Why your proposals suck and what to do about it

Creative freelancer thinking at her laptop

If there's one thing guaranteed to ruin your day, it's losing out on a contract. Rejection smarts. But wouldn't it be nice to know why you lost out? Wouldn't you like to know why all those hours spent writing kick-ass proposal were wasted?

It's because those proposals suck! That's right.

But allow me to explain…

I used to write terrible proposals. Looking back I'm amazed I ever won any. They were nothing more than bloated resumes that lightly touched on what I presumed to be the client's problem. I hoped my design skills would be enough to patch over any holes, but most times they weren't.

Proposals are like a second job - they take up precious time

No one teaches you how to write a great proposal. You learn by example, and to be honest most examples available are terrible.

How many times have you seen (or used) something like the paragraph below:

"Corporation X is looking to move into new territory as they expand their sales department by 50% over the next 12 months. The website that was designed and built over 6 years ago has become obsolete. Corporation X needs to move forward and create a web presence that is becoming of a successful fortune 500."

What a load of tosh! It stinks of boilerplate copy. Just swap out the names, rinse and repeat.

We learn that a proposal should be a certain way. That it should sound a certain way. We're not taught to craft our proposals around the needs of our clients. So you need to drop the geek speak and bin the buzzwords. Start communicating with your clients as they were real people.

A winning proposal shows you understand

The reason most proposals fail isn't because they are poorly written. It isn't because they use technical jargon and it isn't even because they're presented as a Word document!

The reason most proposals fail is because they fail to convey comprehension.

You can only write a convincing proposal if you fully understand the problem.

It's all too easy to write proposals using generic, one size fits all solutions:

"We'll design a responsive website for Corporation X on top of a custom built CMS. This will allow you to update your site whenever you like, and without external help"

Don't presume to know what your client wants. Don't latch on to a technical solution either just because your buddy said it was the "big" thing. You need to know what problem your fixing before you can fix anything at all.

  • Why do they need to a custom CMS.
  • Do they need a CMS at all?
  • Why is it important for them to update content in-house?
  • Have I just presumed they'll want to update the website in-house?
  • Why do they even need a new website?
  • What happens if they don't build a website?
  • Why, why, why…

Seriously. Why do they need a new website? You probably think that in this day and age it's a done deal. Every business needs a website… You maybe right, but until you can understand why Corporation X has come to you asking for one, you can't help.

Sure you could go ahead and build the most kick-ass website ever seen by man. One that gets you on the front page of dribbble and gives you five minutes of fame. BUT if you don't know why you're building it, you will ultimately fail your client. You don't know the "Why".

Magnifying glass with question marks

Ask "why" questions

I recently interviewed Brennan Dunn for my book "The Designer's Guide to Proposals" in which he said:

"As soon as my agency started focusing on the Why (a project should exist) and not the How, our proposal conversion rates shot up!" - Brennan Dunn

So how do you get to the Why of a project? Some of the questions we should be asking our clients in interviews are:

  • Why should this project exist?
  • What problem are we going to solve?
  • What will happen if this project doesn't go ahead? How will it affect your business?
  • What are you hoping will come of this project. What do you want to achieve? Is it to make money, generate more leads, increase trial signups, increase brand awareness or simply annoy your ex business partner who's apparently doing so much better than you?
  • Where do you see your business in 12 months after completing this project?
  • What are your long-term goals for your business?

Data sells!

As designers we don't always like talking about data. Design is objective and can't be assigned a value of XY or Z (or can it?). But this doesn't help us when we try to convince clients that we can help. Clients want specifics, they want to know that by working with us their business will be better off.

If you're not in the place where you can present hard data or talk about an ROI of X%, talk about tangential benefits. Talk about past projects where you helped Corporation Y achieve a similar goal.

Past projects give you access to data. Always do your best to get access to client analytics. If you can tell a potential client that you increased trial signups for Corporation Y by 15% and helped reduce churn by 5% you'll be increasing your chances of winning their contract.

Pro Tip: Always try and get testimonials that include hard numbers, not just "Nathan was great to work with". The more relevant figures you can include, the better you can market yourself. You'll be the designer or team who gets results.*

Solutions sell!

Data and "getting results" can lead some folks to want to talk about their tools. But Never talk about your tools. It's a rare business that cares about the technology involved in solving their problems (although this isn't always the case). Businesses want results and they look to you to provide them. So talk about how you'll make their business better, not which software you think best fits the job.

Tier your pricing and make it about options

Another reason proposals are often rejected is due to poor pricing structure. Pricing scares the bejeezus out of us. We worry we'll price ourselves too high or too low. Once again, the reason so many of us fail is due to a lack of education. We're not taught how to price. We learn by example and unfortunately most proposals are more akin to invoices. And we all know what invoices do…They tell clients how much something costs.

A "Chinese Menu" style proposal allows your client to pick and choose as their wallet and mood dictates: "I'll have a bit of this, a bit of that, no I don't fancy that and this one is way too expensive".

The client sees a line item and a cost…Value doesn't come into it. And worst of all, if they don't like the numbers then its goodnight sweetheart.

There's a better way, and it comes in the form of tiered pricing. Thank you SaaS sales pages!

Tiered pricing. OK, so the client is pretty much sold on your solution. They want it. You just have to provide a package that the client is happy to invest in.

Forget about Chinese menu item pricing. Group together relevant items and create 2 or 3 packages. Packages allow you to play with price anchoring. You can up-sell other services and you make sure your client has options. It's important to note that packages don't work with line items. Packages explain in clear terms just which problem is being solved.

Take a look at the example below: (note there are no line items):

Initial Visual Branding:

You’re currently losing a lot of potential clients to an inconsistent product; your website branding. Poor design and inconsistency lead to mistrust, and mistrust leads to fallout. Your website currently suffers from an 80% bounce rate and the average time spent on your website is 10 seconds. There’s clearly room for improvement.

Competing in any market is tough but when you’re up against seasoned sports professionals who have worked for years to hone their brand, you need to bring your best game.

By creating a visually compelling, goal orientated website and repurposing old blog material into a downloadable info-product that leads into a drip email campaign, I think we can increase your conversion rates by 10 to 15% over a 6 month period. With your consulting rate set at $190 p/h I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what that will mean for your monthly bottom line.

Estimated cost: $6,500.00

And another thing to think about… Which of the three packages below gives the impression of offering more value?

  • Package 1 at $1000 which includes ABC
  • Package 2 at $1500 which includes ABC + DE
  • Package 3 at $5000 which includes ABCDE + FGH

The answer? It doesn’t matter. Any option is a good option, for both you and your client.


If you really want to start winning more proposals you have to put in the time. An email from a potential client who includes a detailed account of their business doesn't give you enough information to write a proposal. Not by a long shot… You need to talk, and you need to talk a lot. You need to ask questions, and a lot of them. You need to get to the root of the client's pain and you need to own it. If you can't easily explain how you can solve a client's problem, then you need to spend more time with them before even considering a proposal.

It's all about The Client, The Why and of course better pricing.

Good luck!

ps. You can watch the video interview with Brennan Dunn here: How to win more client proposals

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