If you’ve ever written a cover letter or filled out an online dating profile, you know how hard selling yourself can be.
“Does this make me look arrogant?” “Am I trying too hard?” “Have I highlighted all my greatest strengths?”
A panicked self-interrogation follows…
The same thing happens when you’re writing a new business proposal — only, the stakes are even higher.
When a big-name client is on the line, a good proposal can be what wins you a fat contract, a new partner, and great press. At the same time, make one little mistake and you can lose it all.
With that in mind, we combined insights from HubSpot’s “Why You’re Losing Proposals” ebook, and the Agency Management Institute’s “Hiring and Firing Insights Report,” to highlight where you’re going wrong so you can win more business.
16 ways you’re writing proposals all wrong
1. You’re using industry jargon
“Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.” — David Ogilvy
As it turns out, the father of modern advertising was onto something when he spoke that sentence decades ago. Today, industry buzzwords like “freemium,”“gamification,” and “influencers” probably won’t mean a lot to most businesses, even if they’re commonly understood by marketers.
That’s why it’s important to simplify the language in your business proposal as much as possible, which isn’t always easy because of something known as “the curse of knowledge.”
Basically, the phrase refers to a writer’s inability to “un-know” something once they know it. Because the person putting together the proposal is likely knowledgeable in the industry, it’s difficult for them to recognize when a word or term won’t be easily understood by a less informed reader.
To battle the curse of knowledge, hand your proposal over to someone who isn’t in your industry. See if they can understand what you’re outlining in it. Wherever they’re unclear, make a note, and adjust your content accordingly later.
2. You’re procrastinating
Send a few emails, grab some coffee, cruise Facebook — you’re going to start that proposal as soon as you’re done.
When we procrastinate we get instant gratification, but our work suffers.
Ten years ago, two Harvard professors discovered that our present selves aren’t very considerate of their future versions. Instead of thinking about the consequences of our actions, more often than not we opt for not-so-productive habits that offer immediate benefits. It’s the reason we sometimes eat unhealthy food (it won’t show on our waistline ‘til later!), or swipe our credit cards liberally (what bank statement?).
Don’t fall into this trap — that email can wait, and so can Facebook.
Plan unforeseen circumstances. Save more than enough time to proofread and hand your draft over to an industry outsider. When your future self lands a big contract, she’ll thank you.
3. You’re jumping in without an outline
So many great things come from winging it, right?
Not so much.
Before you start furiously punching keys and following your train of thought wherever it goes, take a moment to plan out your content. Never forget that you’re writing for your reader, and no one else. What do they want to see, and where do they want to see it?
Use the inverted pyramid technique to deliver your prospective client the most important information first, then support it with content throughout the rest of the proposal.
4. You’re reusing previous proposals
Every day we see our names in email subject lines and watch product retargeting ads follow us around the web. Digital marketing seems to have reached a creepy level of personalization, but there’s a reason for that:
We all like to hear our own names, get personalized offers, and buy services tailored to our specific needs. Basically, we like to feel special — and the same goes for your potential client.
As a job hunter, you wouldn’t send the same cover letter to two different employers, so what makes you think a cookie-cutter proposal will win your prospect over?
Talk about problems specifically facing their business. Address their strengths and their weaknesses. Lay out a plan of action.
Taking the time to personalize yours could be what makes you stand out in the pile of proposal templates sitting on your prospect’s desk.
5. You’re talking about yourself too much
Ever been on a bad date when all your companion did was talk about themselves?
That’s how your prospects feel when you fill your proposals with “me, me, me,” and don’t focus enough on their needs.
If there were a ten commandments of marketing, “thou shalt not dominate the conversation” would be in it.
Sure, your prospect wants to know who you are and why you’re deserving of their business, but mostly they want to read about how you’re going to deliver on the promises you made at the top of that inverted pyramid.
6. You’re not talking about yourself enough
A quick CTRL+F shouldn’t find countless entries for “me,” “my,” “our,” or “we” in your proposal, but it should find a few brief moments in which you explain who you are and why you’re deserving of a potential client’s business.
What kind of results have you produced before? Which well-known brands have you worked with? What kind of high-profile projects have you completed?
The answers to these questions could help nudge your prospect toward choosing your agency — especially if they’re a member of the “Arm’s Length” group from AMI’s report.
7. You’re not editing/proofreading
If you’re aiming to instantly disqualify yourself from landing a client’s business, skip the proofreading process.
“Their proposal is filled with typos,” said one respondent in AMI’s report when asked what would immediately get a proposal dumped in the circular file.
If you’ve taken tip number 2 to heart, you’ll have plenty of time to edit your documents. Get as many eyes on them as you can. Bring in the copywriters, summon the editors. Their attention to detail will prevent your proposal from being discarded at the sight of a spelling error.
8. You’re overthinking it
Not only should you start your proposal as soon as possible, but you should finish it as soon as possible, too.
If you have to look twice at a sentence to ask yourself “Does that make sense?” “Should I use a semicolon here?” “Do all these tenses agree?”, then you’re overthinking it. Leave it and move on.
The sooner you get that draft out of your hands, the more time you’ll have to collect feedback and polish it up before submission.
9. You’re not being clear enough
Odds are you can’t count the number of businesses you’ve heard call themselves “innovative,” or every time you were promised a “supercharged” solution to your problem.
What on earth does that even mean?
Why should we care if you’re innovative? What does “supercharging” do?
These ambiguous words leave a lot of room for interpretation by the reader, which doesn’t always work to your advantage.
For example, to some people the word “quality” means “well put together.” To others, however, “quality” is a step below “high-quality.”
Before you use either of these words, stop yourself and think about why your services are high-quality, and use more descriptive phrases to tout them.
10. You haven’t cited previous success stories
In AMI’s report, 74% of respondents said that hearing about clients who overcame similar challenges with your help is a major draw.
There’s no better way to prove you’re capable of guiding them past their obstacles than by citing examples of times you’ve done it before.
11. You haven’t proven you understand their industry
If you already have experience in your client’s industry, it means they won’t have to school you in all the basics. And while it’s not always a requirement that you know their field inside and out, it’s certainly a plus.
If you’re an experienced law firm marketer, let it show in your proposal through references to industry trends. Or explain to your prospects what their competitors are doing, and how those techniques could work for them.
Familiarity with your prospect’s goals and obstacles will give you the edge over agencies without it.
12. You’re not speaking your prospect’s language
Is it brand awareness they want? Tell your prospective client how many eyeballs you can get on their product. If their goal is more revenue, explain how well your landing page services convert leads into customers.
A smart writer figures out what the potential client wants, then frames the entire proposal around it.
13. You haven’t created a visual hierarchy
“I can’t wait to cozy up by the fire with a good business proposal” – No one ever.
That sums up maybe the biggest obstacle to writing a good proposal: nobody actually wants to read it.
Consider these two different types of reading:
- Pleasure reading: The reader wants to take in every word — to be transported to far-away places and soothed by lyrical prose. In this case they’re reading because they find it pleasurable.
- Business reading: Readers want to learn something. They might not mind being entertained at the same time (with silly gifs for example), but it comes second to gaining knowledge.
When you’re writing a proposal, remember that its main purpose is to deliver to your prospect what they want: valuable information. So it should be set up for easy comprehension.
Use headlines to separate sections of text, bolded words to emphasize importance, and visual aids to supplement the rest of your content.
Chances are your proposal isn’t going to be read word for word, so it’s best to make it skimmable.
14. Focus on value over price
To sell your product, you need to have a firm understanding of your USP (unique selling proposition). What makes you different? Why is your solution better than all the other ones out there?
Before you hit your prospect with the price of your services, explain why they’re so valuable. Justifying your cost beforehand is easier than having to defend it afterward.
15. You didn’t develop a relationship
According to HubSpot, “Sending a proposal before you have any type of rapport with the potential client means your document will simply become another ‘to review’ item on his list.”
Instead of a cold submission, they recommend starting with coffee. From there, schedule a more formal meeting with their team. Then, consider sending a formal proposal.
Remember that, on the whole, people are emotional decision-makers. That means if it comes down to hiring your agency or one with similar qualifications, your prospect may make their choice based on who they like more.
After all, this probably isn’t a one-off transaction — meaning the potential client is likely going to have to deal with you on a regular basis. Would you want to constantly communicate with someone you didn’t like, or didn’t know?
16. You didn’t make yourself accessible
Nearly half of all businesses take three or more months to choose an agency, according to the AMI report. That means when it comes to winning clients, your proposal isn’t a silver bullet.
If you’re serious about winning over this prospect, you should not only deliver a quality proposal, but open a two-way line of communication for the next 90 days.
How will you write your next business proposal?
Do you recognize any mistakes on this list? Did we miss any? What are your biggest obstacles to creating a great proposal?