Why Designers Should Get Paid for Proposals

I finished it up and sent it off to the prospective client, thinking to myself that sending it late at night will show them how committed we were to their project.

A funny thing happened. The response deadline listed in the RFP passed, and I never heard back from them again.

Six months later, a quick glance at their website revealed that they hadn’t changed a thing. This led me to believe that they never had the intention to hire anyone, and the RFP was a complete waste of time and energy for our firm.

And if you really think about it, when clients have nothing invested in the proposal-writing process (money, time, energy, etc.), why should they even care to respond to our proposals?

It was at that moment when I realized that writing long, detailed proposals — and the entire RFP process in general — is a bad gig.

It’s time designers stand up and just say no to RFPs without compensation.

Proposals are Spec Work

It’s not unreasonable to say that most designers are against speculative work. But aren’t proposals another form of spec work?

Prospective clients view most agencies like a free public service because of how much work and ideas we’re willing to give away in our proposals.

Why Creating Proposals is a Bad Idea

After writing proposals for several years at Madtown, the web development agency I work at, we became conditioned to believe that proposal-writing was just part of the process for gaining new clients.

What we didn’t realize was that it was effectively hurting our bottom line.

Here are a few reasons why creating proposals for prospective clients is a bad idea:

Unpaid Proposals Perpetuate the Bargain-Basement Culture

Proposal-writing is nothing more than a quick way for prospective clients to find the lowest price and not necessarily the best designer for the job.

Price shouldn’t be the sole reason to hire a professional design service provider over another. There are many factors to consider, including talent, technical capabilities to provide the solution needed, experience in the industry, and so forth, and they must be factored into the decision.

A rock-bottom initial price from a low-quality service provider can cost more in the long-run because the client may need to hire another agency to finish or improve their work, showing how bad price is as a decision-making signal in the service industry.

The RFP process puts the focus on the price tag of the service, which might be suitable for commodities, but not for design services (because services are not all created equally).

Proposals Cost Service Providers

The larger the proposal, the more time and effort we are willing to spend. Therefore, it’s not hard to spend several work days working on a proposal to try and win a client’s business, only to find that they were just comparison-shopping around and had no real interest in hiring your firm.

Think of how much time and effort we could have given to our paying clients instead. Or the opportunity costs of spending so much time in an endeavor already bound for failure.

You Can Miss Things

Clients will often hold designers to the scope and price outlined in the proposal.

It’s impossible for a responsible designer to know what resources and talents will be required for a project’s success by going through a simple form-filling exercise or reading an RFP. Also, this process has one giant flaw: If you provide the free solution in your proposal, you must ultimately agree with your prospective client’s own diagnosis of his business problem. You’re only getting paid to do the job on your proposal. Which, in turn, makes it difficult to gauge how effective your firm is in solving their problem.

What happens if, a month into the project, you find out that your proposal was woefully inaccurate because you were bidding on a project without the right information? Is the client to blame, or the designer who allowed the client to dictate a bad process?

You’re Giving Away Your Most Valuable Ideas

As designers, we often think our most valuable work is our deliverables. There is real, tangible value in our deliverables of course, but it’s the work, ideas, strategies, experience and knowledge we put into crafting those deliverables that count the most. What creative professionals do best is finding unique, strategic ways for a client to overcome their business problem. In many cases, the content of a good proposal can be similar to a consulting report (which companies pay huge sums of money for).

What to Do Instead

Professional designers are becoming more selective in the types of clients they undertake.

Given that companies receive several proposals at a time, the odds that your firm will be selected is slim.

Instead of writing a proposal for a client, invite them to have a conversation, or two, or three.

Often times through the back and forth, through the exchange of ideas, we are able to discover that what the client had in mind isn’t what they really need. Sometimes they need something more. Sometimes they need something that’s completely different.

Once you’ve uncovered the real problem, invite them to a proposal process that you charge for.

Keep in mind that while other designers are going after 100% of the client’s budget, you’re only going for a fraction of that because you’re only asking for them to pay for a proposal first.

If the prospect wants to know how much they should spend on a website design, we can give them a price range over the phone; we don’t need a drawn out document to do that for us.

If the client still isn’t willing to pay for your proposal, you can play the pitch game and cross your fingers that you’re selected, or you can keep your dignity and walk away. I hope for the sake of your firm you choose to walk. Let’s change this spec work proposal-writing culture.

What issues are you running into with your proposal process?  I’d love to hear about it in a comment below.

  • Mike

    Great article and all valid points.

    It’s ironic (and somewhat hilarious) that the as at the end of the post is for “$75 Cheap web design”.

  • I love the idea of a series of conversations instead of responding to an RFP with spec work. I do wonder though exactly how charging for a proposal would work though. After talking through the clients challenges, do you say, “Ok, now if you just pay us, we’ll suggest a solution.”? Shouldn’t the proposal still be free? How much would you charge for a proposal, and what examples do you have of designers charging for a proposal process? Again, I like the idea. I just don’t know how I would implement it. I’d love you hear your thoughts on that.

  • Though still risky, I try to limit the energy that goes into a free proposal. I always aim to find and implement that one effect / element that will (hopefully) have them wanting to see more. If my draft proposal was good enough, then the next phase would be charging a commitment fee for more detailed and in depth proposal, highlighting the time and energy that will be needed to produce it.

    It is still not a bulletproof solution (win some lose some), but it helps me filter the clients who means business. The only major downside to this 2 step process is if your draft proposal falls through, it may leave you wondering if you had invested enough time or if you had effectively communicated the vision; and some clients have really shallow vision scopes…. :/

  • John B

    I agree totally, my lawyer charged me $150 just to fire him. The hell if I am going to spend hours on a wireframe or outline for free. No other biz runs that way and neither should our industry.

  • John B

    Have you ever gone to a doctor or lawyer for free? Why should our industry be so different. Unless the prosal is just a contract I say no to any free work other than an initial verbal consultation/salespitch.

  • Hey Josiah,

    When a prospect gets a proposal from us what’s the first thing they do? They flip to the last page and look for a price. This is something we can give them over the phone, we don’t need a long document to do it. The problem is like most proposals they are not accurate until you do the necessary work. Our proposal isn’t just a budget & timeline but we diagnose the prospects problem and solution we are going to implement.

    Prospects come to us with defined deliverables, it shouldn’t be that way – you should not only be fulfilling deliverables, but defining them as well, and that’s what you’re charging for.

    I hope this helps.

    Jay

  • Haha, that’s great.

  • Josiah brings up a good point. How do you charge for a proposal if the client requests it?

    Or should a proposal be free after you’ve pre-qualified the client and are sure he/she is serious about hiring you (e.g., face-to-face meeting, phone conversation, etc.)? This isn’t bullet-proof.

    Or should the proposal be part of the deliverables, integrated with the design brief?

    And I’ve worked in industries where RFPs are required (e.g., certain government sectors). How do you negotiate that?

    His question is about execution.

    Honestly, I’d like to know too.

  • Great article and sparking a good debate too. I’d say 90% of the time, when I meet a new client who is interested in my work, whether is be development or design, I provide a verbal hourly rate. If they are referred by a regular paying Client, the rate is normally reduced, where as someone who is a complete stranger would receive the full price.

    Instead of saying hey you need X amount of dollars to create this project, I instead say you need X amount of hours, which gives the flexibility to do something small or large. Of course you do run into instances of unknowns, like recently, I took on a project to update a website, but after getting the login info and viewing the file structure, the site had been compromised by a hacker.

    My solution was to first contact the client before any work began, discussing the unknown and the solution. Relaying the message that it would require X more amount of hours. Creating RFPs are great and all, but conversation is the best tool to get a solid reading on your client. Of course, time is money, so the only way to save time is to structure your blueprints.

  • I m totally agree with you !! Proposals are time and work !

  • I think it’s a better approach and a more personal process so the success rate of getting the work is probably higher. You still have to use your own time to get to know the potential client and it’s not guaranteed that you will get the work however I think there is no getting away from this and it’s something to consider when thinking about an hourly rate.

  • Jay! Thank you for this post. As a design community, we are perpetuating a commodity perspective from clients by the way we handle our profession. And it starts with the sales process. You point that out with clarity.

    I also dig your point that we are far too focused on deliverables and solutions in this phase of client onboarding.
    We should be focused on objectives and understanding the problem. Our proposals do smack of spec work because we are too quick throw out ideas and solutions before we know what should be done.

    But to your point, even that early discovery takes our genius. We need to assign value to it as early in the relationship as possible.

    Matt

  • Hey Jacob,

    Let me clarify a bit. We give free proposals as in I will propose we do X for the client for Y price, but I do this over the phone not in a document.

    My initial proposal is usually to start with a discovery session which in essence is writing a proposal.

    When a proposal is required we politely walk away. I think this link might help as well as it discusses our proposal process: http://speckyboy.com/2013/07/08/turn-your-web-design-agency-around-by-raising-rates/

    Jay

  • I dont write proposals anymore. its free consultation. I always phone the client to build a relationship first (getting one over competitors) and then put together an estimate by selecting appropriate pre-written items from my invoicing package. Customising the estimate takes from 10 to 30 mins depending on the complexity.
    This process has been very successful.

    Mark.

  • You just confirmed what I’ve always thoughts about proposals. They’re just like job boards: an incredible waste of time!

    Like you, I believe that if a client is really out there with the intention to hire somebody, he will make the time to get to know the people he wants to hire. He will check their work, thinking process, and ideas with an initial conversation and will realize that he’s part of the equation, too. A client, in fact, who provides as much information about the project as he possibly can, he’s more likely to get a better proposal as well. Because it is not possible to articulate the terms of an agreement without knowing goals and objectives. In short, you can’t work in a vacuum.

    Competing on price is never a good premise. If he doesn’t understand that value is different from price, I’d rather lose him. Clients like these are usually more trouble than they’re worth.

  • Oh I see! So you categorically say “no” to RFPs without pay. I can see that working, actually. And an RFP is a signal of the type of business/organization you’ll be working with — for example, I see RFPs being prevalent in non-profits, academia, and government — so it might not be an idea if those business sectors aren’t in your customer base.

  • Eleojo Friday Emmanuel

    From my little experience in the design business in Nigeria and i believe it applies everywhere, any client who asks for an RFP or Spec work as a basis for giving you a job is a client who is just ready to waste your time and creative resources.

    You don’t call a musician for your show and you’ll tell him you’ll pay him after he performs at the show and you like his performance; neither will you call a doctor to treat your son and tell him he’ll be paid only after your son gets better. The reason why any designer has a portfolio is for clients to go through and decide if the designer can solve his problem.

    If after going through your portfolio and your client is not convinced that you can deliver on his project, then your Spec work or beautifully designed proposal will not convince him.

    What serious clients ask for is your portfolio and not a proposal (your proposed design solution to his problem). You don’t solve problems without payment or at worst a commitment to pay.

    Any client who insists on you sending a proposal (after seeing your portfolio) should be ready to pay a “rejection fee” like those in the Advertising sector do. The rejection fee will take care of all the resources put into preparing the proposal just in case it is not approved. If the client refuses to this arrangement, just take off!

  • Gili Shiffman

    I am in the process of getting a website developed right now.

    My challenge is getting a reliable point of reference to compare different service providers. The issue is that when you ask several designers to do proposals for a job, not only does the price vary a lot, but so does the number of hours that they say it will take.

    This tells me that I am not comparing apples with apples, thereby making the whole process worthless. I can think of two possible explanations:

    1. Some of the developers may be padding out their quoted hours so they can offer a more attractive “hourly rate” without dropping their price

    2. Some of the developers may be under-specifying the job, leading to a disastrous outcome for the customer

    After doing this the hard way (and failing) with my project, I have tried a different approach. I have put the hard work in to design a template of how I want my site to be laid out (not pretty, but logical) and I have written a very detailed functional specification. I am now in the process of tendering that specification to different companies and it is taking a lot less of everyone’s time (including my own) to do it this way – I am no longer having 1 hour specification teleconferences.

    Not everyone has the ability or the time to do this themselves, but you have to wonder whether they should be engaging (and paying) a project manager to do the spec for them and then tender the resulting job out.

    Some people will still go with the cheapest option, I personally will go for the person who I feel is giving me the best value for money.

  • Diego

    Great post. A client can get most of the creative work off you, forward your proposal to India and have it developed for virtually nothing. A client that wants you to work for free and refuses to pay for your efforts should immediately raise red flags.

  • Diego

    It’s a classic. You’re thinking of the solutions when you should be focusing on the problems, on why you need a website. The developer – client relationship often goes sour because of this detail.

    As for the different prices… some might be using developers in third-world countries, others may be dumping, others account for what they might sense could be a conflictive relationship…

    All I can say is forget what you think the website should look like and focus on why you want a website and what you want it to do for you.

  • Tim

    Just read this but I agree with the lawyer/doctor mention. Lawyers usually provide a 15-30 minute “consultation” for free with first timers. Why aren’t we doing that? We’re essentially just handing over free advice if we’re not providing a cut-off point. Proposals have been the biggest thorn in my side when it comes to time waste. We need to perhaps just have that “conversation” for first timers, cap it somewhere up to 30 minutes of free time being spent and the rest will be invoiced to them, regardless if they choose you as a contractor or not. We need to stop wasting such valuable precious time in our professions. Life is not getting easier or less distracting and adding wasted time spent on prospective ‘tire kicker’ clients and proposal creations is not helping.