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How to not get stiffed on a project proposal

How to not get stiffed on a project proposal

See if this sounds familiar.

You get a call about a website. You are excited. The “lead” wants a proposal within the next 48 hours.

Everything comes to a stop. No client work, no work on your own business, and you jump into action.

You and your team (or dog or cat) start putting together a top-notch proposal.

You sort through options for using a template for a proposal. You make sure to have a killer scope, features, and all that other marketing stuff you are supposed to put into proposals.

You decide you need proposal software, so you sign up for Bidsketch.

You feel the momentum. You get a little excited.

You turn the proposal in, complete with pretty graphics and all the right words, just in time to meet the deadline.

Then you wait.

A week later, you haven’t heard anything. So, you send a follow-up email.

Your “lead” responds with we are still reviewing proposals. You never hear from them again.

What? What the what?

You just took two days (or more) preparing a proposal for which you never heard back from the company.

There are a lot of problems with that scenario, but the biggest takeaway for you is that you spent a lot of time you didn’t get paid for.

Jonathan Wold explains a similar scenario five years ago on Smashing Magazine. Of that experience, he said:

“My days of effort were wasted. Not entirely, though, because the pain of that loss was enough to drive me to decide that it wouldn’t happen again.”

I’m not saying don’t ever do a proposal again, but for the love of all things good and WordPress, be very wise. 

[clickToTweet tweet=”Proposals . . . . for the love of all things good and WordPress, be very wise. ” quote=”I’m not saying don’t ever do a proposal again, but for the love of all things good and WordPress, be very wise. “]

According to Zao, a Portland WordPress agency, our industry has increasingly gone to a discovery type of phase prior to a proposal.

“From what I can tell, this is becoming a standard in our industry. Why? Because building software (websites, apps, et al) is hard. One of our industry’s running jokes is that every project will be under-scoped and over-budget.”

For freelancers, the request for proposal is one of the most exhilarating things he or she gets early in his or her career. After all, you have the prospect of work and it legitimizes what you are doing.

How do you mitigate your loss?

One of the things you have to do is keep in mind what is at stake for the customer.

Chris Lema goes explains that the customer is doing two things: comparing to the price of other agencies or developers to make sure that they aren’t getting ripped off, and they are checking the amount to their own budget.

He says, “The first is a sanity check. The second is a security check. After all, I would like to make sure I don’t get ripped off, and I want to eat this month.”

Now, this, I believe, is with the best of customers. Some, well, they are just kicking tires.

Another thing you can do to mitigate your loss is to pre-determine the context of the customer.

Some customers are long timers. You know exactly how to work with them. You can give them an estimate and move on.

Others are brand new and you have never worked with them before. For those, you need to be discerning.

Nevertheless, for each customer, they need to know that you have their best interests in mind. This is where evaluating a project comes in handy.

Mitigate your loss
Mitigate your loss

Pricing a project

There are multiple ways to price a project. As we have discussed before, you can base it on hours or value.

But, not all projects are created equally.

Some projects are bigger, takes more time, more discovery, and more money. Some are shorter and take less time, discovery and money.

Sometimes, we productize projects. We create a nice tight scope, systemize the process, and determine the price for that project. Anything outside that process costs extra.

All of these have their place.

Evaluation of a project

For the higher risk projects, the ones that take more time, money, and discovery, well, it can be problematic to come up with a price without any kind of evaluation.

Evaluation takes time.

Why not charge for this kind of evaluation?

All that time you put in creating a proposal, the discovery part, that becomes something you execute for the client for a flat fee.

Now, this might be called different things depending on who you talk to, but the idea is the same. You are discovering what is best for a client.

Wold, in his article at Smashing Magazine, says

“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.”

This is a pretty good definition. 

Now, for the client, this is actually a really good deal. You give them a plan for execution, whether or not they use you. They have a much more clear understanding about what they need to do.

Now, hopefully, they use you, but even if they do not, they have paid you for your work.

Also, receiving payment for work gives your work value.

Sandi Batik  says at Hands on WordPress Training:

“Our company now charges for Discovery — Period — Full Stop.

Our experience has shown that clients value what they pay for. I currently have two pages on our site, Pleiades Publishing Discovery Process and Why Does Pleiades Require a Discovery Session which describes what a paid website discovery process is the product of the client discovery session, and our current pricing for Discovery sessions. You can read, adapt and apply the details to fit your freelance practice.”

His company, Pleiades Services, calls it a discovery session and it includes sitting down with the client.

Learn more

Jennifer Bourn details how Bourn Creative works with new customers in an article on their site taken from a WordCamp presentation.

It is really worth the read. 

She talks about three different kinds of project evaluations based on the customer and the situation. 

She breaks them down as Technical Assessment, Discovery Project, and Scoping Project. I encourage you to read the post to see how she explains each.

At Double Your Freelancing, Brennan Dunn has a discovery process he calls Roadmapping

“So what’s Roadmapping? It’s a way to charge for a small, fixed-price engagement that delivers a small amount of value to a client, while preparing them to invest in a much larger engagement (like redesigning their website or building custom software.)”

Roadmapping, Dunn explains, is part of the process of building trust with your client. You convert the lead to a customer quickly by pitching the project evaluation.

Once the client sees what it is like to work with you.

Dunn links the project evaluation to the sales funnel:

“Roadmapping changes the usual sales cycle by offering a low cost, low risk productized service as a pre-requisite to doing any project together.”


Wrapping it up

Regardless of what you call it, the project evaluation is an important step in pricing a project. 

[clickToTweet tweet=”Regardless of what you call it, the project evaluation is an important step in pricing a project. ” quote=”Regardless of what you call it, the project evaluation is an important step in pricing a project. “]

As I was discussing this in a chat room recently, several developers explained it was a step they took. They called the step by different names.

Some of the words used for this kind of up-front work were audit, discovery, roadmapping, consultation, and strategy. The key is that this part of the project was paid for by the client.

Offering this kind of up front service will set you apart from other freelancers.

What do you call the project evaluation? Is it a part of your sales funnel?

Do you charge or offer the service is a courtesy?

Comment below!

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Todd Jones
Along with being the resident writer for MainWP and content hacker at Copyflight, I specialize in writing about startups, entrepreneurs, social media, WordPress and inbound marketing topics.
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