Why you shouldn’t jump into writing a proposal just yet

Tired of writing proposals that don’t get accepted or go unanswered?

A common problem I hear is designers who spend a bunch of time and energy on a proposal, only for their prospect to reject it.

Or, the prospect disappears into thin air and the designer never hears from them again.

The secret to avoiding these scenarios is to qualify your clients.

If you are at a point in your business where you’ve got consistent leads coming to you, it’s time to stop wasting your time writing proposals that go unanswered and only work with people who are qualified to work with you.

The 80/20 rule

We know from Pareto’s principle that most results in any situation are determined by a small number of causes.

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Applied to your design business, for example, 20% of your customers will make up 80% or your revenue.

And, 80% or your time will be frittered away by servicing just 20% of your clients—the “problem clients” that take up most of your time.

As it relates to qualifying, what you are doing is looking for the 20% of customers that make up 80% of your income and trying to find more of them.

At the same time, you’re looking for the clients with qualities and characteristics that your best clients have—while, at the same time, firing your clients that take up excessive amounts of your time (or at least “firing” that client type).

Meanwhile, you’re also eliminating tire kickers and prospects that don’t have the budget to work with you—so you never write a proposal without knowing if they can afford you or are ready to work with you.

It’s a refining process that makes your business more efficient and, ultimately, more profitable.

What do you know about your prospects?

You wouldn’t marry someone after the first date. You’ve obviously got to get to know them first.

That same logic isn’t always applied to prospects who reach out to us for a potential project.

We often rush through the “getting to know” phase and go straight to giving a quote or writing a proposal.

But if you just jump right in and start writing that proposal without gathering enough info from them, they might pull a disappearing act, or you’ll be in for a few surprises down the road—and possibly, a rocky, Client From Hell type of break up.

Picking only the good ones

Qualifying prospects is a way to separate the wheat from the chaff and round up only the good ones.

By good ones, I mean not only good for you, but also good for them. One of the goals of qualifying is making sure there is a good fit between you two.

For example,

If you are thinking of charging $3,000 for a new brand identity and they are thinking of spending $800, you are probably a bad fit for each other. That’s a good time to refer this client to someone else that better fits their need.

One thing that is not talked about enough in business is that it’s OK to say, “no thanks” if it’s a bad fit.

In fact, you should say no thanks. Saying no will save everyone a lot of headaches down the road and will keep you from wasting time on a proposal written for the wrong prospect.

How to get started qualifying

When a prospect first approaches you to work with them, begin qualifying them by asking good questions before you ever sit down to write a proposal.

Here are some of the questions you need answers to so you can properly qualify a prospect:

1. Do they have money set aside or can they get access to it?

How do you find out the answer to this question? You’ve got to ask: “Do you have a budget set aside for this project?” It’s a simple question but it’s astounding how often the budget question goes unasked.

If you haven’t asked in the past, start asking now.

If a prospect disappears on you after you send them a proposal, chances are good that you never asked about their budget range.

If the prospect disappears on you after asking this question—for example, via email in your client questionnaire form—chances are, they were just looking and didn’t really intend to go through with the project.

If they don’t have a range but have access to money, you can help them figure out the right range to set aside. But the key is having a budget conversation. Without it, you’ll never know where they stand.

2. Why are they choosing you?

The context that led to them reaching out to you will tell you a lot about how good of a potential fit they are. There’s a big difference between a prospect that comes to you from a Google search and one referred to you by a past client.

That context can influence the price you can charge, the likelihood they’ll approve your proposal, and how they behave and work with you during the project.

3. What’s the timeframe?

Anything that can’t begin within 90 days means it’s likely still in the planning stage and means the project is not urgent. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but don’t get your hopes up.

Instead, set it on the backburner and make a note to check in with them a later time.

4. Are they just shopping for a price? 

Sometimes they just want to see how much something will cost. This could also tie in with the timeframe mentioned above—if they are just doing information gathering to establish a budget.

Other times, they might be using you as the third bid their company requires for any project. Meanwhile, they have no intention of working with you.

Figuring this out early can be a big time-saver for you.

5. What’s their motivation behind the project?

Why do they want what they are seeking? What need is present (or urgent) in their business that is motivating them to contact you?

Knowing their needs and the outcomes they want tells you a lot about their expectations.

For example,

Is there a trade show coming up that they need new materials for?

Understanding their needs helps you grade how good of a candidate they are and how serious they are about getting the ball rolling on their project.

6. Are they a decision maker?

If they can’t greenlight a project, you need to be in contact with someone who can. I speak from experience when I say there’s no sense putting in a bunch of work on a proposal, only to find out that the project was never approved in the first place.

Setting up your questionnaire

Keep the questions above in mind next time a prospect reaches out to you, and the answers you get will tell you which prospects are the good ones and which are a bad fit for working with you and spending energy pursuing.

If you want to get a jump start on qualifying your next prospect, you can take a look at my Qualifying Questionnaire I send to any prospect that contacts me. As a bonus, I’ve included the Project Goals Questionnaire I use so you know what questions to ask your prospect after qualifying them.

Ready to take on your next prospect? Let me know in the comments how you’ll change your approach.

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About Ian Vadas

Ian Vadas is a designer and the author of Work With Clients You Love. Get the eBook to learn how to select clients that pay well, treat you with respect and allow you to do your best work.

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  1. Awesome article. I will definitely be using this in the future.

  2. Having a questionnaire similar to yours Ian, saved me so much time!

    All those who approach me through the internet, get a very polite, template email, which sends them to a google form.
    Among all other questions, I have 2 questions about their budget.
    I’m asking how much they’re willing to pay for my services (this is a multiple choice question, which makes clear where I’m starting at, but also gives me valuable information) and what is their whole budget for renovating their place.
    I’m contacting only those who “pass the test”.
    Those who are not a good fit won’t even fill the form.

    I think asking the right questions in advance helps both sides not to waste each other’s time!

  3. There is nothing more frustrating than creating a proposal, then having the potential client shop it around looking for a better price. “This is what they other guys charges, can you do better”. It was because of this I moved to a different model. This article is perfect for everyone. I wish I would have read it 7 years ago when I got started. At that time, I would take any and all work that came my way. I did not have the luxury of walking away…so I thought. The amount of time wasted creating a proposal that went unanswered ended up costing more in the long run. There is more… there were times, where I needed work, I would follow up on those unanswered. I would drop my price to meet their need, then end up undervaluing myself. More loss. Ian, I have to say that I love reading your article, you are a great resource, and have been very helpful to me. I am sure others feel the same way.

  4. Such good advice! Inspired me to update my client booking form that I have on my website, and the funny thing is that when I updated it, I had the weirdest inquiry where a business wouldn’t tell me what they needed help with, wouldn’t fill out my booking form but insisted that I called them right now about “work”. I only share that story because that was the perfect instant means of picking up on the fact that I’d have a really bad time working with them.

  5. A quick way to qualify budget without the potential client saying exactly what they have to spend is to price bracket the project (xx – xxx amount).


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