agency-proposalWriting, sending, and presenting proposals takes a lot of work. Too many people confuse this frenzied activity with winning business. In fact, only lovers should propose. Such proposals happen in moments of adoration and trust, when normally smart humans get stupid and give up all control over their destinies. They throw out a question and wait like nervous puppies for a positive response.

Agencies are asked to make proposals on a regular basis. These requests usually come from people with whom you’ve had:

  • Few or no conversations,
  • No opportunity to distinguish yourself from other candidates,
  • No exclusivity — clients will say you’re one of three or five when you’re one of 10,
  • No intimacy.

You are required to generate ideas and provide detailed descriptions about what your future might look like together, should the prospect choose you among several suitors. Finally, you’re asked to send in your best work but given little indication of when you might hear back with a rejection or acceptance. They say, “We’ll get back to you.” Who would propose under those conditions? Nobody, and neither should you.

So sit up, put your shoulders back, garner your courage, and get yourself out of the proposal business by consistently following a few key steps:

1. When you start the conversation, stop pitching — start catching.

You build trust by listening, so make sure that any calls or meetings that lead to the “proposal” are at least 70% listening. Your prospect will fall for you more easily, and if you listen well enough and ask the right questions, you might learn you’re not a good match, saving yourself valuable time and emotional investment.

2. No meeting? No proposal!

“Send us a proposal, and we’ll get back to you next week” is not a commitment. If you do put together a proposal, and they don’t get back to you, then you have no one to blame but yourself. How do you get around that? Insist on presenting your proposal in person. If they don’t want to meet in person, it’s a sign the prospect isn’t serious in building a long-term successful, collaborative relationship.

And, oh by the way, when you meet in person, don’t leave without a commitment to figure out the next steps. A commitment isn’t “we’ll follow up at some indeterminate time in the future.”

3. Only propose to the right people.

If the person in the room can’t make a decision, then why are you on your knees handing her a beautiful ring you hand-crafted over numerous hours? Get up, brush off the dirt, and explain that you will come back when all the decision-makers are in the room.

How many times have you found out, after the fact, that your proposal recipient wasn’t empowered to make a decision? Don’t do it again.

4. Build it together.

We often use in-person meetings to come up with the broad outline of an agreement and cost structure together with our prospect. It’s a great chance to get to know each other and come to an agreement on what needs to happen, when it needs to happen, and how much it’s likely to cost.

You might even realize it won’t be a good fit because of cost, decision-making, goals, or just a bad vibe. Be thankful: You just saved yourself some time!

5. Set the budget together.

How many times have you pitched a price that was too high or way too low? If someone says, “You tell me what it should cost,” don’t do it! They have a budget in mind, and you know it.

We usually use an analogy and ask for guidance. Suppose you’re hiring an architect and you say, “Build me a house.” How is the architect to proceed without any sense of the budget?

6. When you do meet, you’re not proposing.

You’re brainstorming. You’re sharing time together. You’re bringing ideas to the table and working together to shape the ideal agency engagement for the prospect. Either party may emerge from that discussion with the sense that it’s not a good fit, or that it is.

If you think of it this way and talk about it this way, you come together as equals.

7. It’s not a proposal. It’s a working agreement.

This is easy: Stop calling it a proposal. You’re both choosing whether or not to partner and work together.

Would you rather come to an agreement? Or do you want to be the one that says, “Yes. Please. We want it, and we’re willing to wait as long as you want for you to say ‘yes,’ say ‘no,’ or tell us we need to do more work before you decide.”

8. Be proud of reducing your free consulting.

Did some of these points make you nervous? Did you think, “But what if I take myself out of the race?”

Stop thinking of it that way because you’re wrong. Running after poorly qualified business doesn’t help you grow your practice. The most successful salespeople are just as talented at eliminating leads as they are at pursuing the ones that are qualified. Learn how to eliminate the bad ones and super-qualify the good ones.

You’ll free up a lot of time to do your best work when it’s likely to pay off.

Originally published Jul 25, 2014 8:00:00 AM, updated December 02 2014