Being self-employed can offer a great lifestyle and more flexibility—but first you need to bring on clients and close deals.
When I first started freelancing, I stumbled a bit. I had several interested clients and some good projects to juggle—but there were sometimes misunderstandings, either during the sales process or when completing a project.
Eventually, I decided to formalise my client communication strategy. I started writing project proposals.
A project proposal makes it clear what jobs will be done, roles and responsibilities of you and the client, requirements from the client, deliverables from you, schedule for completion, and other details, including the project costs and payment terms.
Once I started putting together proposals, I started winning way more client deals—in fact, it's over three times what I was doing before—and fulfilling contracts with less headaches.
In this article, I've combined my own knowledge with best practices that I found from dozens of articles and examples.
In it, you'll learn:
- First, how to prepare a strong portfolio that provides evidence for your proposal. A portfolio demonstrates that you have a reliable record of work.
- Next, how to create a winning proposal. Step by step, how to structure your proposal, key terms and sections to include, and how to present it professionally. In this article we focus on freelancers (e.g. content writers and designers) as well as consultants e.g. (IT, management, and marketing).
- Tactics and strategies for how to follow-up with a client and close a deal. Time kills all deals. The more effectively that you follow-up, the sooner you can get to business.
Following these steps can help you write better proposals that improve communication with your clients so that you can win more deals.
Prepare For Your Proposal - Portfolio Creation
You might be the best freelancer around. But odds are your client won't believe it if they're only hearing it from you.
You need to show it, not say it. Otherwise your proposal is far less likely to succeed.
The most common way to support a freelance proposal is to assemble a portfolio of work. That way you can easily showcase what you've done in the past.
The results can often speak for themselves. And further to that, get testimonials from your past clients and colleagues that affirm your work. Social proof is worth its weight in gold to build trust with your client.
Curating your experiences
The first step is to get the content for your portfolio together.
You will want to decide what kind of work that you want to showcase. If you don't already have enough work to share publicly, you could consider doing a couple small projects for free.
If you have a lot of work to share, you might want to consider creating a couple different portfolios, targeted towards different client personas (if you have them). That way you can give them the most relevant content.
Publish it and explain it
The easiest way to start a portfolio is to add it to where you already have a profile, for example on LinkedIn (refer to our guide on how to create a top 1% profile on LinkedIn) or on your Upwork profile.
You could add a couple links on those profile to content published on the web.
Here is an example of Soph, a PR consultant and contract writer, doing exactly that on her Upwork profile:
If you haven't published your content somewhere already, you could upload the file or PDF onto a public Dropbox folder or Google Drive. Any service that will allow you to link to it publicly should work. Alternatively, you could also setup a personal website to have full control over your content.
Once you've published some links to your work, be sure to add a short explainer about what you did and if possible, what results it achieved. For example, more conversions on a website, more views for a piece of content, or cost savings for a client business.
Share social proof
Include some positive testimonials—ideally from clients—on your profile and website.
If you don't have too many strong client examples, you could even get quotes from your most recent employer or another experience.
The key to testimonials is to showcase different types of social proof that support your future proposals.
For example, if you're proposing to work with a client in the artificial intelligence sector, it would be important for your prospect to see a reference from a client in that space.
Here is an example of Gerrard, a consultant from Durham, profiling his testimonials:
Here is an example of 2B Design, the top designer I found from Googling "uk designer testimonials":
Develop your thought leadership
Part of your record of work may not need to be directly included in your portfolio.
It could be part of your broader story that exists on the web. For example, guests posts on other blogs. That can help you build a following, and also give you additional validation that your work and moreover that your ideas are meaningful. That they resonate with your audience.
If you can publish with a peer of your prospective client's, you'll likely impress them. So in addition to showcasing your work, you may also want to emphasize that you are a thought leader, or at the very least a respected commentator in your line of work.
On my LinkedIn profile, I usually post a couple links under each job entry to garner attention:
When to Send Your Portfolio
I usually send my portfolio to a client before a potential engagement. If they like the type of work that I produce, then I'll prepare a project proposal.
Here's a snippet from a recent email that I sent to a prospective client, where I included a couple of my most recent articles. I used Mixmax, which expands links into attractive snippets. Another alternative to Mixmax worth checking out is Right Inbox, which also allows you to expand links into snippets.
The alternative is that you could send this portfolio at the same time as the project proposal and mentioned it as a reference.
In the meantime, let's get onto the proposal.
Self Employed Registration Guide
Writing Freelance Proposals
Writing a proposal can sometimes seem daunting, but it can be drilled down to its essential elements.
There are common qualities to good proposals as well as common parts to include.
The Key Qualities of a Winning Freelance Project Proposal
As food for thought, here are three general qualities to consider, before we jump into the meat of what makes a project proposal:
I find that research is what often makes the difference when you start. You'll need to learn and understand information about your client and what the project is about.
It will also be important to understand, particularly if it's a technical project, if you need any tools or have any dependencies. You will also want to learn about other stakeholders involved and research them.
Imagine that you send a final project off to a client and get ready to move on. And then you quickly receive more demands and requests from them for changes. Or even worse, the requirements of the project grow - perhaps significantly. This might mean that you've fallen into the trap of "scope creep". It's a project where the scope keeps increasing.
To avoid scope creep, you need to first truly understand your clients vision and their specific requirements. And you need to agree on them. When the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled, creep can happen. So, a good project proposal properly scopes out the requirements, the roles, and responsibilities that will be contained.
If a client continues to make new requests, have a process to say no or refuse, or a process to price out of scope requests. Or start a backlog and note down requests that can't be fulfilled in the current iteration, but could happen in the next development.
The proposal should be clear and visually compelling. You are working to generate business with this document!
You want to invite your client in, on a journey with you. Often designers will talk about the buyer's journey—the ideal steps that they will take along the way to making a purchase decision.
At every point of the proposal, you should aim to ensure that it has a good and attractive design. If you're not particularly adept with design, you may want to hire another freelancer designer to create an attractive template for you to use in your future proposals
The good news is that all of these qualities are able to be controlled by you. You can do as much research as you want. You can get clarity on scope and say no to projects that either don't provide clear scope or a project within your capability.
And you could contract out design or make use of a great template (like this one) in order to have a strong proposal.
The Critical Elements of a Winning Freelance Project Proposal
Now that we know the general qualities of a strong proposal, what actually goes into it? Here I'll describe the common elements that appear in a project proposal.
I referred to a peer consultant's post from Forbes and we also combined our expertise and knowledge to create a standard structure for you to use.
This section is optional but—particularly if you have a long and complex project proposal—you may want to summarise the key point of the project at the beginning of the proposal.
You could describe the focuses of the project, what it will do for the client, and the key date range for preparing deliverables. In an overview, you won't want more than a couple paragraphs to describe what follows.‚Äç
First, you'll want to write down the basic project information. That includes a title for the project, the name of your client, your name and company, contact information, and the date that the proposal is being created.
Next up, this section identifies the key pain points for your clients and how you will deliver on solving them. It is about understanding what goals your client has for potential solutions.
To start, consider writing about the type of project that this is focused on. For example, as a content producer like myself, you could discuss content creation.
You may also want to include a mention of a competitor's status and any research that you did on the topic.
For example, I opened up a recent proposal email like this:
You'll see that above, I mentioned that I looked at a competitor's website and then noticed the type of content that they have.
That way you can further emphasize the pain point that your own client has. In this case, it was that they wanted to ramp up their content base—because their competitor had a significant amount of it.
Scope of Project
Next, you should layout what the project will include. This is the key part of the proposal. It is the section where I would go into the most detail and where I would emphasize the most work in terms of your proposal.
Ideally you will want to outline this in a simple way to understand it. That way the client can follow along, and see the sequence of deliverables that they should expect.
For example, a content producer might put down:
Writer will produce 3 blog posts for Client. The process for each will be:
Writer and Client will agree on topics and a general thematic outline (to be prepared by Writer and approved by Client).
Suggested Blog Post Topics
- Blog Post 1: "5 Ways That Technology is Changing in 2019"
- Blog Post 2: "3 New Ways Mobile is Capturing Audiences"
- Blog Post 3: "A How To Guide on New App Development"
(And below each, in sub bullets, to include high level points about what would include, such as the main topics or people profiled.)
Process for writing each article
- Two hours of research
- Two hours of writing
- Two hours of editing
After the first draft for the article is completed, Writer will share the article with Client for early feedback, to incorporate into the next revisions and next draft.
For consulting, it may require a bit more diligence.
In a typical consulting project, it would be important to clarify what is desktop research vs bottom up modelling vs expert interviews, etc. A consultant for digital marketing could do something like the following.
The Consultant will conduct the following analysis for the Client in order to improve efficiency and impact of the Client's marketing and growth operation.
- Evaluation of paid media strategies (desktop research)
- Facebook ads
- Google ads
- LinkedIn ads
2. SEO audit (desktop research)
- Key content pieces
- Technical assets
3. Overall growth strategy (bottom up modelling and interviews with team members)
- Team composition
- On-going analytics and reporting
The Consultant will prepare a report and a set of complete recommendations based on the findings of the project.
In this section, you may also want to include a check in or reporting schedule—that is, how often and when you and your client will consult with each other to determine progress and get approvals of work.
You may also want to explain what a project will not include. You could identify items that are excluded, though if they are wanted later on, additional charges will be incurred. Creating this kind of delineation now in your proposal can help you avoid out of scope work.
Articulating as a clear of a timeline as possible will help you to avoid disappointment with the client. It is important to set clear deadlines and do your best to stick to them.
You will also want to have a communication plan if there are delays. Naturally, things can come up, but generally you will want to wrap things up within a relative time frame that doesn't inconvenience your client. Moreover, maintaining a suitable timeline ensures that you can still fulfil potential obligations for other clients.
For a simple timeline, my recommendation is to use bullet points, e.g. a set of simple dates and deadlines for key deliverables. Alternatively, you may want to create a table or spreadsheet that's sort-able/able to be filtered.
It could be like this:
- Week 1: Deliverable X
- Week 2: Deliverable Y
- Week 3: Deliverable Z
Or if you have more complex project, you may want to include a visual, structured timeline.
For example, many consultants use Gantt Charts (like the below) to showcase this. You can find more templates for them here.
Cost and Payment Terms
For costs, it's important to be clear and concise. I usually try to keep mine quite short.
I have a standard hourly rate for my writing work. I emphasise that I work faster than most. And I talk about a couple different forms that takes, either long-form or short form articles. I also talk to my client about the opportunity for packages, which is really an up-sell and a discount within the payment section.
Here's an excerpt of that section from my recent email to a prospective client:
You may also want to include payment terms in your proposal. These could be that you for example only accept bank payments or by credit card. And you could request payment within a certain point, for example within a week of the receipt of your invoice.
Freelancers are notorious for waiting forever on payments from clients. But that being said, rather than including complex payment terms in your proposal, I'd recommend making them as simple as possible.
Or you could avoid including them at all—the real solution to this problem is to only work with clients that you trust, and ideally that pay correctly and quickly.
Optional: legal agreement
The last two optional components you should consider are a legal agreement and also a statement for moving forward.
I say that these are optional because you may already have a legal agreement in place with your clients. And the statement for moving forward may be unnecessary, but it could also ensure that your client actions the proposal faster.
I'll keep the legal section short, as for now there are better resources to get advice on this one, particularly this resource here. But ultimately, you'll likely want to at least sign a Letter of Agreement or even prepare a formal contract to avoid any liability.
Optional: statement for moving forward
The last opportunity that you have is to write a statement for moving forward. There are two parts to this: one is to make it easy and clear for how your client can move forward, and second to create urgency in their mind.
If the proposal is strong, you'll want to show the client how they can turn that proposal into a contract. For example, they could simply reply yes to you over email. Or they could schedule a meeting to get started.
Further, you might want to highlight the dangers of waiting. You could mention how competitors are working on similar projects, or you could build a case for why your content is highly relevant and original at that time.
Once you've prepared your proposal, if it's your first time, it might be worth having a more experienced freelancer or at the very least a friend look it over.
Further, if you've included legal portions, you may want to have a lawyer take a quick pass at it. Alternatively, if you're including a contract agreement separately, remember to take a look at this post for freelance contract templates. After you've had it reviewed, you'll almost be ready to send it off.
In the next section, I'll share with you how to frame your email to improve your chances of a positive response. Then I'll share best practices on how to follow-up to close the deal.
Tactics for Landing a Freelance Client Deal
Now that you have a completed proposal, you want to guide your client through the buying decision and close the deal.
The Essential Tool
Before you start, the number one tool that I recommend getting to support your efforts is Mixmax.
It's free and works in Gmail.
There are a number of benefits to Mixmax, but the three I would highlight for your purposes are:
- Mixmax tracks opens, clicks, and downloads. So imagine that you have a client and you want to see once they've seen your email, once they've clicked on links in your email, and also once they've clicked into or downloaded your project proposal. Mixmax does it in a snap. And can even send you a push notification once they have.
- Mixmax also allows you to send emails at a specific time and even can automatically send the email at the best time that it will reach your target prospect.
- Snoozing is also a great feature that allows you to return an email to your inbox given a certain amount of time, or if the prospect does not reply.
First, let's discuss how to send it to them in the first place and what to include.
What to Include in Your First Email
When you email your project proposal to a client, it's important to stipulate a few items:
- Provide a very brief description of why you're emailing them:
- "Further to our discussion on the project, I've attached a project proposal."
- An openness to a call or meeting to discuss further, if the client is interested in the proposal. That gives you a clear follow-up or call to action.
- For example: "Once you've had a chance to review the proposal, I am happy to discuss it with you and answer any questions on a call".
- A timeline to start on the project. For example, you could mention when you are available to start work, for once they approve the proposal. You could use this framing to generate more urgency, to ensure that your proposal does not languish. Remember that time kills all deals.
- For example "If we move ahead with this proposal, I'll be available to start working on it by next Monday."
Once you've sent your first email, if a few days have gone by and you haven't heard from a client or a potential client, don't be discouraged.
You might assume that they aren't interested, but that may not be the case. Something may have come up. Or perhaps the project is not high priority at this moment.
Contacting them a few days later after you send the proposal is a great idea. Do this once a week with a short note to prompt them. Again, Mixmax can make this easier by automatically bringing the email back to your inbox after a few days for a week.
Something else I would recommend is to ask for the business.
I can't say this enough. I also offer this advice to friends and mentees when it comes to job interviews: ask for the job. It's incredibly overrated advice. It is important to do this because it is very direct and shows intent. It shows excitement. For me, one of the most effective lines that I have used to close clients is to say "I want to work with you because of X."
Very often, X is something along the lines of "well, I want to work with you because you are a great person and have an excellent team. You seem easy and enjoyable to work with and I'd love to formally start working together."
Another piece of advice that could potentially boost your odds by 400% is to react within 10 minutes of a prospect reading your content. For example if you send your project proposal and notice your client finally reads it 3 days later, you could setup a notification through Mixmax.
You could then send a quick 1-2 sentence note: "Hi X, I hope you're having great day. I was wondering if you had a chance to read the proposal already, and if you had any questions. Again, I look forward to working with you."
Further Follow-ups: Social Proof and Objection Handling
As your email chain may likely continue, it's important to have resources ready and to do some thinking on how you can handle client questions and even objections.
One of the first things that I often do with a client is to follow my client on social media.
Not all of their profiles (you don't want to appear creepy). But at least their LinkedIn and Twitter profiles if you can.
Often I'll add them on LinkedIn and include a quick note: "looking forward to continuing our conversation on working together." That can help you to further advance your own profile too and impress upon them your legitimacy and experience.
If your client does raise more questions about your experience, or perhaps your ability to help on a specific problem, it may be in your interest to have more social proof ready. Not simply the examples on your profile, but available references to put them in touch with.
For example, if your prospective client that works in the artificial intelligence space, if you have another client from that space, you could ask them if they would open to you putting them in touch with your prospect and to provide a brief reference to your character and experience.
Stay in control and focused
If your client ends up raising objections - for example to costs or to process - then engage with them calmly and rationally. Continue to refer back to the initial goals of the project and also the scope that you have discussed.
The best way to resolve final conversations around your proposal is to stay in control. Your prospective client may try to take over the conversation, but it's important that you keep it focused towards you and your client's goals.
Know When To Walk Away
The classic Kenny Rogers song has some lyrics that are a great reminder of what is sometimes necessary to do with a client: "You've got to know when to walk away - and know when to run."
If your client continues to bring up questions and objections after multiple communications and conversations, there may be a deeper cause to their concern, not just the details of the proposal. I often jump to price, but that may not be it at all. There are some deeper concerns.
For example, consider:
- Trust - they simply may not trust you yet. In that case, continue to provide social proof from trusted sources. Past clients in a similar industry and testimonials about your work. And continue to build a relationship over time with your prospect.
- Authority - you may be talking to the wrong person. They may not have the buying or decision-making authority to follow through on the proposal. Do your best to understand whether your contact is actually the right person at their company and that has budgetary control.
- Need - the need may not truly be there, in terms of what you have proposed, or what they have expressed. They may be fancying the kind of discussion you are having, but may not have the wherewithal to follow through or the timing may not be having. Listen well in order to determine that a client is truly interested. A sign that need may not be there is a client missing calls or not responding to communications consistently.
And ultimately, if it's truly not the right time to move ahead, then don't.
It's okay, after considerable back and forth, to say "I understand that / I am coming to think that now may not be the right time for us to move ahead with this project."
At that point, my recommendation is to keep in touch and maintain a relationship with the prospect. Knowing when to walk away is crucial to your success. And if you give them space now, they might be ready in the future.
Here are the five key takeaways:
- Highlight portfolio to demonstrate capability: showcase your record of work and testimonials that support your success.
- Understand client needs and scope: do you research and consider the clients vision and requirements, in order to avoid scope creep.
- Craft a comprehensive proposal: include all of the key elements that will help you and your client to be on the same page.
- Manage expectations: make it clear to your client what you will do and respond to addtional client requests in a way that respects the scope you agreed to.
- Follow-up thoughtfully: follow-up with your client on the proposal and thoughtfully handle any objections that come your way
Bottom-line: Be humble, especially early on. Be open to making mistakes. You'll learn from each proposal. At the start, you may ultimately want to keep it simple.
Practice proposal writing as you keep moving into freelance - and soon enough you'll be writing deal-winning proposals in your sleep.
Self Employed Registration Guide
- What is a Sole Trader?
- Sole trader advantages
- Sole trader disadvantages
- How to register self employed
- Sole trader responsibilities
- Self employed tax
- Important self employed deadlines
- What is a Sole Trader?
- Sole trader advantages
- Sole trader disadvantages
- How to register self employed
- Sole trader responsibilities
- Self employed tax
- Important self employed deadlines