Proposals vs. Contracts: Get Efficient!

I ran across this newsletter article (Proposal or Contract? February 2005) on the Win Without Pitching site a few weeks back. I remembered then that someone had told me to check out WWP a while ago. In the constant overflow of information running across my radar, I had forgotten to do so. I encourage you all to not make that same mistake and to check out not only this article, but the entire Web site. WWP is oriented towards designers and ad agencies, but the principles advised in the founder’s (Blair Ennis) philosophy are highly applicable to quite a few consultancies. You can sign up for his newsletters, follow him on Twitter (@blairenns) or sign up for his RSS feed. Quite a few juicy morsels of consulting genius.

The very word ‘proposal’ raises the blood pressure of many a consultant or sales executive. Even if your firm is smart enough to have created a proposal template (and even smarter if you’ve got an online version that your client can fill out, instead of you!), it’s rare that a template will cover all bases of a project. This is particularly true when there are quantifiable deliverables expected at completion of a project such as a strategic marketing plan, a web site or printed brochures.

In my own growth process as a business owner, I have spent countless hours putting together detailed proposals for clients who probably had no intention of hiring my firm. I even suspect that, in a few cases, my proposal was used to drive down the prices of other firms. I’ve learned to streamline our process quite a bit since I first started. I make sure clients know that our pricing information is confidential information. I’ve gotten better (and braver) about qualifying clients on the phone to make sure they’re not tire kickers or uninformed enough to think that $1000 for a corporate identity package is a reasonable fee, etc. I’ve also modified my proposal form that I use to get initial budget feedback from/to clients. Even with that, I still found myself spending several hours putting together numbers when I actually had no real idea whether the client perceived enough value in our services to commit. And in recent years, I began to have a sneaking suspicion that there was probably a still better way, but I wasn’t sure what it was.

And then I found the WWP article. Eureka! It takes a little bit of guts, but not that much. And it is pure genius. I highly encourage you all to read the actual article (not that long and includes a simple outline for what a proposal should contain), but I’ll summarize it here:

1/ Typical proposal situation: great meeting, enthusiastic client who requests a proposal.

2/ You promptly spend significant time putting it together and email it over.

3/ The client is never heard from again. Your emails and phone calls are ignored.

4/ You are left scratching your head as to what happened and what you did wrong.
There is only one thing you did wrong: you wrote up the proposal.
Here’s where WWP’s genius comes in: don’t write up proposals. Get a verbal commitment from the client before you spend any time doing that. Without the verbal commitment, your proposal is a complete waste of time. And as I mentioned above, could be used for nothing more than to drive competitor prices down.

My own tip that I’ll add in here is that you get extra brownie points for getting the verbal commitment from whoever has the authority to sign checks or authorize someone to do so. A verbal commitment from a Director of Marketing can be a very different thing than one from a CEO.

Oh, and if they tell you they’ve got to have something in writing to show their boss? Don’t give them that opportunity either. Suggest an in-person presentation with both your client and his boss. Ask for the commitment at the end. If you get it, start typing. If not, tell them you’ll be happy to send over your contract (not proposal!) once they’ve made up their mind.

The above requires that you have your act together. You’ve got to know your business well enough to ask the right questions and get the information you need to put together your verbal presentation. But this, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is not at all a bad thing.

“Expert agencies write contracts that get signed, order-taker agencies write proposals that sit on shelves. Let your competition write the proposals.” — Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching

In this particularly difficult economy, we all need to get better at getting to the right customers and closing them faster. Let your competitors spin their wheels on proposals. By the time they’ve submitted one, you’ll have already spoken to several clients and your chances of landing one (or a few of them) are much higher.' About Rachel Cary

Rachel Cary is the Founder and Creative Director of Elevata Incorporated, a full-service print and web design firm in Oakland, CA. She has worked in the advertising & design industries since 1990 and her firm has won numerous awards for its work in both print and web design. Elevata specializes in corporate identity, print collateral, web design and custom web applications, including iPhone design and development.


  1. Great post that follows my experience as well. Your strategy distinguishes the “price shoppers” from the clients.

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