How to write amazing web design and marketing proposals that win bigger clients

While I was catching up with Adam from Better Proposals in Brighton, we got chatting about…

…proposals, obviously.

Turns out he knows a LOT about writing them. Funny that.

We hit record and I asked him a bunch of questions.

Apologies in advance for the horrendous moustache. At the time it was Movember, a month where many of us fundraise for men’s health by growing a some fluff above our mouths.

You’ll learn:

  • How to make writing proposals suck less
  • A very important question to ask BEFORE writing the proposal
  • How to find things that your client is worried about (so you can address them early)
  • The most important part of any proposal
  • The difference between small budget and big budget proposals
  • How to stand out from every other company
  • How to really find out what your client wants and use that to win the project
  • What you should include at the end of every proposal
  • Justifying higher prices in terms your client can understand


Check out Better Proposals here

There’s also a full transcript below.


James: Hey, guys. I’m here with Adam from Better Proposals, who most of you probably already know. But I was visiting him here in Brighton, UK. I was going to say sunny Brighton, but that’s kind of not the truth at the moment. But we just filmed a little video about content snare, and thought we’d reverse the roles and get you to talk a little bit about Better Proposals. Because obviously, proposal’s a massive part of landing bigger clients, better clients, getting paid on time. So let us know a little bit about your software.

Adam: Sure. So, Better Proposals takes the pain out of the proposal thing. So instead of you having to muck around in word or InDesign or whatever it is, you don’t have to do any of that anymore. You can just do it in the browser, save all the content, and you can smash these things out in 20 minutes. So that’s the overarching objective, is just to take that complete pain away from actually having to do it. And I think anybody that’s run a design agency knows that it’s a fruitless gain.

James: Oh, yeah.

Adam: It’s a pain, it really is. It’s not fun. If you win the job, you think, ‘Well, thank God I won it, because otherwise the effort wouldn’t have been worth it.’ And if you don’t, well, you just think, ‘Well, that’s the last time I spend three hours on a proposal again.’ So not a good scenario. And then roll that out over several years, and it’s not a very fun time.

James: A lot of time gone, right, if you’re spending three hours per proposal. So you obviously have a bit of experience in this, you used to run a design agency, right, is that what you call it?

Adam: Yeah, we started out doing really basic websites, and then we scaled it up to some equality stuff, and then we tried to increase that transaction value all the time, and sell the most expensive stuff you can, really.

James: Which is what everyone should be doing.

Adam: Yes. Exactly. And I think that’s a really key point. Because I mean, look, to sell a 500 dollar website, 500 pound website, whatever, the practical difference between doing that start to finish, and doing a 10 000 dollar website, the actual difference is very much the same. The process from start to finish. You’re both going to do them on Web Press, probably; they’ve still got to have some design iterations … It’s the same thing. It’s exactly the same thing. So how do you sell a 10 000 pound website, or a 10 000 dollar website instead of a 500 pound or dollar one? That’s the actual question. And a lot of that just comes down to convincing the other person that you can do that and it is going to be worth the money.

Adam: And when you think of the proposal, that’s your big ask. You think about an engagement proposal. It’s the big moment, it’s the big ask, it’s the buildup to it, and then you throw all of your chips on the table, and you go, ‘Well, yeah.’ That’s it. And that’s kind of how people have approached this whole proposal game. And I do think that there’s merit in thinking about it like that. But there’s a problem, in the sense that you’re building it up with this great big moment instead of educating them along the way. So your price should not be a surprise, really. Maybe they won’t know the price, but it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. It should be implied from the word go.

James: And you should have filtered them out before even getting to that point.

Adam: Completely. And always ask in the budget. It’s a massive thing. And a lot of people don’t feel comfortable doing it, and I’m not really sure why. I mean, I’ve always felt uncomfortable asking the budget, because it felt like a private thing. Because if it’s not a business scenario, and you’re saying, ‘Oh, what’s your budget?’ For this TV or whatever, it feels like, well, what’s it to you? It feels a private thing. But it’s not; it’s a logical business decision. And it’s not a private question. So you should never feel afraid about asking that.

Adam: And actually, it will tell you so much. Because if they won’t tell you, or if they do eventually spit it out, it tells you so much. If they say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to spend any more than 1 000’ or ‘I don’t want to spend any more than 500’, you know exactly where you stand. You can tell them straight up, ‘Look, it’s going to be a minimum of 7k; that’s literally our minimum.’ And right then and there, you know exactly where you stand with it.

James: You can also re-frame it too, though. It is hard to ask, but you can re-frame it to make it not awkward by saying, ‘I need to know how much you want to spend so I know what we can and can’t do. Because if you’re going to come to me with a two grand budget, we might be able to do something with a basic template, but that’s all you’re going to get. Or if you told me 10 grand, then I know that we can do all these extra things that you need.’ And that’s how I’ve always framed this question, with both web design and software development. Because then it’s not a personal question. It’s not, ‘What do you want to spend on a website, because that’s what I’m going to charge you.’ That’s what a lot of people ask for, right? But if you say, ‘It effects what we can and cant’ build for you’ then that’s a bit of a different conversation.

Adam: It’s a totally different conversation. And I think you’re absolutely right. And I think, really, that people need to re-frame what the concept of a proposal is. At the point where somebody is saying to you, ‘Okay, great, send me a proposal’, and that’s the next logical step, you have to get the across the bridge. And that’s all it is. You’re just getting them. You’ve now got this moment where someone needs to take a leap of faith, which is them. And they need to jump. And it’s your job to provide them with the stepping stones to get across that bridge. And that’s all-

James: Great analogy. That’s nice.

Adam: I’ve never thought about it before. But that’s really what it is. So if this person has been burnt a lot, and they’ve bought a lot of stuff, and they’ve been fleeced a lot, and they’ve chosen bad contractors, and bad freelancers-

James: Which everyone has.

Adam: Which everyone has. If you’ve been in business long enough, everyone’s chosen a bad contractor or something. But that’s common, right? If you had somebody who’s got that experience, then you need to show them why you’re not going to fleece them. That’s their number one concern. And it’s sort of something that I … really crap, I know, but the unsinkable questions. They can’t ask you, ‘Right, so, basically I’ve had a load of problems in the past where people have fleeced me and ripped me off, and I just want to know what you’re going to do to prove to me that you’re not going to rip me off.’ No-one can ask that question, it’s a ridiculous thing to ask. Just like we used to get in the software world, ‘Well, what happens if you get hit by a bus tomorrow? What happens to all my data. What happens if you die brutally tomorrow in a car accident, what happens to all my data?’ Really, mate? Do you have to put the method of death in there? Thanks!

James: You can get that information out in an initial survey. Same as the budget question, actually. There’s two questions: what is the biggest concern you have, or the biggest worry you have, about this website process or whatever process? And: what would have to happen to make this a success? And sometimes you can get some really great answers in there, which you can then address in your proposal, feed their own language back to them like that.

James: Honestly, my old questionnaire, it was basically just their language, I would pick out and put back to them in the customizable bits of the proposal. Because I just had little placeholders, ‘Talk about their target audience here’ or something. Or, ‘Talk about their concerns here.’ And when you use people’s language, reflect the same thing to them, especially if it’s been a little while since they did it and forgot what they wrote, it’s the whole, ‘It’s like you’re talking directly to me’ sort of thing.

Adam: Yeah, funny that. No, I totally agree with you. And I think that’s one thing that people don’t do very very well. It’s just the discovery part. I know we’re jumping all over the place here, but it’s a good point. Because the discovery is actually where you get all your info. If you take the discovery process out of the whole timeline here, you’re just guessing and putting a price at the end of it. That’s all the proposal becomes. So it becomes something brilliant when you find out this information. So you find out that they guy is actually scared shitless of spending that money. He’s never spent that amount of money before, and this is the biggest purchase he’s ever going to make in his life, other than his house.

Adam: And that’s a big moment. And if you can figure out that kind of information, that changes the whole concept of what you’re about to pitch to them. It changes the context of what you’re going to write your proposal in. An example, a friend of mine went to a company and was going to re-build their website for them with the objective to increase their leads. Pretty standard stuff. It was only later, through a load of discovery, that he found out that they actually don’t care about increasing the amount of leads, really. What they actually want is to make the company look as effective as possible, because they’re selling it.

James: Oh. Which is a huge difference.

Adam: Which is massively different. So actually, it’s not about the result, it’s about looking like you’d achieved this result. Which changed the whole project. Completely different. So that changed everything. So he’s like, ‘Oh, right, okay, that’s just changed the game. Alright.’ So he wrote this completely different proposal to everyone else. And the only reason that he could do that was because he dug deeper in those questions. And I just don’t think people necessarily do that enough. Because you see it on all these Facebook groups all the time, ‘I’ve got this client, this situation.’ And it’s so surface-level. And you’re like, ‘Okay, but what about this, this?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Man, you’ve got to know that stuff.

James: Or, ‘I don’t have a contract’ or ‘I don’t have a proposal.’ I see them saying that kind of stuff in the groups all the time, too.

Adam: See, that’s a really important thing. Just making sure you’ve got your ducks in a row. I mean, just making sure you’ve got your process. You’ve got a good discovery. You’ve got a list of questions that if nothing else, if you can’t think of anything, you’ve got a list of 10, 15 questions which you can just bash through. And if nothing else, you’ve at least got that. Brilliant. Next step, your proposal. You go through that. And if nothing else, at least have a good template. There’s tons on the Better Proposals website. Just go and nick them.

James: Yeah. So I want to get into that. I want to get into the sections you need in a good proposal. But first, because we’re moving on from the discovery thing, we’ve actually got a five-day challenge, where Day One is getting the questionnaire and the discovery process sorted. So we’ll leave a link below this, so you can get in on that challenge. But let’s get into the proposal. Because that’s what I really want to know about. That’s what you do, that’s your expertise. We did kind of derail a bit, but I think it’s good, I think it’s all good stuff. Yeah. So, what do you need in a 10k proposal?

Adam: Okay, so the first thing is your introduction. That’s the most important part. Without that bit, nothing else sticks. We know this because of the statistics that we have and the data that we’ve got, which is super helpful. We’re going to try to put together a report to be able to share this stuff, which will be really, really helpful to people. But the two most important things to realize is that people are going to look at the introduction, they’re going to read that in full, and they’re pretty much going to skim-read everything else.

James: Wow.

Adam: So if you look back through any of the proposals that you’ve looked at, you’ll probably find that at least on the first time they opened it, that probably was true. Maybe not the second, third, fourth, fifth, if they look deeper into it. But at least on that first open, they will just read the first bit for however long, and then they’ll skip everything else. And this is why the introduction has to be perfect. So, treat this like it’s homepage content. Give it that attention. Think about your headline, the opening sentence-

James: Yeah, and the homepage philosophy: each line has to get you to read the next line.

Adam: Couldn’t have said it better. Yeah. Exactly that.

James: Never thought about it like that.

Adam: Yeah. And if you can get them to read that introduction perfectly, it sets the scene for everything else. Because in there, you have to tell them the story. What do they want to achieve? So in the example I gave earlier, the guys that wanted to sell the business, well, that made Jack’s introduction amazing, because he could talk about that part for them.

Adam: So I’d always say, template whatever you want, but don’t ever template that introduction. Have some sentences maybe, but always look to write that bit from scratch every single time, and get good at it. Because-

James: That is awesome advice. That’s bloody awesome.

Adam: Cool. Well, the next thing you want to be doing is your specification, or statement of work. You always want to make sure that that’s in there. Because, especially at a certain level, you need that part. So, I’m just sort of shooting numbers, but under five grand, you could probably get away with a simplified site map, almost. But beyond that, you probably need to step it up a little bit into more of a statement of work. And that looks a little bit more like a specification. You’re digging into some of the functionality and some of the details. So you might break up the front end of the website; you might break up some of the plug-ins you’re going to use, some of the other stuff, whatever. You don’t want to go too techy. You really don’t want to go too techy. But if you are going to go down that route, and you are selling at that higher level, you probably do need a little bit of detail in there.

James: I think you’re dead on. Around that five grand mark, too. Because we had some proposals rejected where they didn’t feel it was personalized enough to them. Even though we’d been through it all and we’d done it all on email, there was a lot of stuff inferred, I guess, in there. We knew what we had to do; it was just a very brief summary. But because it wasn’t all detailed in there, that was the reason, when we went back to them later and were like, ‘Well, how come?’ That was the reasoning they gave. So, ‘Wow, okay. We’ve got to start detailing this stuff a bit more.’

Adam: Yeah. Very, very important. Proof is massive.

James: Ah, yeah.

Adam: It’s massive. And this changes, right? So if you’ve got a client that you’ve had for four years, how much proof do they need that you’re going to do a good job? Virtually nothing. So you don’t need a case study. It would be insulting to put that in there.

James: So that’s what you mean. You’re talking about social proof, case studies, testimonials.

Adam: Yeah. Before and after, all that kind of stuff. But it varies. You could do before and after stuff, you could do video testimonials, you could do picture and a quote, whatever. Or it could be a full-scale case study. Case studies are good at that higher level. If you’re doing pages and pages and pages of screenshots of work you’ve done for a 10, 20 thousand dollar website, it seems a bit out of kilter. It’s not quite right. Two case studies in their industry.

James: Boom.

Adam: Right? It’s right back on the-

James: A case study’s a killer. Even for getting new work, even before the questionnaire, that initial discovery phase, that’s how you get them in the door as well, sometimes.

Adam: Yeah, no, marketed right, case studies can be incredible. Really, really can. But yeah, keep them relevant, as well. There’s two types of relevancies that are really, really obvious. One is the thing that that person was trying to achieve, and the other is the industry. So if this person was trying to increase their leads, and that person is as well, that’s relevant. If they’re both in the fitness industry, that’s cool too.

James: Perfect.

Adam: So they’re two types of relevancies it’s worth keeping an eye on. Some other things as well, guarantees. I know a lot of people are 50-50 on guarantees, but I would always say guarantee something. Now, if you can’t guarantee any of your work or any of your process or any of your timescales, doesn’t say a lot.

James: No. Probably shouldn’t be in business.

Adam: Right. So guarantee something. Back in our software business, 20, 30 thousand pound piece of software, we couldn’t guarantee the whole thing, because it was all a concept. So we guaranteed the screenshots.

James: Right.

Adam: We went and did the discovery, said, ‘In theory, this is what you need to do. Pay a 10% deposit. We will mock up the screenshots and show you what your main process is going to be like.’ And then on the back of that, that’s when you’re signing and saying, ‘Okay, we’re all good.’ But if the screenshots didn’t convince you, then no good. But the 10% was refundable. So they were only 10% down, which is a couple of grand or whatever, and all we had to do was some screenshots. So it worked.

Adam: But guarantee something. If it’s timescales, if you submit your content by x date. Maybe it could be unlimited revisions. I know it’s a bit of a contentious one, I know that. But something like that. Just something. Have a look, have a think, about your individual business, of what you can do well, what makes you stand out. And then just try and guarantee just a small part of it. Because it says more than the words. The fact that you’re prepared to guarantee something something says so much more than the actual thing that you’re actually trying to guarantee.

James: And then actually deliver after you-

Adam: Yeah, and then actually do it, yeah. That minor point of actually delivering.

James: That’s awesome.

Adam: Yeah, I mean, the only other major point I would add into this is next steps.

James: Ah, yeah, that’s good. We’ve done that. I totally forgot about that, but that’s really … especially if you’re going to go under a maintenance plan or something afterwards, so you can start warming them up to it now, or warming them up to marketing. Yeah.

Adam: And also, next steps and actually how to buy the damn thing in the first place.

James: Oh, yeah.

Adam: There’s two parts to that. Really, next steps is: what is the next step in this actual-

James: Yeah, totally derailed you there, sorry.

Adam: No, no, it’s fine. It actually brings up a great point, it’s: what’s the next stage? But also it’s like: what’s next now? Okay, cool, I’m good, I want to go ahead, now what do I do? So just literally, the next three things. So one, type your name below and sign the proposal, or whatever the process is. Step two, we will arrange a call to gather some information. And step three, we will send you an invoice for the deposit. Everyone can get their head around a phone call, type in the name, and receive an invoice. That’s not complicated stuff.

Adam: The amount of proposals … I do a video series where we do proposal breakdowns, so I go through actual, real proposals, and tear them apart. You know, constructive criticism. And it’s amazing to me how few of them actually have anything that explains how to buy the thing. They’ve got this proposal, they’ve got everything, and they don’t even tell them, ‘If you want to go ahead, do this.’

James: And it’s funny, because we’re both software owners. We’ve probably done this in our software, right? We know that every step has to have a very, very clear next step. We just went through a massive simplification process in content snare, because there were a few steps that weren’t clear. So of course it should be in proposals. Everything needs a next step. Because people don’t always know what to do, and they need to be instructed. That’s awesome.

Adam: The think that people get stuck on is price. And this affects a lot. So if you’ve got a 10 000 dollar website, and that’s what you’re trying to pitch, you can’t just put 10 000 dollars in there and expect somebody to go, ‘Oh, yes, sounds like it makes sense.’ You have to give them a reason. And yes, the rest of the proposal should back that up. Your proof should justify that you’re not-

James: Fooling them.

Adam: Basically, just trying to fleece people or whatever. So I think, really, you want to try and be a little bit clever about your pricing page. So one of the things that we recommend to people to do is actually put a little testimonial soundbite or snipped on there that somehow indicates that the ERY is there.

James: Right.

Adam: So anything with numbers in it is usually a good thing. So, you know, we’ve got x number of leads, or x number of sales, since this new website. Anything along those lines is really, really good. So if you just tuck that just above the actual pricing table, it just softens it a little bit. So when they see that they go, ‘Oh, wow. Awesome. Oh, okay.’ Do you know what I mean? It’s just a little bit, just to take the edge off of maybe those five figures that-

James: I think the numbers thing’s important too. Specificity is very important with any kind of proof or testimonials like that. ‘221% increase in leads, which resulted in 3 450 …’ That’s why you always see that on sales pages. It’s not, ‘We made about 30 000 bucks more’ it’s 34, 341.

Adam: Makes it real. And also, if you think about marketing people and SCO and all that kind of stuff, I know this leads in as well, because there’s a lot of overlap there, but if you’re doing Facebook ads for people, if you’re doing SCR or anything like that, man, you can get so, so, so tight with these numbers. If you’re going, ‘Okay, it’s going to cost you three grand a month for this SCO plan’ or something. Well, tell them the numbers. If they get ranked number one for their term, then you know what the click through rate is. You know what the search terms are. So do the maths with them. Do you know what I mean? You know how much their conversion rates are going to be. So step them through the process. If this happens, this is the likely end scenario. If we can improve this by just x%, this is what the outcome is. And this is your worst case scenario. And this happens to be a tiny little amount of what we’re-

James: Yeah.

Adam: Do you see what I mean? The price is just this much, and of course it now seems like an absolute no-brainer.

James: Of course.

Adam: So justify that price. Be super clear in the introduction, and-

James: Boom. Awesome.

Adam: -that will make a massive, massive, massive difference.

James: Yeah. Awesome, man. This has been bloody good advice. Really thanks for that.

Adam: Pleasure.

James Rose

James is the co-founder of Content Snare and Aktura Technology. Once a web designer, his new priority is to help web designers and developers regain their lives, work less and get better clients.

He does this by writing helpful posts, building software and working with web designers to deliver the complex web development that they don't normally handle.

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Daniel Doherty
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