The best advice I ever got about how to write winning proposals

Best advice for winning proposals

I recently met with a new prospect, Jim, who owned a marketing firm. Our first meeting went well, and at first blush it looked like I’d be able to help him with some planning issues. But at the end of that meeting, when he said he liked what he’d heard and asked me to put together a proposal with some concrete steps and pricing—I told him no.

Shocking the prospect

My refusal to create a proposal was a bit of a shock for Jim. I could see him pull back in surprise. He wanted to know why I said no. Didn’t I want the business?

I told him I really wanted to work with him and suspected we could do great things together. And that’s precisely why I said no.

I knew I was taking some risk in not working to his timeline. In the past I would have gone ahead and agreed to create a proposal. But a few years ago I met a top salesman who told me that one of the worst mistakes a salesperson can make is to create a proposal too soon.

Here’s why.

When you don’t really know what the prospect wants, or where they’re feeling pain, you can’t propose something that will be of value to them.

Hitting home

And that was the case with Jim. I didn’t have a full enough picture. If I had put together a proposal when he asked, it probably wouldn’t have hit home for him.

In some of the premature proposals I’ve written in the past, I really missed the mark. Sometimes I proposed steps that had no value to the client whatsoever. Many times they were steps the prospect had already implemented, or had discovered weren’t necessary. Instead of showing my prospects how I could help them, I was showcasing how much I didn’t know about them.

So, after I explained to Jim why I said no, I suggested we talk more about his challenges, goals and hopes.

Extra time

In my experience, taking that extra time to explore your prospect’s situation, like I was doing with Jim, does a couple of really positive things for you and your prospective client.

First, it builds trust. When you say no to creating a proposal prematurely, you’re showing your prospect that you’re genuinely interested in helping them—enough to risk losing their business.

Second, after you win their trust, your prospect will likely give you deeper insights that will help you craft a better proposal. Most of the time, after I say no, the prospect begins to talk about all kinds of real and personal things—the issues that are really important to them. Revenue, costs, people problems, hopes, despairs…I’ve heard everything. Those insights help me create a proposal that resonates with my prospect.

In Jim’s case, if I had created my proposal when he asked I would have proposed a planning solution for him. But after getting into a deeper conversation with him I discovered that what he really needed was a detailed marketing strategy and someone to actually create content for him. And, as is often the case, not only was the eventual proposal for something more meaningful for Jim, it was also a larger and more profitable project for me.


I should also add that my proposal to Jim was way shorter than the types of proposals I used to write. Whenever I did premature proposals they were always longer than they needed to be. And that’s because I would pad them with everything I could offer in the hopes that something in that grab bag would stick. It would be a real scattershot approach—with a pretty unhealthy success rate.

I ended up gaining Jim as a client, which didn’t surprise me because after employing my wait-till-I’m-ready approach, my close ratio for proposals jumped from about 30% to around 75%.

The Last Word

The bottom-line is when you write a proposal too soon it will be stuffed full of things the client doesn’t care about, like verbiage about your company and boilerplate material about general client problems and how great your solution is. But when you say no, build trust and dig deeper you’ll be able to reflect your prospect’s world back to them. And that’s the key to creating winning proposals and increasing your percentages. So, even when a relationship with a prospect seems to be going well, resist the urge to rush to proposal. The longer you wait the better.

About the author: Andy Haynes is a writer for FreshBooks. He is the co-author of two best-selling business books, a successful entrepreneur and business consultant.

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  • Abner Garcia

    Sounds great to me and I’ll definitely take this advice to my strategies. Also is good to be more aware on what the client is telling to you and the scenario you’re facing in that meeting with the client, because that extra time with the client is not always possible, in fact there’s always someone else under the boss who’s happens to be the main contact with you and not the decision maker usually not in the same vision or page with the boss. In much cases I discovered the real client needs during the job having presented a more generic proposal with some revision terms subjected to new or the real issues popping up on the road.

    • Andy

      Great comment, Abner. I was talking with a proposal consultant who told me that she thinks of proposals as the start of a conversation rather than a final offer. And she often does several drafts as she learns more about what the client really needs. She also pointed out, that often the client doesn’t know what it is they will finally need.

  • Leigh cummings

    This was great timing that this blog post came up. I had a potential new client drop in on Friday and I was going to send them a proposal today. It didn’t feel right because I don’t know enough about their needs. Will adopt your approach and see how I go. Thanks for the advice.

    • Andy

      Hope it helps, Leigh! Good luck on getting a new client!

  • Lilly Ferrick

    One thing I do is develop a scope of work first using the client’s input. We go back and forth on it until it’s right and then the SOW goes into the final proposal, once the SOW is agreed upon. Essentially, I’m writing a winning proposal with the help of the client them self. It works well and the only two things the final proposal includes are SOW and terms and conditions. No one has ever asked for anything more.

    • Andy

      An SOW is a great way to get the conversation with the client started on the right foot. It’s an awesome method of ensuring that your proposal process becomes a give and take (and more likely to succeed) than a take it or leave it one off.. Thanks for great idea!