the use of subcontractors. Also, your client will want to get to know their partners and all the members of their dream team!

Show Me the Money

Ah, the moment we’ve all been waiting for with bated breath. This guide isn’t about how to set your pricing or whether you should charge a project rate or hourly (I only charge project rates), however, what is important about this section is to set a fair rate for your work, when they should pay you, and any fees you collect if they’re negligent in paying you.

Set your ideal terms. Don’t draft what you think a client would want. Remember, this is about you making money by providing them with a solution. In the past year, I’ve had two clients who have paid upon receipt of the invoice. That’s where I start, and I’ll go up to N30. I also require 50% of payment up front. If it’s a mix of project deliverables and a monthly retainer, I’ll do a 50% of the project fees at signing and 50% at term, and then I’ll bill at the first of the month for the retainer.

If your client is legit, they will never have a problem paying for your work. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and deserve.

Close With Next Steps

In marketing, we have a phrase that there should be no dead ends. Every action should lead to another action. I employ this in proposals by setting up a time for review and discussion. For some clients, I’ll outline what the next two weeks will look like (i.e., proposal finalization, SOW/MSA, onboarding, etc.)

End the story the way you started it. You heard them, and now you’re excited to get started on the solution.

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