If you’re in business, you’re in sales, whether you realize it or not. Unless all you ever do is hawk dime store widgets by attractively positioning them on shelves, there will come a time in your life where you need to write a business proposal of some kind. Business proposals are always used to persuade someone to take action on something that you have. You want to convince a prospect to purchase some system or service, or convince a loan officer to give you money because you think you can invent the cure for cancer, or you want the school district to invest in your innovative approach to developing kids. Your project proposal writing skills will shorten the distance between effort and paying customers.
Ready? Let’s get started.
I am pleased to present you with this proposal to help motivate your employees and provide a more dynamic work environment at XYZ company.”
Well…we’re waiting. Is that all you’ve got? I can’t believe you; and you call yourself a professional. Don’t sweat it folks, you’re in good company. Writing proposals is tough stuff and can take hours (even days) of writes and re-writes and leave you spinning your wheels until your mental bearings seize up—unless you have a system. Here’s my method for writing proposals that will at least provide you with a skeleton to get started. You turn it into a winning business proposal by providing that skeleton with some meat.
Here are a few quick comments on overall look and feel to get you going:
Use standard rules of business writing. Write in an understandable, conversational voice, and make sure you define all industry-specific terms (RE: my article last year on Esoteritisms).
Make sure that the addressee(s) is listed somewhere on the front page, whether it’s a title page (optional for longer stuff) or the first page of the proposal.
Greet the reader by letting her know that you’re happy to present this to her, something like the mushy prose you started with above, but maybe a little more warm and conversational.
Use headings to make the written proposal easy to navigate. The reader may not have time to read two pages of Introduction filler, so give him the option to skip it by letting him know where it begins and ends.
Develop ideas in the sequence of most important stuff to least important. That means introductory and filler material should be located at the end, not the beginning.
Always make a request to ask for action on your idea (or product or service) and define how you want that action to be taken.
The Main Sections
Now come those headings that I was talking about and what goes under each. You may have a good reason to change the titles that I give below and even leave off a section or add another one, but let these serve as a recipe for an eatable business proposal. Your personal touch can make it delicious.
Define the breadth of what you are trying to accomplish in the business proposal. What is the process for the work or description of the product. Be very specific as to what is included and what isn’t based upon what you learned in your Discovery Process. For example, if you’re going to propose motivating that workforce described in the opening statement we used above, providing details about how you’ll combine a set amount of training days on certain topics mixed in with reading and audio material that you provide for reinforcement. That is an effective scope. It tells the reader in no uncertain terms how you’ll proceed. Specificity is key because it sets the expectation level of both parties as to what happens and when it does. Most litigation in business results from a scope that isn’t clearly defined in advance. In the all too likely event of scope creep (the scope of work changes during the course of your project), make sure that the agreed upon changes are documented in writing and supercede your original proposal.
What do they get when it’s all said and done if they sign on the proposal dotted line? An installed product? A training system with a license to replicate it within the walls of the company? A recommendations report? This section can be combined with Scope for a shorter proposal, but I recommend keeping them separate to add to your clarity. Here’s where you set the measuring stick for what you will do so that once you do it, everyone knows that the project is officially over. Provide something tangible here that the person you’re trying to persuade can see and touch in their mind. Consultants have a tough time with this one because they may just be selling a day of on-site consulting. Let her know that she’ll get the ideas discussed at the end of the day—even if they’re scribbled out on the back of an envelope.
This is the most important part of persuading the reader when writing your proposal, and you need to think this way in Business Negotiations as well. It’s the sizzle on the steak you gave in the previous two sections. Why should anybody invest his or her time and money in you and your idea? You must tell the reader what is in it for them in one of the three true benefits that he really cares about—more money, more time, or less heartache. Once again, the more specific the better. Saying that, based on the size of the organization you’re presenting to, you’ll increase their sales by $100,000 in the first year and by $50,000 every subsequent year is much more effective than stating you’ll save them “a bunch of money.” People get hung up on thinking they’ll be held to these benefit estimates and are afraid to put them in. Not if you have an effective Deliverables section because that’s where you make the promise. If you don’t get paid unless the $100,000 gain in sales occurs, state it in your Deliverables and have the whole agreement reviewed by a competent contract attorney.
When do you start, how long should the entire ordeal take, and when do you expect to finish? You may want to reference a Gantt chart or timeline in an appendix if this is a long project with multiple phases. There are targets and state them as such. If you are promising these dates (a risky thing to do), you need to reference them in the Investment section and what the penalty is for slipping.
Tell the reader who will do the work or installation or research or whatever. A brief statement on qualifications of those people may be required for technical project proposals, and detailed bios can be included in an appendix of the written proposal or upon request.
What do you need them to do to ensure success? This can range from providing a part-time liaison to having a company team intimately involved with what you’re doing. Rarely will you require nothing. If you don’t include this then the onus of the project’s success is completely on you, so if customer actions or lack of them can impede progress, get it down when writing the business proposal.
Here’s where I break my own rule about putting the most important stuff first, but it’s done for a good reason. Readers expect to look to the end to figure out how much they need to fork over to get going. You can’t be over-specific here, including terms, down-payment information, and what happens if a payment isn’t made in a timely manner (such as you cease work). Stylistically, try to keep it friendly and free from legal jargon that can sound frightening. That small print goes in a standard terms and conditions page that you can attach to the end.
“Please indicate your approval of this proposal by signing below.” Give them a line for signature, title and date. “I look forward to beginning this project immediately” or some similar statement, and then you scribe your signature as the author of the proposal right after “Sincerely.”
Sounds like a lot—it isn’t. Feel free to buck me an email or FAX with the word “Proposal” and I can get you a sample proposal with all these elements so you can see how it looks. Use this recipe for cooking up business proposals and your chances of success go up dramatically, getting the business instead of a cold shoulder.
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