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Providing Proof That You Can Do What You Say You Can

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
8 min read

A story is a good start for delivering your proposal. It also needs to believable.

To sell creativity your prospects need to trust you, and your claims need to be credible. You know this. So you need a systematic approach to building trust during your sales process.

Trust comes from proof. Can you prove — or come close to proving — the claims you make about how you can help your client? You can think of trust as a spectrum, rather than the binary “they trust us” or “they don’t trust us.” The key is not that prospects trust you, it’s that they trust you enough.

Stephen Covey’s “emotional bank account” is a good way to think about it. Better yet, think about it as your Trust Account. The first time you speak to a prospect, they have a beginning level of trust in you. The more you exceed their expectations, show up on time, ask smart questions, and provide insights, the more they trust you because you’re making deposits into the account. But each misstep and broken promise makes withdrawals from the account and depletes your balance.

The purpose of providing proof in your proposal is to maintain or increase the level of trust you’ve built. Once you send a proposal, the stakes have gotten a lot higher for your client. A contract is just around the corner, and a large price tag and fixed to the promises you make. Can you do what you say you can do?

Some firms have an easier time providing proof than others. If your deliverables are visual — anything design-oriented — then “proving” your claims about making great design are relatively easy. Even so, remember that your clients aren’t really buying design so much as they’re buying the results that great design creates. Contrast design deliverables to strategy or consulting, and you’ll find it’s much more difficult to provide proof outside of case studies and results.

Here are eight ways to provide proof in your proposals that you can do what you say you can.

#1: Actionable Insights

Nothing says “I can help you” like demonstrating clear-headed thinking about your prospects’ problems. Your insights can be abstracted and applicable to any PFC, or applied directly to a single prospect.

No, I’m not asking you to do free work. But with your experience applying creative thinking and skills to clients, you should be able to anticipate the problems and challenges they’ll face along the way. Tell them. This isn’t about providing a solution so much as a new way to frame or think about their problems. Asking the right questions is often more powerful than having the right answers.

If you can articulate their challenges, and therefore the potential solutions, better than they can, you’re on your way to proving your claims.

#2: Repeated Exposure

Trust itself does not provide proof of your competence. But without trust, any efforts to prove yourself will be for naught.

Now a question for you: are you more likely to trust someone you’ve spent ten minutes with, or ten hours? Better yet, would you be more willing to wager your job on someone you knew more, or less?

Granted, I’ve set up these false dichotomies to only have one answer. But you get it: your clients will generally trust you more if they spend more time with you. You can’t insert repeated exposure into your proposals, but you can increase your exposure to clients throughout your sales process, including throughout your proposal process. For instance, you can present your proposals live, and to the directly to the decision-makers, rather than emailing a PDF.

You may also choose to give a draft or outlined proposal to your client prior to submitting the full thing. This way, you involve them in the process, both giving them ownership over the final product — which they’ll value more, as a result — and increasing your exposure to your client through additional calls, emails, and meetings.

#3: Results

I have to get this out of the way, because I’ve seen it on enough websites that I consider it a public service if I can get just one reader to avoid it.

No, the cumulative years of experience at your firm does not count as results. You’ve surely seen something like this:

Over 127 years of collective experience in the field.

Please don’t do it. Okay, enough said.

The results you get for your clients are the ultimate form of proof that you can provide. When I buy a new laptop, I know it’s virtually guaranteed to work, and if not, the warranty will replace it.

Whatever it is that you sell, you’ll never provide that level of certainty to your clients, even if you’re the best in the world at it. Nothing is guaranteed.

The next best thing is sharing the results you’ve gotten for your clients. This should be a collection of qualitative and quantitative results that you can share without stories. Case studies will tell your clients how you achieved the results, and I’ll cover that in a separate section. For now, share a quick list of the most impressive results you’ve helped your clients achieve.

It helps to ask your clients prior to the start of your engagements how they plan to measure the results of your impact. If they don’t know, you can always make suggestions. So for example, something as qualitative as a logo and website could have hard metrics like:

  • Brand affinity and recall
  • Branded web searches and clicks
  • Increased conversion rates
  • Changes in firm valuation in public or private markets
  • Increases in willingness to pay

You may even include overall metrics. If your firm builds digital products, a statement like “we’ve generated over 100,000 screens over 35 award-winning products” can go a long way because it speaks to the scale of your work.

#4: Client Roster

Very few people want to be the first to try something, especially if their jobs or own money are on the line.

A friend of mine used to sell social media tools in the early days of Facebook marketing. As he went door-to-door to local businesses, he promised them more foot traffic if they ran a few simple Facebook campaigns. Nothing complicated, and it was pretty much guaranteed in those days because so few people were doing it. He pitched a local shoe repair shop, and they asked him who else was using the service. “A record store, just two doors down, and it’s been super successful for them,” he said.

“But are any other shoe repair shops using it?,” asked the owner of the shop.

I love this story because it so clearly demonstrates the psychology of many buyers: everyone prefers to limit their risk, and being first is a risk; and case studies and client examples should be meaningful and closely matched to the prospect for maximum impact.

If you work with recognizable brands in a focused sector, show their logos to demonstrate your credibility. If you specialize in working with small businesses, your client roster is most impressive if it’s long.

#5: Unique Approach

Do you have a truly unique approach to your work? One that your client would also agree is unique and bolsters your differentiation? One that achieves predictable results? If so, include your unique approach as a way to prove your claims.

You may have heard that clients don’t care about your unique approach. That’s true at the surface level, when prospects are trying to understand who you are and what you do. But after you’ve piqued their interest, many clients will ask about your process or approach to the work. Show them, and make it interesting, emphasizing your approaches and models for creating great work, and demonstrating a process that’s both unique and repeatable.

As much as clients think of themselves as one-of-a-kind, they also want to know that the approach you use will work for them.

#6: Proprietary Tools

The advantage of focus is that it tends to create opportunities to improve the quality and speed of the work. Over time, you may develop proprietary, defensible tools that no one else has access to. Those tools are an important differentiator for you and your firm.

The tools you use are dependent upon your clients, the problems you solve, and your deliverables. Here are a few examples of proprietary tools that may help persuade clients to work with you:

  • Proprietary database
  • Research platform
  • Market data and insights
  • Collaboration platform
  • App that you only use for your clients

From the outside, your proprietary tools should either be invisible, or somewhat vague. They should conjure mystery, and pique the curiosity of your clients. On the inside, your tools must be concrete and deliver value to both your firm and your clients.

Of the proof points mentioned in this section, proprietary tools are the most expensive and time-consuming to develop and maintain. If you are able to create them without changing the focus of your business, they can serve as both proof and leverage during the sales process and delivery.

#7 Portfolio and Work Samples

Portfolios are the simple act of showing your work.

Frontend design, logos and brand work, copywriting, and even some forms of marketing campaigns can help make the case for you by showing your best work. I’m not a believer that “great work speaks for itself,” but it does speak volumes, and it will help make the case for you.

One thing to consider is relevance. If your firm is problem-focused, and therefore serve a diversity of clients, make sure to curate the portfolio you provide. Your portfolio is most persuasive when the work is for similar or recognizable clients. A simple approach to this is to have a slide deck with your full work portfolio, then copy and paste the relevant slides.

Portfolios aren’t conducive to demonstrating every creative field. The more abstract and strategic your work, the more vital your demonstrated results and case studies become. Even in a field like UX and app design, a portfolio can show aesthetically-pleasing design, but it’s not the best way to tell the story of functionality and strategic design choices.

I find that visually-oriented work portfolios are more successful, especially if your firm has a clear style and point of view. The more strategic and abstract your work, the less successful — and even confusing — a portfolio may be.

#8: Testimonials and References

Third-party proof is a powerful persuasion tool. Testimonials are an important data point, especially if your deliverables are more strategic than visual, and when paired with results.

Similarly, having a reference list to share can be an important indicator of past success. Even if clients don’t actually follow up with any of your references, the fact that you have a list of references willing to talk to future clients indicates the goodwill you’ve built.

Just like in your portfolio, relevance is crucial here. Keep a folder (or set of slides) with all of your testimonials and references, and curate the list for relevance to each client. Many firms have a documented motion to create testimonials, references, and case studies, even outsourcing the data gathering and customer interviews to a dedicated firm.

One thing to keep in mind is that a reference list has a cost to you. It’s perfectly reasonable to not provide references for many reasons. Personally, I don’t mind being a reference for a firm. Other people may consider it an inconvenience to be a reference. Moreover, you have little control of your references, and the more time that passes from their engagement with you, the more their memories fade. It’s also worth noting that if many of your prospects ask for references, your positioning isn’t doing a good enough job.

The larger, more expensive, and more complicated your projects, the greater the likelihood that you’ll occasionally be asked to provide references. Be ready for it. Have your reference list ready. For smaller projects, references are less impactful, and a client asking for references may indicate indecision more than a positive buying signal.