It was literally my first week as a project manager.
I had always thought that the first week in a new position was when all the good things happened. New office. New furniture. Congratulations from former colleagues and introductions to new ones. There was supposed to be some unwritten law that you didn’t have to start apologizing for anything or second-guessing your work until week number two. Three if you were really lucky.
In my case, I didn’t even have three days to bask in the afterglow of being promoted.
One of our clients, the New York branch of a wildly popular UK perfume brand, had wanted my agency to run a million-dollar print and internet ad campaign. I had worked on many of their projects in the past, so the Creative Director appointed me to run this one. I was really excited. If I aced this one, it was only a matter of time before the corner office was mine.
I wrote the project proposal and sent it off. Like a boomerang, it came right back and hit me in the gut.
The client was disappointed. Ask anyone: that’s worse than being despised.
In my effort to impress, I had stayed up all night writing a multipage proposal that left nothing to chance. I wanted the client to see that her vision was in capable yet imaginative hands and was actually proud that my text-only PDF was nearly 10 megabytes.
The client wasn’t. Impressed, that is. She actually forwarded it back to me, cc’ing the Creative Director in the process, and said that it contained too much detail, most of it unnecessary. She even implied that if I devoted this much time to “theories and paperwork” she didn’t foresee the campaign being finished until 2020.
My confidence was really deflated. I expected to be ushered back to a cubicle pronto. But fortunately, the Creative Director was understanding. We went over my proposal together, and he gave me some tips that resulted in a new one. This time, the client accepted it right away. Lesson learned!
As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. The number one mistake that is practically guaranteed to kill your proposal is how you handle detail. If it’s too vague, the client won’t understand your game plan. If it’s too detailed (like mine was), they will either not take time to read it or assume that no reasonable deadline can accommodate all those steps.
Take it from me: of all the documents you will be creating during the course of the project, few if any will be more important than the proposal. Your success and future as a project manager depend on your ability to write a project proposal that delivers the right amount and type of detail. In this article, I show you how to do just that.
Proposals are like marketing tools in that you need to keep your intended audience in mind when writing one. The perfume campaign client carried a banner for the ‘less is more’ approach, but I’ve worked with other clients who would have seen my 10-megabyte PDF as a mere preface.
You can tailor the proposal’s details to client preference by using the same tone and complexity level that they use. If you are preparing an app launch for a client with a lot of coding experience, you can use jargon and get more specific about the technical aspects of the game plan. If that party is not technically fluent, emphasize marketing strategy, graphics, and other aspects of the project instead.
If you have never worked with this client before and no one else at the agency can give you insights into how they prefer to digest information, do some research by:
Use this information to compile a client profile. (If you worked in Sales, you’d call it a Buyer Persona.) When you know their likes and dislikes concerning information delivery, it can help you create a project proposal that will speak directly to them.
As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Popular project management tools such as Teamweek use Gantt Charts to create clean and beautiful timelines that show project direction, milestones, and goals. A single glance will tell the client:
If your client is someone who has always questioned your proposed budget, a Teamweek timeline will allow them to see what resources are needed to accomplish their goals and, in many cases, understand why a certain amount of money is necessary.
Teamweek will continue to serve you well after the client approves your project proposal. The timeline feature makes it easy to organize both the project and your team’s activities. To add a task, all you have to do is click on your color-coded timeline, drag it to the appropriate length, assign it to a team member, and specify the duration. You can also prevent team-related delays by seeing how each person is performing against the deadline and providing any necessary assistance.
If your client has initiated projects before, they are expecting to see important information structured and presented in a specific manner. If you start getting too creative, forcing them to spend extra time looking for certain details (e.g. financials), you’ll confuse and possibly irritate them.
So what does a ‘traditional’ proposal look like?
Most project proposals follow some variation of this list. If you stick to this structure, your client will be more receptive to your details.
You may not think of yourself as a salesperson, but when you write a proposal, you are selling the project to a client. If your proposal details are vague and/or sound like something out of a tech manual, you’re going to have difficulty holding their attention long enough to persuade them.
You don’t have to turn your proposal into 100% sales copy, but you should be persuasive in the way you write. Here are some tips:
Although there are standard proposal outlines, never forget that not all proposals have the same objective. A response to an RFP (request for proposal) has a different objective than the one you sent to a client you have worked with often.
Creating a proposal with the right amount and type of detail is arguably an art form. Even agency veterans have to pause and consider their approach carefully. You have to present the information in a persuasive manner that justifies the project while reminding the client that you are the right manager for the job.
Done correctly, a single digital document is the seed from which a wildly successful project emerges. Your client will be so pleased with the outcome that they will gladly renew their contracts with your agency, and you will have one more success in your career history that you can use to win new clients- and even maybe even get the corner office one day. P.S.: I’m still working on that one…