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8 Steps to Proposals that Mean Business

Perfect Proposal

Let’s admit it: writing proposals sucks. It can be a lot of blood, sweat, and sometimes more than a few tears.

Whether you’re a marketing agency, web design firm, or freelancer, you know that proposals are a critical part of taking care of business – it’s how you get paid. So we’re here to help you make your peace with proposals by offering some advice on how to do it better.

Here at Proposify, we help thousands of businesses streamline their proposal process. By analyzing over 20,000 customer proposals in our app, we’ve gained valuable insight into what makes a winning proposal.

And we’re happy to share that winning proposal formula with you.

1. Validate your lead

To put it simply: you’ve got to kick those “tire-kickers” to the curb.

Just because a potential client says they’re interested in working with you and wants a proposal, that doesn’t mean they’re worthy of a proposal, or even that they’re in a position to buy from you.

They might just be price-shopping and can’t really afford your services, or they’re “feeling out” the market to see who and what’s out there. You don’t have time for that. Your BUSINESS doesn’t have time for that.

You need to validate your leads so you’re only writing proposals for potential clients who actually have the potential to become clients.

Here are 5 things to ask yourself when talking to a lead:

  1. Is this my ideal client in terms of industry, size, or revenue?
  2. Can I/my team really help them solve their problem?
  3. Am I truly excited about this project?
  4. Does this client have a budget I can work with?
  5. Is there a personality fit? You don’t have to turn into BFFs but if there isn’t some connection, you might have problems once you start working together.

Everyone’s deal breakers are different so figure out what factors are most important, and profitable, for your business.

validate your lead

2. It’s not about you

It’s about your client.

Too often proposals are filled with information about the company doing the pitching instead of talking about the prospective client’s needs.

Yes, clients want to know how and why you can do the work, but more importantly they want to know specifically how you’re going to do THEIR work and solve THEIR challenges.

Focus instead on:

  • What are their problems?
  • What is their unique value proposition?
  • What are they trying to achieve?
  • What’s their opportunity?

Demonstrate in the proposal that you actually listened to your potential client. It makes them feel important, respected, and understood. Making clients feel like they’re being listened to will strengthen your relationship with them, and help you close more deals.

3. Include Case Studies

You can claim you to have “extensive experience” in web design, or mobile app development but without a case study to back it up those words can be meaningless, and risky, to a new prospect.

Proposals outline what you’re going to do for a client. Case studies prove that you can actually do it.

Include 1-3 case studies on how you helped other clients with services specific to the needs of your new prospect.

They don’t have to be super long or elaborate but they should include the following:

  • The Background: Briefly introduce the company and what they do.
  • The Challenge: Outline why the client came to you and the problem they were looking to solve.
  • The Approach: Describe what your team did to address the problem, the solution you chose and why.
  • The Result: Explain the results your solution delivered to the client.

4. Use plain language

Being able to write clearly and communicate your ideas is as important a sales skill as knowing how to close a deal.

Too many proposals are full of buzzwords and jargon that mean nothing. It gives people the impression you’re either trying to talk above them or that you’re trying to sound smarter than you actually are.

Plain language makes your proposal easier to understand, easier to remember, and easier for the reader to say yes.

We’re big fans of George Orwell’s 6 rules for writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

And ALWAYS get someone to proof-read and edit your proposals for clarity, spelling, and sentence structure.

proofread and edit

5. Design matters

Your products and services may be superior compared to your competition but if they don’t LOOK superior, you could miss out on closing that deal.

That’s why your proposal not only needs to sound smart, it needs to look smart.

Here are four basic rules to follow when designing your proposal:

  • Don’t cram every page with text.
  • Use whitespace and beautiful images to let the design breathe.
  • Make appropriate use of color.
  • Use legible and elegant typography.

If you need help, hire a professional to design your template and follow their guidelines, or start with a well-designed stock template and make it your own.

6. Limit your price options

When we analyzed the more than 20,000 proposals in our app, we found that the average proposal contained eight fees. But out of all the winning proposals, the ones that closed, those proposals only presented two fees.

People want choice, but too much of it can be a bad thing. People don’t know what to do and they’re afraid of making the wrong decision. That’s why it’s so much harder to choose what to order in a restaurant if the menu has 100 items. It all looks good and you don’t want to waste your money on the wrong choice.

So include a couple of pricing options in your proposal, but too much choice is just as bad as not enough.

7. Send your proposal ASAP

How often have you told a potential client that you need two weeks to deliver a proposal?

When we analyzed our customer proposals, we found that the majority were sent to a client seven days after they were created.

But here’s the thing: proposals that were sent within four days were 11% more likely to close.

You need to strike while the iron is hot and not let your lead’s interest go cold. A lot can happen in a week or two that could change their level of interest in doing business with you.

8. Close the deal quickly

Another interesting stat we found was that on average, one week passes between when a client first opens a proposal, and when they sign off on it.

We’ve all experienced deals that can take much longer than that to close and it’s painful. The more time that goes by the lower your chances are of making the deal.

close the deal

Here are three ways to try to keep your proposal fresh, top of mind, and ready to sign:

1. Follow up

If you’re not able to present the proposal to your lead in person (this is preferred), then call them right after you send the proposal and walk them through it. Give them a timeframe to make a decision (say one week) and then tell them you’ll follow up on that date. Most people will make a more timely decision if they know you’re going to check in again.

2. Make it scarce

Scarcity is used by marketers to capitalize on the psychology of buyers wanting what they can’t have. It’s why you get deals in your inbox with headlines like “50% off for today only”, or “There are only two copies left. Act now.”

A sense of urgency motivates your sales lead to make a decision.

Without sounding too pompous, politely explain that because you have so many projects happening in the next few months, you can only take on a limited number of new clients.

Due to an opening in your schedule that matches your client’s timeline, you could to take on this work, but the time slot won’t be available indefinitely.

If the client doesn’t make a decision by a certain date, the proposal is null and void and you may not be able to take them on as clients until another time slot opens up.

3. Make it easy to say yes

A call-to-action (CTA) is critical to guiding a buyer to take the next step.

Proposals with a clear CTA at the end showing the buyer how to say yes are more likely to close.

It used to be that in order for a client to sign off on a deal, they had to first receive the email, then print it out, then physically sign the document, and finally fax back the signatures. This was a painful, time-consuming process and just another reason to delay someone from officially accepting your proposal.

In our research, online signatures close deals 60% faster, so look for online tools that will let you get proposals signed electronically.


Proposals are a necessary evil to winning more work and growing your business. Learning how to be a little more targeted on who gets a proposal while refining your process to make it easier for a client to say yes can make a big difference in your close rate. To see more of the stats we pulled from our research of more than 20,000 proposals, we published a guide you can download for free.

About the Author: Part copywriter, brand strategist, communications specialist, and word nerd, Jennifer Faulkner is the marketing manager at Proposify, a simple way to deliver winning proposals to your clients and close deals faster. She survived the trenches of the agency world and ran her own freelance business, with the empty beer bottles to prove it.

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