Look at you, being an amazing business owner as you build your awesome service-based business. Your business plan is killer, you’re getting the loans or investments needed to get your business off the ground, and your marketing machine is purring and bringing in the leads (or at least, that’s the hope!).
Of course, as a service provider, not all your leads are completely sold that your business is the best out there right off the bat. Chances are, most will request more information from you in order to convince them to choose your business over your competitors.
Typically, this comes in the form of a request for proposal, or RFP.
Generally speaking, businesses that send a RFP know the “what” of their problem and need, but not necessarily the “how” it will be solved (i.e. “I know I need interior design help in my new office, but I don’t know how to accomplish this.”). The main concern of an RFP is finding the best solution. Additionally, contracts resulting from an RFP may have looser or more flexible pricing (for example, if additional materials and manpower are needed due to unprecedented issues, like water damage or wood rot).
However, a RFP is not to be confused with an invitation for bid (IFB). An IFB is sent when a business already knows what their need is and how they want to fulfill the need (i.e. “I’ve made all my measurements, have a specific design already drafted, and my materials are all picked out and ready. I just need someone to do the work for me.”). Businesses that send IFBs are likely only seeking bids to fit their financial needs. Contracts from IFBs are typically fixed-price with limited readjustment.
For the purpose of this guide, we’ll be referring to RFPs, not IFBs.
When you receive a RFP, or seek one out, it’s time to pull together your business proposal in response.
If you’re like millions of other small business owners just starting out, you probably don’t know where to start. In your search for understanding, you may have seen a slew of business proposal templates, which can certainly be helpful. Unfortunately, most don’t fully explain what to actually put in those templates to improve your chances at winning a job.
That’s where we come in!
In this guide, we’ll help you understand how to create a killer business proposal, plus what to include within it to help you win and keep winning jobs.
Let’s get started!
A business proposal is a written document sent by a business to persuade a potential client to choose that business. They can be solicited or unsolicited, as long as they pertain to the prospect’s business and needs. While it may be advantageous to proactively submit a proposal to a prospect unsolicited, it has a higher chance of being ignored by the prospect. When a proposal is requested through an RFP, however, your prospect is actively looking for the kind of solution your business provides.
If you do a quick Google search for “business proposal,” you’ll likely find results for both business proposal and business plan. Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of using the two terms interchangeably. In fact, they’re very different things.
We’ve already established that a business proposal is a document meant to persuade a person or business requesting a solution to their need or problem. A business plan, however, is a documentation of your vision for your business and how you intend to achieve that vision. Business plans include financial projections for the cost of your business development and operations, plus an estimation of the revenue you expect your business to generate.
Business plans are not used to win over a prospect for their business, but business proposals may sometimes be used in a business plan.
Another important distinction to make before we delve too much further into creating winning proposals is the difference between a proposal and a quote.
A potential client that’s asked for a quote likely already knows what the solution is to their problem or need, and are simply looking for businesses to offer them the best price. When providing a quote, the only thing really giving one business a foot up on another is the price they’re willing to offer for their services.
On the other hand, when a potential client asks for a proposal, they’re essentially saying, “I have this problem, but I want you to suggest the best solution and tell me how much it will cost.” By requesting a proposal, your potential client is hoping you have an understanding of their needs, or will at least do the research the gain the understanding. Additionally, a proposal is your opportunity to tell the prospect more about your business, how they will benefit from your services, how much it will cost, and why you’re worth their business.
Now these distinctions are cleared up, it’s time to get moving on that business proposal.
According to Inc., a successful proposal is responsive, or clearly shows “the bidder has done his or her homework, [and] is thoroughly familiar with the client’s needs and aspirations.”
The best way to start your research is to meet with key stakeholders and ask them probing questions about what they’re looking for. Some questions you can ask are:
It’s also important to know your client’s messaging and tone, as this will help when you create your proposal. Scour your client’s website and take note of common terminology or phrasing used throughout. Read through their About Us section, if they have it. Peruse their social media channels and read through their posts.
Finally, do a good ol’ Google search for terms related to their business or industry. Take a look at any other companies that show up in your search and note their similarities and differences from your prospect. Check out any recent news related to their industry and consider how it might have an effect on their request.
When you do your homework on your prospect, you’ll be able to read through the lines of their request to better understand what will match their expectations and fulfill their needs for the project in question. It will also show them you’ve spent the time and effort getting to know their business and industry, and you’re truly invested in earning their business.
Your business proposal is your opportunity to convince your buyer that they should choose your business rather than doing it themselves or using a different vendor or resource. However, this isn’t an argument, nor should it be written as if you are talking at the RFP sender.
When creating your proposal, approach it conversationally, “as if you were sitting across the table in front of the reader,” says Dr. Elliott Jaffa, a behavioral and marketing psychologist and consultant. “The RFP is written in a language of what I call ‘governmentese,” but you do not have to respond in the same language.”
However, mirroring the language your prospect uses in their RFP can sometimes be beneficial to the success of your proposal.
“Whenever possible, use the exact language of the buyer in your opening section,” says Matt Gambino, founder of PROPEL Skills Development. “If the buyer used a catchy phrase in our initial call, like, ‘reps sometimes throw requests over the wall to my sales engineers…’ I’ll use the phrase ‘throw the requests over the wall,’ in the needs section of my proposal.”
Additionally, it’s important to keep the messaging of your proposal client-centered.
“It is important to keep in mind that although the RFP is asking questions about your firm and experience, the response must be client-specific and feel like it was customized for them and their needs,” recommends Danielle Feroleto, owner of the marketing agency, Small Giants.
A good practice to get into, before you even begin drafting the content of your proposal, is to place yourself in your prospects shoes. Ask yourself what’s in it for them, and how will your services make their life better by solving their problem? By applying these questions to your research efforts, you should be able to find answers that will resonate with your prospect.
Once you’ve exhausted research on your prospect and have a fleshed-out idea of the kind of tone your proposal will exude, you can start outlining your proposal.
While it’s fine to use a premade template for your proposal, understand you run the risk of losing customization and originality with the format. If you do go this route, be sure you choose a template specifically made for your kind of business, or at least a business like it. Bidsketch has a wide selection of proposal templates based on business types.
Not all businesses are the same, so naturally, not all business proposals will look the same. However, there are some key elements to include in your business proposal to really knock the socks off your prospect.
Title page (optional)
Yes, the title page is technically optional, but also highly recommended. A title page make your proposal look clean and well-prepared. It also acts as the first impression of your proposal.
Your title page should include the name and contact information of the prospect you’ve prepared the proposal for, plus your business’s name, contact information, and logo.
Much like a cover letter for a job application, the cover letter of your business proposal is meant to be an introduction to your business proposal. It should also be persuasive but to-the-point.
In your cover letter, briefly summarize the contents of your business proposal, like important requirements, the solution your business provides, and what your prospect can expect once the job is completed.
Table of contents (optional)
Again, although the table of contents is an optional addition to your business proposal, it’s still a recommended element. It shows organization on your part, and allows the reader to quickly jump to any section of the proposal as needed.
Make the executive summary tell your story—not just promise to tell it,” says Diana Booher, owner of Booher Research Institute. The executive summary “should be a complete digest of your conclusions and recommendations—what you propose to do for the client: the what, why, how, and how much.”
Think of the executive summary as your opportunity to present your case as to why you’re the best fit for the job in question. Instead of summarizing your entire proposal, focus on the conclusion you want the reader to reach after reading it.
For more information on what to include in an executive summary, check out this helpful article from The Balance.
Remember all that research you did prior to starting this business proposal? Here’s where it’ll really come into play.
“To demonstrate your understanding of the industry, it is important to give a brief overview of general issues that the industry, as a whole, is facing,” recommends Jacob Dayan, CEO and co-founder of Community Tax. While this doesn’t necessarily mean the client is also facing those issues, he says, it allows you to show the prospect where they lie amongst their peers.
“Or, if the client is facing the same industry-wide issues, you can explain why many or all players within the spaces are experiencing the same struggles as the client,” Dayan says.
Any statistics you have about the current landscape your prospect is in can also be used in this portion, but remember to keep your messaging short and to-the-point. You can show your understanding of your prospect’s situation and needs in a paragraph or two. After all, they already know the problems they face. What they’re most interested in is how you plan to help them, what it will take, and how much it might cost.
Now that you’ve set the scene in the problem statement, it’s time to propose your solution. This is your time to shine!
In your proposed solution, paint a picture for your prospect of how you plan to solve their problem. Think of the “who, what where, when, why, how” questions your prospect will inevitably have, and do your best to address each one.
In your proposed solution, you’ll specifically want to outline your methodology, or approach, to how you plan to tackle the issue. Include as many details as possible, but be sure to be clear, concise, and avoid any jargon, unless referring to language used in the RFP.
You’ll also want to include your qualifications here. Include any relevant education, years of experience, and trainings or certifications that relate to what you offer. After all, if the roles were reversed, wouldn’t you want to make sure the other party knew exactly what they were doing?
Team members (optional)
If there will be more than just yourself working on this project, it may be beneficial to include a brief section in your proposal introducing the team members assigned to the project. If anything, be sure it’s clear to the reader who the point of contact will be on your end, should any issues arise.
Schedule and timeline benchmarks
While not all projects have static timelines, it’s helpful to give your prospect an estimated schedule and timeline for when you expect to accomplish the job.
If there are any exceptions (i.e. order time for materials) or important timeline benchmarks to note, make absolute certain to include them. Transparency is important here. It’s better for the prospect to know a realistic timeline ahead of time, rather than to be sorely disappointed when the project takes longer than expected.
Pricing, payment, and legal matters
Although pricing may not be the only thing a requester is looking for when trying to find a solution, it’s certainly top-of-mind.
Generally, it’s good to keep your cost competitive to others. If you aren’t sure where to find that number, it’s always good to ask the requester what their budget is. Additionally, you can reach out to your professional network to find a resource that’s not a direct competitor in your region. Or, if you have one, turn to a trusted mentor or friend in the field and get their input.
It’s expected that the cost might change as things arise, but you should provide your best estimate to what you expect the project to cost. Include a breakdown of the cost for full transparency (i.e. cost per hour, cost of materials, transportation, etc.). If you offer payment plans, this is also where you’ll want to include it.
Finally, if there are any legal specifications to be made (such needs for licenses or permits), you should also make them known here. Spell them out plainly and clearly. Unless your potential client is in the legal field, they probably won’t want to decipher any legal jargon.
Client testimonials (optional)
Client testimonials aren’t necessary, but could prove to be a huge help in your favor. Any kind of social proof to support your claims, such as client testimonials, social media snapshots, or review website clips are all great examples you could include.
Project examples/portfolio (optional)For extra validation of your experience and qualifications, consider adding a few examples from previous projects, especially if they’re similar to the job in question. These can help to further differentiate you from your competitors and cement your business as the best fit for the job.
According to the Washington and Lee Law School, using graphics or illustrations as a visual aid to any text enhances memory retention by 20 percent. Including visuals throughout your proposal can help lock your business in the prospect’s mind apart from the others. However, be tactful with your visuals, and be careful not to go overboard.
Consider using charts or graphs to help your prospect understand the data used in your proposal. Or, where applicable, borrow visuals from the prospect’s website or social media channels to show you understand their brand and give them some ownership over the proposal.
Finally, be sure the visuals you include are high-resolution, flow nicely within your proposal, and provide extra context to the right subject.
Conclude your proposal by quickly summarizing the important information from your proposal, and thank the prospect for their time and consideration.
The order in which your format and organize your proposal will likely vary based on your needs and the requester’s needs. However, be sure to keep your prospect’s needs top of mind.
Feroleto recommends organizing your proposal in a similar way was the RFP to make it easier to for the requester to find the information they need.
“Answer each question individually and somewhat separately,” to ensure you maintain consistency across your proposal, she says.
Ultimately, it’s up to you how your format and organize your proposal. But if you use these elements as a guideline when drafting your proposal, you’ll be sure to catch and keep your prospect’s attention.
A sure-fire way to ensure your proposal gets tossed to the side quickly is to have too many spelling and errors, typos, or misinformation throughout it.
Your ninth grade English teacher didn’t make you write multiple drafts of your essays just for fun. It’s important to go back through the first draft of your proposal at least with a metaphorical fine-tooth comb to make sure you catch any errors from the first time around. Trust us on this—even the most successful and prolific writers send their pieces of work through multiple rounds of edits before their best-sellers hit the shelves.
Once you’ve combed through your proposal a couple of times and corrected any errors, ask a colleague or friend familiar with your business to also read through the proposal. A fresh set of eyes can sometimes catch things that your own may pass right over, even if you’ve read it a million times.
So you’ve spent precious time and energy into making your business proposal the best it can be, and you’ve finally shipped it off to the requester by their deadline, if not before. Hopefully you’re feeling pretty good about yourself and the work you’ve done. But the process isn’t over yet.
If you’re lucky, the requester will respond quickly with whether or not they’ve chosen your company for the project. Most likely, however, you’ll hear nothing but crickets regarding their decision until weeks have passed and you’ve already moved on to the next RFP or project. But if you’re proactive about following up with your prospect, you’ll show them your continued investment and interest in their business, increasing your chances of beating out your competitors.
QuoteRoller recommends waiting at least three to five business days before reaching out. However, if you’re using an email or proposal tracking tool and notice the prospect has opened the proposal, it’s safe to contact them after a few hours. Check out this blog post from WebStrategies for ideas on what to say in your follow-up.
Another good idea to ensure you stay on top of your prospect follow-up is to automate it. Client management tools like Keap let businesses create email campaigns designed for automatic follow-up. They can be altered and controlled as needed, but remove the extra work of manual follow-up, so you can focus on other parts of your business until you receive your desired response.
The final point we want to make with this guide is that you can’t expect to win them all. Sometimes, no matter how awesome your proposal is, and how perfect a fit you think your business is for the job, there will be other elements out of your hands that make a prospect decide to choose a different company.
But if you’re diligent with your research, cover all the bases of the RFP, and provide a clean, organized proposal each time you respond to a RFP, you’re guaranteed to impress your prospects and leave your competitors in the dust.
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