The Winning Proposal
As a designer I'm often asked to submit a proposal for some of the larger-scale potential jobs, rather than my usual simple quote as I do for most jobs. These larger-scale jobs can include extensive design work, regular publications, or ongoing support. Often, I'm one of dozens of proposals submitted to large-scale companies. So how do I stand out amongst the competition? Is it about price, my work, or my turnaround? This depends on the company, but there's a simple answer. It's not about me, it's about the client. What can I do for the client? How can I help the client solve their problem? When it comes down to it, they don't care where I went to school, who I did business with, or what I've done. They want to do know if I can solve their problem (and within their budget).
I'm going to review what I include in my proposals, as well as the process of writing each proposal to cater to each business or job (or rather, editing a general sample proposal I use, which saves me a lot of time). At the end, I'll go over what important aspects and red flags you should look at as a potential client, and how to weed out the bad offers from the fair ones.
The structure for any proposal starts with an executive summary, project goals, and how you're better than the competition. It should also include your process, fees (deposits, billings and scheduling included), and turnaround time. You should also include current or past clients that have benefited from your work, testimonials, and awards if you have any.
Be sure to determine the entire scope of the project before beginning your proposal, including if they will require ongoing support. Then, check your competition. Determine their prices, process, and selling points, if you can.
So here's how my proposals begin (Disclaimer: this is just a standard format that works best for me. Be sure to do your research before you begin your own proposal!)
About My Company
I include my experience, education (if applicable), and how my company has helped other businesses. The last part of that sentence is key. When potential clients review a proposal, they want to know your track record, how you can help them, and usually how you can help their business grow and create more revenue.
Why My Company?
This is where you determine what sets you apart from your competition. What makes your company better? Is it innovative? Are you offering something no one else is? Is your company more affordable? (If it's not more affordable, describe why they're getting a higher quality product or more bang for their buck if they choose you.)
Pick a few testimonials that talk about how your business has helped your client. Extra points for testimonials that mention how much money a client has made as a direct result of your efforts. If you are submitting a proposal for a non-profit, include testimonials from a non-profit. Try to show your potential clients you've done this before, and you've succeeded.
This would be the equivalent of a (small) portfolio. I include several samples of work with descriptions of the project, including the original specifications, challenges I overcame, and how the final product helped the business. This may sound repetitive, but the purpose of a proposal is to convince the client that you can help their business, not that you can produce "pretty" work. Be sure to include samples that are relevant to the proposal. If you anticipate the company needing further services (for example, they need a publication, but could use a website redesign!), include some web samples as well. This could get the reviewers thinking, "if we choose this designer, it could be our one-stop for all our graphic needs in the future."
This is the part of the proposal where you discuss the timeline, deposits, schedule, and creative process if you wish to include it. Many companies like to be involved in every step of the design phase, and others do not. So determine how you'd like to work and include that in your process.
Estimate and Pricing
This is the big number your client has been waiting for. Do you see how we made them read all about how great you are first? Be sure to include a breakdown so that if your price is too high, the client can determine by the breakdown if there's an option to make your proposal more affordable. For instance, if you are writing a proposal for a website and charging by the page, you can include the cost breakdown per page so the client has the option to condense their website to fit within your budget. Also be sure to include if you offer ongoing support services, meetings in person, and your hours of availability if they need to reach out to you. It's a huge deal to a potential client to know there are multiple ways to reach you if they have questions.
This can be a summary, a reminder, or a brief paragraph on why it would be an honor to work with this client, but don't beg! This is just an opportunity to reiterate why you're a great choice and would be a perfect match to help this client reach their goals.
Be sure to let the potential client know when your proposal estimate may expire, and make a note of the proposals you submit, their date, and the estimate in your records. You can always follow up after a few weeks. Proposals can take a while to review (months, even), so keep that in mind when setting an estimate expiration.
Now for the client!
If you are the client reviewing these design proposals, what key factors should you look for? This all depends on the final product you're expecting, but a few key points can help weed out the good designers from the bad, and a truly fair offer from an unfair one. Beware for proposals that include:
No portfolio or website.
There are so many resources online for showing off your work that a designer has no excuse for a readily available portfolio with multiple pieces to show off. Even if they are not a web designer, there are tons of (even free) options. So no portfolio means none exists, or the work may not be good enough to show off.
A website not created by the designer himself.
Although not every designer is educated in web design, a designer still has lots of online resources to build their own website. So if one exists, it should be their own work. If it was designed by someone else, this can be rather deceptive.
Limited availability for questions or meetings, or only one way to communicate.
For example, if the designer is only available by e-mail, reaching out if you have questions or a problem is going to be extremely difficult. Your designer should be readily available via multiple methods every step of the way.
An unfair estimate.
Not only should you beware of too high a price for the amount of work, but also consider that if the estimate is extremely low, it may be a deceptive price with hidden charges or a designer who is not qualified.
If your designer is promising you an entire website completed within 12 hours, you may think that's great. But, it's unrealistic. Be sure to take note of how long the turnaround for your project is estimated throughout each proposal you receive. If one estimate stands out against the others, the designer may be using shortcuts that will cost you more in the long run.
No ongoing support.
You should be able to reach out to your designer with questions or further business inquiries once your project is complete. If your designer's protocol is to sever ties with his clients once a project is done, you'll be stuck with exactly what you get and no easy way of making changes in the future.
So whether you're the designer proposing or the potential client reviewing, be sure that you are choosing someone who is going to work well with you and your style, and potentially create a new business relationship that can benefit you both!