How to Create A Lead Service & Ditch Custom Proposals for Good

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How to create a lead service

One of the most frustrating aspects of running a creative or consulting business is the amount of time wasted writing custom proposals.

If you’re offering any kind of client service that starts with “How much would it cost to____?” and your answer doesn’t come instantly, you know exactly what I mean…

Hours and hours spent doing a dog & pony show for anyone who requests a quote only to be ghosted… ouch.

In this post, I’m going to share my secret for getting off that hamster wheel with a lead service instead.

But first, tell me if this sounds familiar…

The Problem with Responding to RFPs & Creating Custom Proposals

For years I squandered my most valuable business asset (my time) jumping through hoops trying to convince people to hire me…

Only to find out that all they really wanted was to “get a sense” of how much they should expect to spend if they decide to go forward with their plans.

I call these people “tire kickers” which sounds like an insult, but consumers should be able to kick tires before they buy.

The problem is in the process: when there’s a variable scope of work, there’s no quick and easy way to quote a price.

And then there were the Requests for Proposals (RFPs)… ooof.

It took me a while to figure out that some of the more challenging RFPs were written by people who didn’t know how to go about it, so “played it safe” by copying and pasting from big corporate or governmental RFPs.

The result is RFPs that are overly complex and demanding to respond to, taking exponentially more time than necessary with no guarantee of work.

Some were rigged against me from the start, which I realized when a big nonprofit organization wanted to hire me for a gig but they were required “go through the motions” and issue a public RFP…

All the other poor suckers didn’t have a chance, and that rang a big huge bell for me.

One particularly excruciating experience was a proposal process with a “big fish” client that lasted for an entire year:

  • Back and forth emails
  • Phone calls
  • Project research
  • Soliciting quotes and recommendations from subcontractors
  • Schmoozy lunch meetings
  • A proposal that took me a week to write

To make matters worse, all that work I put into courting them informed an RFP they issued at the 11th hour, despite months of assurance it was “in the bag” for me.

In the end, I “came in a very close second place” to a larger firm and lost the gig (which was the equivalent of an annual salary).

I was done.

The opportunity cost of investing all of that time to benefit someone else’s business rather than my own was a game of chance more costly than I could afford.

I knew there had to be a better way go to about this and that’s when everything about my business took a huge pivot for the better.

It was then that I decided to create a “lead service”… one that would allow me to get compensated for all the value that’s provided during the initial steps of the process of any project.

What is a Lead Service?

A lead service is one that allows you to monetize the discovery process while providing standalone value to your clients. It discourages tire kickers from picking your brain for free and frees up your time so you can invest it in your own business rather than someone else’s.

A lead offer (1-1 service) is part of a larger value ladder — which is simply a series of offers that increase and price and value. The lead offer is the step that comes right before your more premium offers, whether those are value-based, fixed packages or custom engagements.

The Benefits of a Lead Service

1. Helps Establish Clear Client Boundaries

Of all the steps of the value ladder, the lead offer is my favorite and I think that’s because I sometimes have a hard time setting and enforcing boundaries with clients.

I’ve always struggled with responding to people who ask me to meet with them to “pick my brain” … I want to help! 😩

Honestly, if I could just help people all day long without having to worry about how I’m going to pay the bills I’d happily give value away for free all day every day.

But that’s not the world we live in and it’s no way to run a business. #truthbomb

If I’m spending my time (my “product”) on behalf of a potential client and helping them solve business problems, I deserve to be compensated.

So do you.

My lead service was the first steps of working with me packaged up with a fixed price and scope of work.

That means I can quickly move the conversation from “Can I pick your brain?” to “Absolutely! I have the perfect thing for that — here’s more information about [insert service name here]. Let me know if you’d like to move forward and I’ll send over next steps.”

No more…

  • Awkward conversations and feeling like I’m being put on the spot…
  • Feeling resentful about people expecting me to invest my time for free…
  • Worrying about whether all that time will even lead to a paying gig…

Just a simple back and forth and it’s all prepared in advance.

They either see the value and say “let’s do this!” or they don’t… either way, there’s no more risk of time spent without compensation.

2. Creates a Better Client Experience

We go into this in more detail in The Bullseye Offer Formula, but here’s the thing: good clients want you to lead them through your process. They appreciate that you’re prepared and have the steps for “how it works to work with you” all laid out in advance.

It may feel a bit ungenerous at first if you’re used to doing free consultations prior to signing up a client…

But it actually signals to your potential clients that you’re professional, you know what you’re doing, and you’re here to run a serious business. And that can only instill confidence that you can help them with theirs.

3. Attracts Higher Quality Clients to You

Bad apple clients who are only interested in “picking your brain” aren’t going to appreciate this and that’s okay. They can go kick someone else’s tires — you’ve got an empire to build.

Great clients expect you to charge what you’re worth, set boundaries around your time, and demonstrate you know your value.

4. Frees Up Your Time to Work on Your Business (Rather Than Just in It)

Rather than re-creating the wheel with each and every client, your time can be much better spent working on your business.


Take this email exchange between me and a client as an example of what I mean…

They were interested in hiring me to rebrand their online presence to prepare for a big upcoming launch. 61 emails were exchanged over a two-week time period and about a third of those were written by me.

Let’s break down the math…

Say those 20 emails took me 15 minutes each to write. That would have amounted to 5 hours of my time spent in the sales process.

FOR FREE.

This is something we normally chalk up to “the cost of doing business” but there’s usually a LOT more time slipping through the cracks than most business owners realize.

In order to recoup that cost, I’d have to build it into their costs and let’s face it, that’s not always so easy to do when you’re working with price-sensitive small businesses, especially if you have a lot of low-balling competitors.

But I didn’t spend five hours answering their questions. I had a lead service to offer them!

This cut the back and forth to a short conversation — I kept directing them to the lead service where I would address the advice and recommendations they were asking for.

This saved me five hours of my time in this one client conversation alone.

So think about…

  • How many of these back-and-forths do you have each month?
  • What is that costing you?
  • What percentage of those pre-sales conversations result in paid work?

In the end, this client didn’t hire me — they went with someone cheaper. And that’s perfectly okay, but what they didn’t get to do is take advantage of my brain stuff and pass along my expertise without paying for it.

I quickly got in and out of the discussion and spent my time doing things that benefited my business.

5. Helps You Scale Your Business Without Growing a Team

When you’re running a small service-based business, your most valuable business asset is your time. Unless you have a dedicated business development person on staff, recreating the wheel with custom proposals or responding to RFPs is likely going to be your biggest business expense.

Even though it’s not costing you in dollars, it’s costing you time.

By monetizing the sales process and charging for your discovery process with a lead service, you’ll immediately get cash flowing in when working with new clients.

The time you free up can then be invested in streamlining your processes (to make them more profitable!), adding passive streams of income (as part of your value ladder!), building a client attraction system (a.k.a. marketing), and even leveling up your skills so you can charge more.

Ground Rules for Creating A Lead Service

1. Free Advice Belongs in the First Rung of Your Value Ladder Only

I provide as much free value as I can in the form of blog posts, emails, tips I share on social media, free masterclasses, and so on. This is the first rung of your value ladder or the “top of funnel” content and it can include anything that allows you to serve 1-many rather than time spent 1-on-1.

  • Email newsletter
  • Podcast
  • YouTube videos
  • Social media posts
  • Blog posts
  • Webinars
  • Free courses
  • Lead magnets
  • Public speaking
  • etc.

Free value is how we market our businesses and establish our expertise, but it isn’t a very smart thing to give away to one person who may or may not ever reciprocate that value (in the form of payment for your time).

That means I no longer offer free consultations, respond to RFPs, or build custom proposals for clients and I invite them to take the first steps with me by purchasing a lead service instead.

But there’s a trick to this because they won’t see the value in paying you for discovery or consultations that your competitors probably do for free…

2. A Lead Offer Must Provide Standalone Value

It’s not enough just to start charging for something you’ve always offered for free in the past… you must describe it and package it so your potential clients will see the value.

That means you must solve a problem with your service.

If you just charge for a gab session to explore possible solutions or “how it works” you’re actually creating a problem: they’re no further ahead but their wallet is a bit lighter.

That’s why I don’t recommend things like “assessments” – for one, they’re a tough sell (even though they can be incredibly valuable). Nobody really wants to buy a summary of all the stuff they’re doing wrong or need to fix.

What we want to buy are solutions.

So think about how you can create something that feels tangible that moves their piece forward on the board…

Maybe that’s a…

  • Plan
  • Checklist
  • Roadmap
  • Playbook
  • Blueprint

And this is key: it must contain value whether your client takes the next steps with you or signs up for your more premium offers.

3. Fixed Scope & Timeline

Once you have your lead service figured out, you want to do as much upfront work as you can to “fix” the scope of work as well as your time.

At first it may take you a bit longer and it may take a bit of experimenting. Some things to think about:

  • What scripts need to be prepared? (What will you say to “pitch” your lead service to people who ask you for a quote?)
  • What steps will you ask them to take to initiate the work? (Will you need to write up instructions? Create a contract? Set up a calendar for scheduling?)
  • How will you respond to objections and questions? (What can you create in advance for this? Think FAQ sheet or “How it works” document.)
  • Will you need any templates for your deliverables?

The more you can “templatize” in your process the more efficient you’ll become (and more profitable!).

In Summary
If you’re looking to scale your service-based business and get away from the time-sucking custom proposal process, a lead service can help you better leverage your time while creating a better experience for your clients.

Will you implement a lead service? If you have any questions hit us up in comments!

And don’t forget to grab our value ladder planner below to brainstorm ideas for creating your lead service as well as the other offerings in your value ladder. 🙂

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