Proposals and Timelines….and Why Most Companies Get It Wrong

September 10, 2015
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If you’re involved in business in any way, be it the President of an architectural firm, a manager in a government-run organization, advertising, digital services, whatever, you probably know what proposals are and that many companies set stringent deadlines to receive those proposals by.  In my line of work, which is digital services, most companies expect proposals within one to two weeks. That’s a bit aggressive and I explain why in the following post. But before I get into that, let me give you a quick rundown of what a proposal consists of….

What’s in a proposal??

Well, that’s a great question! Depending on what type of a digital company you are, what types of services you offer, and what types of projects you work on will determine what type of proposal you write, and they’ll all be different. I’ve seen all kinds of proposals. Ones that are boiler plate, cookie-cutter, templated proposals, and others that are pure works of art, thoughtful, well-organized, with a clear direction of what the solution is, how much it’ll cost, and how long it should take. Proposals are simply a proposed solution to a company’s (client) particular challenge.

Google says a proposal is “a plan or suggestion, especially a formal or written one, put forward for consideration or discussion by others.” This is true! A proposal is a plan, and in order to propose a suggested plan, you have to put in a great deal of effort. So, what goes into a proposal.

I’ll break it down for you…

Contents of a Proposal

  1. Usually, proposals start with some kind of Summary explaining that you understand the prospect’s business challenge and are prepared to offer your plan for solving that challenge.
  2. Approach – this is the part of the proposal where you highlight your approach, usually called your methodology or your working style. You can outline what working sessions will consist of, the day-to-day operations, or what to expect when engaged with your agency.
  3. Scope of Work  – this is a pretty integral piece to the proposal. Some agencies like to detail exactly what they’ll do for your company from a digital standpoint. It’s important to note that the Scope of Work (or SOW) articulates the specifics of a web project. This causes both parties to have an understanding of what is actually being done, so that there’s no confusion as to what a company is getting and what the agency is going to do for them. It’s a liability thing. If you have a super detailed SOW and halfway through the project the company is like “well, we thought you were going to do X, Y, and Z.” – you can refer to the SOW. Put it in the proposal and take your time on it, this can really mean the difference between $10k and $$100k.
  4. Most agencies will outline the Team that the company will be getting. Some like to give the actual team members and their profiles or bios. And other agencies just give you the title, like your team will consist of a WordPress Engineer and Lead Designer, etc.
  5. Another semi important part is the Technology you’ll use in the engagement. Are you using a WordPress CMS, Drupal? Will you integrate with HubSpot or Salesforce? Are you going to be using Foundation as your framework and so on. This gives the company some semblance of components being used. But (a sidenote), I have seen proposals that leave the technology out, they say things like “we’ll find the right open source CMS in Discovery.” Which can be beneficial and non-beneficial. It totally depends on the engagement. Sometimes there’s too much gray area for what a company actually needs, like when doing an intranet or some site application. You’ll have a better idea of what technology would be the best fit once you discover more about their needs (which can sometimes take a while), and that’s okay!
  6. Timeline – a breakdown of different phases and how long each of them will take. Some agencies give it in months, others in weeks, and it’s usually dependent on start dates (which always seem to change!!).
  7. Budget – some people, like me, put the budget right at the beginning of the proposal because this is what people/companies are hugely concerned with. Does it hit my budget? Yes, No, Maybe!! Some agencies like putting this at the end. I usually do an overview of the numbers upfront and a breakdown of cost to its associated task deeper in the proposal next to the timeline.
  8. Almost all agencies will add some kind of About Us section to the proposal, telling the history and story of their agency. How long they’ve been in business for, what types of other clients they have, etc. Some agencies put this in the beginning and others put it at the end. I consider it the “fluff” stuff, because if your company is engaged with an agency, chances are the already “know” who you are and what you do. Putting it in the proposal just regurgitates that. I throw it in at the end of the proposal.
  9. Case Studies – this is pretty important, but again, if your company is engaged with an agency, you should be familiar with their work. It’s always good to show quality work and something that’s relevant to that particular web challenge or company.

That’s pretty much what most proposals consist of…. 

What’s a timeline look like? Well, I guess it depends on who you are talking to. A timeline means different things to different people. A timeline can be for a project or a proposal. Let’s talk about the latter.

Most companies that have marketing, communications, IT, sales, and other departments have internal schedules they need to hit in order to be successful (or unsuccessful). Which is why, when they send out an RFP (Request for Proposal) they attach a deadline for submitted proposals. Most of the deadlines I’ve seen are within 2 weeks of sending out the RFP (not always), but what most lack is the time it takes to a) Qualify the prospect, b) scope the actual engagement, and c) leave anytime for SOW revisal.

Most RFP’s will come equipped with objectives, history of company, scope of work (which often times can be unclear), timeline and budget that the sending company would like to hit. Now, with that being said, many companies will have unrealistic expectations (e.g. – we want four separate API integrations and we need it in 6 weeks – UNREALISTIC!). You need to set those expectations.

That’s why 2  weeks isn’t enough time to get you a solid (non-boilerplate) proposal. In the beginning, when we have that initial call to qualify the prospect (company) on our end, we make an effort to educate the prospect. If they have unrealistic goals, I’ll be completely honest and say that. Now, that might cost my company the deal, but in the long run it’s much better to underestimate and over-deliver, instead of overestimate and under-deliver!

That first call is also to “feel” each other out. You can tell a lot by first impressions. Often times, on the first call you can tell whether or not they’d be a good fit. And vice versa, the company has got to trust their vendors and unless I start building that trust on the first call, the relationship (and essentially the deal) will fail.

What happens on a second call?

A second call (usually the second week, because we need some time to check out their site and do a little research) is about diving much deeper into the scope of work. What types of functionality do they need on the site? What types of integrations? Does it need to be custom? Will a WP premium theme work? Is there any branding work? Lots of questions on the second call. This also helps solidify the relationship. By asking all these questions you’re showing the prospect that you really do care about their project and want to understand what they need. Many times when companies send out RFP’s, their scope of work section will uncover a plethora of more questions that often times the company has not thought about.
Confused computer keyThere’s confusion there, which causes a cascade effect in their organization trying to scramble to get the answers so they can meet that 2 week deadline. That second call gets much more in-depth and armed with this new information we can then begin writing the proposal. So, to recap this – we don’t start writing proposals after the first call – Qualify, Scope, then begin!

Now when you are writing this proposal, it’s inevitable that more questions arise, especially on a heavy technical lift project or one with many levels of complexity. Be prepared as an agency and a company, because good relationships and successful engagements stem from this process that I’m talking about now. In order to do great work, you have to know what you’re doing and get the majority (if not all) of the answers before contracts are signed.

More scoping in the beginning means less surprises and clearer expectations, on both ends.

Now the writing is finished and the agency needs to present, usually the fourth week. But questions will arise on the company’s end and they will need to understand any parameters you’ve put into place and any assumptions you’ve made. Clarity is the friend of the agency and the company. It helps everyone. And then there’s always the possibility of things shifting even before they begin. New stakeholders love coming in and changing things up at the most inopportune times, be prepared for that! I’ve done several revised proposals, it does happen. And once there’s a finalized proposal, companies need to sign contracts….which is an entirely different post for another day.

Just remember, expectations need to be set on that first call. E.g. – “our typical timeline for getting you a proposal is usually four weeks.” If that closes the door, it’s better that happens right at the beginning before you start sinking your time into the endeavor. The great proposals out there take time! And the great agencies out there don’t rush into anything without getting all their ducks in a row, otherwise you’re setting yourself and your team up for failure…..and that doesn’t suit anyone!

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