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How to Write Better Proposals- Interview with Adam Hempenstall

How to Write Better Proposals- Interview with Adam Hempenstall

Ditsa Keren
Better Proposals is a simple proposal software for creating beautiful, high-impact proposals in minutes. As a service business, the proposals you send to your clients are the most important documents in your business, yet so many of us get them wrong and end up either wasting our time or winning jobs that don’t suit us. In this interview, Founder & CEO Adam Hempenstall, shares his views on how to create winning proposals faster, more accurately and more professionally and strike the iron while it’s hot. If you’re a business owner, this is a must-read.

Please describe the background behind Better Proposals. What sparked the idea, and how has it evolved so far?

We used to run a digital agency and a massive part of that was writing proposals. To be precise, we would send 5-6 proposals per week. If we did a good job of writing them, we’d have a great month, but if we did a bad job, that month wouldn’t be quite successful. 

It is very much a hit or miss type of deal with proposal writing, and it used to be a nightmare. Writing proposals is actually a very hard thing to do. You need to make sure that it’s easy to read, informative and interesting at the same time. Being web developers and having spent lots of time on proposal creation, we decided to build our own internal tool that would help us write better proposals. Or course, we had our web agency and everything else, but I just got sick of sending classic proposals out and having people either read them and not reply or open it up, look at the price and close it down. I wanted to be able to track what people were looking at so I could follow up accordingly. 

Once we created the tool and started sending proposals through it, we had more and more people buy from us and then say something like: “Oh, that thing that you sent the proposal on, that’s really cool. Can we have that?” And we’d say, well, no, it’s just something that we use internally. But as time went on, I started thinking that maybe we could actually do put this idea into reality. Fast forward a year later, we decided to make Better Proposals a thing of its own. 

We put up a landing page and some ads just to see what happens. We got more leads in 24 hours for a non-existent proposal product than we had in the previous 12 months for our software company, which led us to completely focus on the tool. That was the turning point for us. We made a slow transition of turning off the agency and becoming a software company though, it took us about a year and a half to shut everything else down and make Better Proposals our full-time work. We’ve been growing from strength to strength ever since. 

Here are a couple of screenshots from the Better Proposals dashboard:

Proposal Editing

better proposals mobile notifications

Who is your typical client? What are some interesting use cases you can share?

It’s evolved a little bit over the last year, as we’ve started selling to bigger companies. Nevertheless, our core group of people that we could not survive without includes digital agencies, digital marketers and freelance professionals. It’s the entire ecosystem of digital freelancers and agencies that’s been our bread and butter. Although we’ve built a lot of features for bigger companies now, we never build anything that won’t benefit at least some of those people as well. 

What are your tips for writing a great business proposal?

I’ll give you three simple ones. 

The first thing is the introduction or the executive summary, whatever you want to call it. That’s the most important part. If you get that bit wrong, everything else is a struggle. Whereas if you get it right, you can actually do quite a bad job of everything else and you’ll still be in the game. What you want to be doing here is understanding, first of all, exactly what the issues are that your client has. Find out what problems they have and what they want to achieve out of potentially using your services as a company. 

Once you understand that, your introduction is really just restating all that information to them. It’s not a big bragging moment. It’s purely just that: state to them exactly what they told you – their problems and what they want to achieve. While doing so, use their words and not yours. Don’t paraphrase or reword things to sound cute, just explain to them exactly what they told you in the first place. That is going to mean so much to them because they’re going to feel like you understand them and you understand the situation. It counts for so much if you get that bit right. Everything else is easy. 

The second thing is to know who you’re writing for, and this covers a lot of different things. For example, if you’re writing a proposal to someone who doesn’t understand technology very well, then using a lot of jargon in your proposal is probably not the best thing to do. In this scenario, keep your proposal jargon-free. For example, there are so many marketing acronyms being used that the average person wouldn’t understand, especially in our industry. It’s so easy for you as an industry person to just write in jargon. You could write almost an entire proposal in jargon if you wanted to, but keeping it jargon-free will make it far easier for somebody who’s not a professional to read it. That means they are not going to get confused and they’ll understand more of it. Confused people don’t get their credit card out to pay for things. You don’t confuse somebody into buying things, and you certainly don’t do it when there’s pressure. That said, ensure your proposal is easy to read and understand.

Lastly, have a simple and easy way for the client to say yes. When you propose, you’re asking: “Do you want us to solve this particular problem for you? If they have no way to answer that question with a yes and then move forward and do something about it, then it’s always going to feel like a wall for them. It’s incredibly important to have the ability to interact with your clients through your proposal, and transfer the message similar to “We’re ready, are you? Let’s go for it, And here’s what to do next.”

Don’t complicate your proposals and agreements, just explain in plain English exactly what it is they need to do to move this forward, to say yes and get this deal going. 

Too many people make this like a game show as if it’s some sort of quiz they need to win or a puzzle they need to solve. Honestly, you just want to keep it simple and explain what to do next. A “Next Steps” section is remarkably good for this, as you can just write the next steps into three simple bullet points: sign below, click next, pay or pay a deposit, whatever it is. It’s all very straightforward stuff. Everyone can get their head around it.

What legal considerations are important to keep in mind when writing proposals?

I would always recommend having your terms and conditions in the proposal itself. The only situation where you wouldn’t do this is if you’re selling to a massive company and they have a legal department. If you send them terms and conditions, there’s a whole process that the company is going to have to go through in order to be able to sign it off, which you don’t want. At that point, you would keep it separate.

However, for 99% of the people you are sending proposals to, you want the terms and conditions to be included in the proposal itself, as they’re signing against the price, your technical execution and against your contract as well. There’s no reason to split that up into different things.

It’s complex to give people legal advice because we don’t know where people live. Still, nine times out of ten, if you’re dealing with a small business and things go to court, you’re not usually arguing over clauses in contracts. It’s usually just real simple – did you do the job or didn’t you? That said, what’s actually more important to include is a break down of what you’re actually going to do for the money.

There are tons of freelancer-friendly contracts floating around. We’ve created lots of them and shared publicly in the Better Proposals Template Library which people can use freely. Use that as a starting point and then tweak it to suit your own business and where you live as well.

Which tools does Better Proposals integrate with, and how can they be used to improve workflow?

Better Proposals integrates with CRM’s, payment providers, project management systems, live chat systems, remarketing pixels, and will generally connect all of your tools together. For example, Stripe and GoCardless are two payment providers we integrate with, which means that once somebody signed your proposal, you can immediately take payment from them, and they pay the deposit for your product/service instantly.

Live chat integrations are something we came up with about three years ago. Essentially, what it allows you to do is to reduce the time that it takes to get a deal over the line by allowing that person to ask questions in a quick-fire format, in short messages, so they don’t have to delay everything by writing the whole big email. They can just ask questions as they are reading the proposal. This means you can answer their questions quickly and move past objections more easily. Another benefit is that people are happier to go ahead sooner. It speeds up your overall sales process.

These are two really popular integrations that we offer. It’s a whole new way of experiencing a proposal where you can ask your questions. It’s the closest thing to face to face, and we’ve been getting lots of phenomenal feedback on it.

How do you envision the future of proposal writing and business in the digital age?

The future of proposal writing, in general, is going to be a lot more divided between what the systems do and what a human does.

It’s going to be down to automating as much as you possibly can. All the basic creation of it, such as choosing templates, inputting basic information like your client names and all that kind of stuff is going to be completely automatic. What you as a human will be left to do is things that describe the particular project, like writing an introduction. Those things need to be personalized every single time. You can’t get a machine to do it. Due to this, I strongly believe we’ll see more of is a greater quality of proposals. Will people be sending better proposals in general? Not necessarily, but I think we’ll see the system doing more of it, and the human part of it will become smaller. 

How does this translate to the digital landscape in general?

I would say that we’re actually heading down a dangerous path. You used to get paid per hour no matter what you did, and that was it. As a freelancer, you’d earn slightly more than if you were in a full-time job because of the irregular income, and that was quite cool. We all understood that there was going to be a few hours a week invoicing, and that was basically it. Whereas now, we’re all having to run agencies whether we want to or not. That means there’s less billable time. Taking it all into consideration, the age of the traditional freelancer is going to eventually be over. 

What will end up happening is that the true freelancers will be working in developing countries, and what you’ll have is somebody working in e.g. London and getting work, and then they will be project managing freelancers to actually do the work. I don’t think you’ll have a situation where people go and get work and do it themselves. We’re moving away from that, as you can’t sensibly do both. 

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