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How To Write a Winning Proposal
by Nigel Gordijk
When a potential client approaches you to see if you can handle their projects, how do you prove yourself without resorting to creative output? The answer is to write an informative and insightful project proposal.
Before you begin working for a potential client you need to win their confidence by proving you're capable of meeting their requirements. Sometimes this is a formal process where the client has issued a Request For Proposal (RFP), which means that you'll be competing against others to win the project. Alternatively, a client may approach just one supplier to see how they would handle the job.
Here, I'll be discussing my method for handling the individual approach. As I'm primarily a Web designer much of the advice has a slant towards online projects, but hopefully most of it will prove helpful for any client project.
This may sound obvious, but make sure that the cover clearly features your organization's name (and logo if it has one), the title of the project and the date of the submission. You want your document to stand out from the reams of paper on the client's desk.
When you hand over the result of your carefully considered hard work, make the client aware that you don't want it to be shown to a third party. They may well be a cheap bargain basement supplier who would happily steal your ideas. If you don't win the project and a few months later a near replica appears based on your ideas, this can be useful for proving that you own the rights to them.
I usually include the following statement on the first page of my proposals:
Nigel Gordijk owns the copyright for this document and all its contents.
This proposal should be considered private and confidential and may not be shared with any third party without the prior written permission of Nigel Gordijk.
In reality, if someone steals your work it could be near impossible to prove. But at the very least this will show the client how much you value it.
Explain your understanding of the client, their business and the industry they operate in. This will form the platform that is your starting point for a project so you need to show the client that their objectives are clear to you. The Executive Summary shouldn't be more than about three or four paragraphs.
List the existing success and failures of any existing efforts the client has in the area that you'll be working in. For example, if you're redesigning their Web site then assess how easy the navigation is to use; what does the design of the site say about the client; is it informative and up to date; and so on.
Be diplomatic if you can't think of anything good to say. Bear in mind that this earlier effort may have been commissioned by the person who is reading your proposal - or worse, they may have done it themselves. If the site's navigation isn't up to scratch, mention that it could be improved by simplifying it to make it easier to use.
Who will be using the finished project? Give demographic details - age, industry sector, etc. - as well as details of what needs to be considered with regards to these people. What type of language should you be using to address them? Are they likely to be Web literate or complete beginners?
The client should hopefully be focused on what they want to achieve and this is where you summarize their objectives. Is this an image exercise or a communication one? Does the client company just want to look cool or is it trying to tell its target audience about their products and services? It's vital this is clearly defined, as different requirements need different executions.
Remember - this is a project proposal, not a project brief. Its purpose is to prove to the client that you can help them meet their objectives; so don't be afraid to state what seems to you to be the obvious. If you do, your proposal may be rejected because of what you omitted.
Given the understanding you've displayed in the Executive Summary, Current Situation, Target Audience and Project Goals this is where you can get a bit creative and show off.
The Creative Strategy is often described as "the way forward" - you're starting from Point A and your aim is to take the client to Point B. Explain what you think is the best route to get there. If you'll be producing a Web site then list the sections with short descriptions.
How technical you are here depends on how much you think your client will understand. Will the site's content be dynamic? If so, then describe how you will achieve this. Will there be a members' forum? What technology will you use? What type of server will the client need?
Often the Technical Strategy is governed by budget constraints so it's a good idea to offer two or three options, each of which vary in price. The client could launch with a basic HTML brochure site, and then develop a more advanced (and more expensive) strategy further down the line.
To many clients the creative and technical process is an arcane art. Now that they've made an initial contact with you they may have no idea how you work and how they get to a completed project. List the various steps and give a brief description.
1. Client consultation and Project Brief
From an in-depth discussion with the client to determine its requirements you will write the Project Brief that will include a site map, a description of the content, final timelines and detailed cost breakdown.
2. Design direction and development
How many different styles of design will you be providing? How will they be presented - in person, in print or online? Once a design has been chosen, explain your acceptance process - signing off either by email or in writing - and that this is the point where you start creating all the other pages of the site.
When the design direction and development is completed and signed off is the point when the technical stuff happens in earnest - the HTML is built and populated with content that has either been provided by the client or generated by a third party.
Describe the full list of deliverables so there are no nasty surprises for either you or the client. Manage their expectations by stating explicitly what you will and what you won't be providing.
Bear in mind that as this is a Proposal the Development Budget should be followed by the caveat that further discussion will be necessary to determine a final cost, which would be detailed in the Project Brief. At this stage it's enough to give an estimate.
Even these days there are many clients who may not understand some of the expressions that we take for granted because we use them every day. Explain to them in layman's terms what a server is, the purpose of a site map, what a content management system is. It may be useful to explain the different technologies you'll be using - basic HTML, Java Script, Perl, ASP, etc.
Make the language accessible, as clients can feel intimidated by technology. You can use this as an opportunity to show them that they'll be comfortable working with you.
Very rarely will you find a client who will pay you on time, so it's up to you inform them at what stages during a project you want to be compensated. I unusually break down my required fee schedule into three equal parts: one third when the Project Brief is signed off; one third when the design direction has been agreed and signed off; and the final third upon completion.
There are designers who insist on the first portion of their fee before the Project Brief is agreed. However, some clients are wary of shelling out before they've seen any work from the designer - even if it's written and not creative. Play it by ear to gauge how twitchy the client is about this and then decide if you're willing to compromise.
Provide a timeline for the project, listing dates for the various stages of delivery, how long the client has to provide feedback, all the way up to final acceptance and sign off. This is important to show that you are focussed on reaching a goal and a deadline.
Point out that although this is a provisional timeline - the final one should be in the Project Brief - any deviation from it by the client may have repercussion on your ability to complete the project in time. How many times has a client made eleventh hour changes or changed the brief but still expected you to meet the agreed deadline? This is one way of showing that the client has as much responsibility for the success of the project as you do.
Thank the client for the opportunity to provide a proposal and tell them that you're sure you can meet all their requirements. You could also briefly mention what differentiates you from other potential suppliers.
Mention the key personnel who will be involved with the project, giving their names and job titles. Give a brief professional biography for each team member concentrating on relevant previous experience. If you are partnering with someone else for the project, then use this opportunity to describe briefly how you have worked together before.
Make it clear which member of your team is the primary contact for when the client has general queries. For specialist queries - such as design or development - you may want to point out whom they should contact.
Give every possible method of contact - postal address, office 'phone, email and Web address. Mobile 'phone numbers are optional, but include them if they are the easiest way to reach you. Even after I've provided what I thought to be a concise proposal covering every possible scenario there have been clients who have had further questions or wanted clarification. When this happens to you, don't brush them off - if they're taking the time to call you then you're still in the running.
If you have any case studies that are relevant to the client's industry or to this project you should include them here, but no more than three or four. Each case study should be no longer than a single page.
You've slaved for hours on your masterpiece - but don't send it just yet. First, there are a few things you need to do.
Check your spelling
Run it through a spellchecker. Nothing looks more unprofessional than poor spelling and grammar. Not only are you a great designer, developer or project manager - you also know how to communicate.
Get someone to proof read it
Another person may pick up on things that a spellchecker won't, i.e. correctly spelt words that have been placed out of context.
It's probably best to find out if the client wants a printed or digital version of the proposal. If you're emailing it, make sure it is in a format that can be opened. Contact the client if they can read PDFs or if they prefer a Microsoft Word.
Once again, say thank you for the opportunity to participate in the proposal process and tell them that they can contact you for clarification if necessary.
About the author:
Nigel Gordijk is an accomplished graphic designer with over 13 years' industry experience. His web site designs are noted for their ability to engage users and their ease of use. He has designed sites for Honda, Thomson Holidays, Learndirect Scotland and The Office of the e-Envoy.
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(c) Nigel Gordijk