As a new business owner, you probably spend a large percentage of time marketing your services. How exciting when you get a response from a prospective client!
Let’s say the client is interested in your services and wants to set up a meeting. After a lengthy discussion, the prospective client asks you for a proposal.
Now you must create a proposal that clearly spells out what you will provide and how much it will cost - and makes you look like you’ve done this 1,000 times already. What steps can you take to ensure your proposal is greeted with a “yes”?
Know your business. Before getting started with any proposal (or any client relationship for that matter), it is critical to know what services your business provides, the costs associated with those services and the fees you will charge customers.
Without this information, you’ll find it very difficult to create an accurate proposal. For more information, take a look at our earlier post on how to price your services.
Ask the right questions. In order to create the most informed proposal, you’ll need to ask your prospective client a handful of questions.
The answers to these questions will give you a bit of background on your prospective client. These questions are relevant to almost any industry, so you might want to consider others that are industry specific.
Don’t forget to do a bit of digging online for this information - especially the background questions on your client’s business. If you can find any of this information ahead of time, you’ll show your prospective client that you’ve done your homework. And you can use your time more wisely by asking questions you really need answers to.
Here are a few example questions:
- What does your business do?
- Who is your target audience?
- What are your goals?
- Who are your competitors? How do you differentiate your business from them?
- What are your needs?
- What is the proposed timeline?
- What is the available budget?
At this point, you’ll be able to gauge where your client is in their thought process. Maybe they already have a defined project with start and end dates, or they might be at the very beginning of idea generation stage.
The level of detail in their answers may bring up additional questions from you - or it may require your prospective client to go back and do a little digging of their own.
Once you’ve come up with your question list, you’ll also need to decide if you’d rather ask your questions via a phone or in-person meeting or if you prefer to ask them via email or web form. In some cases, the answer to one question may generate several follow-up questions.
The answers to the follow-up questions may provide valuable additional information. Maybe the client has additional projects in the future, or other groups within the company might need your help.
Alternatively, some questions are best addressed in conversation rather than via email - the available budget, for example. Think carefully about how you ask your questions. You may be missing out if you keep all communications to email and the web. 
Include critical information in your proposal. Once you have the relevant details from your prospective client, you can start to build your proposal. The key here is to include all the inputs your client needs to make a decision - no more, no less.
Start with name and contact information at the top of the document. List out your contact’s name, the name of their business, and their contact information (phone number, email address, website, etc.). Replicate this information for your own business.
Summarize the scope of work you will perform for them. This summary can be as simple as one to two sentences explaining the work you will do and in what timeframe.
For example: “ABC Interior Design will create design plans, research furniture and decorative accessories, purchase furniture and accessories on behalf of Jane Smith, and arrange furniture and accessories in four bedrooms in Jane Smith’s home. The redesigned rooms will be ready by October 1st, 2016.”
Add a timeline with milestones that illustrate the major steps to complete the project. There may be many small milestones in your internal project timeline. For simplicity’s sake, stick to milestones that are meaningful to your client. Here’s a mock timeline to give you an idea:
- August 1st: kickoff meeting with Jane Smith
- August 10th: design plans delivered to Jane Smith
- August 20th: Jane’s approval on design plans due to ABC
- August 30th: Furniture & decorative accessories choices delivered to Jane
- September 1st: Jane’s choices on furniture & decorative accessories due to ABC
- September 2nd: ABC orders furniture & decorative accessories
- September 15th: ABC delivers furniture & decorative accessories to Jane
- September 17th: ABC arranges furniture & decorative accessories in Jane’s home
- September 20th-30th: ABC replaces/exchanges items where necessary
- October 1st: project complete
Include the fees you will charge your prospective client and the payment terms you require. You’ll want to include the total price, a breakdown of fees (if applicable), and a payment schedule of when and how much the client is required to pay you.
In this example, ABC Interior Design is charging a fee of $3,000 for their service, which does not include the cost of furniture and accessories. ABC is charging a flat fee for this service, so there is no breakdown of fees. If ABC was charging an hourly fee, they could list each major part of the job and the number of hours associated with it.
Lastly, ABC requires a $1,000 upfront payment, $1,000 when the furniture and accessory order is placed, and $1,000 when the project is complete. Determining these fees and payment terms will depend on your choices about your business. For more ideas, review our earlier post on how to structure your fees.
There may also be special terms you’ll want to include that are industry-specific. ABC Interior Design may want to require that Jane provide ABC with a credit card for furniture and accessory purchases.
They might also want to give a brief overview of the consequences should either Jane or ABC miss one of the project timelines, or outline the inclusion of 2 design reviews after the plans are delivered on August 20th. Before finalizing your proposal, consider any special terms that might be customized to your business.
Call out next steps for your prospective client that make it easy to say “yes”. At the end of the proposal, give your prospective client a clear idea of what to do to move forward. If you want a signature on the proposal, ask for their signature and use an electronic signature service such as DocuSign, PandaDoc, or E-Sign.
These services allow your customer to easily provide an electronic signature. If you’re leaving the signature part for the contract, let them know they can simply respond to your email with a message like “I approve the proposal” to let you know they are ready to move forward. Make sure to create a sense of urgency with an effective date, which tells your client how long the proposal is good for.
Effective dates are a good motivator for clients, as your services may be booked by other clients and unavailable past the effective date. 
Refine your proposals over time. As you rack up the number of proposals submitted to prospective clients, you’ll likely notice some patterns.
Maybe your clients are repeatedly asking for clarification on milestones, or you’re getting a lot of pushback on payment terms. Whatever the case may be, take the feedback you get from clients and update your proposals for future clients.
Create a template for your first proposal and then customize it for each client. As you make changes, you’ll simply need to update your template for future iterations.
The idea of writing a client proposal may seem like a daunting task. Investing some time and doing your research early on will help you create well thought-out proposals that demonstrate your experience. With the right inputs and continued client feedback, you can create stellar proposals that win clients again and again.