How to stop writing proposals that go nowhere

When a prospect says, "Just send me a proposal," should you? 

In this short video clip, web designer, Mary Maru, shares her strategy for qualifying prospects so she doesn't waste her time on proposals that go nowhere.

Here's a synopsis of what Mary said when I asked if prospects ask her to "just send a proposal":

"I get that every once in a while, and I have to slow things down a little bit because, I confess I'm not great thinking on my feet.

So I need a little bit of time to assess what is in front of me. And I want the prospect to follow my process for this Oreo strategy. Because if they can't follow my process in the very beginning, chances are they're not going to be willing to follow my process if we engage on the project together.

So I typically will just say, "This is how I work," and I will tell them about my initial Web Clarity Call and my questionnaire. Most of the time they'll comply so it doesn't end up being the problem."

If you like this, you'll love:

  • Ilise's new course, "Writing a Winning Proposal: Land Your Dream Clients" for Domestika. Watch the trailer here: https://bit.ly/ProposalOreo
  • The new podcast Episode #440 with Mary Maru, where she goes into much more details about her qualifying process, including:
    • how she uses her qualifying process as a gate and a magnet -- to weed out the bad ones and attract the good ones. It's brilliant!
    • how she presents her proposals in real time to avoid being ghosted
    • how (and when) she closes the deal 

Listen here (and below) to Episode #440

 

And if you don't get Ilise's Quick Tips, sign up here: https://bit.ly/QuickTipsMM

 

Transcript of #440 with Mary Maru

ilise benun

Hi there. This is ilise benun, your Marketing Mentor. And this is the podcast for you if, and only if, you are ready to leave the feast or famine syndrome behind, and I mean for good. 

If you're sick of writing proposals that go nowhere for prospects who seem really excited, then crickets, I think you'll learn a lot from my conversation with web designer, Mary Maru. She explained how she uses her qualifying process as a gate and a magnet. That is, a way to keep out the prospects who aren't a good fit, while attracting the ones who will appreciate and pay for her process and her style. In other words, she's using what I call “Cookie Number One” in the Proposal Oreo Strategy which, by the way, is what I teach in my new course for Domestika.org. It's called “Writing a Winning Proposal: Land Your Dream Clients.” She's using Cookie Number One to not only get better clients with bigger budgets, but she wants fewer better clients with bigger budgets. So, if you want to do that too, listen and learn. 

Hello, Mary, welcome to the podcast.

Mary Maru

Thanks ilise. It's great to be here.

ilise benun

Yes. So tell us who you are and what you do. 

Mary Maru

I am a WordPress website designer and I work primarily with professional service businesses in the New York Tri-State area. So by “professional service businesses,” because some people don't know what that is when I say it, I'm talking about law firms, architectural firms, psychotherapy practices, that sort of professional business.

ilise benun

And we are here to talk about the Proposal Oreo Strategy, but let's first hear a little bit about how you market your services.

Mary Maru

I'd say that I spend the vast majority of my time in one-to-one relationship building, and that is somewhat complex scenario, right? So, I do a little bit of outreach. That's probably the first stage of my process, but it can also involve spending time with people I already know from a variety of different places in my life. Mostly the professional places, but it's not unheard of for me to do business with or get referrals from or vice versa with a friend. Obviously, I have a website as a website designer, but honestly, the business that I get through my website is typically because someone's been referred to me. So, they come through my website just as like a communication channel or a way to book a call with me, versus part of the funnel through social media aspect that some people use their websites for—that's not really part of my marketing.

ilise benun

I'm curious to know why.

Mary Maru

My main goal with the work I do with clients is to develop long-term relationships. And I've been working with a lot of my clients for at least five years or more. And the reason why I do that is because it allows me to get to know their businesses really well. We develop really strong relationships. I can get repeat business from them, or upsell to them if I develop a new package, but also I really enjoy the process. I like creating relationships with people. And I also, for me personally, I find it easier just to talk to people or meet them for coffee or have a Zoom call with them these days, rather than coming up with some kind of a complex social media strategy that to me is more about attracting people that don't know you already. And there's so much of a greater chance of encountering people that aren't going to be a fit.

ilise benun

I, of course, agree with you. And that's a really good segue to the conversation about the Proposal Oreo Strategy, because one of the goals of this strategy is to qualify people really well before you spend what usually amounts to a lot of time working on a custom proposal for someone that will win you the project, right? You can always do a simple generic proposal, which doesn't usually win. But what I really want to talk about is this process where you're qualifying people and only doing proposals for the ones you really think you're going to win. So, with all of that said, my first question is: what happens when a prospect inquires about a project? What is your mindset? What do you say? What steps do you go through? Describe your process for us?

Mary Maru

Well, first and foremost, I try to stay really open-minded because I do tend to develop long-term relationships with my clients and because my projects tend to be on the longer side; they're typically like three months or longer. I don't work with a ton of clients every year. They're more, maybe, priced a little bit higher so that I can focus on fewer projects. And so, staying open minded is really, really important because I don't have dozens and dozens of opportunities every year to do like my “sales call,” for lack of better way to put it. But I stay open minded. I want to talk to as many people as I have the opportunity to do so, so I can practice my pitch, practice doing a sales call, practice closing a deal. That being said, I do have parameters for identifying if a prospect or project is going to be a fit or not, but I may be getting a little bit ahead of myself.

ilise benun

Yeah. I mean, I want to hear what those parameters are for sure, but first, the question that I'm trying to help people answer better is: what do you do when someone says, “Just send me a proposal”? What do you do, Mary, if someone says, “Just send me a proposal”?

Mary Maru

I usually say, “Well, here's how I work,” because I don't want to just send a proposal into a black hole. I let them know what my process is, which is I want to first find out a little bit about the prospects project so I can tell whether or not it's a fit for me. The way the project is explained to me tells me whether or not the prospect themselves are a good fit for me, maybe personality-wise or level of ‘ready-ment’ in terms of how far along their business is. I have something called a “Web Clarity Call” that I invite prospects to book with me so that we can discuss their project, discuss whatever issue they're trying to solve to see whether or not we're a fit. And then before we actually even have that call, I have them fill out my questionnaire which asks them a few targeted questions. And that really helps me to see whether or not this prospect is worthy of having me work on a proposal for them.

ilise benun

And it sounds like your Web Clarity Call is your version of what I would call the “qualifying conversation,” right?

Mary Maru

Yes, absolutely. Same thing.

ilise benun

Or maybe the questionnaire together with the Clarity Call is the qualifying, those are the qualifying tools.

Mary Maru

Those are the qualifying tools. And I ask the prospect to fill out the questionnaire before I get on the call with them. So, if I don't get the questionnaire back, I postpone the call until they're ready to fill it out. So, I can only think of one instance where someone just would not fill out the questionnaire. And I did talk to them anyway, but it was clearly not a fit, so

ilise benun

Yeah. So, you're creating a bit of friction. You're putting up some gates that people have to go through to get to you, basically. And that is how you qualify them; one of the ways you qualify them.

Mary Maru

Yes. And I think also ilise, having this process in place also shows my prospects that I am process oriented and serious about the work that I do and the people that I work with, so it's a gate. But it's also, I think, a magnet. Right? So, people who have a similar mindset are going to be attracted to working with me because of those things.

ilise benun

I love that. It's a gate, but it's also a magnet. That's beautiful Mary. We're going to have to do something with that. All right. So yeah, let's hear a little bit about the parameters or your criteria or even the questions—like what are the questions in the questionnaire? What are the questions on the Clarity Call? How do you think about and conduct that?

Mary Maru

What I do is, I have a questionnaire on my website that I might direct a prospect to if they've come to me by email or phone call. And if they've come to me through my website, when they book with me directly, there is a questionnaire that pops up and it's the same questions, it's just different methodology. Some examples of the questions are first and foremost: tell me a little bit about your business. And the reason why I ask that is because I'm interested in working primarily with businesses who are maybe in like the three-to-five-year stage or more, where they're experiencing growth, but really need to bring their marketing design up to and beyond the level where they are at the moment with those things. If a business can't articulate clearly what they're about, that's a big red flag to me that they need to perhaps work with a marketing consultant on their positioning first.

I also ask when they'll be ready to work on their project, whether it's immediately or in a month or in several months from now. And that helps me gauge whether or not it's a fit from a timeline perspective, based on how busy I am with the work I'm doing currently. I ask what their end goal is and typically the answer is they want a refreshed website or they want a brand new website, because they've been operating successfully without one for the past however-many years. And I do encounter those people sometimes.

ilise benun

Wow.

Mary Maru

And then lastly, I'd say one of the important questions is how working on or achieving the end goal together will make a difference to their business and to themselves personally. And I like to have that information up front in writing from them so that, when we do end up getting on the call, I have their wording for what they want to achieve. And I can use those words during the conversation to help more deeply connect with them on their level and give them the sense that I understand what it is that they're trying to achieve.

ilise benun

And do you ask anything about money on that questionnaire?

Mary Maru

I had a money question on the questionnaire and I have since taken it off. The money question asked for the person filling it out to choose amongst three or four different budgetary levels. Every single person who filled out my questionnaire, since I had added that, chose the lowest amount. So, it just became a joke after a while. In fact, the last, the very last person I spoke with, we both had a chuckle and he said to me, basically, no one's ever going to tell you the truth, so…

ilise benun

That's funny. That's interesting. And one thing that came up in a conversation earlier today actually is the difference between asking, usually in a real-time conversation, but the difference between what's your budget and what have you invested in something like this in the past?

Mary Maru

Hmm. I like that. 

ilise benun

Right.

Mary Maru

Yeah.

ilise benun

Because that also gives you some information and you might even ask, “when?” Right. Was it 10 years ago and you spent $5,000, or was it two years ago and you spent $15,000? That might be an interesting question to test.

Mary Maru

I love that.

ilise benun

All right. So, they fill out the questionnaire and you get on the call with them. And then what different kinds of questions then are you asking, or are you just asking the same ones but digging in more to find out more, or a combination of both?

Mary Maru

It's a combination of both. I dig in a little bit more. I ask, also, some more practical questions to get a handle on project scope so that, if a proposal is in the future for us, I basically know what to put in the proposal. The digging is really helpful if someone hasn't fully articulated an idea, but given me a glimmer of a good nugget in their answers on the questionnaire. And yeah, that's basically what we discuss during the call.

ilise benun

What are you listening for in that call that you can't get on the questionnaire?

Mary Maru

I'm listening for things that will tell me whether or not we are a good personality fit. That's really what the call is about, that I can't necessarily get from a written questionnaire. And it's not fail proof. I've certainly engaged with clients who I thought were just delightful during our Web Clarity Call. And they turned out to be nightmare clients and vice versa; ones that I was apprehensive about turned out to be just the most amazing clients. But I can maybe get a sense of red flags during a conversation. And I'm listening for maybe an overly-dramatic sense of urgency, which would be a problem for me because I have a process I like to follow. I don't want to be rushed through it. If someone is all over the place and seems just like they want to accomplish 15 different things, but they're not sure of their direction, that's a red flag for me … things like that.

ilise benun

So, of the number of people who you do a Clarity Call with, do you send a proposal to all of them, most of them, what percentage would you say go to the next step?

Mary Maru

I would say that it's somewhere between three out of five and four out five. And if it's three out of five, it's because I say “no” to one and one of them says “no” to me after the call. So yeah, I think it's somewhere thereabouts.

ilise benun

And how do you, when you're the one saying “no,” how do you decline gracefully?

Mary Maru

Sometimes happens during the call. Sometimes it happens even before the call. But ultimately, I will be very transparent and just express that I don't think their project is a fit for me. Obviously, if it's a personality issue, I won't say that, because that's not really appropriate, but I'll just say that the project isn't a great fit for me. I can give you a for instance, because this just happened the other day. I received an incoming inquiry from someone who is in an industry that is very interesting to me. It's definitely within my niche target, but the type of project she had was non ideal for me. And so I was honest with her and I told her, “I love what you're doing, but the project that you're bringing to me isn't a great fit. I'd be happy to put feelers out in my marketing design communities and see if there's someone who might be interested in helping you out with this. Would you like me to do that?”

And they wrote back, they were very enthusiastic. I reached out, I sent her a couple of leads, and she was immensely appreciative. So, there's always a way to help people. And ultimately, I want to be in service of people. So even if I can't work with them directly, if I can make a connection happen otherwise, and it's a good fit for them, that's a success to me.

ilise benun

Right. And you never know what, in the future, will come out of that. Right? I mean that person could move to another company and take the memory of your generosity and caring with her, or they may have a new website and hate it and it falls apart. And so, they come back to you because you were so professional.

Mary Maru

Absolutely.

ilise benun

All right. Excellent. There is one other piece of this that I want to cover before we wrap up and that has to do with presenting your proposal, the other “Cookie in the Oreo,” as it were. And more and more actually, when I think about this and the fact that people don't read unless it's about them, actually, I think when we want the proposal to be as much about them as possible, but I really think it's important, more and more, to present the proposal—to do like a reveal, like a ta-da—here it is, almost. And I'm not saying that's the way you should do it, but I'm curious, do you present your proposal? How do you get the prospect to agree to a call or a meeting to present the proposal, and do they ever say, “just send it to me”?

Mary Maru

I do mostly present the proposal and the way I get the prospect to agree to this is, when I feel like I'm nearly done, I have just some i's to dot and t's to cross, I'll send an email out to the client, or the prospect, rather. And I'll just say, “Hey, almost done with your proposal. Really excited to have the possible opportunity to work with you. Do you have time tomorrow at 10:30 to go over it really quickly with me?” Nine times out of 10, the person will send an email back to me and say, “Yep, 10:30 is great,” or they'll offer me an alternative time to meet.

And then I'll present the proposal to them over Zoom call, where we literally go through it, not necessarily page by page, but I highlight the key areas that I want to focus on in particular that pertains specifically to their project versus the more kind of general information that I include in my proposal that they can just read on their own. And then it's really obviously important to go over the money part, and have the conversations and deal with any sort of objections during that Zoom call. So, we're looking at each other face to face, we're engaging and having a healthy exchange about the money piece.

ilise benun

Awesome. And how do you close the deal? Can you close the deal in that meeting or is there something that happens afterwards? I know it doesn't always happen the same way, but what generally happens and works for you in terms of closing the deal?

Mary Maru

Well, usually what happens is I don't attempt to close the deal in that meeting. And I express an appropriate level of enthusiasm and passion for that prospect’s business and in wanting to help them out. Typically, we'll get off the call, they'll go away and think about things, do what they need to do behind the scenes. That's not to say that I don't sometimes get an indication from a prospect that I can walk away from the call feeling fairly confident that we'll engage on their project soon because of something they've said to me, quite literally, “I really want to work with you. I want to start soon.” It's as simple and straightforward as that. Did I answer your question, ilise?

ilise benun

You did. You did. Excellent. Yeah. I mean, and I think what's interesting about your answer is that it's not as black and white as everyone wants it to be. Right? Nothing really ever is. And so sometimes there will be a proposal, and a meeting, and a call where at the end, they say, “All right, let's go. Send me the contract. Send me the invoice,” but not always. And so, you really have to use your antenna, be really sensitive, be a really good listener. And it sounds like you're doing all of those things and then adjusting accordingly what the best next steps are. 

Mary Maru

Absolutely. 

ilise benun

All right. Well, this has been really, really helpful, Mary, I know, to everyone who's going to be listening. And I just want to thank you for sharing your process.

Mary Maru

Thank you, ilise. This has been great.

ilise benun

I just love all the thought and strategy Mary uses to make sure she only writes proposals for prospects who are worthy of her time and fit her ideal client profile. That is the essence of running a business on your own terms. And that's, what's possible when you're self-employed and you're doing consistent marketing, of course. I want you to follow Mary's excellent example. If you do too, here's the baby step you can take. 

Make a list of five or more questions for your own qualifying questionnaire. Focus especially on the kinds of questions that will be both a gate and a magnet for you, weeding out the bad ones while attracting the good ones. Then use the tools in the Simplest Marketing Plan to do that consistent marketing that will help you build the kind of long-term relationships Mary talked about. 

So, did you learn a little something? I hope so, because that's how this works. One baby step at a time. Before you know it, you'll have better clients with bigger budgets. Speaking of better clients, they're probably not going to fall in your lap. That's why I keep hawking my Simplest Marketing Plan. If you want to build a thriving business on your own terms, you need the new 4.0 version for 2022. It is packed with all new content, including six new case studies and six new lessons. You'll also get three different planners, plus access to the free monthly Office Hours group coaching session, where you'll meet other creative pros who are practicing what I preach and taking control over their business and their life. You can find it all at the marketing mentor shop at marketing-mentor.com. I'll be back soon with more conversations with creative professionals who are doing what it takes to ditch the feast or famine syndrome. Until next time.