How to write new business proposals that actually win business!

When it comes to new business, I’ve learned three things: be clear, concise, and ask for the sale. In a former life, I was a partner in a social media agency, and I grew our portfolio from $1MM to $20MM in four years. I got grey hair in the process, but that’s a conversation for another day. When I went out on my own five years ago and started consulting, I used the tools I’d acquired to convert prospects into clients. In 5 years my win rate has been 95%.

How? I’ve cultivated a simple three-step proposal process that starts with a conversation and ends with a solid proposal. I’ll outline the process in an upcoming medium post, but for now I’ll share the nuts and bolts of writing a winning proposal.

Restate the goals and objectives

You’ve had the initial call with your prospective client. You’ve learned about their company, stakeholders, and more importantly, their pain points. To close a sale, you have to know the client’s challenges and explain how you can solve for those challenges. Many consultants make the big mistake of using the proposal to talk about THEM — their experience, portfolio, and capabilities. This is what the intake call is for. The proposal is all about the client. Start the proposal with a recap of your discussion and what you believe to be their goals + objectives. The goals and objectives set the stage for the story you’re about to tell.

Define what you bring to the table

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/vertical acumen and expertise. You can highlight previous case studies using the CAR format:

  • Challenge
  • Action
  • Result

Proposals are often circulated internally for feedback and review, and you want to show the team that you’ve heard their concerns + why you are the best person to address them.

Tell them the solution + the services you offer

This is the most important part of the proposal! I’ve seen so many proposals that are vague, which is an open invitation for scope creep. In concrete and succinct terms, articulate your services and the components of those services that will ultimately satisfy the client’s goals and objectives. For example, if you’re offering to write content for a client’s social media channels, you should define:

  • How many posts you’re creating per channel, per week (original + 3rd party reposting)
  • Are you responsible for creating original visual content? If so, what kinds of content? Images, video, gifs, etc. How many pieces of visual content Will you be editing and formatting the visual content?

When it comes to your services, BE SPECIFIC.

Get specific about your process + approach

Believe it or not, this is the second most important 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 + workflow — the tactical nuts + 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 + feedback process?
  • The software, tools, and technology you use to get the job done. For example, I use Dropbox, Asana, Google Drive, Skype, and Slack for file 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 + purpose, benefits

You’ll gain tremendous insight into your client relationship based on their response to your proposal. I joke that the proposal phase is when all the crazies 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 2:30am when I have insomnia and I’m firing out emails?

Give clarity on the deliverable, i.e. what they get.

While clients appreciate the strategy, advice, and best practices, they also want to understand the tactile part of the relationship I often create a chart where I outline my services in one column and in the next column I’ll specify the resulting deliverable. Let’s say a client wants you to manage all of their influencer marketing efforts on a monthly basis. 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. And no, I’m not joking)
  • List of targets, asks and assets, budget, timeline
  • Campaign copy, influencer pitch + 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 actually 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 in nature, 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 the ways in which 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 actually bar the use of subcontractors. Also, your client will want to get to know their partners and all the members of their success team!

Deal with the money part

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 do project and sometimes a project with an hourly cap), 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 can collect if they are negligent in payments.

I will say this — draft 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 invoice. That’s where I start and I’ll go up to N30 from there. I also require 50% of payment up front. If it’s a mix of project deliverables and monthly, I’d do a 50% of project at sign 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 (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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Sometimes the money isn't worth it. When to fire a horrible client.

Years ago, I landed a whale. This was a client you could casually name-drop in a conversation and put someone’s heart on pause — if you were the name-dropping kind. My team was jubilant. Gifs circulated, music blared, and pizza was ordered. We practically made a template for the inevitable agency case study with the brand’s logo in lights. If only we had seen the arrows pointing to the client with the word RUN propped above their heads. If only we had noticed the chalk outlines of the dozen or so fired agencies, discarded PowerPoint presentations and Odyssean conference calls trailing in their wake. Maybe I knew, but chose to ignore the warning signs that this boldface client would end up becoming a complete and utter nightmare.

It started with the creative director who OD’d on Gary V videos and read one too many Mashable articles. The creative director proclaimed himself a social media expert and proceeded to doubt and micromanage our every recommendation. Every minor tactic (e.g. a Tweet promoting our new launch) had to be backed with research and rationale on the level of a PhD dissertation. However, that paled in comparison to the review process where we went through at least 26 rounds of feedback. I remember inserting a clause into the SOW that stipulated we’d provide three rounds of changes, and then each subsequent round would bear an incremental charge. My boss, the agency’s CEO, deleted that clause from the contract because nothing should get in the way of revenue including his staff’s emotional stability. Pfft. Who cared about sanity or hours burned (thus making the project unprofitable considering the boldface brand’s meager retainer), the days at a time when our client was unavailable or when he constantly pivoted when you’ve got a mortgage on a west village townhouse? #amirite?

After an abusive tirade that brought my account director to tears and the staff to day-drinking, I walked into my our president’s office with the numbers to prove that we were pulling staff away from other clients who managed to be decent human beings (who knew?) and several team members had threatened to quit. By then, I learned that you couldn’t fire lucrative-looking clients in an agency unless they were hurting the bottom line. The account in the red and the team screaming red were grounds for us to fire the boldface client. Simply put, the client took more time and grief than they were worth.

Sometimes, the revenue and the bragging rights aren’t worth it.

For the past five years I’ve been out on my own and I can finally set standards for the clients with whom I want to work. I only work with people who consider me a partner instead of a vendor and I pay attention to the signs during the proposal process to determine whether a client is a fit or if they’d be a PITA.

A solid client-partner relationship comes down to respect and communication. Naturally, you want to do everything to salvage the relationship including stepping up the communication, creating more efficient processes, and compromising because every battle doesn’t need to turn into a war. However, certain situations necessitate firing a client — especially if you’ve tried and the partnership continues to suffer. Sometimes you have to cope with the crazies because you have bills to pay (been there, done that), and everyone has their red line, the limit for how much they’ll take. Also, remember, you’re running a business not a non-profit. If a client is straining and draining, this could have an adverse effect on your other clients. Remember when I had to make the revenue/expense case? That comes into play even more than ever when you’re a consultant.

Here are my top five reasons to fire:

  1. The “Why Are You So Expensive?” client: It’s perfectly normal for a client to ask how you came to an hourly fee or project rate, however, repeated questions are signs of red flags. Repeated requests to reduce your rate, work on spec (no way, no day), or promises of business referrals (if you do great work, you should be comfortable asking for referrals without having to work for less) for a reduced rate should be regarded with suspicion. There have been times when I’ve lowered my fee for a dream or cause client, but I do not compete on price. It’s a losing proposition. Someone will always underbid me and I have enough experience and confidence to know that my work is not a race to the bottom. Be wary of someone who nickel and dimes you every step of the way.
  2. The “This Can Be Done in 5 Minutes” client: Remember when I mentioned respect a paragraph or so ago? The client who believes that everything is so easy, or is baffled as to why something would take longer than ten minutes is a prospect that should send you running for the exits. A good client hires an expert who fills gaps in their business. They should trust that you know how long a task should take and that you would give honest implications of schedule changes and unreasonable timelines. If they don’t, they lack a basic respect for what you do and they will gaslight you every step of the way. I live by the Triple Constraint Concept in project management. You want something fast + high quality: it’ll cost you. You want something fast + cheap: it’ll be low quality. You want high quality + low cost: it’ll take time.
  3. The “I Flunked Communication 101” client: This is probably one of the most important aspects of a client-partner relationship. A lack of established lines of communication could put a project in jeopardy, and communication extremes are just as precarious. If you’re dealing with a ghosting client (do you really like sending 500 “just checking in” emails to then hear from a client that they need X deliverable by tomorrow, 2pm EST or ELSE) or an overly needy client (see #5) — both will get you no satisfaction, as the song goes. I had a client who could never properly articulate what they wanted, even when they were presented with examples, questioned, and coached. Hours and dollars were wasted even when they liked the finished product. Why? They were never quite satisfied with it. Their constant nitpicking on the small stuff took time away from the things that really mattered. They didn’t understand that done is often better than perfect, which leads me to their micromanager…
  4. The “Don’t Mind Me Stalking and Screaming Over Your Shoulder” client: Who feels empowered when they’re micromanaged? While your client may know their brand and business inside out, they hired you as an expert to help them with an aspect of their business. When they get too involved in the strategies and tactics for which they hired you, or if they constantly second-guess or question your judgment, fire them. Micromanaging represents a lack of respect, and it also demonstrates an unhealthy level of control. Micromanagers never grow into leaders because they don’t know how to trust and let go. As a result, your work will be inefficient and you’ll probably be blamed for every misstep and failure — even though the client did the equivalent of wearing earmuffs while you offered your expertise and recommendations.
  5. The “Why Haven’t You Responded to my 35 Emails in 10 Minutes” client: Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. I used to tell my staff that they should take their work seriously but we’re not curing cancer. Not even close to it. While it’s important to be responsive to your client, you don’t need to be on a gurney answering emails. Set communication expectations from the onset. Now, I even bake into my contracts and remind them in my onboarding email series. I note the hours of my availability in time zone, when they should expect to hear from me, and communication protocol for emergencies. And by emergency I don’t mean, that pixel is off-center. You had better be on a gurney. You don’t have to act like a first-responder when it comes to emails in order to be an effective consultant. Sometimes a response requires time and thought, and it doesn’t always pay to be instantly available and immediately reactive. If a client fails to understand that and has a rage blackout that I’m not holding my phone at 3am, we have to part ways.

The last thing you want to do is cut the cord on a relationship, especially when your livelihood depends on it. In five years, I’ve only let two clients go and trust me, I took a lot before I decided I couldn’t take anymore. However, I’m now attuned to the warning signs in the proposal phase — how a client communicates, what kinds of questions they ask, etc. — so I can avoid the painful process of saying, it’s not me, it’s you.

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Progress is better than perfection

When I was small I wanted to be a lawyer, writer, actress, neurologist, and a baker of many fluffy vanilla cakes. It had never occurred to me that I couldn’t be all of these things at any given time — the word impossible was foreign to me. Children build beautiful kingdoms that adults find ways of ruining with their reason, cynicism, and age. And the once stalwart kingdoms become impenetrable walls we build for ourselves. We cloak ourselves in the familiar and the known, and all that childhood beauty falls way to doubt and fear.

We start out believing we could do everything until we say, well, maybe we can do these three things. We mock that wide-eyed openness and arms outstretched. We say things like, stop acting like a child, as if wonder is something we have to abandon as we age. We’re desperate to get older, to posture and collect years like trading cards until we realize we’ve compartmentalized beauty. All that’s left are pragmatism and reason.

I believe in a life in three acts — the middle is where we make a mess of things and the third is our passage to return to that from which we’ve come. There’s a different kind of wisdom and wonder that comes from the tacit acceptance that we have fewer years ahead. I think about this a lot as I’m still stuck in the betweens, that messy second act. I’ve been in three-decades of the I Can’t Do That, There’s No Time For That, and Why Would I Start Over training programs, and it’s only recently that I’ve stepped back and said, quietly, why not that? Why not return to that kingdom, the mess of children in the wet streets of summer running every which way, but really they’re moving toward what moves them. What makes them happy and whole. There’s something tactile and immediate in that, and it’s something that puts my heart on pause.

For most of my life, I was a wearer of masks. There was the overachieving student, the ambitious writer, and the career executive. All of the masks carried the weight of perfection. The stakes became higher. You didn’t send out manuscripts to editors unless they were polished. You didn’t go on an all-night bender before an exam. You kept your grief out of the workplace and replaced it with a smiling mannequin of yourself, a waxed facsimile of the pained original.

You made calculated, informed risks. You debated. You considered by committee. You reviewed the data and the story it told you.

It only just occurred to me that the masks I wore were walls. The overthinking and obsession with perfection pulling me away from the things that move me.

I’m 42, which I’m told in certain circles, is the new 32. While I’m not entering my third act, I am feeling the weight of mortality. I am thinking about how I’m writing my story and the legacy I leave behind. I’m also conscious of how tightly wound I was for most of my life and now I’ve embraced a different kind of mess. One where I start and stop many projects, and, at times, I’ll have multiple projects going on at once. I’m reaching out without fear of losing face. I’m trying not to obsess over my laundry list of failures. I’m slowly unbinding myself from shame.

I don’t want perfection anymore. I want progress. I want play.