Stop Writing Project Proposals

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After several grueling days I had finally finished the proposal. I sent it off and waited for a response. Nothing. After a few weeks, I discovered that they were “just looking”. Despite the urgency and aggressive timeline for the RFP (Request For Proposal) plus the fact that we had done business with this organization before, the project was a no-go. My days of effort were wasted. Not entirely, though, because the pain of that loss was enough to drive me to decide that it wouldn’t happen again.

I work at a Web development company and we’ve experimented with proposal writing a lot over the years. We’ve seen the good and the bad, and we have found something better. In this article I will share the pains that we have experienced in the proposal writing process, the solution we adopted, and our process for carrying out that solution. I’ll also give you guidelines to help you know when this solution is and isn’t appropriate.

Proposal Writing Causes Pain

After several years of writing proposals, we began to notice that something wasn’t right. As we considered the problem we noticed varying levels of pain associated with the proposal writing process. We categorized those pains as follows:

  • The Rush
    Getting a proposal done was usually about speed. We were racing against the clock and working hard to deliver the proposal as efficiently and as effectively as possible. However, sometimes corners would get cut. We’d reuse bits and pieces from older proposals, checking and double-checking for any references to the previous project. While the adrenaline helped, the rush gets old because you know that, deep down, it’s not your best work. Besides, you don’t even know if you’re going to close the deal, which leads to the next pain.

  • The Risk
    Our proposal close ratio with clients that came directly to us was high. We’d work hard on the proposals and more often than not, we’d close the deal. The risk was still there, however, and I can think of several proposals that we had spent a lot of time and effort on for a deal that we didn’t get. Not getting the deal isn’t the problem — the problem is going in and investing time and energy in a thorough proposal without knowing if there is even the likelihood that you’re going to close the deal.
  • The Details
    The difference between a project’s success and its failure is in the details. In proposal writing, the details are in the scope. What work is included, what is not, and how tight is the scope? Now, this is where the “rush” and the “risk” play their part. The rush typically causes us to spend less time on details and the “risk” says: “Why spell it all out and do the diligence when you might not even get the project?” A self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps, but a legitimate concern nonetheless. Selling a project without making the details clear is asking for scope creep, and turns what started out as a great project into a learning experience that can last for years.

Now, writing is an important part of the project and I’m not about to say you shouldn’t write. Having a written document ensures that all parties involved are on the same page and completely clear on exactly what will be delivered and how it will be delivered. What I’m saying, though, is that you should stop writing proposals.

Write Evaluations, Not Proposals

Write Evaluations, Not Proposals — And Charge For Them

A few years back, we decided to try something new. A potential client approached us and rather than preparing another project proposal, we offered the client what we now call a “Project Evaluation.” We charged them a fixed price for which we promised to evaluate the project, in all of our areas of expertise, and give them our recommendations.

They agreed, paid the price, and we set out to deliver. We put a lot of effort into that evaluation. We were in new territory and we wanted to make sure that we delivered it well. So we finished the report and sent it to them. The client liked it, agreed with our recommendations, and started a contract with us to do the work.

That project became a game changer for us, starting an on-going relationship that opened doors into a new market. It was the process of the evaluation itself that brought the new market potential to our attention, and gave us the opportunity to develop this business model. It was a definite win, and one that a project proposal couldn’t have delivered.

What Is A Project Evaluation?

A “Project Evaluation”, as we’ve defined it, is a detailed plan for the work that is to be done on a project, and explains how we do it. We eliminate the guess work, and detail the project out at such a level that the document becomes a living part of the development process, being referred back to and acting as the guide towards the project’s successful completion.

The Benefits Of (Paid) Project Evaluations

As we put our proposal writing past behind us and embraced the evaluation process, we noticed a strong number of benefits. The most prominent of those benefits are the following.

  • Qualification

    If a client is unwilling or unable to pay for a project evaluation, it can be an indicator that the project isn’t a match. Now, we may not always charge for evaluations (more on that later). We also recognize a deep responsibility on our part to make sure that we have intelligently and carefully explained the process and value of the evaluation. After all that is done, though, you may run into potential clients who just don’t want to pay what you’re charging, and it’s better to find this out right away then after writing a long proposal.

  • Attention to Details

    Having the time available to do the research and carefully prepare the recommendations means that we are able to eliminate surprises. While the end result may be a rather large document, the details are well organized and thorough. Those details are valuable to both the client (in making sure they know exactly what they’re getting) and to the development team (in making sure that they know exactly what they’re delivering).

  • No Pricing Surprises

    Figuring out all the details and ironing out a complete scope means that we’re able to give a fixed price, without surprises. This gives the client the assurance up front that the price we gave them is the price they’ll pay. In more than a few cases, the time we’ve spent working out the details has eliminated areas of concern and kept our margins focused on profit, not on covering us “just in case.”

  • Testing the Waters

    When a potential client says “Yes” to an evaluation, they are making a relatively small commitment — a first step, if you will. Rather than a proposal that prompts them for the down payment to get started on the complete project, the evaluation process gives us time and opportunity to establish a working relationship. In most cases, the process involves a lot of communication which helps the client learn more about how we work, as we learn more about how they work. All this is able to take place without the pressure of a high-budget development project. And by the end of the evaluation, a relationship is formed that plays a major factor in the decision process to move forward.

  • Freedom to Dream

    Occasionally, we spend more time on an evaluation than we had initially expected. But knowing how our time is valued has given us the freedom to explore options and make recommendations that we might not have made otherwise. In our experience, the extra time and energy that the context of a paid evaluation provides for a project has consistently brought added value to the project, and contributed to its ultimate success.

Write Evaluations, Not Proposals

The Evaluation Writing Process

Over the years we have refined (and continue to refine) a process that works well for us. As you consider the process, look for the principles behind each step, and if you decide to bring this into your business, look for ways to adapt this process and make it your own.

#1 — Do the Research

The heart of the evaluation process is the research. If it’s a website redesign project, we read through each and every page on the website. We take notes and thoroughly absorb as much content as possible. Our objective is to get to the heart of the project and gain as much of the organization’s perspective as possible.

If it’s a custom programming project, we try to get inside the project’s concept, challenge it, look for flaws in the logic, research relevant technologies, and work to make recommendations that keep the goals of the project in mind.

We spend time with the client by phone, over Skype, via email, and sometimes even in person. As our research uncovers problems or finds solutions, we run them by the client and gather their feedback.

The research process allows us to go deep, and in our experience it has always paid off, giving us a thorough grasp of the project and providing a foundation to make intelligent, expertise-driven recommendations.

#2 — Offer Recommendations

Each project evaluation is different. Depending on the nature of the project we may make recommendations regarding technology, content organization, marketing strategies, or even business processes. The types of recommendations we make have varied greatly from project to project, and are always driven by the context and goals of the project.

When it comes to areas of uncertainty for the client, we work hard to achieve a balance between an absolute recommendation and other options. If the answer is clear to us, we’ll say so and make a single, authoritative recommendation. However, when an answer is less clear, we give the client options to consider (along with our thoughts) on why or why not an option might be a match.

We share our recommendations with the client throughout the evaluation process, and when the final report is given, there are rarely any surprises.

#3 — Prepare the Scope

After we’ve worked through our recommendations, we put together a technical scope. This is typically the longest part of the document. In the case of a Web design project, we go through each page of the website, explaining details for the corresponding elements of that page. The level of detail will vary based on the importance of a particular page.

The scope document is detailed in such a way that the client could take it in-house, or even to another developer, and be able to implement our recommendations.

As the project commences, the scope document will often be referred to, and can function as a checklist for how the project is progressing.

#4 — Prepare the Timeline & Estimate

With the scope complete, calculating the cost and preparing an estimate becomes a relatively straightforward process. While how one calculates the price may vary, all the information is now available to see the project through from start to finish, identifying the challenges, and determining the amount of resources required to meet the project’s objectives.

Note: Prior to the start of the evaluation process, we nearly always give the potential client a “ball park” estimate. So far, that estimate typically ends up being about ten times the cost of the evaluation.

We take the estimating process very seriously, both in the ball park stage and especially here within the context of an evaluation. Once we set a price down we don’t leave room for “oops!” and “gotchas!”, and that means we are extra careful to calculate as accurately as possible, both for our sake and for the sake of the client.

Now, because of the nature of the evaluation, we are often able to research and explore options above and beyond what the client originally brought to our attention. In the case of a Web application, this might be an added feature or a further enhancement added onto a requested feature. Within the scope of the evaluation we carefully research these extras, and when appropriate, present them as optional “add-ons” within the timeline and estimate.

They are truly optional, and while always recommended by us, we leave the decision up to the client (there’s no use wasting research energy on an add-on you wouldn’t fully recommend). In cases where the budget allows for them, they are nearly always accepted. In cases where a tighter budget is involved, the add-ons are typically set aside for future consideration.

When Evaluations Are Appropriate

A project evaluation functions like the blueprints for a new office building. Imagine that I own a successful construction company, and I have a number of world-class office construction projects to my credit. A new client comes to me after seeing some of my work and tells me “I want a building just like that!”. Assuming, of course, that I own the rights to the building, I can say “Sure!” and tell them how much it will cost. Why? The blueprints have already been drawn.

Now, there will be variable factors, such as where they choose to have the building built, and any customizations they may request matter. But in most cases no new blueprints will be needed, and I can proceed with construction without charging them for the plans.

Suppose another client comes to me after seeing one of my buildings and asks me to build an entirely new design for them. A new design calls for new blueprints all of their own, and these must be developed before the project begins. Can you imagine a large-scale construction project without any blueprints?

Web development is the same way. In our experience, evaluations are appropriate when a client comes to us and asks us to take on a project outside of our existing set of “blueprints”. Examples where we’ve found a project evaluation necessary include:

  • A redesign of an existing website.
  • Developing a new Web application.
  • Bringing new technology into an existing project.

Without an evaluation you’re either left to go ahead and do the research on your own (with the weight of the rush, and the risk on your shoulders) or you’re stuck making as educated a guess as possible for the scope of the project. This dangerous guessing in a situation where an evaluation is appropriate can leave you with an estimate that is too high (which can mean losing the project) or even worse, an estimate that is too low.

When Evaluations Are Not Appropriate

When a project is familiar, and doesn’t require an evaluation (or fits within the scope of an existing type of evaluation), we give an informal, direct estimate along with a scope of the work. Small to mid-sized Web design projects typically fall into this category. While the content and design are new, the process isn’t. The key here is the experience and confidence in your abilities (and the abilities of your team) that the work will get done within budget to the expected delight of all parties involved.

Conclusion

Project evaluations up until now haven’t been given much attention. I would suggest it is a simple concept that has been overlooked and passed by amidst the rush of a booming Web development industry. I invite you to implement the process, experience the benefits, and stop the pain of proposal writing.

I thank you, dear reader, for your time in considering this concept. And I thank you in advance for your feedback.

(jvb) (il)

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Jonathan Wold is the husband of a beautiful redhead named Joslyn and the father of a baby boy named Jaiden. He works at Sabramedia, a web design and development company that specializes in WordPress powered media sites. He is also a core developer and evangelist for Newsroom, a newspaper paywall and CMS built for the newspaper industry.

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  1. 1

    We’re a WordPress agency and have been doing something similar. We provide proposals for small and medium web design projects where there aren’t major unknowns. For more bespoke work where a large amount of research and scoping is needed even to provide a proposal, we provide an initial proposal instead. This initial proposal basically just quotes for what we call the “Requirements and analysis stage” of the project, which is chargeable and will allow us to perform a much better analysis and detailed plan and quotation for the rest of the project. It’s not right for agencies or web designers to have to spend days of work planning projects that may not materialise.

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  2. 102

    If you don’t mind me asking, what ballpark range do you charge for an evaluation? Is it a fixed price or does it vary by project?

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  3. 203

    Never mind. Answered my own question.

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  4. 304

    Great article. I read thru the comments and saw you mentioned the possibility of providing a sample document. Now that the article is a couple years old, I wonder if you’ve had a chance to create a sample that you’d be willing to share?

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  5. 405

    Had a friend who sold custom-designed PCs. Customers asked for RFPs. He gave them detailed specs about the computers and what he would install in them and the cost. Several customers took his specs to other providers who used his spec sheet as the basis for their services. So now he charges for his intellectual property and tell the clients why. If they want to bring his specs to other people, at least he’s being compensated for his advance work.

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  6. 506

    Kudos to Jonathan Wold. Your article is a step forward in the very old dilemma: proposal yes vs proposal no.

    After your article, the dilemma remains, but it is much clearer what’s inside the box. For someone the article will be the end of writing proposals. For some other, still believing in proposals, it will open the mind to the fact that there are alternatives.

    I’m am for “no more proposal” and here follow my reasons. Do you remember Proposal Kit? Ten or fifteen years ago, when I begun building websites, there was this sort of application to help you write professional proposals. You had mind templates and graphic templates, very beautiful looking and… very instable. A mixture of Word tables and Excel stylesheets, plus your logo. Sometimes, you just changed a word and the whole beautiful structure would collapse. It was a headache to go back to a decent layout.

    But the main problem was not with technicalities or aesthetics. The main problem was and is about the relationship with your client.

    Building a website for a client is a very challenging exercise, it’s something like a bet. It’s like, for a tailor, to cut and sew a dress without a physical body. Uncertainties and unknowns are big, for both sides, for the client and for the builder (designer, developer). How difficult? Much more difficult than everyday’s life.

    When you enter a shop you have objects and prices. Prices may change from shop to shop. You can try to get a discount. You can pay the amount split in monthly fees. But the objects are fixed. Many, different, but fixed. Just imagine a situation in which, in the shop, you could discuss not only the price but also the features of the object. Buying something would be a very long and difficult exercise. That is exactly what happens to buyers and sellers of websites.

    The main problem with proposals is that, if they are professional, they are already a consistent part of the job. Ten or twenty per cent or even more. To make a good proposal you have to spend at least two or three working days to interview the prospect, understand his business, discover his needs, offer solutions and explain in ‘humanese’ the whole thing.

    And you can’t do all that without being paid. So the solution is to break a very big problem into a small one and a big one. Are we going to build together a beautiful website? Let’s try something smaller. For one tenth of the value of the job I, the builder, will write about the problems of your website and the ways to solve them. You, the buyer, risk less. I, the seller, give you some good paid advice.

    If you, the buyer, find the product, the evaluation, worth, than you may choose to go for the bigger job with me. If you, the buyer choose otherwise, I the builder will have earned some money, at least a booby prize.

    Jonathan Wold, in his article, describes the benefits of the business model of paid evaluation. It’s a bullet list of five benefits: qualification, attention to details, no pricing surprise, testing the waters, and freedom to dream.

    I think it would be worth, for the business model, to create a numbered list of the benefits. Some benefits, in fact, are more important than others. The first benefit is “qualification”. No doubt on my side on that. If the client is not interested in your work enough to pay a few hundred dollars or euros to have your analysis, I doubt you could build a website together. It’s not only a question of money. It’s a question of involvement. If the client does not have a few hours to discuss the his web with you, I do not think the project will be a success.
    So, the second most important benefit is “testing the waters”. This process, according to Jonathan’s article, “involves a lot of communication which helps the client learn more about how we work, as we learn more about how they work”.
    In order to have a lot of communication you have to spend hours at the business of your client. I ask him/her if I can stay on one side and watch how they work. If the boss is very busy I offer to go during lunchtime to get an interview. If they know you and you know them, you can build trust. And may be find hidden needs.

    The other benefits (attention to details, no pricing surprises, freedom to dream) are, for me, secondary ones. I have big doubts about forecasting as a science. I believe more in flexibility and agility, based on working together with your client.

    One example. A few months ago I got the job for restyling a website for a real estate agency. It was my first WordPress website. Early on I was asked the total cost of the job and I gave my figure. The buyer wasn’t happy but she said she could make it.
    During the interviews for the website it came out that they had a serious problem with the email. From time to time, the email box would be full and the email provider would block all new emails.
    The global cost of my work could not be raised. So, I simply proposed to change my one page proposal, taking away some features of the website in order to secure the email flow of the agency, using Gmail.
    There was no “plus-one-game-for-the-same-price” from the client, because we knew each other. They had seen me working and I’ve seen them doing their job. By testing the waters you prepare the longer trip that will bring you to Website harbor.

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  7. 607

    Hey Jonathan,

    Appreciate what you have written. I have been in this constant dilemma about weather to write a proposal or not just with the thought that what if these efforts get wasted. A good proposal sometimes would take 2-3 days which is a lot of time to risk. Having a “Paid” evaluation makes sense, and those clients who are really serious about the project would definitely be willing to go ahead with it.

    Thank you for writing.

    Samay

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  8. 708

    @ColoursAndCodes

    July 13, 2014 9:32 am

    I started something close to this some months back. instead of spending days and nights on proposal, I now send a brief quote and then send a more detailed project charter when the client has placed the order. charging for evaluation document as you espoused may not work in my part of the world

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  9. 809

    Adrienne Peters

    August 2, 2014 8:16 pm

    I am so glad I found this.

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  10. 910

    Thank you for this eye opener,
    It gives confidence and saves a person from being a ‘begger’ through a long process of writing

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  11. 1011

    Great article Jonathan. One question: do you make the client pay for the evaluation up-front, or after delivery?

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  12. 1112

    Thanks for the article. I had written proposal, not until of recent. My biggest problem is being left in a pipeline for so long.

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