Write business proposals that win deals
What is a business proposal?
Getting new clients, especially ones who are serious about committing to projects and payments, will often call for sending a business proposal. In a nutshell, a business proposal:
- Shows the client you understand their specific needs.
- Offers a custom solution for said needs.
- Describes how much it will cost and when it will be done.
- Proves that you’re qualified for the job.
- Suggests that you are better than your competitors.
Your aim is to have a client sign up so you can provide them with your product or service.
Your business proposal should serve as one detailed Call-to-Action which ends in an approval signature.
There are two types of business proposals:
- Solicited – These are in response to Requests for Proposal (RFP). RFP’s are helpful because they let you know that a company is in need of a product or service. The potential client will also describe their needs, requirements and budget limits.
- Unsolicited – These are submitted to potential clients or buyers who have NOT asked you for a proposal. They can be part of your sales process for companies you think will receive value from buying what you sell. They are also harder to write because you have to do extensive research beforehand.
What to do before writing a proposal?
This stage is all about asking the right questions, so you can get useful answers.
For a solicited proposal, study the requirements in the RFP. Large companies and the Government will publish this kind of document when they are looking for service providers or suppliers. The potential client’s need will be described in detail, also their requirements and budget.
Don’t waste your time or theirs if you are unable to meet the above. If you feel confident that you can then why not be a little bit proactive? Do the research. If possible, call, email or meet a key person in the company to get valuable info straight from the source.
Ask these questions (or a variation of them), but avoid questions which are already answered in the RFP:
- Has the company ever had to deal with this kind of problem in the past? Did they manage to solve it? If they did, was the solution satisfactory? What was lacking in the solution? Try to find out the name of the supplier/provider they used before.
- What are the criteria that the company will use when deciding between the different proposals?
- What are the corporate culture and values of the company? What do they find most important when it comes to relating to their clients, stakeholders, suppliers, employees?
For an unsolicited proposal, you should be ready to ask the same set of questions. The difference in this case is that, before you ask them, you will have to find out whether the client has the kind of problem or need which you can solve.
- Who is the decision maker in the organization? What are the company’s aspirations and needs?
- Do they have a dedicated department which deals with these types of problems, or are they inclined to outsource?
- For example, if they say they would like to cut down on operational costs, or they would like to reach a larger target audience, explain how your services (even if not related) would help them achieve those goals.
- What would they consider a fair price for having their problem(s) resolved?
End the informational interview by offering to submit a proposal which will describe in more detail how the client’s issue will be solved by you while meeting their budget.
Research who your RFP competitors might be and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Yes, it’s a good idea to spend some time playing the spy.
- Check out their websites, social media content, prices, offers, layout, qualifications. Put yourself in a client’s shoes. What about them appeals to you and what doesn’t?
- Read customer reviews of their work.
- Analyze their SEO standings in Google.
- Don’t limit yourself to the internet. Email and/or call them with specific questions that a potential client would have.
- Create a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) chart. Place them and yourself in relation to variables, such as: pricing, customer service, experience, social media engagement, etc. See if there’s at least one variable where you score higher than the rest. This will be your strength to play up in the proposal.
What are the parts of a proposal?
This should include your company’s name, logo, contact info and the title of the project. It’s also a good idea to include the potential client’s name as it points to the fact that the proposal was prepared exclusively for them. That’s all the info you need to include here, leave a lot of white space and make sure the layout looks neat and symmetrical.
Table of Contents:
If your proposal is longer than 10 pages, include a table of contents.
Cover Letter/Executive Summary:
Getting a client is getting a job. And getting a job calls for showing the one giving it to you who you are.
Make it no longer than a page, and make it personal. Write it as a letter using the name of the decision-maker. Present a summary of your professional biography but don’t bore with personal details (such as, where you studied or what you do in your free time).
What you need to write is the stuff that will get the client’s attention. In other words, how you already have experience in helping businesses who were in a similar situation.
Showcase the names and years you were involved in their projects. This lends credibility to your claims. Mention any strengths and advantages you hold over your competitors but elaborate on them in the last section of the proposal.
Statement of Problem:
Describe the client’s need or problem in your own words. This is where you get to show that you understand their concerns as well as the bigger picture.
Now is the time to use the preliminary research that you did on the client and their industry. Use the funnel approach. Begin with a current snapshot of the industry status on a global or national level. Then, zero in on the client’s position within it and how the problem/need can jeopardize their standing.
This is the meat of the proposal. Here you get to explain in detail how you’re going to solve the problem stated in the previous section.
Describe your approach, but be careful when using jargon. If the decision-maker has a similar professional background, specific terms can serve as a shortcut to understanding your approach, in any other case use simpler layman’s words.
Rather than speaking of how great you are, concentrate on how your proposed solution will benefit the client. Put yourself in the client’s shoes when you’re writing this section and try to imagine what the client would love to see.
Deliverables and timelines:
The two criteria which companies and governments tend to take most into consideration when reviewing proposals are low prices and timely completion.
Hopefully, during your preliminary research you were able to find out which one is the priority for your client. Address that one first.
In case of timelines, if the RFP has stated a deadline for a project it will really give you points if you can point out that you can finish it even before that date. Provide a calendar or a diagram showing how this will happen. In the case of a long project, break it up into milestones and indicate the deliverables that you will supply for each one of them.
The other important consideration for the client is the cost. Again, if the RFP states the available budget this is an indication that the candidates would have to try to go lower than that number if they want to be seriously considered. It is expected that you have already done your calculations even before sitting down to write the proposal.
Be detailed and break down the structure of the pricing in order to help your client understand how you got there. It will demonstrate that you’re realistic and professional.
What else is the client gaining by choosing you? Emphasize your strengths vis-à-vis your competitors. Use the USP chart you created during the research phase.
Use this psychological phenomenon to your advantage and include some documents which play in favour to your credibility. Some examples:
- Case studies
- Portfolio pieces
Include any of those as an appendix to the cover letter section. They serve as the physical backup and visual aid for the claims you’ve made in that first section. They also show you’re proud and transparent of your previous accomplishments.
Terms and conditions, plus Call to Action (CTA):
A good proposal will also act as a contract prototype which will delineate the terms and conditions and will provide for a signature space, or at the very least a contact info where the client can reach you once they’ve gone through your proposal.
What style/tone should the proposal be written in?
Communicating your ideas clearly is key. Think about how your client expresses their need and use the words or phrases they use. An RFP is likely to be a formal document filled with industry-specific jargon which hopefully you are already familiar with. Luckily, these days you can Google any rare word and get a definition.
Study the RFP and match the tone and language used there when creating your proposal. This will show that you know what you are talking about and that the client’s problems are the type you’ve encountered before. A formal tone will also show that you are professional, both in the way you conduct business as well as in the way you complete your work.
Consider cultural differences
Consider any cultural or emotional issues that may be in the way of comprehension. It is very possible that your future clients and/or their decision makers are located abroad and English isn’t their native language. In this case it might better to use Simplified Technical English. This will aid to clearly communicate your ideas. In the worst case, it will make it easier for a translator software to translate the text as close as possible to the original.
Break up long sections of text
To that end, short, simple sentences are best understood. Avoid long sentences and complex paragraphs as best as you can. Paragraphs are necessary because they break the message into digestible bites, plus they look more appealing than a solid block of text.
Pitfalls to avoid
Another thing to skip on – cliches. If you sound like a used car salesman your message might fall on deaf ears because you won’t be taken seriously. Read your proposal aloud to yourself, to friends or partners. Does it flow? Does it sound logical and easy to understand?
Get it proofread. If you don’t have a professional editor you can use an editing software. Grammatical errors and misspellings undermine your seriousness.
What about visuals?
Images, pie charts, graphs, infographics, etc. are important. They will help your client visualize your message, your idea, your approach or even see the work you’ve done on previous projects. It will also help them remember you.
No one remembers a block of text, but a vivid image sticks to the brain. The old saying has become a cliche, but it’s still true – “A picture is worth a thousand words”.
Studies also show that people process images up to 60,000 times faster than text. However, it is also important to remember that the images you choose to use should be clear, appealing, non-offensive and professionally presented.
Is a web proposal better than a paper one?
This could depend on the type of client you are preparing the proposal for. Some clients will want physical copies of their proposals. If that is the case you can take advantage of this fact and print and bind your proposals using good quality stock. This is another way you can distinguish your proposal from the pile.
That being said, most companies are increasingly digitizing their business operations so sending a proposal as a digital document should not cause any issues. Sending proposals digitally can be quite convenient as you can save the time it takes to print and mail (or deliver) the document.
If you are comfortable with the idea of the proposal being in digital format, let me take it a step further. I propose that you should not be emailing a PDF, but rather using an online tool to generate and share the proposal with your client. In addition to not having to physically print a document, here are some of the advantages of web proposals:
If you do not have much experience writing a proposal, a template can be helpful as it is already populated with some of the necessary sections. You just need to update the text to reflect your business and proposal topic.
When your proposal is ready, just send an email notification. This email contains a link to the web proposal so your client can read it at their leisure on any device they are using. When the proposal has been signed, you get an email notifying you of the fact.
Keep tabs on when your client has viewed, printed, or approved your proposal. Some of the more robust tools will also send you notifications. You can, in real time, know when your client is reading your proposal. How cool is that? Now you can follow up with them and make sure any of their concerns are addressed.
Digital signatures are as legally binding as their pen and paper counterparts. If your client is ready to proceed, they just sign the proposal right in their browser. No need to perform the cumbersome print – sign – scan – email dance.
If you create a lot of proposals, some tools will let you save snippets or whole sections of a proposal to re-use in future documents. Saving you time with common sections such as the terms and conditions, testimonials, team, etc.
How does Colibro make writing killer web proposals easier?
As you see, writing a persuasive business proposal can be a demanding and time-consuming effort.
Starting each new proposal from scratch can feel overwhelming. You can look for ready-made templates on the web. These can be good, but have limited scope.
If you are ready to start creating killer proposals, Proposals by Colibro can guide you through all the steps (from A to Z) and help you close that deal.
You will enjoy putting together each part of the puzzle and you will understand why they are all necessary for the seamless final draft. After all, your goal is to get the approval signature.