A prospective client contacts you to ask for a project pitch, or you spot a Request For Proposal (RFP) opportunity and think it sounds like an exciting piece of work. What do you need to do now?
In digital agencies and consultancies, people in a leadership or sales position will, at some point, have to get involved in creating a project pitch or proposal for clients. And this won’t just stop at contributing assets that make up a presentation deck!
Let’s discuss the challenges with project pitches, and go over some tips for creating proposals. I’ll also share how to give perfect proposals and some lessons learned from winning and losing pitches.
What are the challenges of project pitch?
In my experience, there are two main challenges with pitching new work to clients:
1. Large time investment
The first and often biggest challenge with pitching for new work is the time needed to prepare a good proposal. If your proposal is received well by the client, you’ll then need to spend even more time creating and delivering a great pitch deck to them.
Unless you work for a very large consultancy with dedicated people and time assigned for business development opportunities, the first thing is to decide who the right people to create the proposal are, and look at their current schedule. Responding quickly to new business leads is vital, as they can go cold very quickly—especially if a competitor moves faster than you.
2. Understanding client requirements
The next challenge is making sure you fully understand the client’s requirements. We’ll talk in more depth about what information you need to create a good proposal in a minute, but, at a high level, you need to hunt for as much information as possible to build your proposal on.
Try to develop communication lines with the prospective client, preferably with in-person or video-based meetings, so you can dig deep into the problem they want you to solve.
These interactions are critical in your ability to create a good proposal and build rapport with the client. This is how you’ll give them confidence that you are the right company to hire.
An early relationship will also enable you to understand the people behind the work. This helps you tailor the proposal’s style and tone to match the client. For example, some clients prefer more formal interactions than others, and when you pick this up, you’ll know to keep your proposal on the more formal side.
3. Giving a great presentation
Gathering all information and doing the prep work is the bare minimum. The time when you’ll be presenting your proposal is also important. That’s where you’ll want to stand out from the competition (who may also have done their preparation really well). I’ll be giving some golden tips I picked up on during my experience with project pitches, a bit later.
Each project proposal should be tailored to each prospective customer, but you don't have to reinvent the wheel each time. Check out our seven proposal templates to make sure you present needed information and strike the right tone.See templates
Three types of information you need for your pitch
So, what sort of information do you need to create a great proposal?
After spending years working on the agency side with clients, I found myself on the other side of the fence and became the client.
As a part of that project, I had to receive and review multiple company proposals. It was an eye-opening experience, and it changed my views on how to create great proposals. I talk about this experience in more detail in a conference talk you can see below. Read on for more on the types of information you always need for a great pitch.
Here are the three types of information points you need:
The client’s requirements are the most essential information you need to create a great proposal. It’s vital to ask the right questions, understand the problem, and then play this back in your proposed solution.
Many proposals fail at the first hurdle because they don’t give confidence to the client that their requirements have been fully understood.
To get this right, fully immerse yourself in the client’s business and understand it deeply—even in a short amount of time. This is a skill that can be developed over the years.
Still, a quick tip is to involve key people from your organization who will, collectively, be able to understand all aspects of a client’s business and project requirements—don’t assume it’s all on your shoulders alone.
I believe that understanding a client’s budget is critical to creating a winning proposal; however, some disagree. Those in the disagree camp will argue that your services cost what they cost, and if the price you propose is far too much for the client, then they can’t afford you, and both parties should move on. While I understand the argument, I disagree with it.
This approach can only be used by organizations that constantly have new business leads due to having established themselves as premier suppliers. If this is you, congratulations! But for most, this is not the case—business survival and growth are the name of the game.
So, for me, understanding a client’s budget for a new project is very important. It enables you to tailor your proposed solution to that budget, i.e. if a client wants you to design and build an ecommerce website but only has $50,000 to spend, the solution you propose will be very different from if they had $500,000.
Of course, some clients will not want to tell you their budget because they will feel that you will provide a proposed cost that maxes out whatever they tell you. This is understandable, but, in my experience, taking the time to explain to clients the rationale for wanting to know, showing them the cost of previous projects (data that you can get from Float reports, for example) and allowing them to see your absolute sincerity, in most cases, yields positive results.
Just like with budget, a client’s timeline is also critical information you need to know when creating a proposal. Imagine that a client has realistic budget expectations, but they want the project delivered faster than it’s possible for your team. That’s the time to set some firm expectations.
Knowing the timeline the customer is thinking about can also lead to a conversation about why that is. Asking why often leads to previously buried information, such as dependencies on marketing campaigns, wider programs, or, tie-ins with other integration partners.
Also, knowing timelines enables you to assess where this new project could fit into your existing schedule.
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10 tips to give the perfect pitch
So, you sent the proposal to the client, and they liked it; huzzah! Now they want you to come in for the final stage and pitch for the work in person. Gulp.
No worries; I have some golden tips to help give the perfect pitch.
1. Mix up the format if you can
This might be an unorthodox approach, but you shouldn’t automatically assume your client wants just a slick slide deck and a classic presentation. Almost all of your competitors will do this. So, why not consider a workshop-style session?
This approach can set you apart from the crowd as it would mean an interactive session. During this session, you and your team collaborate with the prospective clients to develop the direction of the project solution together. This not only sets you apart from the competition, but also allows the client to get a real feel of what it would be like to work with you on a project. At the same, you’ll be building a much closer relationship and rapport than you would get from a classic presentation format.
Of course, sometimes the client will prefer a more traditional presentation. This will bring us to the next tip, about reading the room.
2. Understand the room you’ll be in
Will you be presenting to one, two or five people? Who are they? How senior? What’s the typical dress code or preferred mode of communication?
Knowing the answer to these questions allows you to tailor how you present yourself to maximize the chances you find the right tone with the clients.
Do your research into the technical setup of the room, too. Nothing is worse than having technical issues when waiting to portray yourself as competent. Some people may be understanding, others won’t.
3. Pick your pitch team carefully
Use the knowledge you’ve gathered about the client and project to select who will represent you at the pitch meeting. Match the people to the project, not just in terms of seniority and skillset, but also taking into account their presentation styles. Think about how it will affect the dynamics in the room, too—for example, if the client has two representatives in the room, it might be too much to take six of your colleagues with you.
4. Sweat the small slide design details
Ideally, you’ll already have a polished slide deck template you use for pitches. But, too often, I have seen people with good ideas get a negative reaction to their presentation for no other reason than that their slides look terrible.
I firmly believe that if you pay attention to the details of design and presentation, the viewer notices (even subconsciously). They get a sense of high quality, which is precisely what you want to convey in a pitch presentation. After all, if you take this much care to make sure your slides are pristine, surely you’ll do the same when it comes to the project?
5. Create something memorable
I learned this lesson when I was the client, rather than the presenter. At the time, I worked for an online dating company. One of the digital agencies pitching for the new website work made themselves stand out with creativity. Along with their pitch deck, they brought a customized box of romantically-themed chocolates taking from the fact that our business was all about helping people find love.
Inside was a custom inlay—instead of a description of the chocolate, each had one of the project team member’s faces with a small bio description of them. I know, some may find this corny, but I can tell you, it helped them stand out from the competition. It made us remember them then, and I remember them ten years later, too.
6. Discuss the problem and the solution
A crucial part of winning work is giving clients absolute confidence that you understand the problem they want you to solve. The fact your proposal was successful should give you a good indication that you’re on the right track. Keep digging deeper in every interaction so that, in the project pitch, you can be even more accurate and concise.
Then, in your presentation, clearly state how you intend to solve the client’s problem, citing previous examples of similar problems you’ve solved in the past and how you measured success
7. Explain your unique selling proposition (USP)
You may already know this: always explain your unique selling proposition (USP). Why do you believe you’re different? Make sure to provide examples of how your USP has yielded positive results in previous projects.
8. Explain your project delivery approach
This is an often underrated inclusion into a pitch deck and it’s often overlooked by more extroverted company leaders. However, in my experience, a client’s confidence in you can be increased if you show how you plan to deliver your solution to their problem.
Many clients will have had negative experiences with giving work to a third-party based on a flashy sales process, only to discover their delivery processes are sloppy. So, try to inspire confidence that you have tried-and-tested, robust but adaptable processes that deliver project success and client satisfaction.
9. Avoid distributing paper documents at the start
This is a mistake I’ve made myself on more than one occasion. When presenting to a client, try to avoid distributing paper copies of the deck before your presentation is over. All that does is making sure your clients stop listening to you, and they browse the deck while you’re speaking. Typically they’ll flick through and stop on the cost page, where they remain hyper-focused and ready to hit you with questions on that and nothing else. The same might happen with an online deck if you haven’t shared it well ahead of the presentation to give them time to review.
Rehearsing and getting your timing right is important whether there are multiple presenters or if you’re presenting alone.
Your pitch will represent your organization and the quality level of service you offer. If you have one and a half hours to present, plan every second. Make sure to:
- Allow five minutes at the start to get in the room, greet everyone and get set up.
- Rehearse the presentation script and time how long each section takes.
- Ensure each presenter is aware of their time and can consistently present within that time.
- Allow an adequate amount of time for Q&A at the end (bonus tip: make sure you state at the start of the presentation that there will be a dedicated time for Q&A at the end, and if they can please save questions for then. Nothing worse than being derailed mid-presentation by unexpected questions and rabbit holes!)
Learning from successful and unsuccessful pitches
It’s a big mistake for anyone or any organization to think they have the proposal and pitch method nailed to the point that they never need to evolve it. Whether you win or lose work, make it a habit to find out why and learn lessons that’ll help you in the future.
Why is the magic question here. Ask why every aspect of your proposal, pitch and associated communication with the client was successful or not.
Ask the client directly: why did they pick you? Why didn’t they? What could you have done better? What did they like about you, your proposal and your pitch? What would they change?
Too often, people who win don’t seek feedback. They’re on a high and think they smashed it. Likewise, when losing, people can feel downbeat and just want to end the relationship as quickly as possible. I understand this and have experienced it myself; losing sucks, especially after so much hard work has been put in, but getting feedback is still vital.
If you win, a bold but sometimes successful move is to ask if you can see the competition’s proposals that weren’t successful. You’ll often be told no, but the times when you do get to see them, you can learn valuable lessons about your competition.
If you lose, the absolute worst thing to do when losing is to allow any anger or bitterness to be seen by the client. I’ve experienced this on both sides of the fence, and it’s always ugly.
Instead, be humble in victory, and gracious in defeat, but regardless, seek as much feedback as you can get and learn from it. Be relentless with a mission to grow and improve.