When I first got laid off from Trulia in 2015, I had a three month runway of finances before I needed to either be making enough to stay self-employed (and paying my half of our San Francisco expenses) or starting a new job. I was interviewing and had some great conversations with some super cool companies, I knew in my heart of hearts that I wanted to work for myself.
Spoiler alert: I’m writing this in April 2021 and I’m still self employed. It’s been five and a half years and I don’t see myself going back to being employed by somebody else. I’ll partner with people I’m sure, but be an employee?
No thank you.
Over the next few months I got to work. I was fortunate to quickly have a stream of inbound interest in working with me as a consultant, and after just three weeks I signed a five figure SEO audit for the largest used car website in India (my first and last client in that country).
Within the next few months, I signed more consulting contracts and for a while had doubled my monthly income from my previous employer. I signed SEO audits, marketing strategy engagements, and a few SEO retainer contracts over the next 18-24 months.
I picked up SEO consulting work because I knew I could sign it, charge above average rates, and could deliver outsized value. But it was never my end game. My end game was always to use that revenue to bootstrap Credo, which I am happy to say I did successfully.
Over the course of about 24 months, from mid 2016 to the end of 2018, I signed over $250,000 of consulting work including:
- A $4k/mo SEO retainer that went on for 24 months ($96,000)
- An $8k/mo SEO retainer than lasted 12 months ($96,000)
- A $2k/mo SEO retainer that lasted for 8 months ($16,000)
- A $10k/mo SEO retainer that lasted for 4 months ($35,000)
- A $10k SEO audit
- A $35k SEO strategy
All in all, it amounts to about $288,000 in SEO consulting over that period.
And today, at the bottom of this post, I am going to show you the exact proposals I used to close that work. I’ve anonymized them of course and removed anything that could be used to identify the client, but you’re getting exactly what I sent and they signed.
Before we get there though, I want to explain to you why I think they worked. And to be honest, it has very little to do with the proposals themselves.
I highly recommend that you read what I have written before looking at the proposals themselves. The context is incredibly important to why I think they were successful in getting signed.
There’s no “best service offering”
At the end of Credo’s Accelerator Course, we asked for feedback. Not everyone gives it, but the feedback I’ve been given most often is “it would be good to see the specific things you offered that got the contract closed.”
While I understand the desire here and that people want a shortcut to closing high-ticket work, the reality is that there is no “best service offering” you can propose to every prospect that will get them to sign.
The distinction between an agency and a consultancy is that agencies prefer to streamline operations and create muscle memory through doing the same kinds of things again and again, while a consultancy typically works on a wider range of problems but with a common methodology.
Agencies try to shoehorn a prospect’s needs into what they offer, as this is how you can train younger employees to deliver the same thing again and again that you know gets decent results.
A consultant/consultancy on the other hand puts together custom scopes of work and proposals.
There is no one service offering or proposal type that ensures success. I actually firmly believe that agencies need to take a page from the consultant’s handbook and figure out how to offer high-ticket custom consulting options even as they also deliver streamlined services that deliver results.
If you are looking for an exact proposal and outlined offered services that will close work at a high rate for a high ticket price, you’re going to be looking for a long time. It doesn’t exist.
What does exist, though, is a sales process that can get you to a way to put together proposals that do get signed.
Successful proposals are all about the pre-proposal process
A few months ago, I was on a call with a client who was looking to hire an agency. But as we reviewed the proposals together, they said “Man, it’s almost like they didn’t listen to me at all and are just proposing to me things they propose to everyone else.”
I couldn’t help but agree.
When I help Credo’s clients review the proposals sent to them by agencies, I commonly see these mistakes being made:
- Scope of work outside of what has been discussed
- Pricing way outside of the client’s expectations or ability to pay
- Lack of options for engagement levels
- No understanding of what the client wants or needs, just a canned proposal
- Upsells before the contract is even signed
All of these mistakes can be avoided by running a proper sales process. Just like you run a process for hiring (decide to hire, create application, receive candidates, narrow those down, conversations, narrow down further, conversations, make offer), you should have a process for discovering the prospect’s needs and parameters before you prepare a proposal.
My DSSP process goes like this:
- Discovery call (30 minutes)
- Strategy call (3-4 business days later, 60 minutes)
- Scope email (to align on what you discussed)
- Proposal (to finalize the agreement)
In my framework, a proposal is simply a formality to get you to a signed contract. It is simply stating what has already been agreed upon.
But what I see agencies often do is have one conversation, then send a proposal. They often mean it as the start to a conversation to get down to what the prospect needs, but the prospect doesn’t know that.
Agencies far too often send what I call a capabilities document outlining everything that they offer, but they send it under the name of “proposal”, which prospects then take as being the final offer.
It’s inane, and it doesn’t work.
Proposals that got signed
I’ll be completely honest – when I’ve pitched work (in the past; I don’t consult on SEO currently) to a prospect that ultimately needed and decided to work with a consultant (as opposed to an agency), I’ve never lost.
This is for a few reasons:
- I don’t pitch work I can’t win.
- I spend time getting to know the prospect so they know me and trust that I am the right fit to help them solve their problems.
- I don’t overpitch work. I stay in my lane.
With all of those personal guidelines in place, I know that when I put my time and effort into pitching work I am going to win it. In fact, Credo started back in 2013 (under the original brand HireGun) because I stopped consulting and needed a great place to send prospects who contacted me about SEO work.
When I am getting to know a prospect to determine if I want to pitch the work, I follow my sales process outlined above.
When I actually pitch it, I follow a proposal template that gets everything in one place that makes it easy for prospects to:
- Understand what they’ll get
- Understand when they’ll get it
- Understand what they’ll pay
- Give to their boss to review if needed
I do this because of my background. You probably don’t know that I got my BA from James Madison University in Technical Writing (with a concentration in Online Publications, aka Web Development). One of the great things about that degree was that there were no tests (seriously), just assignments.
I wrote a lot of papers, and learned over time that there was a template that worked to write papers. You’ve probably been taught this too but forgot.
The structure I use for proposals is simple. It’s 5 parts:
- Executive summary
- Timeline for delivery
- Pricing and terms
This is a quick 4-8 sentence and 2-3 paragraph section at the very time that explains why the proposal was created, who it was created for, and what is contains. This section is meant to provide an executive (hence the name) who was not deeply involved in the meetings to this point context into what they are about to review.
Next I outline the scope, aka what will be delivered. This usually outlines both what will be delivered and what will not be delivered, as it is important to be specific about what you will not be doing as well.
For example, I’ve seen clients hire an agency/consultant/freelancer (the fact that all three need to be mentioned here shows that too many don’t understand the differences) and “assume” that they’ll be doing something that was not agreed upon. One such example was a client hiring an agency to do “content strategy” and assuming that they’d also be doing the content production. The agency doesn’t do content production, just strategy.
It is important to both discuss things like this on your sales calls as well as to make them explicit in your proposal so that nothing is left to chance or misunderstanding.
Timeline for delivery
Next, you need to tell your prospect when what you propose will be delivered. While it is a bit more work up front, and not really possible to do for a longer engagement and thus you need to spell out what will be done each month, specifying when something (like an audit) will be done based off certain milestones being met makes it easier both for you to deliver the work and to keep the project on track.
After all, you’re running a service business that relies on you (or your team) spending time. We all only have but so many hours in a day (24 to be exact other than the days we go on and off of Daylight Savings), and without clear planning it is very easy to become overloaded with work and thus work quality (or sleep, or both) suffers.
Pricing and Terms
Next up is pricing and terms. I’ve written in the past about setting pricing for consulting work, so I won’t go into that here, but suffice it to say that your proposal should do two things with pricing:
- Specify how much it will cost and what billing schedules will be
- Not surprise the prospect
Let me tell you from my experience of both hiring services firms and being hired as a service firm that the first thing a prospect looks at in your proposal is if they can afford you.
This should not be a question they still have once you get to the proposal phase of the sales process. At worst, you should have anchored them on what whatever you offer currently costs so that they are not surprised at the number you give them.
At best, you will have talked about pricing in your scope email so that they see it ahead of the proposal and can ask questions, or they realize they can’t afford you and either ask to trim back the scope or you don’t end up sending a proposal that would never get signed anyways.
Terms and conditions should also be included in this section, or as a separate section (thus making 6 sections to the proposal). Your terms and conditions should include:
- Length of engagement
- Billing cycles
- Pricing lock-in time (eg if proposal not signed within 30 days then pricing will need to be discussed before being signed)
- Notice required of cessation of services from either side
- Anything else your lawyer tells you (I am not a lawyer; consult with yours).
I’ll note that in one of the proposals below I tried to put in “client friendly” cessation of services terms that ended up costing me $5,000 dollars. We got off track on the deliverable schedule, and because of that they decided to invoke the 15 day cessation of services which meant I could only bill half of the month.
Lesson learned. Require 30 days notice and keep the project on track!
Finally, I recommend that your proposal also be your contract.
At the bottom of the proposal you should include a place for them to sign and date, but you should also go one step further.
I learned from Proposify a few years ago that proposals that are sent with a signed signature line close 18% more often than those that are sent without a signed signature line.
While correlation is not causation, that is a pretty big number and I think that merits giving it attention.
Proposals that closed me $288k in consulting work
As promised, here are the SEO proposals that closed me $288,000 in consulting over about 24 months time.
Just input your email and they’ll be sent to you directly.