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Stop Writing Project Proposals

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. [Links checked February/17/2017]

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.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Project Proposal Writing Causes Pain Link

After several years of writing proposals5, 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.

project proposals

Write Evaluations, Not Proposals — And Charge For Them Link

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? Link

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 Link

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 Link

    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 Link

    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 Link

    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 Link

    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 Link

    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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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)

Footnotes Link

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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.

  1. 1

    Certainly a very nice read but I’m wondering how much time you spend on the evalutation? (Did I miss it?) It could take several days, I guess. And does your client actually pay maybe a thousand Euro for this?

    • 2

      I was wondering the same thing, I think most of our clients would not agree with paying for something like that. I suppose it also depends on the scale of you clients.

      • 3

        Are we talking about website projects? So what takes several days? I spend 2 hours on project proposal which includes prices and an idea of what client gets and I have never asked for more money than the scope planned. Sorry but I don’t get it, how could you make project proposal for few days and still get the prices wrong. Oh, one more thing, I am not getting ANY rejections. Maybe the problem is that you charge too much or simply overdo whole process. And in case anybody wonders, I don’t charge 10€for a website neither…

        • 4

          Have you got a website link? Interested to see how you do it..

        • 6

          I’m going to venture a guess that none of the sites you build take more than a week or two to build. I’m currently one member of a team on a 7 month project. It took 4 months just to get the contract negotiations worked out. My studio just came off a 14 month project. It takes more than 2 hours just to READ some of the RFPs I’ve answered. Before trolling, maybe consider that some people here are working on projects much bigger than what you’re used to, and maybe you’re not the intended audience of the article.

    • 7

      The time actually spent on the evaluation will vary depending on the size and scale of the project. In our experience, an average project evaluation takes between 15-25 hours and is typically delivered within 2 weeks.

  2. 8

    Seldom do I read an article where I feel the author has been inside my head, looking with my eyes and seeing my thoughts.

    I have spent enough of my life writing project proposals. A year back, I embarked on writing a proposal for a big governmental organization. Their sites have to comply with a heap of local and international standards, and I spent a week writing a comprehensive case study/proposal.

    We didn’t get the project. The reply was surprising though: “Of all (11) proposals, yours was the most comprehensive and detailed.”

    So why didn’t we get the project? They thought we were too small a company and not experienced enough in the area of governmental organizations. So even though they actually contacted us for a proposal they ended up choosing someone bigger. What if I knew that before I spent a week writing and researching? Or what if they paid for the work?

    I like Jonathan’s approach a lot. Thanks for the wisdom shared.

    • 9

      I often get the “you’re too small” argument, which is just utter bs. You’d be surprised how many of the larger agencies simply hire “too small” freelancers to do the job they were hired for in the first place.

      • 10

        Yea, that’s a good point. Also, small companies tend to biggify themselves to appear more important. But I believe a small company should emphasize the benefits of their size (agility, no bureaucracy, what more).

        • 11

          I also Argue that as we are a small compagny, we have really low “operation costs”: we have no secretary, small offices, etc… : a high ratio of the budget will be spent in labor.

          Sorry about my awfull english.

      • 12

        The thing about “too small” isn’t so much that you’re smaller than the team that would be working on the project. It’s that you may not be able to demonstrate the stability of a larger company. If the project goes off the rails, a larger firm may be able to bring more resources to bear to get it back on track without risking going out of business in the process. Last year we took over a project that had spun out of control. The initial shop was something like 8-10 people, not big by any means, but had come highly recommended to the client. But soon after we took over the project, they went out of business. I’m not certain, but I think the financial hit that the loss of the project caused ended up putting them under. A large firm will (theoretically) have deeper pockets and be able to complete a project at a loss if necessary to satisfy a contract.

    • 13

      I agree totally, Simon. Too often, I find companies are forced to get 3 bids, but already have a favorite. I recently spent a week working on a comprehensive proposal with a PowerPoint presentation, and gave them many ideas that they had not considered, only to be told that they were going to use their existing developer. So, I LOVE this idea for large jobs.

    • 14

      Yes likewise and I think the idea of charging for a “project evaluation” is brilliant and is just the breath of fresh air I needed at this point to sort the genuine clients from the rest.
      Thanks for the great solution.

  3. 15

    Ricardo Machado

    February 17, 2012 12:44 pm

    Well we, at NorteSul, made ‘proposal models’ for the different market targets that we’ve defined.
    So, it doesn’t take ‘days’ to make proposals… Few projects need a really detailed proposal.

    Beyond that, a proposal is an ‘intro’ to a contract… or at least it should be…. But that’s just our way of thinking.

    Still, good article, in certain cases I may apply the ‘project evaluation’ concept :)

    Keep rockin’.

  4. 16

    Thanks Jonathan. This is a great share. I have seen written evaluations from other firms and always wanted an approach and set of guidelines to use when deciding to offer this approach. While many of our projects would not qualify, we certainly have had plenty that would. I also like that you gave some pricing guidance as well. We have always thought that our SOWs were strong and thorough but many times we do a great deal of work in research and planning with no way to recoup. Do you have any baseline examples of the structure that you use?

    • 17

      You’re welcome, Steve, and thank you for the feedback! At the moment I don’t have any examples that I can publicly share.

      • 18

        Almost all of us are wondering about any examples that you could show..
        Maybe if you change for other unreal names and change/remove all your layout..
        just to show us an real example.

        I have one more question.. before, or on cases wich dont need an Evaluation, what you used to send? Something like an invoice?

        Thanks! =)

      • 19

        Awesome article! Thank you! Do you think you might be able to post an example any time in the near future?

  5. 20

    Thanks for this article Jonathan, excellent read.

    Would you consider including an Evaluation sample document for those of us who has never seen one?

    • 21

      That is a good idea. An example would be really cool

      • 22

        Ed Gould (@MarcommCreative)

        February 17, 2012 1:45 pm

        haha yes please can we get a copy too? sure will save lots of time ; )

        Great comments about age old problem – as ever if only all the agencies and provider could stand together and agree to charge for evaluations and pitches then we woudl all be better off.

        I am up for it , anyone else?

      • 23

        I would love that as well!
        Great article by the way.

    • 24

      Yes, I am agree.
      Please, give us an example of this document!
      Thanks in advance!

    • 25

      I would also appreciate a copy of the evaluation sample as well. It sounds very interesting.

    • 26

      Thank you for your feedback, Seba! I have considered it and, unfortunately, I don’t have any examples that I can publicly share. Depending on interest, I may consider making an example public in the future.

      • 27

        I’m looking forward to it. It will be extremely helpful. Great article by the way!

      • 28

        @Jonathan You can provide an actual Evaluation document after removing clients information (or adding factitious info). It would be a great help for all of us. Btw, thanks for the great article.

  6. 29

    Nice article and already have a good question. Jonathan Wold how much time would you consider worth, for a project evaluation? What about money?

    • 30

      I’m sorry Andreas, I didn’t understand your question. Are you asking how much time I’m willing to dedicate to a project evaluation? If so, that depends on the size and scale of the project and, as far as money goes, we charge for the evaluation based on the amount of time and effort that we estimate will be needed to complete the evaluation.

  7. 31

    Guillaume Moigneu

    February 17, 2012 1:10 pm

    Thansk Jonathan for your article. While I agree with the whole idea/concept, I’m a bit confused on the differences between a proposal and an evaluation. Documents I write for my clients, which I consider to be proposals, contains all the project scope (structure, all screens mockups) and a detailed estimate for each task to be done.

    Gentlemen, what are you including in your proposal ?

    • 32

      Guillaume, if doing all the research and preparing mockups etc is a process that’s working for you, excellent! In our experience, the evaluation process helps us qualify the client. There are, assuredly, other ways to do this and, in a case where you’ve fully qualified a client and you are sure of their interest, a full scale project proposal may be the ticket. If you haven’t fully qualified the client, though, you can end up spending a lot of time on a project that just wasn’t a match. Our answer for that problem is the project evaluation.

  8. 33

    great post and comments. I’ve also lived same situations several times. In fact, right now I’m working on two project proposals like those you mention.
    And I’ve been in Simon’s situation also.

    I whish I could do that. I’ve been always camplaining about not being paid for all the job done.

    But, how many “opportunities” / “potential works” have you lost by working this way?
    Specially nowadays, that are many companies dying for a new lead, or pulling down prices.

    • 34

      Ignacio – We have lost potential clients because of the evaluation process. Our goal, though, is to make sure that we have explained it so well and given our clients confidence in the value of the process that the only potential clients we lose are those that would not have been a match for us anyway. Not all clients are created equal and winning every project that comes your way will end up hurting you at some point.

      • 35

        “Not all clients are created equal and winning every project that comes your way will end up hurting you at some point.”
        This is in my opinion the main idea behind this great article. I created my web development company 8 years ago and 3 days ago I found something “new” to make sure to include in the next contract we make with a client – we definitely did not match, the experience was exhausting because the client was rude, overstressed and didn’t want to listen to our opinions but still expected us to do all the thinking. In the end, we spent 3 weeks working for a client who will never pay for that work and left a team totally exhausted and disappointed.
        A project evaluation would have surely avoided this. At the very least, it is useful as a “client match evaluation”
        I agree that this is only applicable to large projects, though.
        Congratulations on this great article!

  9. 36

    Thanks for the share and some great information here. Many large and very serious consulting companies will recommend and charge for an evaluation or a requirements study – depending on how many consultants they have on the “bench”

  10. 37

    They should include a “Buy a Beer” for the author function on this website, this is by far the best article on Smashing Magazine that I’ve read. Cudos to you sir, now back to my code.

  11. 38

    This is exactly the strategy we’ve shifted to within the last 4 months. Writing a Statement of Work or Proposal was pulling us away from billable work, and when the job wasn’t won–well you can’t get those hours back. My question is how have your clients responded to your offer of an evaluation? We’ve had some act incredulous at the offer, which speaks to the disconnect business people often have with what it takes to develop software solutions. We take the time to explain the complexities of development work and why determining a scope takes a long time, but the initial reaction is like a bad first impression. How do you overcome that?

    • 39

      Karen, thank you for stopping by! In our experience, overcoming the hesitation has been fairly straight forward. We explain to clients that this is simply “the next step” and we explain what will take place over the course of the evaluation. We focus on the value and on building the connection to the client. In cases where clients, especially large clients used to getting lots of proposals from companies fighting their business, show resistance it has taken patience and persistance. If they ultimately decide to walk away, we do accept the risk of losing out on a great client – so far, though, the risks outweigh the rewards. For the clients that we’ve “lost”, we have gained many more and for those that walk away it is better to discover compatibility early in the relationship rather than later.

    • 40

      hasan sahoglu

      May 11, 2012 6:19 pm

      you could potentially tell your client to deduct the cost of the evaluation from the total if they decide to work with you?

  12. 41

    How come there is no button for Emailing or Sharing an article. No Facebook Share either?

    And the Share on Twitter link isn’t very visible either. I had to search through the page for it.

  13. 42

    Thank you for this great article.

    I was playing with same ideas, your article is a confirmation I was thinking in the right direction. It is really so much easier if you have a ‘blueprint’ of an webapp and then just follow it. But like you mentioned, this approach is not for every client.

  14. 43

    Geoffrey Fortier

    February 17, 2012 3:09 pm

    Well this was certainly more eye-opening than the cup of coffee currently sitting in front of me. I’ve done what I consider to be thorough, comprehensive and fair proposals only to have to “eat” those hours when a client turned out to be just idly fishing or otherwise not really seriously committed to the project. Alternately, I’ve been hired to do assessment of sites, making recommendation or validating work/quotes by other companies. In the case of the later, the amount of time and effort was similar, and in each assessment my client was delighted at the findings (both good and bad) and the value of the work I performed. This article brought those two stream together in my head and made me realize that there just might be some common ground between proposal (evaluation) and assessment. It also makes me realize that the sort of proposal necessary for most of my type of work are essentially “spec work”, something I feel you should never do.

  15. 44

    This is fantastic! I’ve recently gone through the vetting/proposal process (I wrote about my experience) and it’s not fun from the client side either. What you are describing here sounds like an amazing alternative to an uncomfortable experience.

    • 45

      Janessa, thank you for sharing your thoughts! It would be interesting to get more feedback from the client perspective. We have a relatively limited experience there, judging our client’s satisfaction with the evaluation process by whether or not they proceed forward with our recommendations. Thus far, our ratio has been 100%, excepting a case where the client took our recommendations in-house and another where our recommendations were that the project not be developed.

  16. 46

    big red flag at “we are able to eliminate surprises.” This is wishful thinking on a project of any size. The cone of uncertainty can’t be eliminated no matter how much time you spend googling and reading whitepapers and making bullet points and wireframes. The idea of getting clients to pay for useful competitive research and consulting/strategizing is good (not exactly a new idea, but good when appropriate). But on the day actual development starts, you have basically locked yourself into an even stricter waterfall model and you will be keeping your fingers crossed that everything goes according to your Gantt charts and “blueprints”.

    • 47

      Hi Sam,
      That’s exactly my concern – you still need wiggle room – there’s always things that crop up. How do you handle that?


    • 48

      The underlying message is that the temptation to “overlook” details in a proposal is greater when working in unpaid time with no certainty of winning the project. Because a paid proposal developer feels more comfortable developing a thorough evaluation, the scope will be harder to deviate from. If the project is awarded and the client wishes to stray from the clearly communicated and developed scope, it is much easier to catch overall project value increases and charge accordingly.

  17. 49

    Not only can I agree with this concept, but have seen it affects. My boss was always asking for meat in proposals, but balance of time and content always became the source of pain. I found after creating several proposals that spent more content dedicated to evaluation they opened up stronger communication when you provide expertise on week points. Charging for it is more a commitment than a profit source. Agree with the comments above why waste time when the money or the choice is not there.

  18. 50

    depends upon time i agree with these points

  19. 51

    I do like the concept of the “evaluation” as opposed to the “proposal”. The biggest difference I see is that you are getting paid for a more thorough evaluation that gives you further confidence in working with that client.

    I believe that this is appropriate for just about any business, small or large. From my experience, it’s difficult to write up a proposal for a client whose business and expectations aren’t clearly defined. You wind up estimating a project only to find out that it wasn’t estimated properly because there wasn’t enough Q&A, research, etc… With a paid evaluation, that includes a discovery phase that is well worth the time for both you and the client. Knowing that you are getting paid for that time and effort, leads to better quality work. Surprises may happen regardless, however this approach I believe will help to keep them less frequent.

  20. 52

    What a thought provoking article!

    This is something I’ve been mulling for years because the phone rings and the voice down the other end says “how much does a website cost?” and you have to respond with some kind of answer (even if that is explaining your process).

    I’ve tried to set out some packaged services where the client can serve themselves – the constraints are defined so I am sure I won’t get my if gets burnt.

    If the packages are not appropriate and we are in proper bespoke/app territory then a different kind of response is required.

    With me I make a difference between “proposal” and “discovery stage” where the proposal is unbilled, time sensitive and full of caveats. The discovery phase is a fuller, billed specification process where you can do things like look outside the brief.

    My blog post about it is here:
    Trying to give the client accurate quotes for the best possible solution (rather than *just* what they were asking for) whilst, at the same time, trying to make sure we don’t get left doing more for less is an ongoing battle.


  21. 53

    This article was interesting. I mainly do websites right now for small companies, like you mentioned at the end of the article, that are basic websites. But I’m definitely going to keep this idea in the back of my head for getting bigger deals. Personally, I think the biggest difference is that for a proposal you aren’t sitting down with a client and going through what they want. An evaluation requires that. That alone could make the difference between getting the job and not.

  22. 54

    Love it – have RT’d it

  23. 55

    I offer a free one-hour phone or personal consultation where we discuss the client’s needs, goals and visions. We discuss competitors and what they are doing, blah blah blah… I tell the client their project could rage between $amount to $amount and if they would like I could crunch some numbers and give them a more detailed proposal. If they want a proposal that is a good sign, I have spent an hour on the phone with them so I know if they are “high maintenance” clients right away…. we must have the additional high-maintenance fee added when applicable. Sometimes I waste a couple of hours talking to people and writing a proposal, but I get most jobs. The few I lose will remember how nice I was, hopefully. And several have come back to tell me their choice was wrong, their project is in disarray and can I take over the project. Sell yourself, not your “evaluation”.

    • 56

      Like that – good idea

    • 57

      Chad, it sounds like you’ve found something that works for you. In cases where a project fits into what we describe as already existing “blueprints” (e.g. a basic website), an evaluation isn’t needed and our process is similar to what you described.

    • 58

      I tend to agree with Chad. Although the content and theme of this article has definite insight in that it is a way of reducing risks, proving skill and tying in the client, increasing clarity and quite frankly garunteeing payment for work done as a kind of alternate business model and product as you will, for the most part, I see the paid evaluation model as being a consultancy/research/blueprint service product and as a means of building trust and method of communication. In order to sell this product you still need to go through the efforts of qualifying your prospective client in order to close them on the sale of the evaluation. Do they at all know what they want? What’s their budget, if they have one? Are they serious? Are they just feeling around and fishing? Are they in a place where they can, and are they the person making the bottom line decision on cost and concept? Are they a pain in the proverbial client? Etc.. I most often do this during a phone call ranging between 10 minutes and an hour – depending on how the first 5 minutes pans out. It took some time on refining a method of humble and calmly direct questions, and sometimes some tough and cadid advice from the outset – but my method seems to do the job. We need to evaluate the client, sell ourselves and eardrum trust before even starting to evaluate a project. How do you go about qualifying the client and evaluating the evaluation? 15-25 hours is a large frame of time. For some larger client queries I may just think of offering a pre-project and project plan consultancy fee to feel it out. Guess it all depends on the project and client and how we sell ourselves.

  24. 59

    This is a great article!. I love the idea yo change from one to other, we are going to evaluate and see if we can implement this in a way or other.


  25. 60

    I tend to agree with Sam’s points above – if you run into issues or snags during the development process, your evaluation doesn’t provide you with any outs to be compensated for the extra work that they will require. What we are “going to do” and what we “actually do” sometimes don’t equate to the same thing, which I find is the case will nearly all projects. So you should always factor in at least a few hours of unpredicted work into the overall cost structure of each and every project.

    I’ve been writing proposals for a few years now, and my close ratio when I write a proposal is pretty strong. But I believe that’s the case because I spend so much time chatting with prospects and discussing ideas for meeting their needs. As Chad so aptly put it, it’s really about selling yourself. People don’t buy solutions so much as they buy the people that provide them (and those people just happen to be good at what they do on a technical level). Evaluation. Proposal. Neither of them will land you a project if you don’t try to build a relationship with your prospect first.

    • 61

      Hi Matt,
      You say you spend quite a bit of time on proposals – is this paid for? If not paid for, do your have a process to try and ensure you are not wasting your time? (ie for tyre kickers)


  26. 62

    This looks like a great way to avoid the frustration of drafting a project proposal and not getting any return on the time and effort invested. Your approach should help to separate serious, motivated clients from those who are “just browsing.” I will be using this method where appropriate for redesign projects in the future. I’m reminded of the classic advice to authors: “Don’t sell what you write, write what you sell.”
    Thank you!

  27. 63

    Nice article. It sounds very familiar. I’ve applied a paid ‘Project Plan’ to certain clients in the past. Afterwards the client can even take the plan he paid for and go to another agency. Sometimes seen as a ‘fail safe’ in case ideas or work ethics don’t match.

    Great additional ‘product’ and also for me a nice answer to a Pitch! But some clients consider it just additional cost whatever I explained.


  28. 64

    I have stopped doing proposals due to the same reason, but instead of an evaluation I simply send them a two line estimate via email. If they were then still interested, I knew the client was mine and knew that it was worth sending a proposal.

  29. 65


    Just raise your rates to account for project proposals. Problem solved.

  30. 66

    Great article! Will definitely consider implementing immediately. I think having the understanding that proposals for work are a living document amongst both parties makes for better understanding of the scope of the project down the line. Getting paid for an evaluation also is ideal in my opinion. The development process can sometimes contain privileged information, so charging for an evaluation makes a lot of sense.

    Once, again… great article.

  31. 67

    Great read. We migrated a few years ago to paid evaluations as well. While it is hard to see potential clients walk away not wanting to pay for the evaluation, the number of calls that turned to jobs was unchanged. In other words, it simply became the perfect filter for us. No more wasted proposals, and the ones that we actually do we typically get. I thought I was alone in the concept.

  32. 68

    For mid to large projects, this is a must. We’ve switched from creating free “proposals” to “scope documents” (essentially project evaluations, we just call them different names) and have had great success with them. I believe we charge anywhere from $500 to $2000 just for the research into the project, and if it is done right you really are going to be spending a lot of time on it. Plus, if a client comes to you with grand ideas and won’t shell out the money for the scope document, would they ever spend $25,000-$100,000 for a website? Probably not.

    We’ve had clients do the scope document, pay the money, and go somewhere else. That’s fine by us, we got paid for the work, and they will either wait to do it, or use the document as a reference with their new developer. Honestly, it is a great tool for most clients, since they don’t really know what all is involved throughout the process.

  33. 69

    Olatunji Jesutomisin

    February 17, 2012 9:19 pm

    While i feel the idea behind the paid evaluation is good and would be the way to go “in a perfect world”, I think you must be in a very niche community of web design firms who can do that.
    I’d be interested to know how many clients regardless of whether they can afford your fees or not, agree to a paid evaluation. Imagine that a client has to pay 5 different companies for evaluations first before he even decides who gets the job, that would cost a lot.

    I think, any client that seats down with you at that point definitely wants you doing that job that’s why they would accept the idea of a paid evaluation.

    • 70

      I know quite a few people have commented with the phrase ‘in an ideal world’ somewhere in their response.

      Guess what folks? It is an ideal world and it is up to you to make of it what you want. If you position yourself as a business so that you have a working method and it uses this kind of concept then you will get the clients who appreciate it – if they’re who you want.

      This is no different in the argument that we see all the time in the design industry of ‘speculative’ work. Think about the amount of times you have got a brief and you have done those pitch projects and done a load of research so that you can return that proposal nailing all those things you want them to hear along with a few design examples which you know you don’t want to do because a) they will not reflect the final product or will influence the client straight off the bat and b) because it’s time you are not billing for.

      These kinds of ideals are not just nice to have’s, either focus your company to this way of thinking or don’t.

  34. 71

    An article somewhat disappointing. Nothing innovative.
    Is a solution, the customer pays for your budget, but personally I prefer a budget agile.

    • 72

      Sounds interesting- can you elaborate?

    • 73

      but clients don’t – not all of them.

      No it isn’t innovative but there are thousands of agencies and business out there that throw this down the toilet every month when they could be getting paid for it.

  35. 74

    Budiman Indrajaya

    February 18, 2012 12:41 am

    IMHO Yes,, i agree with it,, writing proposal can cause a lot of pain especially when we don’t whether they will interested or not,, for this few months i’ve tried not to write a proposal but give a short description about the feature, and design with power point to a prospect client, or partner then if they interested with it i’ll proceed it with a detailed project proposal.

  36. 75

    Depends on the client, for sure. I work primarily with small clients, many of whom are local, and most are on a fixed budget. If I spent 2 days doing any work, like an evaluation, that could equate to hundreds of dollars. Most freelance web developers around the web, conspicuous ones that is, usually discuss hourly rates between $40-200/hr. At the lowest, 16 hours over 2 days would be $640. A lot of clients I get are trying to get websites for that much. They’d never pay that for an evaluation that may not even lead to a finished product. I think big proposals and paid evals are definitely exclusive to the realm of huge projects for big companies.

    • 76

      It’s not only big companies who get large projects; freelancers and small agencies can get them too.

      • 77

        Not saying they can’t, but for a single individual doing business as a freelancer, getting huge clients who want a $25,000 website is far, far less likely, and somewhat less realistic for the one person to handle properly (again, not saying they can’t, I just personally feel they shouldn’t – imo, sites like that deserve the input of a team made up of people with various backgrounds of expertise). e.g. If were Amazon, Apple or Verizon, I wouldn’t hire an individual working out of his/her home office to make one of my main company sites.

        • 78

          But that is down to the assumption that because you have contact with a single person it is literally a 1 man band. Nobody who is operating a business with the intention of growth tries to complete an entire project solo surely?

          You create a team for a project and make it happen, that’s how that 1 person becomes a small to medium business and so on. That’s a slightly stunted view.

          • 79


            February 29, 2012 6:50 pm

            I think that freelancers/small companies think small and that is why they are having a problem with this approach, which I think is great. I was too tired of people fishing for prices and/or asking for proposals both to go to another developer with better ideas or to start building their understanding of what they wanted.
            First, I ask for what is their budget. You will be amazed how many people do not want to answer that question for whatever reason (why you need to know? if I tell you, you will charge me the full amount of my budget!, etc etc), but I need to know if they want a Jetta or a Ferrari.
            Then, I charge for a “Development Brief” and all depends on the size of the project. For large projects, I charge as this article explains.
            For small projects I can do two things. Charge a $100-$300 fee, just to weed out the people fishing for prices and for free work. Or charge more and make it a down payment for the future development of the website. This way, if the client just wants the Brief, they will pay and go elsewher; but if they come back, they will think that the Brief was free and hire me for the project (the Brief would be included in my hourly rate for the rest of the project.)

    • 80

      I know where you are coming from – for such low budget clients i’ve got packages which means that they fit their requirements to what’s on offer


  37. 81

    Holy crap. This article may have just created the most significant change to my business in a few years. After the first couple of sentences it was already starting to click that this is by far a better approach than providing clients proposals.

  38. 82

    Great article. I follow this blog for my various web & design efforts but also write proposals for other lines of work (educational programming, workshops, etc). This actually triggered some thoughts around alternatives for those fields too. One possibility would be to offer a paid evaluation service that actually left the site with valuable tools or resources they could use even if they opted not to choose our organization. The line of work I’m in requires a lot of custom solutions and the ideal situation for everyone really requires a site visit and a meeting with staff and potentially students to really meet needs. We could easily fix half of their equipment and set up a learning lab while we are there! We could also use the opportunity to package, say, 20 workbooks that they can give to kids as prizes. Technically, it would all be folded into the price, but it creates a situation where there is value received for all parties. Thanks again.

  39. 83

    I dislike writing proposals since they can be so narrow due to the limited amount of information a client provides in an RFP (a CMS, Flash, custom graphics, etc.) so perhaps instead of a proposal write it as an evaluation based upon the limited information they provided. And unfortunately many tentative clients that put out an RFP do not respond to questions seeking clarification.

    Then many clients really don’t know what can be done to help grow their business, and why they should or shouldn’t do something.

  40. 84

    I couldn’t comment on the content, for I’m not a big agency man, but on the basis of the clear thinking of the author and the clear way it was penned into an article, this is one of the best I read on SM recently.

  41. 85

    Nice article. We have been using this technique for quite a while. Although we call it Project Planning, but the idea is exactly the same and quite and effective one too.

  42. 86

    Hi Jonathan,

    The article is good but not new. No doubt some of us has already make this approach a practice for sometime now. Finally somebody put this in writing. Which is good. But..

    Anyhow, my concerns was that you mentioned a lot about potential client approach for solution. This make ‘Project evaluation’ more appropriate.

    But what about if your company approach a potential client to potentially open some market ?
    It’s still a fine line between proposal & evaluation. Hence usability UX strategy ,some traffic data etc plays a part & should solidify & enforce the recommendation propose as initial evaluation. Despite that, it’s still a proposal to the Client eyes on first contact in this case. Without a doubt.

    Therefore project proposal is still in effect in this case. But evaluation will take effect once Client agreed with the proposal to listen more. Then charging them in this case make sense but still impossible depending on the need of the client to address this for their business sake online urgently effectively & client understanding of ROI in this case. If all that falls nicely. Then charging will be a breeze.

  43. 87

    It’s a very interesting post. I am wondering how to motive a customer to pay for evaluation?
    If he can get a free proposal from another company why he should choose a paid evaluation doc?

    • 88

      Katherine, the motivation is in the value that you provide during the evaluation process. Your client may be able to get a free proposal from another company, but will it go into the same level of detail? Will they spend as much time with the client as you will during the evaluation?

      Even more importantly, though, the key to successfully offering an evaluation is the connection to the client. If you were to go and offer evaluations to businesses that hadn’t heard of you before, you’re not likely to make many, if any, sales. If a potential client contacts you, though, and they’re interested in working with you, you see that they are a match, and you explain the evaluation process as the clear next step – you’ve got a winner.

  44. 89

    I really appreciated reading this article. I would also add that you could credit the cost of the evaluation against the project which would mitigate the additional cost concern for the client and provide them with additional incentive to choose your firm.

    The challenge with many RFPs is that they would not offer you the chance to position an evaluation as the RFP process is oftentimes too rigid in its’ construct. Although I can see this working very well with clients who are mandated to have quotes from three vendors. This would provide them with a better framework for the quoting process and would provide your company a leg up on the competition.

  45. 90

    As I’m reading this, I realize I don’t need to finish reading the article. Well written, but entirely not factoring in the multitude of variables in the agency/digital world. Unfortunately, there is no templated RFP, and as a result, all potential new biz opp responses need to be considered individually. Sometimes spec work is necessary. Sometimes grueling proposals/estimates are necessary despite the agency’s effort to warn the potential client of inaccurate estimates until a proper discovery phase has taken place.

  46. 91

    Ah. The things we learn, over and over again. My parents first learned exactly this lesson decades ago in the high-end custom remodeling business when they started charging a design fee that amounted to about half of 1% of the project cost. Suddenly they weeded out all the tire-kickers and ladies who were just looking for ideas, and their closing ratios went to nearly 100%.

    Likewise, those of you in the comments who mention that your clients only pay foran entire site what the op charges for the evaluation – would you like a way to have bigger accounts take you more seriously? This is a way to get there – provided that you first do some other marketing to get your work in front of that next-bigger tier of prospects.

  47. 92

    I think the key is to using this methodology is to understand your client base and correct use of application.

    Honestly, a simple redesign of an existing website should belong in a different category than an enterprise level site with a complex back end infrastructure.

    It’s a fair system… you don’t waste time and the value in the service you are providing for the client is reinforced right from the start. It’s win-win.

    PS – Don’t give an example. C’mon people we are designers! How about some room for interpretation and originality! lol, and don’t start hating on me either!

  48. 93

    I stopped writing projects as soon as I learned that other “developers/designers” were using it because a) they didn’t know how to write one b) it takes time to put the project proposal together (as you mentioned).


    P.S. Me and other @Emil above are two different people ;)

  49. 94

    Great article! Very much appreciated this detailed approach, the new way of thinking is something I’ll use for sure!

  50. 95

    Interesting read. Different countries, different approaches.
    Our company has created a template for small & low budget clients that just needs to be filled few info. It’s a 30 min. job.

    For bigger clients we first call them back and have a good idea after 15 min. on the phone if they are serious on the project.
    The costs of the evaluation will be added to other parts of the project.

  51. 96

    Nice Article, but i feel that its not all black and white, it depends on clients / regions / size of the budget that project has. I feel that this only works on Large clients with big budgets, perhaps in some case medium ones, but at the end of the day u have to trust your guts and estimate if the project budget can pay for a “evaluation” and if the client even wants to, if not you just have to send your 2 page standard proposal, and hope for the best.

  52. 97

    Really interesting.
    Looks like you are selling a light version of the good old project’ specification document, right?

  53. 98

    Scanned through the comments, and I’m still not getting the difference. In my experience I’ve been able to sell with a fairly high rate of close off of more “complete” proposals; IE, wireframed designs for apps and websites. What I’m curious about is, where’s the line between proposal and evaluation? Or are you now saying you’re able to push the bulk of wireframes and recommendations at the front of the project work, rather than as part of the sales closing work?

    I agree with above, not that you should expose every business secret in the documentation for a project eval, but even a stripped down example would help illuminate your process.

    • 99

      I wouldn’t say that it goes as far as what you’re referring too.

      To be doing wire framing as part of that evaluation would be cart before the horse. Evaluation should be some initial research and recommendations of where they could steer the project.

      From that you can then create an accurate scope that will not creep and start to build your planning data and documentation like personas, flows, wireframes, prototypes and so on.

      That’s what I take from it, is that correct?

      • 100

        @Ben and @Avangelist – In our experience thus far, we have confined the evaluation process primarily to the document itself. One particular project called for a technical proof of concept, which we developed as a part of the evaluation. A few projects have called for diagrams to illustrate some aspects of interaction or database design. As far as wireframes and actual design work, though, we have left all of that to the actual development process, after the evaluation is complete.

  54. 101

    Really enjoyed this article. Responding to RFPs is one of the worst aspects of my job. You’re always in a rush, and you’re never as thorough with the details as you need to be. RFPs render companies helpless when it comes to actually explaining ‘why’ this is the best solution, and how it compares to others. It’s just a great way to drive down the price of goods that ultimately ends up in a lose-lose situation for both the customer, and the vendor.

  55. 102

    While the article is a good read, the graphic (evaluation in green circle & proposal in red circle crossed) attached to it seems to cater to 10 year old kids?! Or am I the only one who thinks so..?

  56. 104


    February 20, 2012 6:13 pm

    This is a great solution to a problem that can be killer to small companies.

    This was a big reason I went from running my own business to working as an employee. The proposals and meetings I had with people they never paid me a dime was more than my one-man business could bear.

    A project proposal is a product. It is your strategy for a custom solution to a specific problem within specific constraints.

    I once had a client take my proposal to someone else who took my strategy, shaved off 10%, and saved himself days of work (I had probably underbid though).

    I am going to start doing evaluations instead of proposals when freelancing for small projects. Thank you.

  57. 105

    Approximately 10 years ago, I started charging for most agency proposals. Very occasionally, something comes along that warrants a free proposal (e.g., a long-time client from one Fortune 200 account became president another requested a proposal and left no doubt as to the outcome).

    I position the “document” as a “program road map” – a consulting document that will give them everything they need to know to implement the project with us or another agency. And this is just what we deliver. Since each brand/client is different in mission, positioning, industry, etc., each “roadmap” is very different. Common components always include the overview statement, objectives, strategy, tactics and schedule. From that point on, various solutions are unique.

    Pricing can be tricky. However, I consider part of it to be the cost of sales. So the quote should be a flat fee that the prospect can live with…but also “feel” in the pocketbook. For example, if you estimate your time at an hourly rate that comes to a $15,000 price tag, you’ll want to come in around $10,000. However, I NEVER give an hourly estimate. Instead, I include a laundry list of actual services to be performed. You don’t want people to “add up” your hours and then ask what they can get for fewer hours.

    The paid-for proposal (whether you call it “evaluation,” “road map,” or “consulting document”) truly works. As Wendy Williams says, “Say it like you mean it!” and you’ll get what you want.

  58. 106

    SO looking forward to an example! I will keep checking back. Great article, thank you!

  59. 107

    Gabriel Silverman

    February 21, 2012 5:29 am

    Really interesting strategy! I’m not sure we could apply it in our business but I appreciate the fresh idea and it definetely has my wheels turning.

  60. 108

    Hi thanks for sharing information with us. If you can include a sample project proposal doc it will be good.


  61. 109

    Hi All,

    First things first..a great article….

    I read all the comments and most of them were skeptic about charging the clients for evaluations and I totally agree that most of the clients will not be in a mood to pay for evaluations . So what we can do is, we can charge the client for evaluation and say that if you confirm project, we’ll deduct it from the full project cost!!


    • 110

      Nitin – We did this for our first two evaluations, but only because we lacked the experience. Looking back, we didn’t have to – it was more to make the sale easier on us. I would encourage you to experiment with charging full price, without discounting. The process has value and if you “discount” it you risk sending the wrong message to your client or have them wondering if you really gave them a discount at all.

  62. 111

    Thank you very much for this article!

    I’ll definitely use your insights for large projects in the future.

  63. 112

    Thanks for the article!

    I see a lot of similarities with the RUP approach, where the project is cut in pieces with the (important) step of investigate all parts of the project in front (inception and elaboration) so you can do a good job in estimate the costs and the time needed for the next steps. However, most (even large) clients still don’t want to hear that you can only give a good price and estimate of the work when you have done some (paid) research first.

    I think when every web developer/designer applies this, we finally get paid for the work we do. Most clients take the research and thinking about new possibilities and optimization for granted and are not willing to pay for it. In my opinion, one of the reasons they won’t pay for it is the fact that almost no web agency charges the client for this type of work and so our clients get used to not paying for it. When you hire a lawyer, they also charge the hours they are working on the case, not only for the time they spend in court (doing the ‘real job’) and nobody complaints about that.

    So, my advice is: see our work as a profession, not a hobby, and charge our clients to make clear we are professionals who have specific knowledge about the internet that also needs to be paid. An evalution is certainly something that benefits a client, even if he not choose you to go with, so why shouldn’t it benefit you?

  64. 113

    Great article.

    As someone who used to write a ton of proposals I bloody love this concept.

    We implemented it sometime late last year and it is not only a good trick to weed out the time wasters it does give you more motivation and enthusiasm towards projects won this way as after the rush and risk of the proposal you are about fed up to be honest.

    Again, great article :)

  65. 114


    I like this approach a lot. I’ve never had the opportunity to work with a large enough client to actually try this, but I remember coming to the same conclusion about a year or two ago. Great to hear of someone who’s actually doing this!


  66. 115

    I really appreciate this article. We are working on a very big project that includes not only a a custom website but corporate identity, lots of flash games, reports, etc. So, lots of resources are involved. In order to sign a contract we worked not only in an estimated budget, but in a very detailed schedule on Microsoft Project. It took us nearly a month to prepare that first document. A couple months later, the project changed, because our client needs changed and again we had to work on a new schedule and adjust prices. As it was a very long document, our client review it so slowly that the started date of the schedule passed and now we are again working on a new schedule!!! another couple weeks of hard work and we are not getting paid for all that effort, resources and time invested on it. That is why we are considerating seriously the Project Evaluation model. Thank you, very much.

    • 116

      Monica, I totally feel your pain and frustration. Thank you for sharing your experience! I hope that the evaluation process can save you some pain on future projects.

  67. 117

    Carlo Rizzante

    February 21, 2012 9:44 pm

    Thanks for such an inspiring article. Sincerely, you made me realize how much time I employ evaluating the project side by side with the client on the first meeting. In fact I often estimate the cost of the project quite realistically and not seldom the customer understand it.

    I should rethink my process. Thanks for the inspiration.

    ps. Amusing how comments that get way too many downgrading votes slightly fade out :)

  68. 118

    Thank you very much! I’m just starting up my digital marketing agency and I think I read this just in time to not fall into the trap of project proposals and ‘trying too hard’ to get the job. Whereas an evaluation seems to value your skills and frames you as a knowledgeable leader in your industry.

  69. 119

    I like the article its well structured however I have seen many people discuss this over the years which included the no free pitch period, the flaw is in a tough climate as ours why would clients pay for an evaluation when someone would do it for free its a competitive market and you won’t be only agency they’re looking at.

    What I try to do is give a very loose proposal that is a concept of what they are looking for and provide with an estimate cost for the project and I over quote. This tends to whittle the serious from the just looking. I invest time in well thought ideas which is less than a full proposal but isn’t falling short of the quality required.

    If the client is still interested then I put the investment time into writing a full proposal. As people have said this is swings and roundabouts and depending on the client you have to be flexible.

  70. 120

    This is great article and an interesting perspective on the need for a proposal. An evaluation gives you an initial tighter bond with the client than the proposal because of the need to craft out every detail.

  71. 121

    Michael Locker MD

    February 22, 2012 5:49 pm

    Great piece and perspective. This has applicability in many professional arenas. Thanks.

    Michael Locker, M.D.

  72. 122

    What if your client isn’t technical enough to even put together a proposal for you to evaluate and they rely on you almost entirely for domain knowledge?

    • 123

      Dan – That sounds like an excellent opportunity to educate the client. Get to understand their goals and objectives for the project, then explain that the evaluation process is the next step and as a part of that process you will spend time educating them and making sure that they are comfortable and confident to review your recommendations and make decisions.

  73. 124

    I’m genuinely proud to say that Project Evaluation has been on the top of my list of consultancy offerings for several years now and I haven’t written a proposal for a design job in a long time.

  74. 125

    At the web company I work for we often take in new clients on small 2 hours jobs as a way to evaluate them. Then turn them into larger proposal worthy clients.

  75. 126

    YES! Proposals are so laborious, often too nebulous, and in the end really don’t show anything more than a will to jump through hoops to “maybe” get a project, while project evals make so much more sense for new creative projects. I’ve seen entire firms nearly shut down for days trying to pull together a quality proposal to meet exacting specifications and outshine competitors. Madness I say… madness!

  76. 127

    I’m very surprised that only one other person has brought up Agile. I’m trying to imagine how this would work in that context…

    We are finding ourselves less and less able to detail scope, timelines and estimates if we as a design (not dev) team want to stay flexible through an Agile process, and nearly all our clients are “transitioning to Agile”. The old blueprint story that Cooper broke ground with in the late 90’s doesn’t hold up any more, which is why Cooper had his troubles with Agile (or XP, if you like) back in 2004.

  77. 128

    I guess I was writing evaluations all this time because I don’t like regular proposals. Usually you will convince a client of your potential better if you do a good research before sending in anything. That way they’ll see you already got your hands in the project somehow. The only thing though, is that charging for this can be kinda strange. It really depends on the type of client, you can’t really charge all of them. The key in my opinion would be to spot the right clients.

  78. 129

    If the client is sending out the RFP to 10 Vendors and if everyone wants to do an evaluation, that would waste too much of time & money of the client. Evaluation approach defeats the purpose of RFP where vendors are supposed to assume few things, call them out and add details based on their experience & understanding and then quote a price.

  79. 130

    Can you please upload an evaluation document? I think it would much simple to see a live example then investing all the time in writing this :)

  80. 131

    Great article, Jonathan.

    One comment of yours confuses me:

    “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.”

    How do you go about giving an estimate prior to the evaluation, given you state that evaluations are most suitable for projects where you don’t have a prior blueprint to work from? Is this estimate 10x your evaluation fee, or is your evaluation fee 10% of this initial estimate?

    Assuming this “pre-evaluation” estimate is really just an educated guess, what sort of variance do you typically see between this figure and the post-evaluation project price?

    • 132

      Mark – Great question! At this point, it is an educated guess based on experience and, so far, our guesses have been accurate. Now, an important key to this process is how you manage “add-ons”.

      During the evaluation process and especially on larger projects we often find additional areas of development that weren’t discussed or included in the initial rough estimate. We separate these from the main set of recommendations and offer them as optional add-ons. This has kept our estimates in line without increasing the original scope and given the client the option to add additional features to the scope as budget allows.

  81. 133

    Hi Jonathan,

    I can absolutely understand your pains coz I’ve been there too.

    I agree that convincing client to pay for the documentation work before a project even starts, is a smart thing. However, I wonder if we, web developers can do this in most cases for most our clients. I doubt so very much.

    I strongly believe, at the end of the day this is just about managing our client’s expectation and requirements. We will have a take the risks and we will have to waste our efforts from time to time.

    My take-away lessons from our move is that perhaps we should all learn to write our proposals (“project evaluation” sounds a bit confusing to me, sorry) more smartly. For example, I once wrote 600+ page proposal for a project that should take ~ 1 month work. It turns out, I only needed part of it (mainly the business requirement analysis, technical requirement analysis, use case diagrams and class diagrams; of course, your standard project proposal might be different from my and it also depends on client)

    Just my 2 cents.


  82. 134

    Eduardo Alfaro

    February 28, 2012 2:45 pm

    Nice thanks a lot for such a good post hope this work for some clients.
    Thanks for the time you took to write this down.
    Cheers from Spain

  83. 135

    Are project proposals the same as feasibility studies? Also, I’ve read through the article several times but don’t see any real difference between a proposal and a evaluation — to me at least it sounds like a semantic difference and of course a paid difference.

  84. 136

    Don Elliott

    March 1, 2012 5:13 am

    Very well written, thank you for the time and effort!

    I’m very curious as to what a typical evaluation can look like as well, or even an outline of what areas you often cover. Obviously the realm of ‘Web Development & Design’ is very broad, so any kind of template is going to need to be modified a great deal, but it would be nice to have at least a point of reference to start from.


  85. 137

    Thanks for the article – interesting read.

    We have often pondered the issue of the rush & risk element of proposals and how to reduce it. Whilst we do not currently charge Clients upfront for the evaluation of a project we do often add in a primary phase of the project for full project research and definition. This means that we only give an esitmate until this phase is completed and then we can deliver fixed price quotes. The Client then has the option to continue the project at that price or look for alternative suppliers.

    It does not seem to cut down the amount of time we spent creating full proposals but does result in a better working relationship!

  86. 138

    Mikita Mikado

    March 1, 2012 6:29 pm

    Guys! Jonathan!

    I wish I found this post earlier. There is no need to spend hours on proposals. There is no need to sit in the dark and guess if the client opened your quote. There is a solution that will both save you time and efforts on doing sales proposals and this is an app that our team launched because we had the same exact problem. Google it – Quote Roller. You’ll save tremendous time with this tool.

    I agree on all the points with the author. We had the same exact issue with our quotes in the agency I run and finally decided to build something that will make our lives easier.

    Regarding the discovery phase of any project (evaluating), then it is something they should definitely pay for. We usually do it this way: we split the whole project on 2 subprojects, one of which is a discovery.

    During discovery we evaluate what needs to be done, wireframe it and document it. In 60% of cases we actually define what needs to be done cuz clients got no clue what they are doing ;) We have clear deliverables, which are documents & wireframes which define the system by the end of discovery phase. It usually takes about 30 hours to do the discovery, so this is not a big investment for the client. However, once they work with you and see how awesome you are, be sure they’ll stick forever.

    … this is just my 50 cents on how we handle things. And, hey, check the Quote Roller. You’ll find that this tool is a must-have in what you do.

  87. 139

    Roberto Alanis

    March 6, 2012 2:44 am

    Great article, I’d too love to see an example please, I really like the idea and I’m starting to do this, but I want to be sure I’m doing it right.

  88. 140

    Interesting Read, thanks Johnathon.

    “average project evaluation takes between 15-25 hours and is typically delivered within 2 weeks”

    So do you charge this at your normal rate or a special rate, and how do you come up with the price? Presumably it is agreed before you start :)

  89. 141

    Peter Austin

    March 9, 2012 12:01 pm

    (1) Seems very detailed and expensive for initial design work. I would want to make very sure the client and I were on the right wavelength, by gradually building up to the full written proposal, rather than deliver inappropriate work and get into a battle about payment.
    (2) Too inward-looking. A large proportion of the work seems to be analyzing the client’s existing – presumably unsatisfactory – solution
    (3) I think the cost of an office building varies greatly depending on physical and political location. Very much more expensive in e.g. San Fransisco than in Shanghai. So I would drop that example.

  90. 142

    Nice thoughts. As a mobile app developer myself, this really enlightens me. Customer usually don’t know what they want most of the time. To build a full system solution can’t be achieved by just imagining on one side, which I totally agree on the evaluation process to fully understand the whole situation.

    I too agree on charging for evaluation is well justified for the effort and details. However, I am curious to know what’s the client feedback on this process so far? How you able to convince them that the “pre”-cost they paid is something really worth the value?

  91. 143

    Very good article. I was watching a video from the DrupalCon in Denver and they mentioned your article and provided your name and that it was at Smashing Magazine. I learned about this about two years ago. My colleague said they called it “Discovery”.

    Before diving into the world of Full-Time Web development and the Drupal platform I worked for a large DOD Contractor. Executives in the DOD industry must submit proposals at no charge as this is how government works. During my 6 years at this company I learned how proposal writing was paid for and how contracts were won.

    In either case and as I found in life… it boils down to who you know.

    Networking is key to winning contracts. The rest is personal preference based off of individual experience coupled with the technical know-how.

  92. 144

    This worked for me!

    I got an email today from a client asking ‘we want something exactly like this’ – a medium-large scale website. But the client hadn’t given any sort of specification or detailed structure they wanted (no blueprint). When we asked for this, they simply said they were too busy and didn’t have the understanding, so I began a typical proposal, but then I thought this is going to take the whole day, I should really be charging for this.

    After a few Google searches I found this article and I changed my reply email on the spot (was about to send it) and instead asked them to consider hiring us to write a site evaluation – for a small fee (costed about 6-8 hrs of work). Few minutes later client replied: ‘Yes please go ahead, this would save us a lot of time and headache – how do I pay?’

    So yes, I am switching from proposals to evaluations on medium-large scale websites, offering the client a detailed document with full scope and costs. At the end, I will be paid for the work, they will have blueprints and we may land the job too!

    Thanks Jonathan.

    • 145

      I am finding that the evaluation makes the clients life easier, by doing the heavy technical work for them – especially when they have little or no understanding of web development, scope and potential costs.

      We proposed to offer the following in our evaluation:

      1. Feature by feature listing of the whole site (the client liked)
      2. User/Admin paths and procedures
      3. Hosting/technical requirements you will need to take note of
      4. Potential issues/pitfalls/challenges you may face/our recommendations
      5. Determine estimated cost, scope and timeframe (itemised quote)
      6. Written up in an editable online Doc with Excel doc structure of the site (Google Docs) – this methods keeps the door open, as the client can discuss aspects of the eval online using commenting – this keeps us in their radar and builds trust and confidence in us. Obviously supplied in a PDF otherwise.

      This is something the client can work with and take to other agencies even, if they don’t choose you. But you got paid for it and you showed your expert knowledge within, giving you the upper hand. Also the paid evaluation seems indicate a client who is serious and this encourages me further.

    • 146

      Reading every replies from the top to almost the bottom of this enlightening article, this is what I wanted to know the most more than anything else. “How to smoothly and practically apply this method without driving your prospective client away?” I too totally feel the pain and frustration in writing a proposal, which most of the time took days to complete and then receiving nothing in return.

      How much would you charge for this evaluation for both small and medium-large project?

  93. 147

    Daniel Schutzsmith

    June 27, 2012 10:16 pm

    Great concept and I have done this before as well as heard countless new biz folks tell me various kinds of ways like this. I don’t think that folks should be so quick to not do proposals though. Having worked for large and small agencies on big budget and little budget projects, the best advice anyone can give is that every single project you try to win will have a different way to win it.

    I wholeheartedly believe that 90% of winning any project is actually done before they read one single word on your proposal/evaluation. Its done in how well you market yourself.

    Just some food for thought!

  94. 148

    Great article!

    I feel it’s necessary to point out in this case the WIDE gap between making a standard website or CMS that outputs information and allows clients to make changes relatively easy vs. creating a web application that’s designed to be completely automated to collect user information and input and then to “package” this database for an automated export or sale to a different company.

    Someone could show me a photo of a Ferrari and say they want that look and I could give them a Kia with a manufactured kit on top of it. Yes, they look the same but the two couldn’t be further apart in terms of function and performance.

    I was surprised nobody mentioned the legal side of things, such as the potential risk of lawsuit if you deliver a web app that does everything needed minus one or two crucial functions. Doing a project evaluation like described above will allow you to literally outline each and every aspect of the deliverables which can then be incorporated into a working contract so that each party knows exactly what is being created and how it’s to function.

    Thanks Jonathan, I’d still love to see some sort of example, whether a full, generic evaluation or even an outline of the thought process involved.

  95. 149

    Hi Jonathon, I’ve been in this industry 17 years and have had similar issues. We now don’t bother with RFP’s and now I’m very bold when someone needs 3-5 quotes. I ask in advance if they are getting competitive bids, I ask if I get to address the decision makers, I explain this is a relationship, not a onetime service and let them know it can take 1-2 days to engineer a quote. I ask point blank if they are serious about doing business with me. If it feels right and without question my intuition is usually correct I decide to create the proposal or turn it down.

    As a recent example a good size project RFP was on LinkedIn so I decided to test the waters. This was a huge project with ten languages and a lot of specs that were needed. I was able to talk to some of the decision makers with a lot of pressure to have this happen. After heavy pre qualification they finally told me they prefer to deal local and had a Houston, Texas company in mind. I then asked if they were serious if they would do business with me and they said they’ll chat and email me. I got that email and this is exactly what they said, “We have received 14 detailed bids thus far and are waiting for more.” That’s all I needed and what a relief I did not waste my time.

    I reviewed your website and see you ask for a minimum of 5K to over 100K in your form, yet you have very few examples in your portfolio and I couldn’t even find a contact page or phone number. Does this work for you, are you busy? If so, I might as well let my secretary go and scrap all the work I spend on my portfolio. Please let me know, I’m not asking in a negative manner. I have a full commercial office and support staff and it costs me a lot of money to pay them yet here you are assumable successful with perhaps little overhead. Thank you. Jay

  96. 150

    Proposal v Evalution

  97. 151

    I “invented” something like this a while ago. I got tired of using time for proposals that were leading nowhere from our point of view. I run into this article by accident and it is marvelous. Printed all the comments. Must read them on daytime.


  98. 152

    Chikodi Chima

    July 14, 2013 4:29 am

    Thanks for writing this!

    I found your blog after losing a potential client today when my proposal was rejected. The client came to me, was very eager (we had two meetings in three days), and suddenly they’re too slammed.

    The evaluation fee is something I’ve been considering recently, though I’m in marketing and public relations for startups.

    For my prospects I propose a “content marketing playbook,” which is a paid product that gives me time to study market opportunities, conduct research and form a plan in collaboration with the client. The other benefit of this evaluation proposal is that you get to understand the prospect’s cost tolerance before investing serious upfront work on their behalf.

  99. 153

    Lauren Deutsch

    July 25, 2013 7:10 pm

    I just found myself doing exactly this. I have a contract and needed more definition of the scope / approach for the the work. Very helpful to me and, hopefully, to the client so that we can agree on the process and understand what the outcomes should look like. Yes, and we should be paid to do it. My mother loves you!

  100. 154

    Paritosh Pareek

    August 31, 2013 8:54 pm

    Hi Jonathan

    First of all i would like to thank you for bringing this to everyone’s concern and sharing the same. I am owner of a two and a half year old company dealing with web development only, and whatever issues you have mentioned are very true, i had this thing in my mind from more then couple of years, but this article has really compelled me to adopt it not only because its the right way but also because its a way for a new kind of research evaluation and moreover you get paid for your making a kinda proposal. Keep up the good work.

    Cheers !!

  101. 155

    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.

  102. 156

    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?

  103. 157

    Never mind. Answered my own question.

  104. 158

    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?

  105. 159

    Dan Petitpas

    April 18, 2014 8:03 pm

    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.

  106. 160

    Paolo Miggiano

    April 27, 2014 8:19 pm

    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.

  107. 161

    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.


  108. 162


    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

  109. 163

    Adrienne Peters

    August 2, 2014 8:16 pm

    I am so glad I found this.

  110. 164

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

  111. 165

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

  112. 166

    Marvin Serunjogi

    September 13, 2014 12:14 pm

    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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