It’s Monday morning, 8:00.
The kids are at school. Your belly is fed. Chores are done.
You take a seat at your computer … but the schedule is empty.
You’re just a self-employed professional looking for work.
The full day looms before you. As does Tuesday, as does Wednesday, as does Thursday….
Better get busy!
You check your regular sources: Upwork, 99Designs, Craigslist, or maybe a specialized list for your profession.
Okay … you see a few gigs out there you’d like to tackle.
But what’s this?
Here’s a gig that really turns you on–it’s the opportunity you’ve been looking for!
You excitedly open your templates folder to find a previous proposal you can modify for this new gig, which just appeared this morning. You know you’ll be one of the first to apply if you move fast.
Before you submit that proposal, I’d like you to answer one question:
Now, before you start rattling off your list of reasons why people should hire you:
Before you say things like that in your proposal, let me warn you that being reliable, and knowing your trade and craft, whatever it may be, is merely the entry point for becoming a self-employed person in your field.
ALL business owners in your line of work should be reliable. ALL should know how to do what you do effectively.Ask yourself: What are the entry points for your profession?If you’re a graphic designer, then I expect you to know your way around Photoshop, Illustrator, and the other tools of your trade. I expect that you can create an attractive brochure, pdf download, or logo for my business.If you’re a virtual assistant, I assume you’re proficient with most typical office software. I also assume you’re organized, can write polite emails and make polite phone calls on my behalf, and can hunt down the information I need to succeed at a task.If you’re a consultant, then I expect you to have experience solving the types of problems I’m experiencing. Depending on your industry, I might also expect you to be affiliated with or credentialed by whatever organization oversees your profession.If you’re an editor, I assume you know what CMOS is, when it’s okay to split an infinitive, and when to use who and whom.Those are the basics … the starting points … the bare minimum requirements any individual needs to hang a the self-employed shingle.
If you list only those basics in your proposal, then in the absence of anything else, you sound just like everyone else.
Now ask: How do you stand out in a sea of proposals, bids, and presentations in which everyone meets the entry requirements?
How do you stand out in fierce competition?
I’ll tell you how: by identifying and communicating your differentiators to prospects.
Your differentiators are the qualities that set you apart from every other graphic designer, consultant, coach, virtual assistant, copywriter, or editor out there.
Here are five differentiators prospects (like me) are ravenous for.
Many elements can be differentiators, but after working with self-employed people from the client side for many years, I can tell you that there are certain qualities, or differentiators, clients like me are “I-want-to-eat-that-whole-cake” hungry for:
Honestly, as a client, I expect ALL of those differentiators from the people I hire, probably because I try to provide them to MY clients.
But not everyone is as picky as I am, so let’s dive a little deeper into each quality so you can figure out which one or several you can call your own.
Yes, I know you’re busy.
And you may only answer email at certain times of the day to maximize your productivity.
That’s okay—I (try to) operate that way, too, and so completely understand.
But I would like a reply within a few hours.
At least within the same day, if humanly possible.
And if my message arrives after you’ve closed up shop for the day, then I’d like a reply in the morning, your time, even if it’s only to tell me you’re swamped but will get back to me later.
Similarly, if you’re going out of town and know you won’t be able to respond promptly, let me know in advance so I’m not sitting around wondering where you are, what happened to you, and whether I made a mistake in hiring you.Keep in mind we’re talking “differentiators” here — things you can do to stand out from other small business owners competing for the same work as you.
If you, as a self-employed professional, value fast email replies yourself, and if you can commit to replying quickly to emails, let prospects know.
And be detailed.
Don’t just say you’ll “reply promptly.”
Say you’ll reply “within four business hours,” or “within 12 business hours.”
Whatever you know you can do consistently.
Making it a point to respond quickly to email (and calls, too!) can differentiate you from everyone else with the same skills and experience.
Another way to woo me is by sharing your process.
Don’t you like to know what’s coming next when you hire someone?
I do. I always want to know what’s next … and what’s next after that … and then after that … because different business owners work differently and there are innumerable ways to complete any one project.
So even though I’ve worked with designers who’ve, say, created brochures for me in the past, I haven’t yet worked with YOU.
Even though I’ve hired house cleaners and house painters in the past, I haven’t yet hired YOU.
I don’t know what to expect.
So tell me how you work. Set my expectations.
If you’re a designer, will you send me an invoice for half down, and then a brief to complete after I pay?
What happens after I submit the brief?
Do we have a Skype call, or do you email me with questions or to tell me that the brief looks good and that you’re getting started?
Anticipate my questions, and then answer them before I ask. It will make you seem like a real professional, and I’ll feel confident that you’re the right person for the job.
To communicate your roadmap, or process, simply write it out once, and then build it into your proposal template. Or create a separate process document and submit it with your proposals. Or add a Process page to your website.
Doing so will set you apart from other people proposing who don’t bother and force prospects either to have to ask a million questions or, worse, to keep guessing.
Guessing makes people uncomfortable.
And uncomfortable does not sell.
Letting me know that you’re going out of town and won’t be available to answer emails is one way to close loops.
Another is to circle back if you’re going to miss a deadline.
Or, suppose I told you I’d send you something for a critical project by 4pm and you still haven’t received it by 5pm.
What should you do? Check in with me. Close the loop.
(I close loops myself, so if you didn’t hear from me when I said you would, something may be wrong.)
Here’s another example.
If you’ve set expectations–maybe in your process document–and know that my project will have to take a different path, then let me know. Reset my expectations.
The key here is to always keep clients informed.
Never let them wonder what’s going on.
I can tell you this: If you say in your proposal that you “close loops” — and if you really do it — you’ll blow me away and win my loyalty.
Because closing loops is so important, and because so few people do it, closing loops is a prime differentiator up for grabs.
Sometimes, the people who hire you have no idea what they’re doing. All they know is that they want a certain result, and they want to hire someone to help them achieve it.
In those instances, I, as prospect, am looking for someone to help me think: someone to give me ideas, tell me when I’m crazy, or suggest better ways of getting results.
There are other times, though, when I know EXACTLY what I want. In those cases, I’m looking for someone who can produce that result. As a prospect, I always try to make it clear whether I’m looking for you to consult and partner, or to take my order.
If you let me know in your proposal that you can do both–guide me as needed and take direction as needed–then you’re going to be a lot more appealing in my eyes.
And if you can, give examples of “partnering” — maybe how a client or prospect came to you looking for X, but you, being the great partner you are, realized that Y would help them get to where they’re going much more efficiently — even better.
In your proposal, explain your idea, the fact that you communicated it, and how it drove the project in a new, more successful, direction.
This one’s a little tricky for me because, I confess, I’m a perfectionist, which can also make me a tough client to work for.
Still, although I strive for excellence in everything I do, I also try to realize–or ask you to tell me–when I’m expecting too much or going out of scope.
I’m always willing to pay for the work you do.
If you’re a perfectionist, too — a perfectionist who admits to her perfectionism — know that some prospects may actually swerve to avoid you. After all, no one wants to pay a perfectionist to diddle and tweak for hours on end–at least not without the instruction and approval to do so.
At the very least, let prospects know that you’re aware of and care about quality. In other words, if you’re a transcriptionist, let me know you won’t send me an unintelligible transcription that you didn’t bother to read first to see if it made sense (#TrueStory).
If you’re proposing to build a new website for me, assure me that I won’t have to point out misaligned buttons on my home page (#TrueStory).
If you’re a designer, let me know that details matter to you, and that I won’t have to ask you to fix the image on my brochure because it appears too large and stretched out (#TrueStory).
Differentiate yourself as a self-employed professional by paying attention to quality.
You won’t know exactly what peeves each client. But if you assemble a list of past concerns or complaints, either from your clients or from the unhappy clients of your competitors, then you can work up a list of what you must avoid.
For instance, I’ve been a self-employed marketing writer for long enough that I know what ticks off the marketing folks who outsource writing work.
So I not only make it a point NOT to replicate those behaviors, but also explicitly say “no” to those behaviors in my email communications or proposals. I know this tactic works because people who’ve hired me have told me that when they read that specific material, it was almost as if I was reading their minds, and that, beyond my writing ability, which lots of folks have, that experience, that feeling that I “got them,” is what led them to hire me.
Being conscious of quality and caring about the details that matter to your clients is huge differentiator. Use it with one or more of the other differentiators I talked about here to make yourself–and your proposals–shine.
Now that we’ve covered the five differentiators prospects crave….
Remember that question I asked you to consider earlier, and the list of possible answers?
Why should a prospect hire YOU instead of anyone else?
I asked that exact question on a past project I posted on Upwork.
And the bullet points? They’re a few of the verbatim answers I received.
The person I chose answered this way:
“Because my team possesses the necessary skill set to execute this project with exceptional results.”Yeah, the answer could have been stronger, and it’s not the only factor that went into my evaluation.
But the words “exceptional results” sang to me, lifting that proposal far enough above many others to seal the deal.
I hope your next proposal has the same effect on your next ideal prospects.
P.S. This is post #12 in my 30 Day Blogging Challenge!
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Hi! I'm Renae Gregoire, a digital conversion expert improving the performance of digital marketing content, including websites, landing pages, sales pages, online courses, blogs, and email sequences. If you're a coach, consultant, or other expert having trouble getting people to click, sign up, subscribe, or buy, I can help. My work typically involves a blend of strategy, design guidance, and wordsmithing, with a heavy focus on how your materials look, sound, feel, and function—all from your reader's perspective. Contact me to see how I might be able to help improve your conversions.