The Formula for Writing Good Web Proposals

This is a long read; approximately 15 minutes.

Proposals are really hard to categorize, right? Are they a formality, or are they a gateway to your solution? I tend to lean more toward the latter, but I know others who loathe the proposal writing process. I love it! It’s a challenge in and of itself. And it’s your agency’s moment to outshine all the others. Even if you do have the deal in the bag, it’ll reinforce a client’s decision to go with you. Writing good web proposals is an art form. Proposals can be text heavy Google docs or visually stunning Keynote proposals. They can make or break a deal. They can get an organization to pay twice as much money, sometimes triple. This post is a presentation I gave last fall on The Formula for Custom Proposal Writing. This is also a follow-up to my earlier post on The Needs of Web Proposal Writing.

Proposal writing is not the same templated solution to every single web challenge, they should be different every time. And I’m not just talking about the content, I’m also talking about the presentation and design. Obviously, brand your proposal with your brand, but tailor your proposal to the individual or organization who’s receiving it. Give them a good user experience, something that caters to the authority and their needs.

Now, I understand that proposals can be considered the holy grail of an agency. I’ve worked for a few and being in the agency realm you come across other proposals, so everything I’m about to show you in this post is white-labeled (or my personal logo) and should not be associated with any of my previous agencies.  What I’m going to outline is the formula for custom proposal writing. The content should be your own, and it should focus on the prospect and their business.

Let’s Begin

Custom proposals do a few things for you. They make you look more professional, help you stand out from your competitors, and possibly land you bigger clients and higher dollar deals. I get asked all the time whether you should write a text-heavy proposal or a visual-based proposal. Personally, I like visual-based proposals, but think of your user, who will be reading this proposal? Then make a decision.

I believe that proposals should capture and showcase success. You need your recipient to be able to visualize their project succeeding. They need to be able to read that proposal and have confidence that you not only understand their challenge, but you also have the right solution or approach. Proposals are your opportunity to communicate the value your solution will have. It’s also an opportunity to mitigate against any risk that may be on the horizon. In a proposal, you want to focus on the value that a successful engagement and solution would bring to your client’s business.

First…the fluff stuff goes at the end…

Before I get into the formula for proposals, I’d like to take a minute to talk about the things I call “fluff” — and I’m not talking about the white, sugary, fluffy Fluff, I love the stuff (no rhyme intended!). No, I’m talking about the fluff stuff you as a writer want to throw in your proposals because you think it’ll beef it up a little. You know what I’m talking about too — the ‘about us’ section, the ‘case study’ section, the ‘client testimonial’ section, the ‘leadership’ section, it’s all fluff, and it’s not something most prospects really care about. This is the reality – if you’re writing a proposal for someone, there’s a really great chance that they already like your work… and know about you… and have heard from some of your other clients… and understand that you have a solid leadership team. What they want is the solution to their

This is the reality – if you’re writing a proposal for someone, there’s a really great chance that they already like your work… and know about you… and have heard from some of your other clients… and understand that you have a solid leadership team. What they want is the solution to their problem or the approach you’re going to take to solve it.

What I do in most proposals is put all that ‘fluff stuff’ at the end, in some sort of an appendix. That way if the prospect is super curious and they send the proposal up the chain, it’ll be there just in case anyone needs it.

I’m going to assume that you have all the information you need to write a solid proposal. You’ve talked with your prospect several times, you’ve asked the right questions, you know what the challenge is, you’ve somewhat scoped the project, and you have an idea of what the solution is.

The Formula for Custom Proposal Writing…

*Sidenote: I’d like to preface this by saying, this is the way I write proposals, and it’s been effective for me. It doesn’t mean that other types of proposal writing styles won’t work, they most certainly will. All I’m trying to do is share the knowledge that I’ve gained over these last few years to help others in their proposal writing evolution. I hope you get something from this.

Proposals should have a good user experience, focus on the content then the presentation, and nothing should be set in stone. If you need to take out a proposal section, do it. If you need to throw in a different section, have at it. This is a flexible guideline.

Cover Slide

Be professional and use a cover slide. It can be an image of your staff at work. It can blend two logos (yours and the clients) together, it can be a picture of a wireframe. I personally like skylines. Just put a cover slide so the first page your prospect sees is not the table of contents.

Table of Contents

Make sure to put a Table of Contents to give your prospect a summary of the sections and insight into what’s to come. Here’s my Table of Contents (and essentially the Formula!):

  1. The Intro
  2. Research Analysis
  3. The Rundown
  4. Scope of Work
  5. Ideas
  6. Timeline & Investment
  7. Appendix:
    • About Us
    • Case Studies
    • The Kicker
    • Info Page

Section One: The Intro

The intro needs to be short, articulate, and authentic. Short, articulate, authentic. It should really convey 5 things:

  1. Excitement: Be jazzed to be involved! “We’re thrilled to be a part of this engagement…”
  2. Experience: Showcase your expertise “Our agency has been doing this for years with industry company and sector business…”
  3. Recognition: Recognize who you are doing business with and why they’re so great. “Your company leads the way..”
  4. Acknowledgment: Admit that there is a problem… but then…
  5. Assurance: Reassure your prospect that you can fix it.

Put heart into the intro, personality. It needs to convey these 5 things and in a single page, see below.

Intro Slide

I also think a way to stand out is to tailor design to the individual company. Let’s say you’re working with a newspaper, I would put together a proposal that looked like a newspaper:

News Cover Slide

Obviously, this is lorem ipsum text, but something like this can make you stand out even more. It can also make a connection with your prospect that links your work to their company and industry subliminally paving the way for you to win a deal.


Section Two: Research Analysis

Many agencies leave this section out of a proposal, but I think it’s powerful. Show that you understand their problem by knowing their industry, competitors, and business. Take some time to really explore and understand their challenge. Challenges come from different areas. Companies have certain problems that plague that particular industry.

Example: Higher Education — Higher Ed has a number of challenges just being a university or college. First, they’re usually decentralized, so ownership can create issues and different departments tend to compete with each other. They also have a number of users that they need to cater to, right? There are the older alumni who aren’t necessarily comfortable being online. There’s the faculty and staff, who can range a great deal. Then there’s the students and prospective students who live their lives online, and expect super personalized experiences online. So, imagine you’re writing a proposal for an Ivy League Institution. Would they want to know that you understand all the challenges they face as an Ivy League school? Or at least some of them? For sure!! So how do you do that?

You research. Look at their competitors’ websites, what are they doing right, what are they doing wrong? What are the best in the business doing? Convey that in this section. I always put nice imagery of sites that I looked at and snippets of text that demonstrate we have a handle on their industry’s digital realm.

You can do this in different ways, but I usually explain that I took some time to explore the current landscape, their competitors, and themselves. Obviously, you’re also looking at their website, feel free to point out what they are doing well, and areas they can improve.


Competitor Analysis

Now you can call this section whatever you want, ‘researching current environment’, ‘exploring the landscape’, etc. Or you can get super creative and tailor it to the individual company by putting in titles that are custom to their business. Like if you are putting together a proposal for a Travel blog, you could call this section “Exploring Adventurous Places.” If you were working with a newspaper, you could call this section “Uncovering a Real Story.” Or something like that, you get the drift! What it needs to do, is let your prospect know that you actually have a grip on what they are going through. That you are walking in their shoes! That you understand their environment, and they can see you as a really good fit to partner with on this upcoming project of theirs.


Section Three: The Rundown

This section is called different things. Some people call this the Executive Summary, others call it The Approach section. Internally, I like calling it The Rundown. Why? Simple—this is where you give your prospect the rundown. Now, when I write the proposal, I’ll usually call it a summation, or synopsis, or approach, totally depends. But my rundowns consist of a few things. One, we have a proven approach or methodology that works. Two, we understand their objectives and need to regurgitate them back to the prospect while also connecting them to possible outcomes (more on that to come!). Three, we have a great working style that the prospect (soon-to-be-client) will integrate with very nicely and can work with their ever-crazy schedule.

The Approach and/or Methodology is your process. The process that helps your clients succeed. The one that’s been refined over time, and the one that will make this project successful. You don’t need to go into a lot of depth here because your process will be a part of the scope of work section that’s coming up and we’ll dive a little deeper into the process then. You can do something as simple as the FDD (Feature Driven Development) Overview created by Jeff Deluca seen here:


Or you can do something like this:

Process or Method



The point is, you just want to give them an overview. You want them to understand how the process works and why they’ll benefit from it.

For the objectives, you’ll want to quickly let the prospect know that you’ve heard their concerns, wants, needs, and you’re prepared to help. I usually do an output vs. outcome (the brainchild of Chris Murray, my previous CEO) type of comparison. Map features to objectives. Example: We want to have an email newsletter to show our biggest readers we really care about them. Or. We want to have innovative social media shares and like buttons to increase social engagement and awareness. These are outputs and outcomes. The output is the feature (or deliverable) and the outcome is the objective. When you can compare these two things and connect them for your prospect, it’s a sure fire way to let them know they’ve been heard.

Now you can do this any way you want. This can be the section of the proposal that’s directly addressing your prospect. You can do this in letter form if that’s easier for you. I always think less is more in this section, but I know others who disagree.

Working style should give the prospect a quick glimpse into the project flow but not in relation to the process, but the relationship. How will your new client work with you? Why would they like it? The way I do this is by putting one page (or slide) and showing some fun picture of the team. Then breaking down how communication will work while the project progresses. You can break it down on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. You can talk about the tools you’ll use to help with communication. Believe or not, a big fear I’ve seen people have is the communication workflow. Putting together a few pages on this can really ease their minds.

Again, keep this section short, maybe 4-5 pages if you’re using imagery. 2-3, if it’s all text.

Section Four: Scope of Work

Now we get into the meat of things. This is the solution laid out, or the process in more detail. Most web projects follow a similar trajectory that starts with some type of discovery or strategy session. You can make this text-heavy, or you can illustrate it with images. I prefer the latter (again, less is more), but what you’ll want to do is outline the project overview, the task list, and the deliverables. What’s going to take place, what deliverables do you foresee, and what assumptions (if any) are there? I’m not going to go too much into this section, because for each agency, although similar, will have different scopes. The scope of work is what you did in the sales process so you should have this information.

Part 1: Strategy: Discovery, Stakeholder Interviews, Company Survey, etc.

Part 2: Design: Information Architecture, Wireframes, Mockups, User Experience Testing, etc.

Part 3: Technical: Building the platform, Systems Integrations, Iterations, etc.

Part 4: Ongoing: Continued Strategy, Enhancements, Maintenance, etc.

Certainly, this will look different if you’re an SEO agency or marketing agency, or any web agency because every project is different. This is your own. This is your solution. What I want to say about this section is this: The scope of work should detail the engagement, the project overview, the task list, and the deliverables. This is the section where you talk about actions (Discovery will include 5 stakeholder interviews, complete content assessment of materials, definition of user personas, etc.) and it should also outline deliverables (the deliverable from our discovery session will be a strategic findings document outlining user stories to drive the development process, design and creative objectives, etc.) You may also need to put in parameters (or assumptions) that mitigate any risk (based on the current information architecture we envision having to create and design up to 10 unique page templates).

The other thing that I need to stress here is making sure to connect the scope of work with the benefit your prospect’s business will receive from it.

Example — Scope of Work: Design

  • Information Architecture testing – We will create a new information architecture for the platform and leverage IA testing tools to test the navigational structure. We envision doing 2 rounds of user tests to get to a refined navigation for your site. This will ensure that the terminology used will be the most optimal for an intuitive navigation enabling your users to move through the site with complete confidence and accuracy.

You never sell the technical aspects to a project, you sell the benefits. Or I should say you communicate them effectively.

The scope of work can be a tricky section to get right. This section can end up being rather long too, so I suggest only adding in the essentials here. Often times, I will give a couple options in the scope of work section. I’ll do that for a few reasons, but the biggest one is because people like options. And when you give the prospect options, they’ll compare the options to themselves, not other agency’s solutions. Of course, if you work very closely with your prospect and understand all of their needs, then just write one scope of work.

Again, the prospect needs to know what you’ll be doing, what you’ll be giving them, how it will affect their business, and also that deliverables are not limitless (well…unless there’s a limitless budget!).

Section Five: Ideas

I always like throwing in an ideas section. You can also turn this section into an initial mockups section, but that’s only if you work with a huge team and have time/money to spend on initial mockups. But putting in an ideas section will do a couple things. One, it’ll show the prospect that you’re thinking about the bigger picture (and it shows investment). And two, you may find an opportunity to add in an extra feature and make more money.

You can either put together something as simple as a list of ideas

List of ideas


Or it can be more visually stunning.


Visual Ideas map


Again, an ideas page should show real thought, so put some real thought into the ideas that you suggest. This can be really helpful in closing new business, and it helps a prospect visualize the possibilities.

Section Six: Timeline & Investment

This is pretty straight forward, outlines or graphs are always a good way to show the timeline. But after this slide, I’ll go into a much more granular view of the project timeline. I’ll put certain milestones like design sign-off, gray site launch, user acceptance testing, and more.

I’ll break out investment to match the scope of work section. So, if I have a Discovery & Strategy section in the scope of work, that will correlate to a number in the investment.


And as we all know, the investment is usually the last thing on the proposal.

Appendix

Remember what I was talking about earlier—the fluff stuff—well…this is where your appendix should go right after the investment. I always add something special in my appendix. This is what I’ll usually have:

  • About us: this will give the history of your agency, why you’re in business, values the agency portrays, leadership team, etc.
  • Case Studies: this is obvious, use ones that are similar to the project that you’re going to be doing for this new client. Or show case studies that have companies in your prospect’s industry.
  • The Kicker: what’s the kicker, you ask? Well, the kicker can be anything. It usually involves some type of web/digital best practice or best of breed process. It all depends on what the prospect is concerned with in conversations. If the prospect is really concerned about SEO, put in a few pages on SEO best practices (there’s plenty of resources out there — MOZ). If your prospect is worried about content, put together a few resources to generate content ideas.  You get the drift. This shows that you listened to what they were saying, and you went out of your way to lift some of their burden and help them out.
  • Info Page: this one should be obvious too, but if not, make sure to put in a quick recap of being a good fit for this engagement and thank them. Along with all your contact info. I always say “it was a pleasure getting to know your team, we’re super thrilled…”

Some Ending Thoughts

People usually write proposals in two ways — either with text-heavy documents or more visual slides. I tend to lean toward using visuals over text. It’s not to say that either way is better. Whatever works for you is better. But I’ve written 25 page super text-heavy documents and 150 page visually stunning proposals with imagery, icons, etc. I find that people usually like short spurts of information. So, I put my slides together (I almost always use Keynote to create proposals, even though it’s horrible for collaboration, I’m hoping that’ll change soon!) and don’t have much text on a page. The overall proposal will be a lot longer page-wise, but the reading experience is much quicker and they’ll go through slides fast. Which can be fun if the page that you’re viewing is interesting to the viewer. Remember when you’re writing proposals to put yourself in your prospect’s shoes. Would you enjoy reading this proposal if you were your prospect?

A quick recap on the formula for writing good web proposals…

  1. The Intro:
    • Knowledge and heart — be short, articulate, and authentic. Set the stage!
  2. Research Analysis:
    • Walk in your prospect’s shoes. Understand their challenge by understanding their business, industry, and competitors.
  3. The Rundown:
    • Referred to as the summary, approach, objective, whatever! This section should outline your approach/methodology, prospect’s objectives (outputs vs. outcomes), working style.
  4. Scope of Work:
    • The different steps to succeed at this project. Project overview, task list, and deliverables. And any assumptions. What you’ll be doing, what you’ll be giving your new client, how it will affect their business, and what parameters are in place?
  5. Ideas:
    • Show the prospect that you’re invested and thinking about the bigger picture. Possibly more opportunities for a bigger engagement.
  6. Timeline & Investment:
    • Timeline overview and granular look. Scope of work steps and their associated costs.
  7. Appendix:
    • About Us: Agency history, culture, values, etc.
    • Case Studies: similar in industry or scope.
    • The Kicker: web/digital knowledge that the prospect is concerned with and can benefit from.
    • Info Page: We’re an awesome fit, thanks for everything, look forward to continuing discussions. Here’s our info.

Ok – hope that helps! Any thoughts, just let me know.

Measuring the Value of Why

We see this word a lot: value  —  but what exactly does it mean? What is it? How do we measure it? How do we determine whether or not it’s something we provide? These are all good questions and in the agency world, value is what separates us, it’s what links us, and it’s what drives conversations and interactions with clients and partners alike. But how do we truly define it? Value has a few definitions, so let’s start there (courtesy of Google):

val·ue : /ˈvalyo͞o/

noun

  1. the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.
    • “your support is of great value”

But it can also be used as a verb!

verb

  1. consider (someone or something) to be important or beneficial; have a high opinion of.
    • “she had come to value her privacy and independence”

As we can see, value is something that’s a little ambiguous, right? If you look at the first sentence that uses the word value, you can see what the value is – “your support is of great value” – the value is your support. “She had come to value her privacy and independence” – the value in this sentence is a little trickier, it’s her privacy and independence, but it’s also linked to the noun “her” – so I’d like to define value in this way:

Value measures the worth of something, but is dependent on the measurer’s desires, fears, opinions and considerations.

We all know value is worth something, but my value will be different from your value. Your value will be different from their value, and so goes the succession. This is so because value is fueled by desire from the one who views the value.

“Value sits on a foundation of action while being built by intelligence, insight, and observation.”

The hard part is answering the ‘why’ of value. Why is “your support” of great value? And why does she value her “privacy and independence?” If you look at it from more of a cognitive stance, you’ll see that the answer of ‘why’ is dependent upon the ‘who’ and the ‘what’. It’s that desire that compels a client to buy, it’s that fear that can mean the difference between success and failure, and it’s a line that’s very thin and almost impossible to distinguish when value is at the forefront of every conversation and people’s desires/fears aren’t necessarily apparent.

Action is the foundation of value. What we do and what we say adds value (or takes it away). Our actions reverberate. Action progresses the sale, it can also stall a sale. But it is action that is at the root of all value. Without it, we cannot provide value.

While action is the foundation of value; intelligence, insight, and observation are the materials you need to build it.

[striped]Short Story[/striped]

I was on the phone with a nice woman from one of the big organizations in the Research Triangle in North Carolina. I asked her to give me a high-level lay of the land (what’s the current situation and what are you looking to do?). She gives me some background on her role and her company, then reveals that she’d like to create and build a WordPress site where her sales team members can come to find more resources on the products that her company was selling.

It was a great conversation, but I asked one question that made her pause and really think about her situation, and the question was simple – it was “why?” What is your major goal and why do you want to accomplish it? Now, everyone knows to ask these questions, but not everyone on the other end of that line might know the answer, or be totally truthful. She did know the answer and was truthful, the answer she gave was simple too – “I want my sales people to have the right information in order to sell more products….and it’ll make me look good.” And there’s the value (for her) or what I like to call the value gratification.

The value gratification is the major accomplishment and its ability to fulfill the desires one has, it’s the way the people involved with the project feel after it’s finished. In this case, it’s the value of having a more cohesive and effective sales team, which will essentially sell more products and make her look good in front of the bosses. That achievement will not only make the client happy, but it hits those hidden goals as well, which if you can uncover, will just give you more value as a salesperson.

The action was the phone call, observation and insight led to the question, and intelligence is what you do with that information. The question showed value in her mind because when she went looking for a partner to build this WordPress site the desire to look good was already there. She just needed to find someone who cared about it enough to ask about it. The question just disclosed the ‘why’ — we know the value is her cohesive sales team selling more products, but why does she want to do that. Well for all the normal reasons someone would want to do it, but also because it’ll make her look like a rockstar at her company and that’s the gratification or desire behind the value, which can be much more potent than the value itself.

Fear overcoming value…or the absence of value

Now this was one example of action, and an easy one because she gave up that valuable tidbit about her hidden goal. Let’s take an example from one of my old freelance days when I didn’t really know what I was doing or how desire plays a role in uncovering real value.

I was just learning how to code and still doing construction when I met one of the homeowners that we were building for. We got to talking and she uncovered that she’s big into photography. She sells her photos at craft fairs and she’s looking to do a website where she can sell her photos, but she didn’t know of a web designer/developer. In walks me! Naive little ole’ me! I say “I can do that! And I’ll give you a really great deal!” So she leapt at the offer to have me build her a website where she could sell her photos.

All was going well, I put up a really slick Divi themed WordPress website, integrated the WordPress Photo Seller Plugin that helped with photo management, watermarks, and taking online payments through PayPal. I was super happy with the site! But then my client saw the website, she thought it looked really awesome too, but….she didn’t know how she felt about having her photos online, she was afraid people would steal them. I tried to explain as best I could that the watermark was a good attempt at foiling malicious users from taking her photos, but ultimately that’s the chance that you take putting your stuff out there. She wasn’t satisfied with that answer and the website never got launched and I never saw any money. She saw the value in having a website where she could sell her photos, but she also saw the absence of value through the thought of people stealing her photos. Had I probed enough, and asked the right questions through action and observation, I could’ve saved myself from hours of site-building, but hey, lesson learned!

That client’s desire was to make money through selling her photos, but not at the risk of losing any. Which is a hard desire to bring to light. Looking back, the way I could’ve done it was by asking her about her photos, what did she like about them, what did they mean to her? It most likely would’ve uncovered her fears about people stealing her photos, and if I had done that, I could’ve recommended a more secure option like selling her images on CanStock Photo or Fotolia. Which would’ve given her more value, and quelled her fears.

But again, lesson learned!

Linking value to people and their emotions

Value is inherent to people’s desires and/or fears. Both of which can be difficult to get out of people. Many times desires are selfish, and people don’t necessarily want to talk about them. Many times fears are silly and people don’t necessarily want to talk about them. But if you can link the desire someone has to the value you’re providing, your close rate should go up. If you can extinguish a person’s fear by showing them that having the value is better than the absence of it, you should win more deals.

Business people, especially, are known for keeping their emotions in check, but it’s those emotions that will give you clues to a person’s hidden goals. From the moment you get on the phone with someone, listen to those emotions. When they talk to you about the project, how do they sound? Are they frantic, are they calm, do they sound miserable or super ecstatic? When they email you about the project, what’s the tone? Is it short and to the point, do they ramble on about it? When you meet them in person, gauge their body language. Do they seem comfortable, are they attentive, or laid back?

Observation is a huge building block in understanding the desire behind value. When you’re around people tune in to their channels. Make insightful observations on what you see, hear, and feel. And continue to ask questions. If someone looks worried, say something like “Hey Tom, you look like you’re a little worried about this project, what concerns do you have?” People secretly want to tell you their desires, they just don’t want to be judged because of it. So, right from the very beginning when you first meet with someone you need to make them feel at ease. You do that by expressing empathy, giving respect, and making genuine connections.

How do you measure value?

If you remember my definition of value, it’s dependent on the person who’s doing the measuring and what their desires and/or fears are. So, with that in mind, you first have to know the “who” — who is your buyer? Obviously individuals will have their own idiosyncrasies, but you can make some overall assumptions about certain types of buyers. And I’m sure you know that figuring out your audience or who you’re trying to sell to is of uber importance. The technology buyer, let’s assume they like quality. And let’s assume that the marketing buyer likes results. Well, that gives you a starting point and you can pivot your observations off of your assumptions to make intelligent assessments.

Then you need to know the “what” — what is the challenge, what is the project, what are the major goals, what is the platform? All these questions will help uncover what you’re doing so you can start figuring out your tactical approach. Things like should I recommend WordPress or Drupal, how long do I think the project will take, who will I need for this project. And also your strategic approach. Things like what’s the best solution for this, what’s the most innovative solution for this?

Throughout this entire process of helping your client or prospect find the right solution, you need to be strategically searching for the “why” — why do they truly want to do this? Is it something their boss said they had to do and they’d rather not be involved, or is this something they’re truly jazzed about, if so, why are they super jazzed about it? The why can uncover hidden goals for you to better position your solution and agency. The why can truly connect you to your client and make you a lifelong advisor. Knowing and understanding the why can separate you from the competition and link you to your client and new business. The why weighs the most.

The Many Faces of Business Development

Every time I tell someone what I do, they always reply with the same question — “what exactly is that?” What they’re asking is — what is business development? It’s sales, right? Or it’s about growing a business, right? Well…if you think about it, business development has many different faces. Numerous flocks of people think that biz dev is simply sales. It is not, I assure you. Sales is a part of it, but…not everything! Now if you scour the internet and Google “what is business development” – you’re bound to get different answers on every result you click on.

When you work for a services firm, business development is a process. Now I touch on services agencies because I believe building strategies for business development working for a web services company is different than web products. Why? Because products, often times, are tangible. Not in the sense that you can pick it up and touch it, but there’s a known feature that usually solves a client’s problem. Web services are intangible, and it’s challenging, at times, to get a client to see the value as you would a web product. Therefore, the process of developing business is slightly different.

The business development process is a continual cycle…

Biz dev needs to be cared for, looked after…you can’t wing your business development. Business development is not just sales, it consists of the following:

  1. Service or offering — what do you provide? How do you articulate this? This is why you are in business.
  2. Marketing — letting the world know that you have this service or offering.
  3. Sales — selling your offer and building your client list, as well as expanding on your current client accounts.
  4. Client advocacy & management — being there for your client and delivering what you promised you’d deliver. This helps retain clients and you can use that to your advantage to get more clients. Happy clients make for great references!
  5. Partnerships — teaming up with other firms that are complimentary to yours, not in direct competition.
  6. Networking — going to events, meeting industry people, building a network.
  7. Getting feedback — from your clients, from the prospects that you didn’t close, from your team and yourself.

This is an on-going process, and one that you’ll cycle through and tweak as time goes on, but let’s hop into it and talk about the many faces of business development.

Articulating your offer…

Why would a prospect want your service over another agency’s service? Let’s face it, there are thousands of web agencies out there that probably do exactly what you do. So, how do you differentiate? This is where business development starts. Articulating your offer is the first thing that needs to be done, it is the basis for which we build our business development plan. Now, the offer can (and probably will) change as time goes on, but fine-tuning what you already have is the quickest route to success.

Focus is the name of the game. Customers and prospects want an agency that has a deep understanding of one or a few things. Strategy, Web Design, Web Development. If you look at the agencies that have been in business for a while and are thriving (not just surviving), you’ll see that they have focus in one or two areas and companies specifically seek them out to do business with.

Articulating your offer is no easy feat, and for every agency out there, it’s going to be different. What makes you unique? Are they your services, do you have a deep and narrow focus in one area that beats out your competition? Maybe it’s your values? Your crew? Or maybe it’s a vertical that you know inside and out. Whatever it is, you need your audience to have only one response to it — “That’s what you do? I’d love to know more about that.” — Every time you tell someone what you do, you want them to be intrigued enough to ask you questions about it. This gets the conversation going.

I know, this is a tall order, but that’s why you have a team. Get their input, ask them how they articulate what they do. You can also look at the marketplace and how your competition is articulating their offer. My previous agency Oomph “crafts digital experiences with passion and purpose.” 10up, a WordPress digital agency, “makes content management easy, maybe even fun.” The agency my sister works for, Liberty Concepts, they are “building engaged communities and influencing conversations taking place online.” Now, these probably don’t get everyone they reach to say “really, tell me more…” but they do speak to their specific audience. And remember, your offer-articulation will change as time goes on as businesses and markets shift.

Marketing to the world…(or maybe just your users)

Marketing is the next crucial step and one, for a long time, that went overlooked in the business world. Sales was always the front runner, but ever since the dawn of the inbound versus outbound debate, marketing has got its fair shake. Of course, the reality is — is that sales and marketing are two very different disciplines and two very different mindsets. But they do work together, not in opposition like the long cold war it has been of the late (late) 20th century.

Marketing can either aid or handicap your sales team. You can have sales-focused marketing, it behaves as a function to grab those potential customers who are considering whether or not to buy. If you look at an entire client cycle from initial contact to the final launch of a project, you have a progression that goes something like this:

  1. Project idea
  2. Need to research firms (and pick the right one)
  3. Narrow the list of potential agencies to work with (the short-list)
  4. Get a proposal and presentation
  5. Negotiate contracts and sign
  6. Kickoff the project
  7. Delivery of the project (completed)
  8. Evaluate the end product
  9. Then start it all over again if there’s another project (which there will always be)

So, with all that in mind and looking at it from the shoes of your customer, what are the things your customer needs from an information standpoint to make solid decisions? What questions will they have? And at each of these stages, what are your customers thinking about?

Customer’s thought-process

  1. Project idea — This is going to be a lot of fun or this is not going to be a lot of fun, either way, how do I get this project started? I need to find a web agency. Where do I look?
  2. Need to research firms (and pick the right one) — what firms have what I’m looking for? Who do they work with, what do they specialize in? What verticals do they work in?
  3. Narrow the list of potential agencies to work with (the short-list) — which agencies impressed me the most? What case studies would I like to show my boss? Which firm do I get a good vibe from? Have they done really awesome work? Do they have good references?
  4. Get a proposal and presentation — how hard will this process be? What will I need to get them, what will they want from me? Will their proposal/presentation address my challenge?
  5. Negotiate contracts and sign — ugh, contracts! I know they’re necessary, need to get sign-off.
  6. Kickoff the project — what should I expect? Who will they need from my team? What information do I need to put together?
  7. Delivery of the project (completed) — will this go smoothly? Will there be any unforeseen obstacles? Will we get along with everyone, will I like what they build and design for us?
  8. Evaluate the end product — is this what I expected? Do I feel we got our money’s worth?
  9. Then start it all over again if there’s another project (which there will always be) – the last project went awesome, can’t wait to do it again. Or, the last project was awful, I don’t want to go through this process again.

Answering questions like these will help your sales team close more business. Now, obviously, marketing isn’t all sales-oriented. Marketing is also about brand reputation (which…will ultimately help with sales) that gets people to like you. And these are people that you may not even do business with, but they could become brand fans. And brand fans can be really good for business. They can advocate for your agency or a project you worked on that was super cool. Marketing can always reach a much wider audience than sales, you can use social media channels, automation and other technologies to get your value and brand out to the rest of the world. And remember, people and companies that are interested in buying from you will always research you first online and make assumptions and judgments without even speaking to you first — and that’s why marketing is uber important!

Sales — the cowboys of the business world…

I’ve written a few posts on sales and I’m sure to write more because sales its own special snowflake…and there’s a lot to it. Sales is demanding, very demanding. And if you’re not careful in business development, sales can eat up the majority of your time, because let’s face it — it’s the driver of more revenue. So what should we be focusing on in sales? Good question!

First, you need to look at the marketplace, what choices are out there that a prospect could potential make, what solutions are available to sell? Then you need to get serious about targeting your ideal client, who are they and what position do they hold, what types of companies/organizations do they work for? What problems or pain points can you solve for your customers? Who are your competitors and how might you lose to them?

Then the next step is establishing a sales process or refining the one you have now. You can be a sales cowboy, but even cowboys have a code. Don’t go out there and play things by ear, or ride the bull until you fall off. Get yourself focused on funneling prospects through a process that progresses the sale. Now, you may be progressing the sale to a ”no” but that’s ok. Rejection happens, but you have a process in place to make progress. The process won’t guarantee that you’ll close business, but it will guarantee that you get the “no’s” out of the way quicker, and get a better understanding of how your getting the “yes’s”

Look at how the sales process naturally goes, something like this:

  1. Lead generation / Prospecting
  2. Qualifying
  3. Scoping
  4. Proposals / Presentations
  5. Negotiations
  6. Contract signing / Closing

What are the things that you need to do in each of these stages in order to progress to the next one? What’s the requirement of each stage, what is the purpose of each stage, which team member will be a part of each stage, and what resources will I use for each stage?

Having something outlined will help you on a couple different levels. The first one is obvious, it follows the stages of the buying process. When you have a legitimate lead and you know they are going to buy (maybe not from you, but hopefully), then you can progress the sale by getting the prospect to hit the requirement for each stage. The second level is that prospects will come to you at different stages of the buying cycle. They may be dealing with another agency and then something went wrong. Maybe there was a conflict of interest and they went searching for a new agency and found you. But, that prospect has already been though the qualifying stage with another agency and wants to hop right into scoping. Well, you just need to know if they meet the requirement to hop on in to scoping. Use this table as a guide or make your own so you don’t have to think about the next step, you can concentrate on your prospect.

Customer satisfaction and delivering on your promise…

During the sales process, the sales cowboy always makes promises. Make sure those are communicated properly to the project team. If a client is expecting one thing, and the project team doesn’t deliver on it, then that makes for an unhappy client and bad word of mouth. Which, in the world of small business, goes a long way!

Good communication and continuing to build client intimacy and advocacy will have a drastic affect on your customer base. Clients want to feel like they are the only client, so when your account managers or project managers connect with the client, there needs to be cohesion from the sales team. The sales people have been dealing with these customers and then once a sale is made, they hand the customer off to the project team. Make sure there’s continuity there that usually comes in the form of a project handoff meeting between the sales team, PM, and the new client.

But as a business development person, you’ll want to check back in with the client to make sure things are running smoothly, that the client is getting value out of the process and project, and you need to look for more opportunities. Relationships are a huge part of agency business. Don’t be afraid to leverage those relationships, even if that means getting a case study out of it. At the most, you can get more business through other projects within that customer’s company, or good referrals for other organizations that might have a project in mind. When you’re in the midst of a project, the focus is on delivering great work, but you still can’t neglect finding opportunities, or being oblivious to them.

Navigating the world of good partnerships…

There are different types of partnerships out there; formal ones, informal ones, referral partnerships, hand-shake partnerships, ones that have contracts and ones that don’t. The only thing I’d really like to touch on with partnerships is this: In today’s business world and with the ever-growing list of customer needs — partnerships help with being able to give a client a full experience.

Your agency is really good at a few things, right? Like web strategy and design. Another firm specializes in custom web development and the templates you design need to be developed with custom code. That makes for a decent partnership. Where the waters can get muddied is in ownership. Who owns the client? How will meetings be handled? This is all something that you’ll have to work out with the other agency to see what the best experience is for the customer. Maybe the customer only wants to deal with one entity. If that’s the case, you can communicate things through from your partner agency.

Partnerships are also good to reach a wider audience for leads. This is why you’ll see many hosting providers like WP Engine, Pantheon, Acquia, etc. have many partners. In essence, they all help each other out. Now, a lot of these bigger hosting companies require that you pay a certain amount of money each year to be a partner. That’s not right for every agency, but it may be right for you, it all depends on revenue, growth, and the ROI you think you’ll get from being a preferred partner.

As a biz dev person, you need to seek out, research, and evaluate different partnerships. Partnerships should add to your business and your partner’s business, they should be mutually beneficial. If they aren’t, then it really isn’t a partnership.

Network…don’t business develop with business development

Networking has been around for a very long time, but they didn’t always call it networking. It’s been called schmoozing, rubbing elbows, social climbing, mingling, and many other names. But networking plays a big role in business development. It’s meeting people, it’s being seen, it’s playing the game.

But there are a few things I want to point out about networking. The first is that it isn’t about the company, it’s about the individual. As a business development professional you attend events to network, but you need to network wisely. When I first started out, I was the guy that would hand out my business card to everyone, and that just doesn’t work. Nobody wants to talk to the guy who wants to talk to everyone.

And when I first started out, I didn’t have much of a network. I only had my friends, and that’s where I started. I asked them to connect me with someone they knew who was in my line of work that I could get advice from. People love giving advice, so go talk to people. Listen to people. When you go to an event, go there to meet one or two people, but make solid connections. Learn what they do, have good conversations, have impactful conversations. Make impactful impressions by making strong connections.

The other thing I want to touch on is the trap of networking. Don’t go out there and attend every event that you can, you’ll get burned out on that, quickly. The thing you’ll notice as you start to go to more networking events is that there are soooo many business development professionals at these events. And most are there because they want to sell something. Pick out the events that are focused on a certain vertical, like say your agency works in the healthcare field. Search for healthcare/digital events — I know you can find plenty. And pick the ones that have an expert speaker in that particular industry. There are usually a lot of industry (remember, healthcare) people there that can either connect you to the right people in there company or are the right people. But you don’t go there to sell them anything. There’s nothing people dislike more than being at an industry event to learn something and a salesman walks up to them to try and earn their business, it’s a turn-off. So, when you’re at these events, listen to what the speakers are saying, learn about the subject, and tell your prospect (or whoever you meet) that you are there because you have an interest in the subject matter. Have organic conversations, don’t push a solution down someone’s throat at an event, it hardly ever works.

Networking is about consistency, the more you go to industry events, the more you’ll be recognized as someone in that community. And then when prospects at those events have a project they need done, if you’ve left a good impression and made an impactful connection, they’ll remember where they put your business card and give you a call.

Feedback improves the process…

I can’t stress the need to get feedback from your clients. It will really help you improve the process. You’ll also want to try and get feedback from the prospects you lost during the sales cycle, that will help you improve your sales process.

With prospects you lost, think about putting together a quick Google form and sending out a survey that has 5 to 10 questions with input fields. It’s hard enough to get people to give you feedback, let alone someone you didn’t sign as a client, so don’t make it too daunting. But if you ask nicely and tell them it would improve your process, many will comply. Certain questions could be:

  • Did you understand the solution we recommended implementing?
  • Was there any part of the process that confused you?
  • What was your favorite part of the process?
  • What did our competitors do better than us?
  • What was the ultimate deciding factor for choosing / not choosing us?

Remember, you can give these to anyone who went through your sales process to better that particular process.

For clients that you did work for, they’ll go through a different feedback review and it should include sitting down with your client to get feedback. Put aside 30 to 45 minutes, a week or so after the project is all finished and review the project. And just listen to their answers. Certain questions could be:

  • How would you say the overall project flow went?
  • Was there any part of the project process that you didn’t like?
  • Do you feel like everything was communicated to you properly?
  • How would you describe your feeling toward the end product?
  • And many more….

And remember, just listen, don’t offer excuses or argue with them, just listen. Get the feedback to the team and the leadership, and tweak the process if it needs tweaking (which…it always will!).

Then, if appropriate, ask for testimonials or case studies. Ask if you can use them as a reference. I can’t point out the importance of having a number of references on hand. When a biz dev guy is in the middle of selling something and the prospect asks for a reference, it’s nice to be able to pull from a pool of happy clients. And then also, look for future opportunities. Communicate with your clients after the project is finished, check in with them and keep that relationship strong.

Wrapping up business development…

Let’s cycle back to the beginning, what is business development? Well, it’s all of these things — you’ll wear the marketing face, the sales face, networking and partnership face, and the customer advocacy face, all the while trying to articulate your offer just right and getting feedback throughout the process.

If you look up the exact definition of business development, it probably goes something like this:

The process of experiencing growth through acquiring more profitable clients and expanding existing customer accounts.

– which, if you think about it, encompasses many things, many faces. Business development is a discipline and one that should be given the proper time to work for your agency. Believe me, it will take time. The role of business development is a jack of all trades, but still a master of one. Kudos to all the biz dev people out there — the unsung heroes of the business world!

The Needs of Web Proposal Writing

Casting a wide net, web proposal writing is probably one of the most daunting yet creative activities one can do in the tech space. Proposals can be the gateway to a super awesome project that soars to success and makes the client very happy…or it can lead to a resounding “we’ve gone with another agency, but thanks for all the time you put into this” reply from your prospect. Proposals can also be the beginning of revision after revision to get the prospect’s challenge mapped to the right solution through hours of project scope development. Ahh…the possibilities…I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone that’s liked proposal writing as much as I do. 

For some, proposals are merely an estimate of what it would cost to get a project done. For others, it’s a templated document where little changes are made except for the company name and date. For me, proposal writing is a journey. It’s a journey of discovery, understanding the challenge, mapping the right solution, building a relationship, and finally presenting that journey with conviction and delivery. 

Many agencies churn out proposals like a shoe factory because they feel proposal writing is just a formality, a number, another template, a means to an end. But it’s not. A proposal is the gift one gives to a company or brand to solve their problem. And that needs to be done with thought and care, strategy and information, good design and presentation, and maybe even a little love. I am not an expert by any means, but I have years of experience writing proposals for web agencies. I wanted to share my evolution of proposal writing and how the actions that proceed the proposal writing process are of the utmost importance.  In order to write strong proposals, you need to ask smart questions.

Proposal writing starts with a question…

As many biz dev people know, proposal writing starts with a single question:

“What is the challenge that needs to be solved?”

This starts the conversation! Now, often times, companies and the people who work for those companies may not know the true answer to this question. And that’s where things like qualifying and scoping really help in identifying a few things.

The way I would usually start the process is by having a phone call with the prospect to understand their needs and objectives. One question I always liked asking or opening with was “what do you want the world to know you succeeded at when this project is finished?” – it’s a great way to get them jazzed about the project and get them feeling good about the conversation they’re having. Keep in mind, they are probably having similar conversations with other biz dev people at other agencies, so anything that’s a little different might surprise them and make you stand out.

The absolute must-knows when writing web proposals..

  1. NEEDS — every company has a need (maybe many) that should be addressed and this may require some digging on your part to really understand those needs. There’s nothing worse than writing a proposal and totally missing the mark on the objective!
  2. AUTHORITY — establishing this is very important. Who is the true decision-maker? But this can be tricky in the beginning stages of scoping a project. Since big brands/orgs will usually send those lower on the totem pole to vet agencies, this may take some prying (and some demonstration on your part that your agency is good) to get to the right person.
  3. TIMELINE — understanding expectations around when a company wants their project to be finished can make or break the proposal writing process. If they have a huge project, but want it done in 3 weeks, that would put the fire out instead of lighting a fire, catch my drift? Onto the next proposal.
  4. BUDGET — getting a sense of what your prospect is willing to pay for their desired outcome is really important. Many people don’t want to give you a number and say “well, just write the proposal with the price tag you think should go in it” – ugh!! That’s a sure-fire way to failure. So, make sure you get some sense of what they are willing to pay, even if it’s saying “projects like that typically fall somewhere between $30k and $50k, does that sound like it would be within your budget?” – anything’s better than no number at all.

Now that you’ve taken care of the absolutes, you can move into the decision making part of the proposal writing process. That’s right…you need to decide whether or not this fits within your parameters. That’s something only you can answer, but I would look at a few things:

  • Lead source: where did your prospect come from? Are they a referral or did they find you in a Google search? I’d opt to go for the one who came in from someone you know than the one who just searched “web agency boston” and came to your site.
  • Project Challenge: is this project challenging for your team and their skill levels? How long would it take them to do, are there any aspects of the project you’re unsure of?
  • Timeline / Budget: is the budget where it needs to be for the project? We all know different agencies charge different prices and can deliver projects at different paces. Does the prospect have a reasonable timeline?
  • Project Match: is the project good for your agency, your brand reputation? Would it be something you’d want to put your name on? I know many agencies who won’t work with the cigarette companies or adult entertainment companies because they don’t want to put that out in the world. So…ask yourself if this is something you’d be proud of when the project is finished.
  • Location: is this company nearby? Can you meet with them in person? In the age of digital, many projects are all done online, and that’s ok. But maybe you’re an agency that likes to meet face to face. Or maybe the client is in Shanghai and you’re located in New York, that’ll make for many a late night!
  • Gut feel: I think this is a good one to mention. Your instinct — how do you feel about the project as a whole, the people you’re engaged with, the company’s objective? Do you think you have a shot at winning? That’s always a tough question to answer (I never thought I’d lose any bid, lol!).

Really scoping the web project and minimizing the creep..

We’ve all heard it—Scope Creep—the infamous added feature that sneaks its way in after the project discovery session when a new stakeholder rears their head and says “hey, but what about this…”

Well, sometimes scope creep is inevitable, but if you can minimize that while you’re scoping, the web proposal writing process will be a little easier.

There are really only two ways to mitigate against scope creep. One way is to understand the full breadth of the project, which can be really difficult, right? Sometimes things just pop up or change happens due to a shift in business, market, or whatever. The second way is to use parameters or boundaries in your web proposal writing. I like to do a combination of both.

Obviously, every project you encounter is going to be different, so depending on what needs/objectives your potential client has, it will guide the questions that you follow up with. If a prospect tells you that they want you to do a branding and logo design, are you going to ask them if they want to use a membership plugin or module? Probably not. So, instead of articulating what to ask on every type of project (that might be impossible, or entirely too long of a blog post), I’m going to type out a mock call so you can get an idea of where to take things.

I’ll set the stage for this scope call…

The potential client wants to do a redesign of their website — they are a travel blog that want their users to sign up for their newsletter and they offer readers ratings and reviews of travel destinations. You’ve spoke to them one time and have gotten the logistical stuff out of the way (Needs, Authority, Timeline, Budget). Here’s the email you were sent with information from Tony at TotallyTravel Blog (fictitious blog..or so I hope!).

Hi Adam,

Thanks for the intro call, I liked learning a little more about your agency and your approach to a website redesign. Here's a little more information on our project. We have TotallyTravelBlog.com that's a custom PHP homegrown content management system. We have about 5 writers that write content for us, but would love to have more. We also have a newsletter that goes out once a month and our goal is to build our subscriber list. We offer travel ratings and reviews on our site and we would like to improve our SEO. We can definitely hop on another call to go over any questions you might have.

Best regards,

Tony

Ok — first and foremost with a prospect like this, they will almost always send you some sort of RFP (request for proposal), so you’ll have information of the basics and maybe even a little bit more. I’ve never read an RFP that’s given me everything I need to write a proposal. So you’ll need to get on a call.

But, right off the bat, we know a few things, right? They are in the media space because they blog about travel, and they have subscribers, so what does that entail? They also have writers (so think WordPress roles), and they’re concerned with their SEO (what does that look like?). Here’s a mock call:

Begin Conversation

Adam: Hey Tony, it’s Adam calling from Being AJiLe, how are you?

Potential Client: Good, good, Adam, and yourself?

Adam: I’m fantastic, thanks for asking. So, I’ve received the information you sent over on the project and I do have some questions. The first one is about the PHP CMS, how much legacy data do you have? I imagine there’s going to be quite the migration involved with this redesign, correct?

Potential Client: Yes, so all the posts will need to be migrated to the new CMS.

Adam: Ok, cool. But just to clarify, the posts aren’t all that need to be migrated, correct? I imagine there are images, authors, tags, categories, and other content types that will need to be moved over as well?

Potential Client: Yes, yes, all that stuff will need to be migrated as well.

Adam: Ok, awesome. What would be super helpful is if we could get an idea of how many content types you have and maybe we could even get a sample of the content types to get a gauge for how relationships are set up? (Sidenote: how many content types are important to know, usually content types (or post types in WP) are going to have different outputs, which could mean unique designs. Also relationships between content types can get tricky with migrations. On this one, more than likely, certain scripts will have to be written to map relationships to content types)

Potential Client: Sure, no problem, I can get that for you.

Adam: Perfect! Now you said in your email that you have about 5 writers? What does their workflow look like with the current CMS? (Sidenote: this will give me an idea of what permissions might look like, and if there’s any way to minimize steps to make things easier for them)

Potential Client: Yeah, so this is big problem internally. We actually have our authors write the posts in Google Docs, they share it with our two editors that approve the posts and then work with our web admin to put them in the current CMS. It’s been quite the hindrance, so that’s why we’d like to migrate CMS’s. We’ve heard good things about WordPress.

Adam: Yeah, so WordPress has got certain user roles written into the CMS. So, your whole workflow that you have right now could be done a lot smoother with WordPress. We could assign your writers roles of either contributors or authors depending on permission levels and they could work right within the CMS instead of outside of it. Editors and admins, also WordPress user roles, would be able to approve things in WP and could push content live. The whole workflow would be much easier to handle.

Potential Client: Ok, that’s great and exactly what we’re looking for.

Adam: Cool, yeah I think WordPress might be a really good fit for you guys, but you also said that you offer certain ratings and reviews? How is that currently done?

Potential Client: We integrate with TripAdvisor

Adam: Ok, interesting. Do you know if it’s just a snippet of code that’s pulled from TripAdvisor or are you using some sort of API?

Potential Client: I believe we just take snippets of code that TripAdvisor offers and insert it into our website.

Adam: Ok, I’ll have to do a little digging into TripAdvisor and see what technologies they offer, they could have a widget or plugin that might work with WordPress. If not, then we’ll have to take a deeper look.

Potential Client: Ok, sounds good.

Adam: Awesome, ok so since you’re in the media and publishing world, I have to ask about ads, will there be any ad-serving on the site?

Potential Client: Oh, yes, absolutely. That’s our biggest money generator. We use Double Click for Publishers.

Adam: Ok, cool, I know of a good DFP plugin for responsive sites and ad-serving, so that should be pretty straightforward. But you said that ad-serving was your biggest money generator, what other revenue do you get off of the site?

Potential Client: Oh, yes, we syndicate our content to a few other blogs in the travel industry.

Adam: Ok, and is that done through an XML or RSS feed?

Potential Client: Yes, they go out through a simple RSS feed that other travel blogs can grab on the site and we have certain agreements with them.

Adam: Ok, that makes sense. Another question I have is around your subscribers. Are these subscribers to your blog, or are they members of your site, do they get certain perks, or are they just subscribing to an email list?

Potential Client: Yeah, so we don’t have any members on our site, although that’s something that we’ve been thinking about doing and offering perks. But right now we only have subscribers through our email list for our monthly newsletter, and users also sign up to get updated blog posts.

Adam: Gotcha, so your readers can sign up to an email list to get blog posts or the monthly email newsletter, do you use a certain email newsletter provider like Constant Contact or something similar?

Potential Client: Yes, we use MailChimp. That’s what we use to send out our monthly newsletter and blog posts to users who subscribe.

Adam: (Sidenote: awesome, MailChimp is pretty easy to integrate with. There’s a plugin for that!). Ok, that’s fantastic. Now you said earlier that your team was thinking about maybe doing some kind of membership on your site, can you talk a little about that?

Potential Client: Yes, so there’s been some talk internally about offering tiered memberships where members could get access to travel deals. But I don’t see that happening for at least a year or more, we’d like to get this redesign done first and then maybe do something a little more with memberships.

Adam: Ok, cool, it’s just good to know because before anyone starts building the platform in WordPress, it’s something that we could potentially prepare for. It would obviously cost more money, but I know there are some pretty cool membership technologies that work well with WordPress like MemberMouse or Membership 2 Pro from WPMUDev. So, that’s good that we’re talking about it, I could send you some more info on those membership technologies to see if it’s something that your team might want to think about implementing sooner.

Potential Client: Yeah, that would be great, I’d definitely take a look and at the very least will have the information for if/when it happens down the line. Thanks!

Adam: Sure, no problem! Ok, I just have a few more questions. Since this is a redesign, I have to ask about actual design. Is there any rebranding initiative involved with this like logo design, brand guidelines or standards, or will all that stuff be provided?

Potential Client: Yeah, we went through a rebranding initiative about a year and a half ago, so we have everything that you need there.

Adam: Ok, great, and in terms of information architecture, would you like to revise the menu? Maybe do a little user testing to see if the terminology connects with your users?

Potential Client: Yeah, you know, I didn’t think about that. That definitely sounds interesting and something worth doing.

Adam: Ok, great, and you mentioned that you wanted to improve your SEO. Are you looking for an on-page SEO specialist or were you just talking about the technical aspects of SEO? Making sure your tags are all set properly, alt image text and meta data is setup, etc.?

Potential Client: Yes, that’s what I mean. I think we have good content, but I’m not sure what goes into SEO on the technical side, so we would be looking to our agency of choice to help us out with that.

Adam: Yeah, fantastic, so we definitely design and build with SEO best practices in mind.

Potential Client: Ok that sounds good!

Adam: Well, Tony, it’s been an absolute pleasure, thanks so much for giving me all this information. I think I have a good handle on things and I’ll start putting together the proposal. Sometimes as I’m putting together the proposal and discussing it with the team, more questions arise, will you be available to discuss if I have any more questions?

Potential Client: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Just give me a call or shoot me an email and we’ll connect.

Adam: Thanks, again!

End of Conversation

Let’s breakdown the call for the web proposal writing process..

First thing I wanted to know about was the migration, that could end up being a big piece of the project depending on how much legacy data there is, and remember that scripts will most likely have to be written to migrate all the content, but 301 redirects as well from legacy content because they still want to maintain (and improve) SEO.

I also asked about author workflow, this won’t be too difficult because it’s already a part of what WordPress does natively, but it’s good to get clarification. Noticed how I kept repeating what the Potential Client (PC) said, that just reinforces things. I also got the PC to uncover a pain point that they are having internally — remember that when you start to write the proposal — challenges to solutions!

Then I talked about the ratings/reviews, and the PC revealed that they integrate with TripAdvisor. You would have to do a little more digging here. I would search if there were any plugins that do this (honestly, I’m not sure if there are), but if not then TripAdvisor might have snippets of code to use. But keep in mind, with any 3rd party, that there might be some speedbumps that could slow down the project. If you use any 3rd party, you need to play by their rules, and that means things aren’t entirely within your control. So..I would put some buffer time (and price) in the proposal for this implementation.

I also asked about ad-serving. Often times, people in the media publishing world will just consider this a part of the package and not mention it. Remember, that these things are so ingrained in their heads as just being a part of their world that sometimes they’ll forget you’re not a part of their world. And the PC also said something that caught my ear – he said “our biggest money generator” – so that means there’s got to be other “money generators” right? Well, looks like there are, good thing I asked! I always err on the side of caution on things like this and ask. I’d rather end up looking a little stupid in their eyes than having an unhealthy project down the line. You can always play off the “looking stupid” part by saying “yeah, I thought that was the case, but just wanted to be 100% sure.” Ask, ask, ask—you’ll thank yourself in the long run and so will your team!

Then we got to the subscribers, and in Tony’s (PC) email I wasn’t sure if he had members on his site or just email list subscribers. But I asked him about members and uncovered it was something that they were thinking about internally. Now, this could be an opportunity to potentially upsell or increase the scope. I said I would get him the information and he’d take it from there. Now, you can get that info to him pretty quick and you can reach out to him in a few days to see if it’s something he’s had time to discuss with his team. He might not have, but it’s always good to get out in front of that stuff because when you’re in the midst of a project and another stakeholder enters the picture who wants the membership piece to the site, you can say “hey, we talked about that, it’s going to be $XX amount more.” You never know when the opportunity will arise. I sold one of the biggest projects of my career after I thought I had lost it! (Story for another day)

Then just to finalize, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a rebranding initiative along with the redesign, believe me, there are people out there who will get that messed up. It’s just a matter of semantics sometimes and it pays to be clear. And then we talked about SEO, because let’s face it, SEO is a beast within itself. Many people who have homegrown CMS’s don’t have great implementation on the technical SEO. Things as simple as setting up their H1 to H6 tags could be poor. Often times they don’t have meta-descriptions or tags, alt image text, an XML sitemap, or a robots.txt file. And if you want to get really fancy you can talk about microformatting, schema.org might have certain microformatting tags that it can classify their content as. Oooooo.

The needs of web proposal writing..

Now, that was obviously a mock call, but I did have very similar conversations and I went more in-depth than I did in this post. But notice how I left the communication lines open. I told him how when writing the proposal and talking with the team, often times, other questions arise. Set the expectation that they will be hearing from you again before they receive the proposal. That will also set an expectation that they’re not going to get the proposal in a day or two. Remember to leave the door open.

The trick to writing solid proposals is asking smart questions. And more importantly, it’s about asking the right follow-up questions. I know many people think web proposal writing is just a formality, but I think it’s one of the most creative activities one can do in the tech world. Why, you ask? Well…I’ll show you on the next post when I write about my web proposal writing evolution.

Coffee’s For Closers

….but only if you have an established sales process.

I’ve given this talk a few times. It started out as a flash talk and turned into a full 30-45 minute presentation. I’d like to write out this presentation in long form, that way the next time I give the talk, I’ll be able to direct people to it afterwards.

Let’s begin

How many people here are familiar with the scene “Coffee’s for Closers” in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross? To give a backdrop, Glengarry Glen Ross was originally a play turned into a movie depicting the lives of real estate salesmen. “Coffee’s for Closers” is a scene in that movie where Blake, portrayed by Alec Baldwin, comes down to motivate the other salesmen.

“Put that coffee down! Coffee’s for closers, ONLY! You think I’m f*ck!ng with you? I am not…”

He’s basically saying that if you’re in a sales capacity at an organization and you’re not closing business, don’t drink the company’s coffee, let alone make the base salary that you’re making. And is that true? Should coffee be for closers? The answer it YES!! Absolutely! Coffee should be for closers….but only if you have an established sales process. Because if you don’t, then you can’t expect your sales people to close on a continually basis.

We need a sales process to integrate ourselves into. To focus on it, to make it a standard, and then finally to improve it.

Introductions

So, who am I? My name is Adam Lamagna, sounds like lasagna! Easy to remember!! I am a sales consultant for Sucuri, I help agencies pick the right solutions to secure their websites and their clients’ websites.

When I turned 18 and graduated high school, I flew out to Hollywood, California to become a rockstar, that dream was short-lived! I got into sales and I’ve done everything from cold calling, to door-to-door, inside sales, to high-pressured, hard selling. I got into technology about around 2012 and haven’t looked back since. I’ve worked for a small web agency and a large (enterprise-level) agency. I love business development and sales. I believe sales to be a noble profession!

History of Sales

The history of sales is super important, it gives us an overview of how sales has progressed and where the pivotal moments were. If anyone wants to read more about the sales process, you can always check out my blog post on the history of sales. Starting at the beginning of time, we had the bartering system. You give me this, I give you that — still relevant to this day. But when money was introduced, it turned the bartering system into markets and gave us a system to improve upon.

Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution, this is when the modern day salesman comes into play. He’s also known as the exaggerated salesman, the guy who would sell you snake oil. And from there up to the 1950’s, when we see the fast-talking salesmen come in, it’s really important to note that all the information in the sales process was owned by the seller. If a consumer wanted to know more about a product or service, they had to go to the seller to get that information.

Consumers finally got wise to this, so in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, we see things like SPIN (Situation, Problem, Implication, Need) selling, and Solution selling, and Strategic selling. They were kind of variations of themselves, but they all aimed to bring the consumer into the process, and make them feel like they were making informed decisions based on data. When the 2000’s hit and information was readily accessible, it rocked the very foundation of the selling world. Sellers were no longer in control, it was the age of the buyer!!

Sales Process

What is a sales process? Simply put, it is your view of your customer’s buying journey. With all the tasks, steps, procedures, and resources it takes to effectively manage that buying journey. I separate the sales process into 3 areas: 1—Pre-sales, 2—Engagement, 3—Post-sales.

Pre-Sales

Pre-Sales is planning and preparing to effectively engage the right prospects at the right time with the right tools.

First off, you need to know your buyers. Who are you selling too? What verticals/industries are they in? What do they care about and what do they need to make a decision? You can do your own buyer personas with this link to a HubSpot template — http://offers.hubspot.com/free-template-creating-buyer-personas — this is a really easy way to figure out who your buyers are.

Next is the marketing collateral. What are you using in your ‘sales tool-bag’ to sell people with? Your marketing collateral should do two things. 1). Showcase your talents. 2). Answer your buyers’ questions. You can answer your buyers’ questions by writing blog posts. You probably get asked the same questions over and over again. Well, write a blog post about it! Then showcase your talents through case studies and portfolio pieces. You can also reach out to the giants like WordPress or WP Engine to see if they have any marketing collateral you might be able to use. They’ll have written white papers that are available to download and use. Check it out!

Engagement

Engagement is the fun part! It’s actively talking to your prospect and funneling them down the sales funnel. There are different stages in engagement and it’s important to know the essentials (my own terminology) of each stage:

  1. Requirement: What is the requirement for a prospect to be in or get into this particular stage?
  2. Purpose: What is the purpose of this stage? Or what am I trying to accomplish with this stage?
  3. Team Member: Who am I using in this stage? Is it just me or should I bring another team member in? If you are a freelancer, then what hat (cap) am I wearing?
  4. Resources: What collateral should I use for this stage? What’s appropriate?

Then you’ll want to grid out each essential for each stage.

Closing

How do you close on a continual basis successfully? That is a phenomenal question. One that I do not have an answer to! But I will say this — it revolves around value! I look at 3 different areas of value.

  1. Value Relevancy: Is the prospect’s challenge relevant to what I do? In other words, am I the right person to solve this prospect’s challenge? If not, refer them to someone who is. Do NOT chase a client who’s project isn’t relevant to what you do! Please!
  2. Value Perception: This is a really important thing to learn about, value perception. Understand what the prospect’s perceived value is. Ask questions like “have you ever done a project like this one for your company?” and really try to understand what they perceive your value to be. Because, make no mistake, the perception is the reality. If someone values your skill set to be below what it actually is, then that’ll make for a frustrating partnership and project. If someone comes to you with a budget of $15k, and you know it’ll only take you $5k to do, their perceived value of that project is already $15k. You’re going to need to educate your prospects and sometimes that can be really hard to do. Learn value perception and how big a role it can play in the sales process.
  3. Value Diagnosis: Focus on your prospect and what they need. Make them a collaborative partner. Remember, it’s about the observable symptoms of problems and how they can be solved within the parameters of the solution. Encourage things like ownership and have a mutual self-respect/mutual self-esteem with your prospect. This can ultimately make you stand out from the competition.

Post-Sales

Once you close business, you then become a client advocate. You need to do a proper handoff with your new client and the Project Manager. If you are a freelancer, then it’s time to switch roles and become that PM. Make sure you explain what’s going to take place over the next month or two, or 7! Make sure your client understands the role and responsibilities they have. And finally, check in with your new client after the project is in full swing. Ask them about the sales process, what did they like or dislike? Ask them if they’d recommend anyone for your services. Keep in touch and become that client advocate — it will lead to more business.

Quick Tips

In sales there are very few things that are within our control. These are the things you’ll want to keep in check:

  1. Listening: They say great salesmen listen 70% of the time and talk 30% of the time. That is not the case for me, I talk a lot more than that. I wish I could talk less, hehe! I don’t care how much you talk, but when you’re listening, make sure to actually listen. Respond with good feedback and answers.
  2. Time: If you are not a wealthy person, time is your next greatest commodity, spend it wisely!
  3. Attitude: The best sales people are the ones who can dust themselves off from a loss and go after the next deal with the same gusto and rigor as they did the very first deal they ever went after! People can hear when you are not smiling over the phone, believe me, they can!

Recap

The sales team and the marketing team work together. The sales process consists of Pre-sales, Engagement, and Post-sales. And doing all this will eventually lead to closing more business and drinking more coffee.


A History of Sales

Before I begin I would like to say that I believe sales to be a noble profession. There is such a stigma associated with sales and I’m pretty sure being a car salesman classifies you as the least trusted professional out there, Congressmen rank a close second! But sales is the 2nd oldest profession in the world, next to the oldest profession in the world as the adage goes. Go ahead – google “the oldest profession”, but I would argue that there is an element of sales to “the oldest profession”, so sales is technically the oldest profession!

As time has progressed, the industry that changes the most is sales. Sales needs to adapt not only to the market, but the buyer as well. It’s a delicate feat to sell things. I don’t care what it is – cars, commodities, services, solutions, warranties, carbon fiber, umbrellas, whatever – it takes skill to continually do it well. There are so many moving parts to sales. There’s the market, this fluctuates quite regularly depending on what industry you’re in. There are the buyers, consumers, prospects – and they all have different personalities, different thresholds, different emotional triggers. Then there’s the company you work for – this fluctuates – new people come aboard, new features get added to your product or service. And then there’s you – the salesperson – who holds all that together, and still manages to close business month after month. Kudos!

LISTEN TO PODCAST EPISODES NOW

So let’s look at the history of sales:

The Beginning of Time

At the beginning of time, there was the bartering system. You give me three cows and I’ll let you harvest an acre of my corn field – fair deal? Maybe. Maybe not. There has been some form of selling since the birth of mankind because the human instincts of wanting and needing have always been around. I doubt whoever made that first transaction of the acre of corn and those three cows knew they were making the first sales deal, but it created a system for improvement.

Before the Common Era:

We fast forward all these years later to right around BC(E) and money was born. Now money was really born well before this, I think somewhere around Mesopotamia and coinage had been introduced by the Greeks. But the Roman Empire and Roman currency, which consisted of gold, silver, bronze, and copper had their own system and it was quite sophisticated. They started minting coins and used it as a way to keep track of debts and sell items worth value. I don’t want to take any credit away from the Aztecs, the Egyptians, the Celts, the Chinese, and so on. The point that I want to make is that the invention and implementation of money developed the bartering system into markets and helped initialize sales.

The Industrial Revolution

Centuries later we move into the 1700’s and 1800’s, the Industrial Revolution is in full swing. This ushered in what we know today as the “modern day salesman” – the traveling salesmen (a.k.a. the snake-oil salesmen). Now for those of you who do not know what snake oil is, well, it’s the cure-all potion that turned you into a new person. Snake-oil started being used by the railroad workers who would lay track all across the country. Their bodies would hurt, their muscles were sore, and their bones would ache – so, they needed something to cure that pain. In comes snake-oil and the traveling or exaggerated salesmen. They were showmen, they made big, exaggerated claims, sold the snake-oil elixir, then would high-tail it outta town and move on to the next one.

To give you a little background on snake-oil, originally it had rattlesnake venom in it that would numb a worker’s body when he rubbed it on himself and claim to calm their pain. At that time, snake-oil soon became synonymous with miraculous healing powers, even though, often times the ingredients weren’t made public. Due to rival salesmen in the medicine profession there was a huge push to uncover the ingredients and a century later snake-oil became synonymous with hoaxes. And the snake-oil salesman was the equivalent to a charlatan, a hack, a fraud, etc.

But there were other salesman of this time period and they sold everything. The Industrial Revolution was a time of growth. Products were mass produced and manufactured – textiles, clothing, etc., and all these things didn’t sell themselves.

Time for tactics and techniques

How to Win Friends and Influence People – this book written in 1936 by Dale Carnegie was the first of its kind. It’s a self help book but naturally, salespeople gravitated towards it. It really started the techniques of selling – how to connect with people, how to persuade people, how to influence people. It talked about how to get people excited about things and have a winning attitude towards life and your job. And… it was all in lists – 12 ways for this, or 6 ways to do that. A great, easy read and most of what Carnegie writes is still quite relevant today.

But this sparked a movement in sales, you could actively use and improve your techniques to get people to buy your products or services. You, as a salesperson, could control the outcome of a consumer transaction by implementing psychological tactics. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was still pretty genius!

The Fast-Talking Salesman:

(hello, Kirby vacuum cleaners)
Also known as the Kirby Vacuum cleaner salesman, they were introduced in the 1940’s and 1950’s. These were the gentleman salesmen who would go door-to-door and invite themselves into the homes of housewives and put on a presentation of the benefits of their product. This really is the dawn of the retail age. And at this point in the sales industry, the seller held all the information. The consumer was only told what the seller wanted them to know. So, the seller could say whatever they wanted. If a consumer asked a question, the salesmen could lie or not tell the entire truth. It made for a one way street where salespeople held power over their customers and if a consumer was remotely interested in a product (such as a Kirby vacuum) the only information they could get on it was right from the salesman’s mouth.

This didn’t last very long because consumers got wise to the information exchange and their reactions to “The Fast-Talking Salesmen” changed (yet again) the face of the selling world.

The 1960’s

This was a time of cultural divide, opposition was growing for the war in Vietnam, racial tensions were stirring, class issues were starting to get noticed, and great music was born! But, selling was also taking a drastic turn. Instead of the salesman having all the information, we started to see this shift from “ask me a question and I’ll give you the answer” to “here’s some information, let’s figure out what you need” – and in comes Strategy Selling in the 1970’s – a salesman was trained to do an effective analysis of their consumers’ business or company and would make the consumer more a part of the process of selling, so the consumer would feel like they were making a sound decision with the help of their salesperson who knew about their business.

We see SPIN Selling – Situation, Problem, Implication, Need, then payoff! Or Consultative Selling in the 1980’s which was really about asking as many questions as you could (being a salesman), this would build rapport and uncover the true meaning of the consumer’s inquiry into your business (be it product or service). SPIN selling is an interesting methodology. Situation – understand the facts about the customer’s situation. Problem – focus the buyer on his actual, current problem. What is it now that we need to solve? Implication – discuss the implications of a). what happens if the customer stays with their current service or product, and b). what happens when they switch to your product or service. Then finally, Need – you want the customer to tell you about their needs, having them articulate their need is better than you articulating it for them! Remember that – people buy when you ask questions that get them to uncover their own needs, people resist when you tell them what they need. The 1980’s was when Glengarry Glen Ross (the play) came out and Always Be Closing started gaining popularity moving into the 1990’s. This is when we see a shift from uncovering the problems of the customer to being a well-liked salesman by building trust through connection, relationships, and your willingness to provide the right solution.

The 1990’s

In comes Solution Selling – the salesperson focuses on the consumer’s pain and addresses that particular pain point. But there is a huge element of connection with salespeople. They want to know about their consumers’ lives, they ask about their kids’ little league games, they ask about the extended family. Solution selling was about the solution, but it was also about the relationship. People do business with people they like – bottom line – still holds true to this very day! But the 1990’s brought with it the confident salesman, the detail-oriented salesman, the salesman that would build strong relationships with the buyers to encourage them to commit to buying, but also working with them side by side to understand all facets of the solutions and which one would be the most appropriate fit. The economy grew in the 90’s and it was a good decade for salesmen!!

Gordon Gekko – the ultimate solution seller (not really!)

The information age totally rocked the selling world:

And then the internet came and took with it the old school salesmen of the last 3 decades and a new breed of seller was born. This new breed of salesmen had their own way of doing things, it was all about acknowledgement and understanding that the buyer already had the information. Salesmen had to adapt literally overnight. I mean, if you think about, you can walk into a dealership tomorrow and say “Hey, that Hyundai Accent on the lot, well, I want for $12,000 because it says right here (holding up your smartphone) that I can get it for this price.” – Rock the boat a little more why don’t you. This is when I got into sales, we were right on that cusp of “old way” tactics to developing pitches and strategies that would let our customers see we were all about diagnosing the problem and working with them before any contracts were signed. Salesmen had to give up more of their commission because they spent more time in the life cycle of the sale.

Now, a great deal of effort goes into selling complex, big-dollar, high-stakes sales. That’s just the way it goes. In order for companies to compete in this landscape, they have to forfeit more time in the beginning to nurturing the relationship, diagnosing the problem (and essentially bringing more employees to the table) with their buyers, and having some type of deliverable before any contracts are signed.

But that’s how people win these days. They give something for nothing. Salesmen are generous and authentic. There’s a stigma because we still see cold calling, knocking on people’s doors, email blasts, Linkedin inmail messages piling up, solution after solution coming out, cloud-based SaaS products that people need (or don’t). But the bottom line is, in order to be a salesman in this game, you actually have to want to help people. The sales guys who are super slick are laughed out of the room these days. No one buys anymore from a pushy car salesmen, I wouldn’t. But I would buy from someone like me. I’m invested in getting people the right solution, even if that means it’s not from my company.

The face of the selling world has taken on many different looks over the years, and I guarantee that it will continue to evolve and change. I see the sales industry going in one of two directions. 1). Sales people will become more commoditized, and they’ll be ranked by number. The great sales people will be getting offered large salaries to come to work for the buyers of the industries to help vet other salesmen trying to sell them something. Or 2). The effort salespeople put in will continue to increase, the demands of the buyers will increase, and the information out there will increase, therefore turning the decision-making process into a lengthier lifecycle. Because either way, the market and the buyers now own the selling world. Information is there, people just need to take the time to sift through it. But great salesmen are like chameleons, they improvise and overcome, and trust me when I say – the last man standing on this earth will be a salesman!!