In today's episode, my guest, Joe Ardeeser, from Smart Pricing Table, an interactive proposal writing software, explores the art of writing a winning proposal. Joe will share his insights on what to do before agreeing to write a proposal, how to structure a proposal effectively, and how to make a great impression with your follow-up. We'll also discuss the importance of understanding your client's needs, the value of productising services, and the benefits of using interactive proposal software.
So whether you're an agency owner looking to up your proposal game or a freelance consultant hoping to close more deals, this episode is packed with invaluable tips and strategies.
Topics Covered In This Episode:
[00:00] Introduction to writing winning proposals for agencies.
[03:48] What questions should you ask in a sales call?
[07:45] Ascertaining your prospect's budget
[09:00] How to use 3 pricing examples
[09:28] What warning signs to look for that would lead you to walk away from a prospect
[12:15] What should a proposal contain?
[14:21] Simplify your proposal creation: define each service and save to a reusable library.
[18:59] What should you do when asked to provide design ideas in a proposal?
[20:44] What do you do once you complete the proposal?
[25:49] How does Smart Pricing Table support the proposal writing process?
[30:26] What advice would Joe give his younger self just starting out in business?
“Never send a proposal to a client, instead book a proposal presentation meeting.” — Joe Ardeeser
"Creating a Client-Centric Proposal: A prospect doesn’t want to dig through 100 pages to find your price or to find your detailed proposal.” — Rob Da Costa
“I'd want to make sure that I have access to the decision maker... If I can't get a promise that I can talk to that person, I'd be very hesitant.” — Joe Ardeeser
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Rob Da Costa [00:00:00]:
In today's podcast, we're digging into the super important topic of writing a proposal that wins you the business. And we're discussing what you need to do before you agree to write a proposal, how your proposal should be structured, and how to follow up effectively afterwards. This is a really interesting, insightful episode with my guest, Joe Ardisa, and he has some really great advice. And as ever, I learned something, so I know that you are going to as well. So let's jump into today's episode and learn how to write that winning proposal. I'm Rob Costa, and this is the agency Accelerator Podcast. As someone who has stood in your shoes, having started, grown, and sold my own agency, I know just how it feels in the ups and downs of agency life. So this podcast aims to ease your journey just a little by sharing mine and my guests' experiences and advice as you navigate your way to growing a profitable, sustainable, and enjoyable business. Hey, everybody, and welcome to this week's agency Accelerator Podcast. Now today we are discussing proposals and specifically what you need to do before you agree to write a proposal. What is the best structure when you're writing a proposal and what do you do once you've sent your proposal off? And I'm really excited to be joined by Joe Ardessa today to explore this challenging topic. Now, Joe is a former digital agency owner of twelve years, about the same length as I ran my agency. And after selling up his agency, Joe decided to take his passion for sales and proposal writing and he created Smart Pricing Table, which we'll talk more about later on. And Smart Pricing Table is an interactive proposal writing software and it basically helps agencies increase their chance of success. So welcome to the show Joe. I hope my garbled intro did you justice. And I thought I would kick things off by just sort of dividing this podcast into three parts. Like what do we do before we agree to write a proposal, what do we do during writing a proposal and what do we do afterwards? So what do you feel like the minimum baseline of knowledge that an agency needs to get from their prospect before they agree to actually writing a proposal?
Joe Ardeeser [00:02:19]:
Yeah, that's a great question, Rob, and I'm excited to chat. So many of these topics are very personal in nature because I had to deal with them. I would know when I was talking to a new prospect, trying to understand more about the project, and what they need. The first thing is, I always wanted to schedule a sales discovery call if a prospect wouldn't give me a meeting. I knew based on our numbers that our odds of success went way down. It's not to say that we wouldn't create a proposal or still pitch to them, but I'm going to spend less time on a proposal or on a prospect if they won't meet with me. So I would have a sales discovery call. I just tell them it's part of our process. And on that call, I would ask them who should be on that call while I'm setting up, who should be on the call? Who are some of the people that are going to be involved in this decision-making to get I think a lot of your listeners, Rob, can connect, know, you get a deal, slot it out. It's like super close to signatures. And then they're like, OK, we just need to have our CEO look at it. What? Absolutely.
Rob Da Costa [00:03:46]:
Joe Ardeeser [00:03:48]:
So on that call, the kind of things I'd ask so obviously foundational, I want to understand their project, what do they actually need? But I don't want to make the assumption that they understand everything that they need. Right. They're coming to me because I'm the expert, I know this discipline in a way that they don't. And so I want to temper their thoughts and their ideas with my experience and background. The kind of specific questions I would ask outside of project fundamentals, details would be what are the drivers, why are you guys doing this? A great question to ask that's related to this is what would happen if you didn't do this? You're trying to understand the stakes and they don't always know the stakes and so you want to uncover that. I'd also say, what does a win look like? I loved this question. Tell me what I need to do for you so that you love me when we're done. Right? What does a win look like? What's the timeline? I know, again, your listeners can connect with this idea of like, everyone wants to go a million miles an hour and then you find out there's actually nothing driving the timeline and then they're the one that delays later on. So I want to understand the timeline, not just what's the timeline, but what's driving the timeline. Is it a conference? Is it a new product launch? Really try to understand that, because I don't want to go crazy on my side trying to hit a deadline without understanding it. Right. And then finally, this is kind of related to this stage, but then connected to the next is just make sure that you listen because your proposal needs to reflect that you actually care and that you are paying attention and not snoozing. On the sales discovery call, I'd say those are some of the big ones. And then also, what does decision-making process look like, what are the stakeholders involved? I also like asking for a budget, which is another discussion, but those are some of the initial things.
Rob Da Costa [00:06:08]:
Yeah, I'm going to come up to the budget question in a second. I think the big message here for all the listeners is one of my favourite expressions, which is slow down, to speed up in your excitement of getting this prospect, contacting you and asking you to put a proposal together. We can overlook a lot of the points that you just made, Joe and therefore, we end up writing a generic proposal, or we end up missing the point entirely. Or we end up finding out that actually the client is way too early in the sales process, and they're just using you as a way of setting a budget which we really want to avoid as much as possible. I also think the other point that Joe made, listeners, is the fact that we want to be consultative at every step of the journey. And as you said, Joe, we're the experts, so we need to behave like we're the experts and asking those smart questions. But let's just move on to the budget question quickly, because I know this will have happened to you and me and lots of listeners before, which is when you ask the prospect for a budget and they say, we don't know, we're not giving you a budget, you tell us, how do you handle that situation?
Joe Ardeeser [00:07:15]:
Yeah, well, typically that's not them being completely forthright. Everyone has a budget generally in their mind. If you haven't thought about this at all and you're getting proposals, I'd be shocked. I love what's called the reverse elevator or the reverse auctioneer or something like that. Shout out goes to Jason Swank. This is his idea. I learned it many years ago. But what you do is you don't ask them, what's your budget blank? Just open like that. You say something like, well, Rob, what kind of budget are you guys dealing with? Are you thinking 50 to 100,025 to 50,000? Over ten, under ten? What are you generally thinking? And it's amazing how valuable that approach can be in actually getting a good number budget. I mean, I can make a website, I can do a marketing campaign for 5000 or 100,000. It really is a valid question. And tell me what you're trying to shoot for because that's going to inform my approach and my proposal.
Rob Da Costa [00:08:23]:
Yeah, absolutely. I always use the example, if you were building an extension on your house and you had an architect and a builder come to your house and they said, well, how much money do you want to spend, Joe, on this extension? You said, Well, I'm not saying I don't really know. Well, how on earth could that builder go away and give you a quote? Because are they going to build, like, a little lean-to or they're going to build a massive two-story extension? They just don't know. And exactly the same is true with our agency.
Joe Ardeeser [00:08:50]:
Right, right. Completely agree. Yeah.
Rob Da Costa [00:08:54]:
So Jason's great, and I think I use a similar approach with my clients where I teach them how to use three pricing examples. So the high-cost project, the mid-cost project, and the low-cost project, and asking they're just three examples and saying to the prospect, where do you think you fit in this if they say they don't want to give you a budget. So I think that's good. Piece of advice. Just before we move on to actually writing a proposal, what kind of warning signs would you see and hear to make you say thank you, but no thank you to actually writing the proposal?
Joe Ardeeser [00:09:28]:
Yeah. I would say one does it fit in my wheelhouse? I'm a big fan of specialisation. People are really hesitant. But the thing is, when you serve everyone, no one cares about you. Right. When I say I serve just dentists or just veterinarians or just construction or it can be a little bit wider, but you get my point. All of a sudden, when they come to my website, I'm screaming at them. I think both understanding your market, the verticals that you're going after, and also specialising in your technology and your services. Right. We were a WordPress only shop and I turned 2030 $40,000 drupal websites down because I knew if we do those, they're going to be a distraction. We're not going to get intellectual capital and we're not going to get momentum from these projects. So that's the first thing. The other thing would be I want to get a sense call me a bit jaded here, but I typically like to work with bigger companies. I think smaller CEOs, if I'm working directly with a CEO, $10,000 to them is a big deal. $10,000 to a marketing department is a rounding error. So I'd want that. I'd also want to make sure that I have access to the decision-maker. If I'm just talking to an executive assistant or an intern man, get ready to spin your wheels. Right. And if I can't get a promise that I can talk to that person, I'd be very hesitant. So I think there are a lot of other clues. Like what's their business prowess? Unfortunately, we did high-end websites. If someone is like, they've never done a website before, that actually made me have caution, because you need to understand you're paying another business to do a service. It's going to cost some money.
Rob Da Costa [00:11:26]:
Yeah, great advice. And if you've got that gut instinct that this client is going to be a problem, then they probably will be a problem. Or if you get an inkling that it's not really a great fit, but we could do with the revenue, then it's going to be a really difficult client to service. So, as the listeners will know, I'm a massive fan of having a clear niche and really doubling down on that niche and being seen as the expert, because you can charge higher fees and also you can do a great job for them because you've solved that problem for other people just like them as well. So, good advice there, guys. Slow down to speed up, and heed all these warnings that Joe's outlining. Take your time to ask the right questions and make sure you're listening. So let's move on to they've passed all those hurdles. We've agreed that we are going to write a proposal. So what do you feel like a proposal should contain and what's overkill? What's the sort of right approach for writing a proposal?
Joe Ardeeser [00:12:21]:
Yeah. I wouldn't have 50 pages. I think it's the two Bobs podcast. And it was like five secrets to the Best Proposals ever. And it was a joke. It was like things like, put 1000 logos on one page, talk about yourself Incessantly. Have at least 100 pages.
Rob Da Costa [00:12:46]:
But how many proposals actually are like that, though? That's the thing. It is a joke. But it's also true, isn't it?
Joe Ardeeser [00:12:51]:
Yeah. A lot of truth is often found in this satire. Right. So I would say staff BIOS are helpful because they reduce amenities. Like, you don't want to seem anonymous. We're a real company with real people and real bills. Right. I think your terms are obviously very important and your terms should be iterative. Each new project should be informing your terms, and your terms should be evolving so that it is meeting your market and it's meeting your lessons. Right. I think executive summaries are helpful, but I wouldn't be crazy about all the things that could contain lots of text. You got to imagine your prospect is looking at five or six other proposals. What customers care about most typically is what is your offering, what are my options and what is the price. One of my big passions, Rob, and it actually drove me to create Smart Pricing Table, is the idea of productizing your offering. And this is connected to the second part, but the idea is, instead of grabbing snippets from this proposal, this proposal, writing this part from scratch and Frankensteining things together, I think folks will which.
Rob Da Costa [00:14:19]:
Is what so many people do. Yep.
Joe Ardeeser [00:14:21]:
So many people. Right. Instead of that, you slow down to take your favourite saying there, Rob. You slow down to speed up. And the idea of productizing is defining each of your services in a comprehensive, robust way and then saving them to a reusable library. Okay. Now, the reason why this is important is because so many agencies don't stop and ask the question when we say we do social media marketing, what the heck do we mean? And I love the saying, if there's a mist in the pulpit, there's a fog in the congregation. Right. Like, if you don't know what you're offering, your client has no freaking so that's really so not to give much of a plug to Smart Pricing Table, but that's our headshot concept. That's our Jim Collins idea there, which is, if you can productize and keep building a system, establish 20 to 50 line items over time, all of a sudden, proposal writing goes fast. It's clear you could have upsells integrated into them. Your budgets can go up anyways. Productization, I think it's huge. The other big tip I'd fail to miss would be clarity and I tipped onto this a little bit, but I'm a big fan of putting a fence around your work. So, for instance, let's say that you offer social media management. What does that mean? So I like starting a line item and I'll say something like, we'll manage your Facebook page and with the hopes of getting you additional leads. Then I like to break it down and say work included and create a bulleted list, like five posts per month. We'll meet monthly to go over hot-button issues. That would be great posts. We'll also interact with 50 of your comments because that's a helpful add-on for this service. And the point here is I'm putting a fence around my work. I'm putting handles that I can grab onto so that I can avoid the never-ending project. And then I like to enrich the last thing on this is I like to enrich line items with line item upsells. So what if they want to do an additional five posts? Do you make it easy for them to customise that? What if they want to have unlimited comment interactions because they're busy? That's why they're reaching out to you. Comment interactions are so important to the algorithms. Can you please do that? But I want all of it, right? Could you have an upsell for that that's unlimited? And then what about posting you've done all the work? How about posting all that to LinkedIn as well? Those are some great examples of upsells. And then put that in a reusable library, sell it over and over, improve on it over time, and build your system.
Rob Da Costa [00:17:44]:
Yeah, I'm a big fan of that. I just want to unpick a couple of things that you said. So first of all, I think we should all acknowledge that our clients, whatever market we're serving, are typically time-poor. And no one's going to judge the quality of your proposal by how many pages it is. So we just know that when you're going into it, that you understand your client is time-poor. They don't want to dig through 100 pages to find your price or to find your proposal. The second thing is, I always think a proposal is a bit like a date. And if you went on a date and all you did on your date was spend the whole time talking about yourself, then the person you're meeting is going to sort of say their hamsters died and they need to run home to leave the date as quickly as possible or they're going to climb through the bathroom window. So don't do a proposal like that. Don't start a proposal off by telling your prospect how great you are. Make it about them. First of all, demonstrate you understand them before you say how great you are. So those are a couple of things I wanted to pick up, one question I wanted to ask you before we move on from this. And I want to pick up the productization piece again is what happens when the proposal or the RFP says, oh, we want to have design ideas. Let's imagine it's a web design proposal and they're asking for design ideas. This is a real conundrum that I've tackled many times with my audience around, well, how can you give design ideas? Or how much should you give away in a proposal? Or they're asking for a social media strategy. Are you going to give that away in a proposal? Or isn't that your intellectual property? What's your view on that?
Joe Ardeeser [00:19:17]:
Yeah, I'd probably be open to that as a foot-in-the-door offer. I'm not going to give away all the secret sauce, but enough to whet their appetite. And I would request that we create the full proposal after that happens. Maybe this is 10% of the price of a bigger project, but I think a foot-in-the-door offer can really help get you a deal that maybe you wouldn't have. So I wouldn't be closed on that. But this goes back to the original question. One of the questions I have is how many people are involved in how many vendors are you talking to? What are my chances? I'm not going to say that. But in my head, I'm thinking, what are they?
Rob Da Costa [00:20:01]:
Well, good question to think about, to try. I always say to people, you need to try to find out the answers to the questions that they're not telling you or the questions they're not asking you. So that's where building a relationship with the prospect is a really good thing to do. And I really like the idea of providing some of that secret sauce, but making the client value it by having to pay to pay for it. So what should agencies do once they've sent their proposals? There's a deadline that they've met, and hopefully, it's not crazy short like you said, and then the actual project is way down the line. But what do we need to do once we've sent a proposal to give ourselves the best chance of winning and staying in touch and not being ghosted by the prospect?
Joe Ardeeser [00:20:44]:
Yeah, I'm going to say something kind of controversial, but don't give them the proposal, and I'll explain what I mean by that. So I do not like the idea of throwing a proposal over the fence. I want to be able to explain it. And so I'm a big fan of the proposal review meeting. And so how this works, Rob, is I'd be on a sales discovery call with you, and I'd get the information, I'd pay attention, and I would then say, well, Rob, the next step in our process is I'd like to schedule a 20 minutes proposal review meeting. I don't tell you, I don't ask you. I just say it's part of our process, which makes it feel concrete. I then bring up my calendar on the phone or on the Zoom call, and I schedule a meeting. The acronym there is FAM Bam from a meeting. Book a meeting. Right. And I get it right there. If they're not willing to book the meeting, then I have to ask questions. How serious are you about me? You can't give me 20 minutes. You want me to spend an hour or two, but you can't give me 20 minutes. Right. So I'd push on that. I'd really want them to agree to it. Otherwise, if they don't, I'm going to spend a very small amount of time. I'll also maybe create the proposal. If I can do it fast enough, then the attendance rate is really high at that meeting because one, you have something they want, you have prices, you have a pitch, and they want to compare it to others. And Rob, you haven't given them the proposal yet. Right. You have it, and so they got to go to the meeting, and then you send it afterwards. But the point of the meeting is to be able to walk through it and explain, here's why I set it up here's the structure I used. Here are some upsells. You wouldn't say it like that, but here are some things you could consider. By the way, I was thinking about this. I wasn't sure. Ask them some questions so you can get even better. And then maybe surface some questions or overcome objections. Obviously, I'm a big fan of our methodology. One of the nice things about the smart pricing table is it's interactive, and I can share my screen and we can actually check and uncheck options. And there's a running total on the top. Right? And so I think honing it in and really cutting down on the back and forth is a big part of the proposal review meeting.
Rob Da Costa [00:23:02]:
Yeah, I really love the fact that you're saying, I completely agree, saying, let's get a follow-up date in the diary before or a presentation date in the diary before we actually send a proposal. Because the minute you've sent it, that's going to be if you send a proposal and then you try and get a date, you're going to really struggle. But as you said, they've got something, you've got something they want, so they're much more likely to engage with you.
Joe Ardeeser [00:23:25]:
You'll never get the level of interaction with a proposal that you do on a proposal review meeting as when they're on their own, it's incomparable. And I like to say, too, Rob, the more I have my prospect on the phone or on Zoom, the less they're talking to my competitor and they're giving me signals. Right. Why would I want to miss their facial expressions by just chucking it over the fence? I want to understand, are you excited about me? Right. Do you think that our agency could really do it? And then I like to ask questions like, okay, what's the decision-making process? Like, post where we're at? Does anyone else need to be involved if I haven't asked? I like to ask questions and know what would happen if this project didn't go time and timeline constraints. I'm not asking necessarily direct questions, but I'm trying to gauge this with some indirect questions. And then you better believe, Rob, I'm going to leave that meeting with a meeting. Bam, bam. Right. So what I want to do is understand their timeline, and I'd say something like, well, Rob, this is all great. Thank you for reviewing this with me. I feel like we really nailed your vision here. If there's anything that needs to be added, please let me know. You mentioned that John is kind of he's in charge of making this decision. You said he's on vacation, but it'll be back on August 25. Why don't we schedule something for the 20 Eigth, and give him some time to breathe? And I'd love, at that point, just to see if there's anything I can do to win your business, to make our proposal a bit sweeter and to hear maybe some feedback that you've got from John also, I'd love to have him on that. Just I'm setting the expectation for the next meeting, and again, I'm getting more time with them as much as I can.
Rob Da Costa [00:25:23]:
Great. I think listeners all need to be brave and apply this concept of lamb, because I'm going to nick that acronym as well because I think you definitely want to keep the conversation going. And the way you're going to do that is by having the next conversation date in the diary. So tell us a bit about how Smart Pricing Table rather can help us create really polished, professional-looking proposals.
Joe Ardeeser [00:25:51]:
Yeah, well, smart pricing table is interactive online proposal software. I was using a competitor's product about seven years ago, and I was growing weary because what changed the most with my proposals was our offering and our price. But I didn't have an easy way to build a scope of work. And so Smart Pricing Table was born out of the need for my own agency to build scopes quickly. So as I mentioned earlier, imagine being able to define a line item and save it to a reusable library. And instead of proposal writing being this fog and frustration, all of a sudden, it's borderline fun because I'm just adding modules together and then making quick adjustments for the prospect so they know I was listening. Right. We have, of course, e-signatures, but we also have analytics. We'll send you an email if they open the proposal, but we also track what pages they click on. And Rob, get this. We also track line items that they open because they expand and collapse, and we track checkboxes and quantity changes. And so it's just a huge I talk with a lot of agency folks that are still using Word or Google Docs, and it's just a huge disadvantage. So that's kind of the big idea behind Smart Pricing Table.
Rob Da Costa [00:27:19]:
Sounds great. And just giving you that insight about whether a client's actually read the proposal or which parts that they've read on. It not only gives you some more smart things to say when you speak to them, but it also gives you some ideas on how to improve your future proposals so that you are giving yourself the best chance of them being read. So that sounds really good. And we'll make sure we include some links in the show notes to Smart pricing table. Any final thoughts before we wrap this up? And I ask you the question that I ask all my guests, any things I haven't covered?
Joe Ardeeser [00:27:56]:
Yeah, actually, sorry, one quick note. I do have a free demo, a personal demo with me. It's generally 15 minutes. So I'd encourage your agencies, and your listeners, if you're not happy with your proposal set-up or you're just curious, to book some time with me, it's no sweat on my back. I also have a free guide, the Profitable Proposal Blueprint, which you can find on our firstname.lastname@example.org, which is really helpful. Stepping back from that, I would know. One of my big convictions, Rob, is that your proposal might as well be called your plan, because at the end of the day, what you're doing is you're pitching a plan to your prospect. This is what I think we should do. And so many agencies, if you think of it like a plan, it's like what you just gave them is not a freaking plan. It's a vague mess, right? That's not a plan. And because it's a plan, it's so crucial to your success. It's foundational. And the end game is your morale. You have good plans, you have good morale. Your team has good morale. I think it's such an essential system to build out.
Rob Da Costa [00:29:07]:
Yes, indeed. And I'll include all the links for the demo and the guide that you mentioned as well in the show notes. So let me just wrap this up by asking you, Joe, if you could go back in time and give your younger self, just starting out in business, a piece of advice, what would it be?
Joe Ardeeser [00:29:24]:
Yeah, it's such a hard question, Rob, because when we're young or when we're new in business, we don't want to listen.
Rob Da Costa [00:29:30]:
That's an interesting point because that's always my second follow-up question, which is, whatever advice you give your younger self, would your younger self listen?
Joe Ardeeser [00:29:37]:
It's so hard because of specialisation, that took me a decade to believe in that concept, right? But I would say find some kind of mastermind related to your industry. We're talking about marketing, folks, right? So find a mastermind and become part of it, because you got to understand marketing and sales for marketing, it's specific. There are tricks and secrets that are specific to marketing agencies. You might try some random thing that you heard from some sales guy, say, and it doesn't work. Well, you need to talk. To people who have been in your shoes and are walking through very similar situations, that's when the music starts blasting loudly and you get a real clarity on where to go next.
Rob Da Costa [00:30:26]:
Yeah, great advice. It's very lonely running your own business and I certainly think I have a group coaching programme and the one big reason people stay in that programme is the community. They might join it because of the content, but they stay for the community. And that is so true that we just need to be around other like-minded people who have been in our shoes and have suffered some of the problems that we might have or will be going that way. So I think that is great advice.
Joe Ardeeser [00:30:57]:
Yeah. And to Rob's credit, this was completely my answer. I totally believe it is not connected there at all. I think it's so important.
Rob Da Costa [00:31:08]:
Thank you for saying that. I'll give you the $50 later. So you've given me a couple of links to the demo and also to the free guide if anybody else wants to contact you. Are there any other ways people would reach out to you? Those are the two best ways?
Joe Ardeeser [00:31:25]:
Yeah, I'm pretty big on LinkedIn. I give away a lot of proposal advice. I do posts on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I also have my own podcast, the B two B Proposal Playbook, and I do a lot of video excerpts from that on my LinkedIn. So follow me on LinkedIn and you'll see that podcast show up too.
Rob Da Costa [00:31:44]:
Fantastic. Well, I will include all of those links in the show notes and just want to say thank you so much for joining us today. I know the listeners will find some really interesting insights and hopefully go away and write their proposals slightly differently when they come to do the next one.
Joe Ardeeser [00:32:00]:
Thank you, Rob.