How to Write a winning Business Proposal
Proposals of every type are intimidating. You are asking someone to choose you — or, in the case of business proposals, your company — and hoping that they understand why you’re the perfect fit. Writing a business proposal requires that you convincingly articulate your understanding of the potential client’s problem, as well as the reasons your company is the best choice. A business proposal is a document that is used to secure work. It can be sent by an individual or a business and is usually (but not always) a response to a specific job, project, or service that’s required.
A good proposal will outline the service you are offering and briefly explain how you will approach the task. It will also include a quote and/or an estimate to complete the work.
What does a business proposal include?
Although i am going to go into details on that, here is the basic format to give you an idea of the core information that should be included in all business proposals, whether they’re solicited or not:
- Title or cover page.
- Table of contents (optional but useful for longer proposals).
- Executive summary.
- Acknowledgement of the problem.
- Proposed solution / Outline of approach.
- Company information.
- Case studies and/or testimonials (optional but recommended).
- Terms and conditions.
- CTA / how to proceed.
What’s the difference between a business proposal and a business plan?
People often get confused between these two documents, but they are actually very different.
Proposals and plans differ greatly in both their purpose and their audience.
A business plan is all about you. It is a document that provides details about your company’s strategy and demonstrates how you intend to grow. The intended reader of a business plan could be an investor or a bank manager for example.
The idea of a business plan is to outline your goals, show that you know what you’re doing and that you are worthy of investment. Therefore, in a business plan, you might discuss how you intend to scale and how you will make and increase profits.
A business proposal is all about them. A business proposal is a document designed to sell your services to someone else.
While you can certainly use some of the information in your business plan to help you write your business proposal, the focus for your proposal should not be on you, but on whoever it is you’re trying to bag as a client.
A business proposal should therefore focus on how you intend to meet the clients’ needs and how you can help them out or provide value to their business.
Another way to look at it is that a business proposal is selling your services to clients and a business plan is selling your business to investors.
Read more on the the differences between business plan and business proposal here.
How to write a business proposal in 6 steps
Step 1 – Make sure you have all the information you need. Gather them! The first thing you need to do is gather all of the information you need. Actually, scratch that. The very first thing you need to do is take a deep breath and relax, be calm!
Don’t be tempted to fly through the process for fear of missing out on the job. Don’t give in to the urge to panic and rush the proposal! While you certainly do want to submit your proposal as soon as possible, it’s far more important to do a good job on it.
Useful questions to ask at the start:
Now, what information do you need to write this proposal? Here’s a list of questions to ask yourself before you start writing:
- Have I spoken to the client?
- Do I fully understand the requirements?
- Can I deliver what they’re asking for?
- Is this the first attempt to solve this issue? –
- Do I have any questions?–
- Do I need to do some research?
- Who will be reading the proposal?
- Who is the final decision maker?
- What are the budget and timeline expectations? –
Step 2 – Sketch out the scope of the project
Once you have gathered all of the relevant information, you should have everything you need to outline the scope of the project.
The scope of a project refers to the amount of work that needs to be completed to satisfy the clients’ requirements. To complete your scope outline, you need to develop a thorough understanding of what the work is going to involve. You should note down the various tasks to be completed along with any resources you’ll need.
At this point you should also assess how long the project is likely to take and begin taking costs into account.
Here are some useful questions to help you create your outline:
Who will carry out the work?
Who will ensure the quality of the work?
Who will be the client’s point of contact?
What needs to be done?
What materials will you need?
What other resources will be required?
What resources do they already have?
What does the customer expect?
What will it cost?
How long will it take?
How will you approach the task?
How will you divide the work?
How will you ensure the client is happy?
How will you communicate?
How can you sell your solution?
Where will you be working?
Where will you get your materials?
Why have you chosen your particular solution?
Why should they hire you?
When can you start?
When will you meet your milestones?
When will you finish?
When will you expect payment?
Step 3 – Estimate the cost.
Having gathered the necessary information and successfully measured the scope of the project next is to estimate the cost for the job. Figure out how much it will cost you to execute the job. Make sure you include labour and material / equipment costs as well as things like transport. Try to be as accurate as possible and don’t forget to factor in any discounts for bulk buying etc.
You should already have a good idea of how long the job is going to take you, so factor in your labour costs accordingly. A good rule of thumb is to multiply your estimated labour time by 1.5. This way you allow for any unexpected twists and turns in the project.
You can always make your client really happy by knocking these extra hours off the bill at the end of the project if they weren’t needed!
If the amount of time spent on a job Is likely to vary (a construction worker may not know the full extent of a job until work has begun for example) then make sure that you include a caveat in your proposal that covers you for this.
Once you have all of your costing done it’s time to decide on your profit margin. This will vary depending on the type of business you are in. So it’s probably best to do some research and check the industry standard.
Step 4 – Start writing your business proposal.
This is when the doubts and anxieties often start to creep in. Don’t let them. Banish any nervous or anxious thoughts from your mind and tell yourself you got this, because you do!
Here, I have broken down into sections, the processes, step by step, starting with the cover.
- Cover/title page.
An attractive proposal makes your proposal more attractive.
Design matters. Given the option, 66% of people prefer to read something that’s well designed instead of plain. You might think that design is not that important for a business proposal. All that really matters is the cost, right? Wrong!
We live in a highly visual world where design influences our decisions all the time.
For example, did you know that most people (96% to be exact) equate design with how trustworthy a business is?
Like it or not, looks matter and you will be judged on them. A great design speaks volumes about your business and if done correctly, it can make a fantastic impression.
Design isn’t just about the visuals. It also extends to the layout of your document.
Poorly formatted proposals can be unappealing, confusing or hard to read. So you want to make sure that yours has a nice look and an appealing easy-to-digest layout:
The information you should include on your title / cover page?
- A snappy title
- Your name and contact information.
- Your client’s name.
- The name of the person you’re submitting the proposal to.
- The date of submission.
- Any useful reference numbers
- Introduction or cover letter.
Whether you include your introduction in the main body of your report or send it separately as a covering letter is up to you.
In either case, you’ll want to keep this section fairly short. 1 or 2 paragraphs is fine:
Introduce yourself and your company in a couple of sentences. You may want to explain your background briefly. Highlight your strengths and make it clear why you stand out. The tone should be friendly.
It helps if you can keep your clients’ needs in mind while you’re writing and presenting your strengths in a way that makes it clear how they can benefit from working with you.
2. Executive Summary
Most people believe that this is where you present the project in a nutshell. Which is sort of right, but not quite. Executive summary is more about selling than summarizing.
While you do want to summarize your proposal, the main goal of this section is not to provide a basic overview of the whole project, but rather to highlight why your solution is the right one.
A good executive summary needs to be persuasive and benefit focused. This is your opportunity to sell your solution to the client’s problem!
Focus on persuasion over description, use clear and straightforward language to make your points, and try to keep it short, less than 1 page is a good length.
This might be the first page your prospect ever reads, so make it count! Start with something that grabs their attention and makes them want to keep reading.
Next, show that you understand the problem fully. Once you’ve done that, then you can show off your fabulous solution. Don’t forget to stress the benefits!
3. Table of contents (optional)
Depending on how long your proposal is, you may want to include a table of contents.
If your proposal includes industry-specific terms, you may also want to include a table that explains these.
4. The (main) body
This section will make up the majority of your proposal.
There is a lot of information that should be included, so, I break them down into smaller sub-sections that are easier to manage.
a. Approach /solution
Here’s where you delve into detail about your client’s problem and your solution to it.
You need to go through your entire process, detailing exactly how you intend to approach the problem and what results the client can expect.
You will need to demonstrate that you are aware of any potential challenges and ensure that your solution is customized to your potential client as much as possible.
It can be tempting, when you’re sending out lots of proposals, to just use the same one across the board.
But changing a few details, making the proposal feel more tailored, adds a personal touch that goes a long way to improving your results.
What exactly do you intend to deliver?
It’s important to have an itemized list of everything that’s included in the price and a detailed description for each item on your list.
c. Project milestones
It’s a good idea to break down the project into several phases. This gives the client a good idea of how the project is likely to progress.
Outline the key events and deliverables involved with each stage. Give a realistic time frame for each part of the project, and say who is responsible for each deliverable.
d. Budget & pricing
If you want to win clients and maintain good profit margins, you’ll need to price your jobs up accurately.
It’s a good idea to have an itemized table that clearly shows all of your costs.
e. About us
This is where you really sell your company. Top tip – think like a storyteller and make it interesting.
If you have an about page on your website, you might want to use this as a resource. And if you don’t, it’s well worth checking out some of the best about us pages on the internet for inspiration.
Explain who you are and what your company is all about. Talk about your values, your team,
(Include bios and photos to sell your team’s expertise) and your journey.
Highlight your expertise and your USP.
If you have awards, social proof, testimonials or case studies feel free to put those in as well.
This section is all about familiarizing the client with your business. You want your reader to feel like they know you and your company well.
f. Clients and references
This section is optional. However, including contact information for one or two previous clients
(make sure you ok it with them first) shows that you’re confident and can help to build trust.
If you have a bunch of particularly impressive clients, you may want to include a slightly longer client list.
g. Terms & conditions / moving forward
The final section for your main body should first include your terms and conditions and then provide information / steps and a call to action for moving forward.
Your call to action might be an invitation to visit your website for example.
This section serves as a conclusion to the main body. Basically, you want to briefly reiterate how you can help, and go over what you and the client are both promising by agreeing to the proposal.
Specify the duration of the agreement, the timescale for completion, and payment types and dates.
Step 5 – Edit and proofread.
Once you’re done writing the proposal, you’ll want to go over it and check for any mistakes.
If possible, it’s best to get a fresh pair of eyes on it (or 2).
It’s also a good idea to run it through Grammarly or a similar program – just don’t rely on it completely as it will only pick up on basic spelling and grammar mistakes and not misused or unintended words (the word you when you meant you wouldn’t be picked up by Grammarly for example).
A good test to check if your offer is well explained is to give the proposal to someone who doesn’t work in your industry and ask them if it’s clear what you’re offering.
If you want to be certain that your proposal is mistake free, consider hiring a freelance proofreader/editor (with experience of dealing with business proposals.) to check through it for you and provide some feedback.
Business proposal length
How long is a piece of string? Unfortunately, there’s no ideal length for a business proposal.
Some companies give out guidelines, but the length can still vary greatly depending on the industry and also on the depth and scope of the project.
Unsolicited proposals will generally be shorter than solicited – potential clients that have asked for a proposal are much more likely to sit down and read a longer document.
As a general rule, you want to keep it as short and concise as possible, while still providing all of the necessary information and detail.
Your language should be clear and concise. It’s a good idea to use plain English and refrain from industry jargon and technical terms.
The easier your proposal is to understand, the easier it will be for the buyer to say yes!
How to keep your business proposal short and punchy
A good tip to keep the length under control is to use economical sentences.
That means that your sentences should not contain any unnecessary words.
Use appropriate language and tone.
Have you noticed how many companies are dropping the formalities these days?
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to adopt a stuffy and formal tone in your business proposal!
You want to be professional, of course.
But there’s nothing wrong with adding a bit of personality.
Step 6 – Send your proposal (and follow it up!)
How to submit your proposal.
Most of the time you’ll probably be sending your proposals as an email attachment.
However, some businesses have a preferred submission process, so you should check whether that’s the case before you hit send.
If you have an RFP make sure you check it for instructions on how to submit.
It’s important to follow the directions exactly so that you don’t start off on the wrong foot.
You may be asked to log into a company’s portal or submit an application form that accompanies the proposal. Some companies may also ask for hard copies.
Some companies may even use submission guidelines as a test of your diligence.
For example, let’s say that the company you’re submitting to asks for the proposal to be formatted with double line spacing.
Any companies that miss this simple instruction will stand out a mile (and appear lax) and their proposal will be likely overlooked.
Even a perfect proposal can lose the contract if its submitted incorrectly.
How to follow up
People do business with people, not documents. That’s why it’s important to follow up with your client in order to keep the relationship going.
Ideally, your proposal will have impressed your client so much that they will contact you back immediately. Unfortunately, this is rare.
They will likely have several proposals to look through and this could take some time.
So even though it’s hard, try not to jump down their throats too soon after you submit.
Once you’ve given them some time, drop them an email or give them a quick call.
Make sure they know that you’re available to answer any questions they may have about your proposal.