Featured Customer

How this marketing agency took a better approach to proposals and transformed their business

Matthew Clarkson
Director of strategy & development

Have you ever experienced the frustration that comes when you put everything aside and frantically work for days to write and submit a proposal only to have the prospect say, “Thanks, we’ll be in touch”?

So you wait a few days in suspense, and then try to follow up. But they don’t reply to your emails, don’t return your calls, and act as if they don’t know who you are.

If you’ve ever found yourself in this annoying situation, then you’ll understand why many consultants and agency owners hate writing custom proposals.

In case you haven’t experienced it firsthand, here’s how the custom proposal process generally plays out:

Someone shows an interest in hiring your agency for a new project. Very often, they have an idea of what they want, but usually don’t know what they need. So, to determine what’s best for them, you kick off what often becomes a lengthy discovery process.

Depending on the client and the complexity of the project, this discovery process can take days, weeks, even months. And it usually includes multiple meetings: Some virtual, some in-person.

Once you’ve finally determined what the prospect really needs, you sit down and write a custom proposal that clearly defines the scope of the project, along with an estimated time frame and the costs involved.

More often than not, consultants, freelancers, and agencies find themselves reinventing their service offering for each new custom proposal. They do this hoping to meet the unique needs of each new client and land the project.

Needless to say, this process can become very time-consuming and almost always pulls key people away from other important projects.

Essentially, an agency has to start from scratch every time they try to bring on a new client. It’s a slow, inefficient process. And they have to output all that work upfront with no guarantee that they’ll get hired to do the project.

Even if the agency succeeds in closing half of these new projects, lots of time and energy gets wasted on the other half of proposals that never result in new business. And no matter how long you’ve been in business, losing out on a project you’ve worked hard to win, inevitably brings with it a certain degree of emotional letdown.

The good news is; there are better ways of landing new clients without wasting hours writing custom proposals that may or may not result in more revenue for your business.

Finding a better approach

We recently had a chance to interview Matt Clarkson, who heads up strategy and development for Paper Planes, a digital marketing agency located in The Land Down Under (Brisbane, Australia).

After asking Matt what he thought was one of the most important things he and his partner Simon Dell had achieved in their agency, he surprised us by saying, “Removing written proposals from our process.

"We hated doing them, so we stopped, and we've never looked back. Now we get better quality business and no longer have to deal with tire-kickers and time-wasters,” Matt says with a laugh.

“Removing written proposals from our process. We hated doing them, so we stopped, and we've never looked back.”
Matthew Clarkson - Director of Strategy & Development, Paper Planes

Explaining why proposals aren’t the best option

When Matt mentioned removing custom proposals from his business, we naturally wanted to know more. Part of our mission at ConvertFlow is to always be on the lookout for ways to help our customers streamline their workflow and grow their revenue.

So we decided to dig a little deeper and ask Matt if they hit any snags or got any pushback from potential clients.

“Well, it's generally what business owners want and expect, so we have to explain clearly why we don't do proposals,” he says, “There's a tendency to want to go away with information and learnings from a meeting and put a proposal together, but we tried to take a different approach by explaining how poorly proposals really reflect what needs to be done.

“Very often,” Matt recalls, “we found what people asked for in a proposal wasn't what they actually needed once we started working with them.”

A more effective (paid) alternative to writing proposals

Matt continued explaining what Paper Planes did to remove customer proposals from their client acquisition process, “We put together an alternative approach for our first meeting and changed the way we present ourselves. Effectively we now charge prospective clients for a half-day strategy/discovery session upfront. At the end of the session, both parties tend to be in a very good position to decide if we both want to work together.”

“We also produced some printed literature too (ironic for a digital company) which we can leave behind in the first meeting, he says, “It leaves a lasting impression."

“We put together an alternative approach for our first meeting and changed the way we present ourselves."
Matthew Clarkson - Director of Strategy & Development, Paper Planes

Insightful advice for consultants and agency owners

Matt explained that he and Simon once had a mentor who said, 'If you're writing a proposal, you've already lost the business.”

“If you present what you do well, and present your history and success, then you won't ever need to do a proposal again. Well, almost never,” says Matt, “There are exceptions, but they're pretty rare. We're definitely not staying up to midnight writing proposals, and our business is much better for it.”

Of course, we totally agree with Matt and Simon’s approach of getting prospects to pay in advance for a strategy/discovery session, before you give a formal price quote, and invest any more time in the transaction.

Switching over to a paid consultation model is a smart way to weed out the time-wasters, so you and your team can focus only on serious clients who are ready, willing, and able to pay for your services.

“Effectively, we now charge prospective clients for a half-day strategy/discovery session upfront. At the end of the session, both parties tend to be in a very good position to decide if we both want to work together.”
Matthew Clarkson - Director of Strategy & Development, Paper Planes

Productizing strategy sessions and consultations  

When done right, you can quickly turn initial consultations or strategy sessions that you’re probably already doing for free, into a productized service you can sell for $500, $1,000, or more.

The fact is, paid consultations can be one of the easiest productized services to create and sell. Even if you haven’t built a practice, hired staff, or put up a website, you’re just a few steps from getting started.

Unlike other agencies that mindlessly give away their time for free with no assurance they’ll actually be hired for a new project, when you charge for strategy sessions, you not only get paid for your time, but you’ll also boost your credibility and position yourself as an expert.

Of course, there will be prospects who will refuse to pay for a session, especially if they find someone else who’ll waste their time and energy for free. But realistically, would this kind of prospect have actually hired you? More often than not, this type of customer just sucks up your time, along with other valuable resources.

So why not do as Matt and Simon at Paper Planes (now called Cemoh) did and develop a way to stop wasting your time doing custom proposals for stingy, unqualified prospects?  This way, you can start working only with serious clients who are happy to pay for your services.

Generating revenue doing what you used to do for free

Although you can theoretically get started with nothing more than a simple email offer or a short phone conversation, for best results, you’ll want to productize your strategy sessions.

Here’s what you need to frame your strategy sessions as a product:

1. A dedicated page on your website showing the benefits of scheduling and paying for a strategy session with you (and your team).

2. Bullet points detailing what the session will include, highlighting the benefits the client will get.

3. Testimonials. Be sure to share three or four stories that prove you’re getting real results for real clients. Case studies are great for this, especially if they feature companies in the same industry as the prospect.  

4. An audio recording of the session. You can also include a written transcription. Nowadays, there are plenty of low-cost software and human-driven transcription services.

5. A written summary with key takeaways from the session. (This, of course, can be templatized. An assistant can easily pull the most important points from the recording or transcript)

6. Immediate gratification. If you’ve written a book, developed a course, have a video of yourself speaking for a group, or some other resource that helps position you as an authority, you can include it as a bonus the client will get as soon as she signs up for the strategy session.

On the same page, you can include a buy button so people can go ahead and pay for their session in advance. After they pay, you can drop them on your calendar scheduling page.  

If you prefer, you can skip the advance payment, let them schedule the session first, then bill them later. Do whatever you think will work best in your particular case, and with your clients. Just make sure to get paid!

Of course, if you’d like, you can tell clients that you’ll deduct the amount they paid for the consultation from the cost of the next project they hire you to do.

Anyway, after people have scheduled their strategy session, we recommend you use ConvertFlow or a similar tool that can walk the client step by step through a pre-consultation questionnaire.  

Example: Pre-consultation questionnaire

Why it’s good for the client to prep for their session

When you ask clients to invest some time and effort into preparing for their upcoming strategy sessions, a few things happen:  

1. Clients get excited about the session and start looking forward to working with you. Plus, they’re more vested from day one.

2. They get the impression you’re serious about delivering real value and see that you expect to have a productive discussion of options and opportunities rather than just chit-chatting for a couple of hours.

3. The client gives you a lot of the information you' ll need to over-deliver during the live strategy session.  

4. When you ask clients to put in some effort ahead of time, they expect a working session, and they’re usually more committed than if you don’t ask them to do anything to get ready.  

In other words, the client’s expectation of value and a successful outcome is high because you’re framing the entire process that way from day one.

Now the ball is in your court

So there you have it, a solid plan for pre-qualifying prospects and filtering out the time-wasters by productizing consultations and strategy sessions.

Charging for a consultation is certainly not a new concept. However, in their desperation to get new clients, many consultants and agencies have fallen into the trap of sinking lots of time and effort into evaluating the client’s needs, then writing custom proposals with no guarantee they’ll actually get hired to do the project.

As we mentioned earlier, Matt and Simon of Paper Planes discovered that removing proposals from their client acquisition process has been a big gamechanger for their agency.  They’ve repeatedly validated that by making that single decision, they’re getting better quality business while freeing up time to grow their agency and enjoy their personal lives.

So why not do a test, and try charging for your strategy sessions?

Hey, if they don’t work for you, just scrap the idea. On the other hand, if paid sessions help you generate more revenue and attract better clients, please keep us in the loop.

We’d love to hear about your experience, and may even share your success story with ConvertFlow’s audience and fast-growing community of conversion marketers.

If you'd like to know more about Paper Planes and how they're helping companies grow faster, click here.

This story was written and published in collaboration with StoryOps

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