Freelancers love to land new projects. It’s what we do. A good proposal and contract can make it even easier to seal the deal.
Too often freelancers do work without a contract (48% of the time). Or they stumble into a project with vague parameters. Scope creep becomes a real problem.
Another challenge is clarifying payment terms: Do you get a down payment before any work begins? When does the rest get paid? Is it dependent on you or are you at the mercy of the client?Sometimes clients ask too much and you’re giving them solutions without a secured project. You should be getting paid for those good ideas, whether it’s part of a project or as a consulting fee.
Proposals and contracts can be a freelancers’ best friends. They’ll help protect you, make the project go more smoothly, and help you to close the deal and land more work.
Part of a Bigger System
We’re going to talk about how to put together a proposal and contract. But before we get too deep into the details, you need to understand where a proposal and contract fit into a larger system. Some of this advice won’t make any sense if it’s not part of a larger freelance system.
We already explored how to build a freelance system. That big picture overview will show you where a proposal and contract fit into the process. It’s also important to understand the value of a client consultation meeting. You can’t put together a proposal or contract without doing a client consultation meeting. And if you do that client consultation right, you’ll have all the answers you need to put together your proposal.
This is all pulled from our recent Freelance Summit with Nathan Ingram. It’s a series of more than a dozen webinars diving into the freelance process. The Freelance Summit also includes a sample proposal and sample contract you can use as templates to create your own.
What’s a Proposal and Contract?
OK, we all know what a proposal and contract are, but how do they fit into the freelance process and what do they accomplish?
So an ideal freelance system will include a client consultation meeting that should tell you whether or not to put together a proposal. You should know everything about what a client needs, you should have a rough idea of their budget and you should know that they’re ready to move forward.
If that’s the case, you put together a proposal. It should offer high-level deliverables, pitch other services (e.g., content writing) and ongoing services (e.g., site maintenance, security, etc.), and close the deal. The client should be able to sign it and the project will get started.
Contracts are perhaps more familiar than proposals. In this freelance system, the contract is where you lay out clear definitions and expectations. Everything is explicitly stated and agreed upon by both parties. It should cover the project process, time frames, payment and terms, technical details, and any necessary legalese (because no matter how hard you try you can never escape the lawyer speak).You should deliver the proposal and contract together, and walk through the proposal with your client. Then it’s time to close the deal.
The beauty of this approach is that you’re not proposing some lofty project in the future, you’re proposing a clear, specific project with exact time frames and dollar amounts. You’re ready to have the client sign on the dotted line and get started.
Why You Need a Proposal and Contract
This approach of delivering a proposal and contract together helps you close the deal while also protecting yourself as a freelancer.
The detailed language of the proposal and contract allow you to put very specific parameters and constraints on the project. Here’s how it helps:
- It eliminates scope creep because everything is carefully defined.
- It showcases your professionalism.
- It ensures you’re not missing anything. Everything the client wants is accounted for—if it’s not there, it’s not part of the project.
- Using a templated proposal and contract streamlines the process. You’re not writing a completely unique proposal and contract for every project.
- Ultimately it protects both you and the client. Nearly every potential issue is covered, so there’s no guessing or even fighting about how to handle a situation.
The reality is you don’t need a contract until you need one. And then it’s too late.
Keys to a Good Proposal
The single most important thing to understand about a proposal is that you should be fairly certain you’re going to get the job.
Don’t pop the question until you’re sure of the answer.
This puts the pressure back on the client consultation meeting. You should be asking the appropriate questions and gauging the prospective client—is this someone you can work with? Do they have reasonable expectations? Does their timeline work for you? Will you be within their budget?
If you’re not getting the right answers, don’t write a proposal.This isn’t about desperately closing a deal with any client out there, it’s about finding the right clients, the ones you want to work with.
Once you understand that, here are some other keys to successful proposals:
- Proposals are presented in person to decision makers who are ready to buy. Notice the three key phrases:
- “in person” – You want to make the case for your proposal, put everything in the best light, and respond to questions immediately. You can only do that in person (video chat is second best, on the phone is third—but don’t email it).
- “to decision makers” – Don’t waste time presenting to the wrong person.
- “ready to buy” – Don’t pitch unless they’re ready to start now. If they want to start in six months, tell them you can give them a proposal then.
- Price comes before proposal. You should get a ballpark price in the client consultation meeting that will weed out the wrong clients and set the proper expectations.
- Proposals don’t sell, you do. There shouldn’t be any sales language in your proposal. The document should be straightforward. You are making the sale.
- No surprises. There shouldn’t be anything surprising in your proposal. It’s simply laying out what you discussed in the client consultation meeting. So no shocking new prices, no new services that you didn’t mention in the consultation meeting.
- No specific solutions. The proposal should give a high-level view of what you can do, but it doesn’t offer specific solutions. Don’t say which plugin you’ll use or how you’ll solve specific problems. The scope of work is big picture and goal oriented. It should be worded from the client’s perspective and not include technical jargon.
- Simple is best. Your proposal should be short and sweet, focused on scope and price. It should take you less than an hour to create your proposal. Nathan’s sample proposal (which you can get in the Freelance Summit) is only four pages—one page lays out the project details, two cover other services/offerings, and the last page is for signing and how to get started.
Keys to a Good Contract
The most important thing to understand about your contract is that it should fit your workflow and policies. A contract shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter legal document that any freelancer can use. Part of it will be, sure, but it should reinforce how you work.
Here are some other keys to a good contract:
- Work with a lawyer. This should be obvious, but you absolutely must consult a lawyer. It’s fine to work from a template, craft your own contract, and have a lawyer review it (it’s cheaper than paying a lawyer to start from scratch). But do not assume it’s legit just because you found a contract template online that some lawyer reviewed.
- Always improving. Your contract is never complete. You’ll always be improving your contract and adding new details from experience. That’s OK. The point is to start somewhere and make changes as you need them.
- The client can read it themselves. While you want to walk a client through your proposal, don’t go through the contract with the client. This is fine print legalese and there are some sections that can be awkward to talk about. Tell a client you’re happy to answer questions, but you shouldn’t need to go over it line by line.
- As detailed as it needs to be. Nathan’s template contract (which you can get in the Freelance Summit) is 12 pages.
The purpose of a contract is to protect you. So take the appropriate steps to make sure your contract is protecting you. Remember: If you’re lazy or lackadaisical about your contract, you’re only hurting yourself.
Close the Deal
A proposal and contract should be an important part of your process. If you find yourself going back and forth with clients, trying to nail down a project and not quite getting there, you need a proposal (you can always propose a consulting arrangement if a client needs help figuring out what they need). It can help clarify when and how to close the deal.
If you want more help with proposals and contracts, as well as a broader view of the entire freelance process, check out the Freelance Summit. Veteran freelancer Nathan Ingram offers 11 hours of video training, including proposal and contract templates. The Freelance Summit videos cover process, profit, and productivity.