How to create fast, impressive proposals that sell

Writing proposals are a necessary evil of selling digital services. But even when we win projects, our proposals often fail us. Fortunately there is a better way.

This post is sponsored by Qwilr.

I spend a lot of time thinking about proposals. Not just because I have to write them myself. But because I work with clients to create them. There are the agencies I mentor and the internal teams who have to put together business cases for management.

I am always on the look out for tools and techniques to make the process of proposal writing quicker and easier. Whether it be proposal writing apps like Qwilr or advice from people like Blair Enns.

After years of tweaking and refining. I finally feel confident that proposal writing doesn’t need to be as onerous as we make it.

Why proposal writing feels so onerous

Let’s be honest. Writing proposals suck. It takes far too much of our time. Time that is not chargeable. Time we could spend building stuff.

If we are not writing our carefully crafted content, we are digging through old proposals trying to find copy to reuse. Copy, paste, edit. Copy, paste, edit.

Then of course we have to make them look good. That means moving our copy across into a package like InDesign to add styling and imagery.

After all that, a good number of our proposals get rejected. Or even worse, you just don’t hear back from the client. Have they even looked at it?

By the time we have made our proposals look attractive a considerable amount of effort has gone into them.
By the time we have made our proposals look attractive a considerable amount of effort has gone into them.

Even if we win the work, we then need to turn our proposals into a contract and get it signed off by the client.

There has to be a better way!

The dream proposal process

Of course in an ideal world we wouldn’t have to write proposals at all. But that isn’t going to happen. However, things could be a lot better than they are. For me a dream proposal process looks something like this.

  • I can assemble the rough edit of a proposal from chunks of content I have written before. All without searching old proposals and pasting content.
  • I can quickly customise that content to suit the specifics of the project.
  • The final result looks stunning without lots of work messing around in a design package. Design packages better suited to the needs of a professional design project than a simple proposal.
  • The final result is so compelling clients are less inclined to look elsewhere for competitive quotes.
  • I know if the client has read my proposal, allowing me to manage the follow up process better.
  • The proposal can also act as the contract, making the approval process as easy as possible.

Is that so much to ask! You may think so. But I think we can get a hell of a lot closer than we are.

Making the dream a reality

A big part of making the dream a reality is to use the right tool for the job. We need to stop using Word and InDesign. These tools are not made for proposal writing.

Use the right tool for the job

Luckily there is a new generation of proposal writing software that is much better suited to the job. I use Qwilr, but there are similar apps out there. These apps have many features that makes the dream much closer to a reality.

There is a new generation of tools designed specifically for proposal writing.
There is a new generation of tools designed specifically for proposal writing.

For a start they all allow you to reuse content. Instead of digging through old proposals you have a library of reusable content that you can just drop in with a click of a button. You can then tailor that content to the specific proposal.

Second, these apps put your proposal online (with an associated PDF download). This means that they can track when a user opens the proposal and which parts they look at. No more guessing when a good time to follow up is. No more wondering if the client has even bothered reading your proposal. And best of all, you can see which parts of a proposal has caught their interest.

Having detailed analytics on a proposal makes a huge difference.
Having detailed analytics on a proposal makes a huge difference.

Third, these tools also allow clients to sign off on the proposal turning them into contracts. That saves a load of hassle. But be careful, you can still waste a lot of time tweaking the proposal to meet the clients specific needs.

Clients have the ability to add and remove elements from the proposal. They can also sign off the proposal once happy.
Clients have the ability to add and remove elements from the proposal. They can also sign off the proposal once happy.

That is one area where I am loving Qwilr. They allow you to add optional items allowing the client to customise the proposal themselves. They select the items they want and then sign off right there online.

Finally these tools let you create professional looking proposals. This is another area where Qwilr is head and shoulders above the competition. Their proposals are mini-websites that looks stunning. You can also add video and even iframe content. You can't do that in a printed document!

Make your proposal proportion to the brief

But it is not all about the tool. We often make proposals far more verbose than they need to be. Blair Enns suggests that a proposal should never be more than a single page. I think that is a bit ambitious. But I agree with the sentiment. Write as little as possible. Don’t waste time on a document that many will only skim read (I have seen the analytics, they do only skim read).

I suggest making the length of your proposal proportional to the brief you receive. If you receive a short email brief, respond in kind. If the brief is more detailed, then so should your proposal be.

Always offer three options

One last thing I would suggest is always offer three option. Again, this is something that Blair Enns suggests. This is valuable for a couple of reasons.

First, people like choice (but not too much). It gives them a sense of control and ownership. Second, it helps frame your offering.

We only know the value of something by comparing it to something else. If you offer three options people can compare those options to each other. But if you only have one option they have to look elsewhere to judge its value. This is where you will get sucked into a competitive tendering process.

So to discourage comparing you to your competition, offer three options. Have a budget option, an expensive option and one that is perfectly pitched in the middle. You may never sell the cheap or expensive options. But they will make the middle one look like great value!

So there is my advice for writing better proposals. But as I said at the start of this post, I am always on the lookout for new tools and techniques. With that in mind I would love to hear how you approach your proposals. The comments are open below.

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  • I wish someone did a course on this side of business. I’ve been in business since my early teens; I’ll generally send a few examples of past work, maybe an A4-side about what I’ll do and leave the rest to conversations as I feel that is where I’m strongest, but like most things that are comfortable, the more I step outside what is comfortable, the more it challenges my beliefs.

    I suppose as long as your rate supports it, this approach is much more respectful to new clients, and eases them into what is acceptable and what is not; but to what extent could a series of failed proposals impact the business? We all know being self-employed there are times we are inundated with work, and times we are coasting. This seems equally hard on both fronts. When inundated; your overworked you can skip out on things like holiday-brochure-style proposals; when you need work you wish you had them but everything feels like it’s bleeding reserves…

    Just my grey-matter on the subject.

    • There are actually courses out there on this stuff. In fact I have run them myself and it is something I get into a lot as I mentor people. Sales is a tricky area and not one people share a lot on.

      I like tools such as qwilr because I can write all of the boilerplate when things are slow and then when they get busy just assemble proposals quickly from the different blocks. Also I don’t have to think about design as that is all built in.

  • harry

    Hi Paul, another interesting read thanks. I checked out Qwilr via your link. Do you remember your post from a year ago “Five tools to kick start your web design business” That mentioned you using Proposify. Is that a service Qwilr supersedes, or are they different things? You don’t mention Proposify here so I’m assuming it is no longer part of your toolkit. I looked at Proposify but didn’t think it could do much for me. Qwilr looks slick though.

    • Hi Harry. Yes, this basically replaces proposify. At least it has for me personally. Both apps have their own strengths and weaknesses but if you care about the visual appearance of your proposals then Qwilr is a better option in my opinion. But at the end of the day it is personal taste.