I recently interviewed Ilise Benun of Marketing Mentor. Ilise has worked with creative professionals for over 25 years and offers fantastic insight into the thought processes of creative folks like you and me. In our audio interview we focus on proposals and the importance they play in our businesses. Ilise tells us; What makes a great proposal great, and how can you skip the newbie mistakes that so many of us have made.
Check out the audio recording or if you prefer we also have the interview transcribed below.
Nathan: Thank you so much for joining me today Ilise. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat.
Ilise: My pleasure.
Nathan: I wonder if you'd like to take a minute to introduce yourself to our listeners and explain a little bit about what you do.
Ilise: So my name is Ilise Benun and the company I run is called Marketing Mentor and for the past 25 years I've been helping creative freelancers and other self employed people to market their services. I do that in many different ways including one on one mentoring and consulting, and I also have an online store called the Marketing Mentor Toolbox where I sell tools that help people market their services, including a marketing plan and sample proposals, a proposal bundle and all different kinds of proposal bundles actually. Every thing I can do to facilitate the growth of creative businesses.
Nathan: How did you get into the world of creativity? Were you a designer, a developer, marketer? How did you start?
Ilise: None of the above: I was fired from my second job out of college. I realise now looking back that I was probably unemployable. It happened very early, so I thought I'm never working for anyone again. I have to come up with something for myself. I started as a professional organiser, helping creative people because that's who I knew here in New York. Little by little it became clear that at the bottom of everybody's pile of todo's was something to do with self promotion, which they were avoiding. So I just started saying, let's get some information to those people, lets help them. Let's respond to their requests. And it has evolved into what is now Marketing Mentor.
Nathan: You do have other products, you even have some books on the market. Is marketing your primary focus?
Ilise: Yes, that's 50% of my business at the moment. The other 50% is the teaching and the tools that I sell in the store and the books that I write.
Nathan: I originally found you through your proposal bundles and obviously with Nusii that was of great interest to me. You've been working in the industry for over 25 years so I'm sure you've seen every kind of proposal there is. What part do you think the proposal plays in the life of a creative professional nowadays. Do you think they're important to the success of the creative professional?
Ilise: What I've noticed is that there are some creative professionals who do no proposals at all. They avoid them outright. Perhaps because they don't feel like they have a good one, or they don't know how to do it right... Or because they're trying to stay small. I do think that proposals represent the window or the door onto larger work. If you're going after larger work, with larger clients with bigger budgets and better offerings, then you usually have to go through a proposal process. I see a lot of people just outright avoiding that and not doing what it takes to learn how to do it properly.
Nathan: These people who are avoiding them, do you think it's a case of them actively avoiding the proposal scenario or are they just unaware that they should use one? I talk to a lot of freelancers and when the subject of proposals comes up they say, "No, the work comes to me so I don't need one". How do you think that affects the business they take on or the business they could take on?
Ilise: I don't think it's a conscious avoidance, although I do speak with people who say if there's a proposal involved they will back out. The main challenge of creative freelancers is this difference between taking what comes along and thinking that getting word of mouth is a good thing, which I don't think it is. Basically it means you take whatever comes and if you take whatever comes then your in trouble. So the idea of doing a proposal, basically means you're going to choose which prospects you want to go after and you're going to do whatever it takes to get them. They're usually larger ones and a proposal process is required. But, again if you're just taking whatever comes along then you may never even be approached about doing a proposal.
Nathan: OK, so you look at proposals as more of an outreach solution as opposed to a reactive solution.
Ilise: Yes, I do.
Nathan: So it would be an entirely different process for a freelancer who is getting a continual stream of referrals to somebody who is actively going out and seeking the kind of client they want to work with? With the kinds of projects, and the kinds of budgets that they would like to work with?
Ilise: Yes, what's required to sell yourself to those prospects when work is coming to you is very little. The prospects are usually primed and it makes it much easier and I think people get used to, and kind of complacent with that easiness of getting work. When it comes to going after bigger fish, they don't always want to put the extra effort in, and that includes a proposal. Where you really have to say, "Here's why I'm the best fit for this job".
Nathan: So do you think that people, the freelancers whose work comes to them limits what they can charge, as opposed to actively seeking prospects? Do you think it makes it more difficult to ask for larger projects?
Ilise: Yes, because you're limited to what the market that comes to you can afford. The complaint I often hear is "Why can't my clients pay what I need to earn, why won't they pay what I'm worth?" To me that's a marketing problem, not a pricing problem. You can't force people who can't afford higher fees to pay them. You have to go find the people who can pay them.
Nathan: That makes sense. I find that a lot of freelancers who are new to the world of freelancing and who have maybe read certain blogs like your own, Nusii or Brennan Dunn...there are lots of people who talk about actively looking for clients and using proposals to win more business. I remember when I first started writing proposals that they were nothing more than price lists. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I would just make them up and hope they would magically work. What are some of the more common mistakes you see from people who are daring to use proposals. Maybe even from more experienced consultants. What are some typical proposal mistakes?
Ilise: The biggest mistake I see is the difference in perspective in a proposal. A lot of people have never seen anyone else's proposal, that's why I put the proposal bundle together in the first place. So if you've never seen anyone else's proposal you don't what to put in yours. Maybe you have some details or questions that the client has asked you but the biggest mistake is the perspective, which means that a proposal is not about you and your work, it's about what the client needs, what you propose to solve those needs and why you're the best person to do it. But it's an essentially different point of view that it has to be written from and so the what I would call "bad proposals" I see are "Here's what I do, here's our team, here are examples of our work" and then maybe half a page about their project. The good ones, the effective ones, the ones that win are the ones that say, "Here's what we understand are your issues or challenges, here's what we know about your industry. Here's what we propose for the possible solution, and here are some examples of other people like you that we've worked with. Here are the fees that we would charge, and here's why we are the best people to do it".
Nathan: I'm so glad you said all of that!
Nathan: Because that's exactly what I believe. When I first started writing proposals, like many of the freelancers that I talk to, they talk about themselves because...not through any sense of inflated ego, but because they think that's the right thing to do. We talk about how, "Yes, I can programme in this language, yes I can design with this tool"...I think it's a natural place to start but it can take a long time to learn that your client doesn't care about you, they care about themselves. They care about how "I" can better "their" business. So if I'm always talking about myself, how does that help them?
Ilise: Exactly, and I think that to me it's a sign of maturity as a business person. Whether you're in your first year or your tenth, when you come to the realisation that your own marketing is not about you, and that you have to stop talking about you, you start to focus on the people you really want to work with, the problems they have and how you might be able to help them solve those problems.
Nathan: Yes, it's fundamental. It's interesting because some of the customers we in Nusii, who are newer to proposals will ask about listing their services. They might say, "I want to list out my services and I want to say how much each service costs..." I wouldn't say it breaks my heart when these emails come in because it's a learning process, but I do find that a lot of people do tend to lean towards this Chinese Menu style of pricing proposals. It's this thing about needing to talk about me and what I can do and how much it's going to cost, but very often the value is lost.
Ilise: Absolutely. The value comes through in marketing. To me that's the purpose of marketing, and a proposal is essentially a marketing document. But if you're not used to making the argument for the value you bring to the table, then once you get to the proposal you're not going to do it very well. I feel like there's an ultimate paradox here because on the one hand a lot of creative freelancers aren't comfortable talking about themselves and are kind of introverted and therefore don't want to do this marketing and self promotion, but the problem is that they don't realise that the marketing is not about them in the first place. That's the mindset I'm trying to teach.
Nathan: OK. So for somebody who doesn't like talking about themselves, as you said many creatives consider themselves to be introverts...How do you help them to make the switch from "It's not me talking about myself, to, it's me talking about how I can help you as a business?".
Ilise: It's usually through the mentoring or coaching that I do and it takes a lot of repetition, but it's this process of explaining that when we're working on a website for example, if you're putting together your website and your homepage is all about you then I say no, your homepage needs to be about the needs your prospect has so that when they land on your homepage they see that they're in the right place and then they can find out a little bit about you. But that should come later. This idea has tentacles, it has tentacles into every single marketing tool and every single way in which you approach your business. Just in my mentoring we go step by step through whatever they're talking about I just shift their perspective to say no, this is not about you. What about if you thought about if from your prospects point of view. How would you see it, how would you explain it?
Nathan: I imagine once you correct that behaviour that so many more things must fall into place.
Ilise: Yes, and what happens is that they see opportunities in front of them that were always there but they had never noticed. That's the amazing part.
Nathan: As you said, one of the problems that new creatives face when it comes to proposals is that they simply don't have access to another person's proposal. That's a problem that I think we've all experienced. For example, I've heard of people that send proposals that are 20 pages long, 30 pages long and some that are 5 pages long. I know that this can depend greatly on the kind of project you're going for, but do you think there's any kind of magic formula that you can apply to one project or another, with regards to proposal length? I know that a lot of freelancers worry that their proposals aren't long enough, or too long or their prospect is never going to read it because there's not enough detail...
Ilise: I don't know that there's a magic formula, but in one of my proposal bundles I do have basically four types of proposals that I include, and I explain for each one what the best use is and when it's most appropriate. I can give you a bit of a top level overview of that if you like?
Nathan: Yes please.
Ilise: OK. There's the one page email confirmation proposal, which details the project we just discussed. That's one type of proposal. That can be literally just the highlights; here's the timeline, here's the price, here are the caveats...if you agree to these terms please email back "OK". That's the top level.
Then there's the short proposal which is a couple of pages, which is essentially for the person who you already know and who knows you. So you don't have to do any selling in this document, as with the first one. But, they may need to show it to someone or they may need a little bit more substance. Maybe you explain a little bit more about what you understand their challenge to be and you outline the details, so that it has more weight to it.
Those are both for people you know. When it comes to people you don't know, then there is the medium sized proposal which is for projects that are... not your dream project, but for a project that is a good fit for you but you still have to make the argument. It's for someone who is not necessarily making the decision but who is your contact, so they're going to show it to other people. Maybe there's a committee deciding further up the chain and that requires more content also. Sometimes I think that a higher price point is kind of a measure of how many pages it should be. Because even if they don't read the whole thing, it shows you put the time and effort into it and it has weight to it. It says something about you.
Finally, the fourth type of proposal is the large proposal which is 30 pages plus...with lots of examples, usually many examples. It includes as much as you can to show them that you've thought it through, that you know exactly what you're doing and again, even if they don't read it all they see that you've done the work and they feel comfortable enough to trust you.
Nathan: Those are four very different examples. I have to be honest, I've never even sent out a 30 page proposal, but then maybe I've never worked on a big enough project... But I know people who do send very large proposals. Going from the length of a proposal to pricing... Over the last few years there has been lots of discussion about Value Based Pricing. Alan Weiss has been a champion of this...It's difficult for a lot of people to understand value based pricing when you mix it up with proposals...Do you have any thoughts on this? Do you encourage newer freelancers to look at it, or do you tell them to look at fixed priced proposals? Should we bill daily, weekly? It's a big conversation but do you encourage value based pricing in the proposal bundles you sell in the Toolbox?
Ilise: Yes, I do. Especially whenever it's possible to have the kind of conversation with your prospect, and get the information you need to do value based pricing. To my mind value based pricing is when you understand what your value is to them. You can't usually just guess it. So you have to be able to go through a meeting process or a conversation process whereby you see that if you design this website, and they are looking to earn one million dollars on it...what is your price based on the deliverable and the effect of that deliverable? It could be a percentage, it could be...it's not based on the time you spend. It's based on what they're going to get out of it, can you find that out from them and then come to a fair price based on that? It doesn't of course guarantee any results, we're not talking about royalties or a commission or anything here, we're just talking about "This could generate one million dollars for you, so our price is going to be a percentage of that".
Nathan: So it involves a lot more time upfront before even broaching the subject of a proposal?
Ilise: Yes. Absolutely.
Nathan: With regards to pricing, I recently published a post on tiered pricing. While it wasn't strictly value based pricing, the theory was that we can provide more value to our clients by offering services that they hadn't previously thought about. Do you have any thoughts on pricing structures within proposals?
Ilise: Yes, absolutely. In fact I had a request from a non-profit outfit yesterday asking, "Do you know designers who can do event graphics for us?" He had an RFP. So I tried to get the budget out of him and of course at first he said, "We don't have a budget". So I went back, and this is the trick on how to get it (a budget)...You say, "OK, are we talking $5.000, $10.000 or $25.000". And he said, "We're probably more in the range of $5.000". So then I went to a couple of designers who are my clients and I said, "OK, these guys have approximately $5.000 to work with. Let's give them 3 tiers. One maybe at $5.000, one at $7.500, one at $10.00 with increasingly more robust services and see which they choose".
Because as you know, client's don't usually know exactly what they need, they don't know what all the options are and it's your responsibility, especially in a proposal to say, "Alright, here's what you asked for. But here's what we recommend and here's what would really get you much better results". If you can make that argument in a proposal then you'll probably get the higher fee.
Nathan: This was yesterday, so you haven't seen any results yet?
Ilise: I have not.
Nathan: That's a shame. I'd love for you to say that they went for the $10.000 option.
Ilise: I'll let you know...
Nathan: The tiered pricing option shows your client, this is is kind of what you asked for, this is the base price. We talked about your budget, we talked about your ballpark budget and these are some extra options I can offer. More robust services, or things that they hadn't taken into account. Maybe if I was designing a website then I could offer maintenance, maybe content, content marketing, social marketing...Things that they hadn't even considered. And these are areas where you can up sell your clients. But again, I think this is a sign of a more mature freelancer. If you are inexperienced you tend to come from the world of just sending invoices, and invoices are always just line items. We tend to veer towards saying, "Here are my services, this is what it costs, let me split it up for you". And these kinds of proposals don't tend to do so well. I think it's definitely a maturity thing when you can move over to tiered pricing, value based pricing and be able to show possible results that you can bring to the table.
Ilise: To me, what you're talking about is the idea of positioning yourself as a strategic partner, through the proposal process. It's in the proposal where again, you elaborate on what you know how to do, what you've done for other people, and what you could do for them that distinguishes you from a pair of hands that's going to send a line item invoice.
Nathan: I think it's difficult to get to that point though. Making the jump from a line item invoice to a tiered priced proposal is a big step to take, at least internally. We tend to think that the client will never go for it. They'll never say yes and I'll never get another client, ever!
Ilise: And you know how crazy that sounds right?
Nathan: Yep, but a lot of us think that at some point.
Ilise: Right. So you need someone to say, "You know how crazy that sounds". Never assume you know anything. You have no idea what the client's going to say.
Nathan: Exactly. I agree wholeheartedly. So Ilise, if we could be doing one thing better in our proposals, something that will up our game, and it could only be one thing, what would it be?
Ilise: Well I really do want to go back to the biggest mistake that I was talking about, which is shifting perspective. It's not an easy thing to do, but you can start by looking at the last proposal you sent out and assessing for how much of this is about me, and what percentage is about my client and what they need.
Nathan: Thank you very much for your time Ilise. I really appreciate it. If people want to go and check out your proposal bundles and books, and mentoring, where should they go to find you?
Ilise: They should find me at marketing-mentor.com The best thing to do is to signup for my marketing tips, which is my free weekly newsletter and how I let everyone know about sales happening in the online store.
Nathan: Thank you so much Ilise.
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