Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far into the sales pipeline process I discussed earlier in the series, you’ve found a client who is a good fit for your style and your skills, and it’s time to create your first project proposal. The project proposal is a document that functions both as a working guide for what needs to be done and a contractual agreement between you and the client. You may see this referred to elsewhere as a Statement of Work, or a quote, or a contract, but what it’s called doesn’t really matter, so long as it works as a record of the project outcomes and individual responsibilities of everyone involved.
Why Project Proposals Are Important
After several years of writing project proposals and delivering them to clients, it still takes me a decent amount of time and effort to create a new one, but doing it right is critical to my success, so I never hesitate to put in the time to get each one right. Before I go into what the document itself needs to have in it, I’d like to first go over a lesson I had to learn the hard way: Why it’s never a good idea to skip getting a written and signed agreement before beginning a freelance e-Learning project.
When I first started out, my first few client projects were relatively small—a few assets here and there, or initiatives that wouldn’t take me very long to complete. Because my first projects were mostly short-term, I didn’t think I needed to go through formalities like a project proposal!
Boy, was I wrong.
Project proposals are an essential part of any project you take on, regardless of the size, scope, or duration of the project. In one of my earliest projects, I started by estimating that the job would only take 2 to 3 days. “Why bother writing up a whole proposal for a job that won’t even last a week?” I thought. Without the project proposal in place, however, the client had their own conceptions about the work I would be doing for them, and I had mine, and we had no written records available to clear up any discrepancies. Of course, the client began to ask for additional items, and those quickly began to add up. Before I knew it, I had been doing work for them for 3 weeks, and I was taking starting to take a loss on the project. Each time the client needed more, they would say things like “I thought this was what we agreed to,” and I didn’t feel comfortable engaging in a “he said / she said” argument. The fact was, I wanted to keep this client, and if I pushed back too hard, I likely wouldn’t get their business again. What’s more, without a project proposal in place, I had no way of proving that the additional work was well beyond what they had paid for.
The fact is, there’s never a good reason to skip having a project proposal in place. Even if your client is your best friend, former co-worker, or even your spouse—there is no substitute for a document that clarifies what work is being done and for how much! I’ve also run into situations where I’m functioning as a subcontractor for someone else’s business, and even in the subcontractor role, I insist on a project proposal. I think of it this way: When I’m a subcontractor, the person who hired me is my client, and I just happen to be doing work for their client, and as part of my core values, I require all of my client work to be governed under the terms of a project proposal.
Each project proposal you write needs to be signed by both parties. While this may seem like a no-brainer, consider that people are far more likely to read documents you’re asking them to sign, and without a signature, the client has no legal obligation to abide by any of the terms in the proposal.
Key Strategies for a Strong Project Proposal
As I mentioned above, your project proposal needs to function as a working guide for the project as well as a contractual agreement. For the former, both you and your client will use the proposal to understand the work that needs to take place, and why that work is necessary—remember, your client may be using your proposal to get internal buy-in at their own organization. In fact, in his article 5 Key Elements to a Well Structured Sales Pitch or Proposal, Shaun Nestor argues that there are five things a good proposal should do:
- Emphasize the Client’s Needs, Goals, and Objections
- State your solutions
- Set expectations and results
- Present pricing and Return On Investment (ROI)
- Get commitment and establish next steps
As you’re writing your proposal, this is a good list to check in with periodically, because if you’re not clearly doing all five things, something may be wrong. (The entire article is worth reading, and I encourage you to do so.)
Essential Elements of a Project Proposal
So what goes into a project proposal? For my own proposals, I make sure that each one includes the following:
- Project Name: This is the working name for the project. Whenever I communicate with the client over email or on the phone, this is the title I use, to ensure alignment.
- Project Objective(s): This is what you want to achieve with the project, what measures you’ll use to assess the achievement, and the performance expectations. Using the S.M.A.R.T. approach works great here (make sure your objectives are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound), but don’t overdo it with several paragraphs of text. Be sure to use clear, simple language, and avoid industry jargon or buzzwords. Your objectives don’t just communicate what will get done—they also specify why the work needs to be done.
- Project Deliverables: Include any major deliverables for the project. If it’s a complete piece of work that is part of the project, it counts—even if it’s a simple job aid. In many of my own project proposals, I even specify different drafts of my work as separate deliverables. For example, for a single course, I will list out an Alpha package, a Beta package, and a Final (SCORM version) package ready to publish to the client’s LMS.
- Key Milestones and Timelines: For each project deliverable, document when it will be sent to the client, when the client needs to review it and provide feedback, and when you will make the revisions and send it back. For example:
- Proof of Concept/Mockup provided to client – 12/5/2016
- Client Conference call to review Proof of Concept/Mockup – 12/9/2016
- Alpha 1 Package with edits provided to client – 12/11/2016
- Alpha 1 Package reviewed by client and returned – 12/2/2016
- Beta 1 Package with edits provided to client – 12/16/2016
- Beta 1 Package reviewed by client and returned – 12/20/2016
- Final SCORM Package sent to client; include masters – 12/22/216
I urge you to be as specific as possible in this section of your proposal. Stay away from “this will be completed by mid-month” or similar language. If you set a client feedback deadline as “by the end of the week,” expect to receive it from them on Friday at 5 p.m.
- Requirements: This area may be quite lengthy, and that’s OK. Your requirements section is where you might include technical details like, “Project must be developed in Storyline 2”, or “Course must work on iPad 4,” and it may also contain ideas such as “Courses must conform to client’s branding color scheme.”
- Responsibilities (Both Parties): Include both your own responsibilities and the client’s responsibilities in this section. For example, yours might include:
- Designing and developing the Alpha, Beta, and Final courses for review
- Performing basic edits
- Importing and synchronizing all audio in the course
- Publishing the final course in SCORM 2004
The client’s responsibilities might include:
- Providing measurable learning objectives
- Providing subject matter expertise on the topic
- Reviewing and providing timely feedback for each release
- Publishing and setting up the course in their own LMS
- Project Assumptions: These are things you are assuming to be true for the duration of the project. For example, you want to be able to assume that you’ll have timely access to the subject matter expert(s); timely turn-around within 24 hours from stakeholders; all assets will be provided before development begins, etc.
- Service Fees/Terms: Include your payment amounts and terms here.
- Scope Changes: I add a sentence here that states, “Additional work not stated within the scope of works is considered extra and must be agreed to in writing by both client and myself.”
- Approval Signatures: Be certain that your proposal has a designated area to capture signatures, including the date signed.
Common “Gotchas” in Project Proposals
When it comes to the project proposal working as a contract, it’s important to make sure your document protects you from problems that might arise. The Freelancer’s Union has a great list of 8 Contract Provisions Every Freelancer Should Know, and I recommend that you review that article for their insights. In short, don’t forget that your contract needs to include language that states what will happen in case things go south—for example, what will happen if the client pays late, or tries to withhold payment. If you’ve vetted your client thoroughly, you’ve reduced the risk that you’ll run into any serious legal disputes, but conflict can come from just about anywhere, so it’s important to make sure that your project proposal is keeping you safe.
The key to a strong project proposal is making sure that it’s not too vague or too generic. The proposal is there to get you and your client on the same page, so that the client doesn’t walk away with the wrong idea about what you’ll be doing. Most important of all: Your project proposal is how you’ll ensure that the project will be profitable for you!
So when it comes to the project proposal stage, remember:
- Every project needs a project proposal, regardless of size.
- Every proposal needs to communicate what will get done, by when, and for how much.
- The more detail, the better.
- Larger projects will have longer proposals.
- Negotiating items on a proposal is normal; just be wary of clients who are reticent to sign an agreement at all.
To help get you started, I suggest checking out Articulate’s sample e-Learning contracts. Every project will be different, so don’t be afraid of making edits and customizations. And as you learn from each project, be sure to update the main template you’re working from.
What have been your own biggest challenges and successes with using project proposals? Have I left anything essential out? Project proposals are the most important documents in a given project, so I’m eager to hear from you about what has worked well and what hasn’t in your own experiences. As always, I encourage you to join our private Facebook group, or add your voice to the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #eLearningBiz!
Editor’s note: This post is part of my ongoing 2017 series, “Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer,” a comprehensive look at the ins-and-outs of working independently in the Learning and Development industry. All of the previous posts in the series can be found here.