As freelancers, we love to get work. But writing a project proposal is usually dreary business. In this post, we’ll explain a new approach to project proposals, why you should qualify prospective clients first and (not) write project proposals.

project proposal

Disclaimer: We are not lawyers. You should consult one (and also try to sell him a website). This material is presented for informational and educational purposes only and without any guarantees or warranties, etc.

What is a Project Proposal?

If you’re new to freelancing or working with clients, you may not be familiar with project proposals.

A project proposal is a document that is used to convince a client that a project needs to be kicked-off to solve a particular business problem or opportunity.

A project proposal usually includes a detailed description of the activities involved within a prospective project, and is a formal way of proposing work before a project begins.

In the typical project proposal includes information about the following:

  • Your company, what you do, etc.
  • Your company’s proficiencies
  • The potential client’s need
  • How you can meet the need
  • The timeframes & milestones
  • How much the project will cost
  • Sign here please X______

What’s the Difference Between a Project Proposal and a Contract?

When it comes to project proposals and contracts, there’s an important distinction. Contracts and Project Proposals have different characteristics and usually have an order of appearance in your relationship with a new client.

  • A Contract is the terms and conditions you lay down, normally across all projects (it is often a generic document). A contract usually follows a project proposal.
  • A Project Proposal is job-specific. It lays out what the project aims to achieve, the features it may have and timescales.

The Problem with the Typical Approach to Project Proposals

The typical approach to project proposals has a few inherit problems.

  • It can take HOURS to assemble a project proposal. After you’ve met with a potential client, you then have to outline your strategy to solving their problem. You then hen have to work on producing a document that reflects your conversation and your plan for the project. At this point, you’ve already potentially sunk 5, 7, 10 hours of work into producing a project proposal.
  • It may not get any results! What guarantee do you have that a client will accept your proposal? Zero. There’s a risk you may submit a proposal and never hear back from the prospective client again.
  • It might be used against you. Your proposal can be used as a basis to solicit work from someone else with a cheaper price tag. Thanks to your proposal, the client will know exactly what needs to be done, sometimes with specific solutions (that you provided them).

5 Rules for Writing a Project Proposal: A New Approach to Project Proposals

Thanks to an excellent article entitled “Five Rules for Presenting Proposals” by Blair Enns (2007), there’s a new way to think about how you approach project proposals.

1. Project proposals are only presented to decision makers who are ready to buy.

The first rule fundamentally changes the typical understanding of a project proposal:

  1. The format of a project proposal
  2. When project proposals happen
  3. To whom project proposals are given

The first part of the rule states that project proposals are to be presented.

Here are a few more important things to note:

  • Project proposals are valuable, so treat them that way. Sometimes, there’s a fine line between consulting and project proposals, so be careful about sharing your expertise with unqualified clients.
  • Never email a proposal. All proposals should be presented. If you’ve spent 10 hours on a proposal and then email it to the client, you may never hear from them again. We’ll say it again. Never email a proposal. Never print it out and mail it.
  • All proposals should be presented. (In person, whenever possible. Then by video. Then by phone.) This may be a huge shift in the way you currently approach proposals, but the presentation is key. It affirms the value of your expertise and protects you from the “disappearing” client. If the client says “just email me the proposal,” you can reply with, “It’s our company policy that all proposals are presented.”
  • Don’t leave a proposal behind. If you’re going to put a proposal together and give someone an idea of how to solve a problem, they can only keep it when you have a formal project agreement. Again, you’ve invested time in the proposal, and unless you were paid to write it, that item belongs to you and is an item of value. They didn’t paid for it.

Just remember: You’re not in the business of writing proposals. You’re in the business of freelancing.

The second part of the first rule deals with to whom project proposals are given/presented.

Who is the ultimate decision-maker for the project? You can waste a lot of time dealing with the wrong person if you fail to include all the decision-makers in the process. You also ultimately entrust the presentation of your proposal to someone else. You want to be the one to present you proposal.

Ask some key questions:

What is the approval process for this project? Do you make the final decision? Does anyone need to approve your decision to go forward with this project? Who else needs to be involved in this process?

Make sure all decision makers of them are in the room when you present your proposal.

The third component of the first rule covers when project proposals occur–once a client is ready to buy.

Only agree to present the proposal under two conditions:

  1. All decision makers will be present.
  2. They will give you an answer (yes or no) at the conclusion.

These two statements will qualify potential clients quickly.

2. Proposals are verbal. Contracts are written.

This rule, again, changes the traditional approach to proposals. Instead of a formal written document, think of project proposals as the primary component of your sales strategy.

  • Realize the typical proposal is a sales document. You’re trying to convince a client they need to buy, or try to justify the price.
  • Documents don’t sell, people do. No document is going to sell a client on a project as you will do. So streamline your document.

3. Price comes before proposal.

When it comes to proposals, clients are going to flip right to the price, and probably toss it aside.

  • Price is the #1 objection freelancers face from clients.
  • Price is often discussed last.
  • Yep, it’s hard to talk about money.
  • If you want to make money, learn to talk about it!
  • Give the client a price range first.

As the client: “If I can bring you back a proposal within this price range, is that something you would be wiling to sign off on?” Ask them to make a commitment to you before you make any time commitments to them.

A “yes” makes you money, a “no” saves you money, and a “maybe” costs you money.

4. Proposals do not contain specific solutions.

How many times have you written a website project proposal that includes specific WordPress plugins, themes, or various development methods for meeting the client’s needs? According to rule #4, proposals should never include those specifics.

  • Don’t provide specific solutions until you’ve been paid to do so. Again, your knowledge has value, so be careful about giving it away for free.
  • Avoid “spec” work. You would never mock up a home page for a client before they paid you money, right? So why are you spending your time writing a proposal that gives clients solutions?
  • Provide examples and references of your expertise instead. If a potential client wants evidence of your competency or expertise, give them examples.

5. It’s not sold until the check clears.

Rule #5 reminds us that once you have verbal agreement with a project proposal,your objective is to get a signature on a project agreement or contract as soon as possible. It’s easy to lose momentum after the initial presentation if you aren’t prepared.

  • Ask clients to commit in a specific order: verbal, written, financial.
  • Have an invoice ready at the proposal presentation and leave with a check. Have your written contract, terms of service document, and first invoice available at the proposal presentation.

Your potential client may be surprised by your businesslike approach to securing the project, and it’s a great first impression on setting expectations throughout the remainder of the project.

More Project Proposal Resources

For more information and guidance on project proposals and building your freelance business, check out these books:

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  • Pukka Pads
    Strong wirebound project books. Allows notebook to be opened flat or folded back for easy note taking.80gsm high quality recycled white paper. Wirebound and feint ruled. Five brown craft board removable dividers.200 pages (100 sheets) per pad. A4, page perforated 14mm in, torn-out page will be narrower
    $21.70  from Shoplet UK
  • Pukka Pads
    Strong wirebound project books. Allows notebook to be opened flat or folded back for easy note taking.80gsm high quality recycled white paper. Wirebound and feint ruled. Five brown craft board removable dividers.200 pages (100 sheets) per pad. A5, page perforated 14mm in, torn-out page will be narrower
    $13.01  from Shoplet UK
    8.5 x 11.75 letter-sizedd white sheets 70 project-ruled sheets per notepad give you an ample supply One planner pad per pack
    $11.99  from Staples

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