How to Write 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.

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about the author

Former Staff Contributor Donald Cowper is a best-selling author and head of content at ClearFit.