How to Write Proposals That Land Business – Jason Swenk

Jason SwenkHave prospective clients told you that your proposals were difficult to understand, or too lengthy to navigate through?  Are you looking for a way to make your proposals stand out among your competition and take your business to the next level?

By following a simple 8-step template process when writing your business proposals, you can get to the meat of what your client’s need and explain to them how you can provide it.  As a result, you will be able to eliminate the same mistakes your competitors are making and increase your closing percentage.  After all, your proposal is the first reflection of the quality of work that can be expected from you.  

Jason Swenk ran a successful digital marketing agency for over 12 years before selling it to focus on sharing valuable information to help others take their businesses to the next level.  Jason’s successful 8-step proposal template will help you to “wow” your clients and set you apart from the competition.  Stop making the same mistakes and start closing more business deals with Jason’s tested and effective tips and tricks.

Rich:  Hey everybody, we’ve got a great interview for you today, Jason Swenk is here.  He is a digital-preneur, and an author with over 12 years of running a successful digital agency until he sold it in 2011.  Jason started his career with Arthur Anderson back in the 90’s, and after realizing the vast opportunity that digital marketing presented, he quickly started his own digital agency in 1999.

Since then, Jason has worked with some of the biggest clients in the world, from Aflac, Lotus cars, Hitachi, AT&T, Coke and LegalZoom. Jason helps businesses establish strategies that get them to the next level by assuring what works and what doesn’t, so you know exactly how to build a successful business, which is exactly why we asked him on the show today.  Jason, welcome to The Marketing Agents podcast.

Jason:  What’s going on guys?

Rich:  Alright, man.  This is really exciting for me.  Usually we talk strictly about marketing, but we’re actually going to be doing a little about something different today, we’re going to be talking about getting the business.

Now before we get to that, you have become the guy that agency’s turn to to improve their business and grow their business.  How exactly did you get here?

Jason:  It all started kinda how you said in the intro.  I ran an agency for 12 years, but after I sold my agency I was kinda lost.  I was like, “What do I do now, I’ve done this for so many years?”  And then I had so many agency owners and business owners reaching out to me saying, “Hey, I’m having this problem, can you help me?”  So I decided to laser focus on this particular target market and just put out valuable information to help – not hype – and it’s really changed my whole perspective and really had people starting to follow me and reach out to me.

Rich:  That’s great, alright.  Well listen, I think I mentioned to you when we were talking before that I found you through a Facebook ad that talked about creating proposals that close business.  So I know that a lot of people that listen to this show are either running their own agency or are independent contractors doing some consultant work, so proposals are just part of your day to day business. What are some of the tactics that we can use so that we’re writing proposals that get us business?

Jason:  I have 8 steps that we’ll go over, but before we do that I think we all can agree that when you send a proposal, it’s a reflection of the quality of work that your company is going to deliver.  And if you submit a bad proposal, there’s very little chance that you’re going to win it.  And I learned this the hard way.

I met with a very, very small company a long time ago called Berkshire Hathaway.  No, I didn’t meet with Warren Buffett, but I met with a lot of his staff, and they reached out to us.  And I met with them and they said, “Hey, we really liked what we saw on the website and we want to hear what you have to say.”  And they loved what we had to say and asked for a proposal.  And here’s the kicker, I had a proposal in my bag, and it was literally “fill in the blank”.  It was so pathetic, they basically kind of laughed at me.

When I got back, I found out how big of a company they were. They’re the 15th biggest stock holding company in the world.  And so from that moment, I knew I needed a change and I needed to look at my closing percentages and how long did I spend doing a proposal.  So that’s when I came up with these 8 steps.  With these 8 steps, I was able to do a proposal in under 15 minutes, and I was able to close over 80% of them.

Rich:  Well that’s great. I’m interested to hear this, because on one hand you said you had a “fill in the blank” proposal, and I thought that was your trick to saving time on writing proposals.  So I’ll be interested to see what the difference is between what you’re doing now and the “fill in the blank” proposal that apparently was not what they were looking for.

Jason:  I always treated a proposal like a phone number, you have to get the digits in the right order.  So if you get the things out of sequence, you have very little chance of reaching that person.

So the first step is creating a cover letter. Only 9 out of 100 agencies that I did studies on actually do a cover letter.  And a cover letter is almost like your landing page that you’re trying to get them to read more. This is where you can explain to them a little bit about their problem and solution, and explain to them a little bit about yourself – very little, do not do too much – and then ask for feedback and tell them that you’d like partnering with them.  That’s step #1.

Rich:  Alright, so when you say, “ask for feedback”, what exactly do you mean in that cover letter?

Jason:  So your proposal that you’re building, you’re always building a proposal template versus going back and looking at all the proposals that you’ve done in the past and take bits and pieces out. That takes a long time, so you’re building this proposal template.

As you’re doing this, you always want to ask for feedback like, “What did you not understand on this proposal?  What would you recommend us doing?”  That’s why I’m always asking them if they understood everything in the proposal.  And I’ll get at the end to kind of the secret to eliminating you sending the proposal and the client going completely dark.  That’s just a little teaser so you guys listen to the whole thing, but that’s where I’m asking for feedback in the proposal.

Rich:  Alright, sounds good.

Jason:  Step #2 is creating a cover page.  Most people start off with a cover page where you have a nice, little graphic and your logo and maybe the client’s logo.  But the one thing I want to make sure you guys put on the proposal cover page is an expiration date.  I don’t know how many times I’ve had people come back to me a year, 2 years, sometimes 3 years and say they’re ready to do the proposal.  And by that time, I’ve already raised my prices.  And it puts a sense of urgency on them.

Rich:  Now how long do you recommend we put an expiration date on?

Jason:  I always do 30 days.

Rich:  30 days, ok.  And is there a specific phrase that you have?  Because I think I might say that these prices are good for 30 days – but it’s not something that’s big and bold – and you’re saying put it right on the cover page.

And this is different than the cover letter, too, correct? We have a cover letter and then we have a cover page.

Jason:  That’s correct.  And so yeah, I’m just up front with them when I walk them through the proposals saying, “Look, based on everything that you told us, to make sure we hold on the timelines and the price and everything, you need to make a decision in 30 days.”

Rich:  And then you can have a sense of urgency.

Jason:  Yup.  And then step #3, this is one of the most important steps and most people leave this off or get this wrong.  It’s creating an executive summary.  So where people get this wrong is they describe what’s in the proposal, and that’s not what an executive summary is about.  An executive summary is about describing what they’re going to get, what they want, what they need.  Not just describing what’s in the proposal.

And I always start off with a little NLP, neuro-linguistic programming.  So I state 2 obvious facts that I know the client knows is true.  Because when you do that, chances are they’re going to believe the third, fourth and everything else to follow.  So I would always say, “Having a great website is the key to growing and getting more business.”  So I’d state an obvious fact, and I’d do it again and again.

And then what I do is I start describing what they want and the big benefit, that’s the key.  And then I end it with, “Me and my team have met, we’ve researched your problem, we have the experience you’re looking for, and we’re ready to address the problem with the solution.”

Rich:  Alright, sounds good.  So we’re not exactly saying, “Here’s a bullet point list of everything you’re gonna read”, we’re basically getting them excited using that NLP, the “yes ladder”, so we get them to say, “Yes, I need that!”  So then all of a sudden they’re in the mood to continue to say “yes” throughout the entire process.

Jason:  You got it.

Rich:  Alright, sounds good.  I’m loving it.

Jason:  And then step #4 is where you get into listing your services and your deliverables.  One of the keys that we did here is we would categorize them.  So we were a full service agency, we had tons of people, so we could be the full service.  So we would categorize our services from creative, marketing, technology and whatever other kind of buckets that we have, so it was easy to follow.

And then we were very descriptive in each, where we would go over a methodology or process, we’d add in images.  And here’s the key, pay attention to this, this is very important – do not list your prices in your services and your deliverables – get rid of them.  Because as soon as someone goes to a web design or a marketing strategy that you’re doing, they’ll see a price and that may trigger them to think it’s too much, versus getting through everything and comparing apples to apples.

Rich:  Alright, makes sense.  So I assume we’ll get to the prices at the bottom of the proposal?

Jason:  We will.

Rich:  Alright, so I’m going to hold off on that question right now.  You mentioned adding in images, though.  So can you give me one example of an image that you might use to kind of enhance this proposal?

Jason:  Yeah.  So let’s say you were doing logo design or something creative.  Well, you want to maybe show that off a little bit, align the picture a little to the right, or create a nice, little header, just to make it easier to read.  It’s kind of almost like you’re building an ebook or a little, mini book for them as you’re walking them through the proposal.

Apple does this the best.  They always have their slides – barely any text – and they have an amazing image.  Now, you have to have a lot of text on your proposal because this is going to protect you later on, but anywhere that you can add an image to break that up adds extra value to it.

Rich:  Alright, sounds good.

Jason:  And continuing on step 4, this is also a place, when you’re listing out your deliverables, to be very specific. And also tell them what’s not included in the proposal, because this can protect you later on.  And this also can be an upsell that you can do later on for other services and products that you have.

Rich:  Alright, so we say what’s included, but we also say what’s not included, because of course that’s going to get them to say, “Wait a sec, I actually wanted you to take a look at our photography and make some recommendations, and I’m willing to pay extra for them now that I realize it’s not part of it.”

Jason:  Yup.  So when we were designing websites – and we design websites all over the world – , we would say, “Look, we’re only doing this website in English, we’re not going to do it in Spanish or Chinese or Russian, those are extra. But you’re business is worldwide, you may need these.”  And so we listed that out and a lot of times we were able to upsell them.

Rich:  Excellent, love it.

Jason:  Step #5 is going to your project summary page.  Now this is where you’re going to list out the prices.   So now they’ve gone through and you’ve walked them through all the services, the methodology, the process, what they’re going to get and what they’re not going to get.  Now you can list out – in a nice order –  their prices.

So we would do it based on two tables.  The first table is the one time charges.  And then if you do have recurring, I would break it up into another table, just so it’s very easy for them to look through and go, “Ok, it’s going to cost me $50,000 or $10,000 or $1,000 for this, and I’m going to pay $100 – $2,000 a month for this service.”

Rich:  Alright, so breaking up the up-front and ongoing costs.

Jason:  And then step #6, this is where the order gets very important.  Most people tell them right in the very beginning of the proposal who they are and their experience and why they exist and all their awards and all the people that are involved in the project.  And they all start with that in the very beginning. No one cares about you until they know that you can help and what you can benefit them.

Rich:  Amen, brother.

Jason:  So you want to put that towards the end of the proposal, which is why I put it in 6. And this is where you just tell them why you exist.  Tell them about your company, tell them the people that will be on the project or the people that have invented your product or service, tell them just a little bit.  Because people do business with people, people don’t do business with businesses.

Rich:  Alright, awesome.

Jason:  And then step #7, this is where I put the contract in.  Now depending on how big the clients you’re going after, whenever I could fit the contract into the proposal, it was always a plus. Now when we started working with AT&T, Hitachi and some of the big ones, we had master service level agreements and statements of works and all that.  And then they had to separate it. But when you can put it into the same proposal agreement, do that, so there’s only one document floating around.

Rich:  So when you say put the contract in, what exactly do you mean?

Jason:  The legal contract.  And then also where they can actually sign the proposal so they  approve it.  How often do you go over a presentation and a proposal with the client, and then they say, “This is awesome!  I want to sign it right now.”  They you’re like, “Great, I’ll send you the agreement and sign page and all that later on.”

Rich:  I do that every, single time.

Jason:  I put it in the proposal at the very end and say, “Great, let’s go to the back, sign it and execute it.”

Rich:  So this seems like a very long document, which brings up a point that I’ve heard about my own proposals.  And maybe this has to do with my client base, I don’t know.  But they often say, ”It was overwhelming, Rich. There was just so much information and so much to read through, I really struggled with it.”

So how do we find that balance – or maybe I’m just writing it poorly and not narrowly focusing enough – because it seems like your proposals could be anywhere from 15 –  20 pages long?  And yet I’m putting out ones that are 5 or 6 and being told that there is too much information in there and they can’t process.

Jason:  Yup.  I set you up perfectly.  So it goes into step #8.  When you hear that, that’s because you’re sending it to them.  Step #8 is never send the proposal to a client, not until you walk them through it. Let me explain a little bit.

So a lot of times, how often does it happen where you meet with a client and go over everything and they’re really hot and bothered, they want to work with you, you send them a proposal and then the crickets?  They go dark.

Rich:  That may have happened once. Or 500 times.  I’m not sure.

Jason:  Once or twice or a couple hundred times.  I know it happened to me and I got sick and tired of it.  And I started looking at what happened and how can I change this.  So when I started developing a proposal for a client – in the very beginning before I do a proposal and I qualify them – I say, “Hey look, I think you’re a perfect fit for us, and I think we’re a perfect fit for you.  I would like to do a proposal for you.  But here’s the deal, I need to meet with you and review the proposal with you and go over it and see your thoughts and how we can make this work. Can I get your commitment that we can meet face to face or on Skype or online or over the phone and go over this?”  If they said “no”, I said, “Ok, we’re not the right fit.”, and I never did the proposal so I didn’t waste my time.

Now if they said “yes”, I would go over the proposal from the start to the finish.  And as I’m walking them through I can go over objections, I can take that 15-page document and make it easily understandable and say, “This is what this section means, this is what we’re going to do.”

And here’s an added bonus that you can do as well on bigger proposals.  If we had a number of different sections that we were doing for people, we would send certain sections to them ahead of time.  For example, if we were doing a web design project and development – like a custom program or an app – we would send maybe one part of the web design part, and we’d start building that with them and say, “Here is our process for the web design part, just so you understand this part.”  We don’t have any prices, but they start seeing the proposal, and we’d start building it with them. That’s the key.

Rich:  So interesting.  So this is a much more collaborative affair than the typical proposal where they’re getting a bunch of marriage proposals all at the same time. We’re actually walking them through the process.

Jason:  Yeah.  The more times that you meet with people, the more rapport. And they’re going to remember and it’s going to separate you.  That’s why we can win over 80% every time.

Rich:  Alright, that’s some great stuff.  So it also sounds like during the initial meeting or call, I need to really spend more time getting information about their pain points, about what’s working and what’s not working with their current solution, so that I can start the process of building out this proposal.

Jason:  It’s all about solving a pain point that they have, and understanding that, and asking a  lot of questions.  And then as you do this over and over again, that’s why I would build this proposal template and I would have this huge template that was maybe 20-30 pages long of everything that we did.  And then as I would meet with someone, I could go to that proposal template and do a find and replace on all the variables that I needed, and I could take out the sections I didn’t need.  And If I needed to add anything, I would add that to the template.

My proposals were pretty long, but I never spent over 15 minutes creating it because we already created this template and we had this process in place.

Rich:  Alright, sounds good.  Well this has been some great information, and I know that I’ve always looked for ways to improve my proposals.  I feel like I’m going to start today and really start revamping some of how we’ve been doing it and testing out some of these things you’ve shared with us to see if I can’t do better.

I know that you have more information than just this on your website, and you’ve got some great products and services out there.  If we want to learn more about how we can write better proposals and close more business – whether we’re an agency or an independant consultant – where can we find out more?

Jason: If you go to, I have all kinds of free stuff.  I even have my proposal template, if you guys wanted to check out the proposal template.  I do webinars all the time, I have a bunch of programs and I put out podcasts every week and video shows and all that just to provide value to you guys. So go to

Rich:  Awesome, and I can speak from experience that I have gone through a lot of Jason’s stuff and I love it, which is why I asked him on the show.  We’ll have all those links and they’re always in the shownotes.

So Jason I just want to say thank you very much for sharing your information with us today.

Jason:  Thanks for having me.

Juicy Links:

Rich Brooks is on Twitter (surprise, surprise) Jason-Swenk-Facebook