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Writing a business proposal

In today’s market, if you can’t write good proposals, you won’t be able to sell. Let’s face facts: we’re in a buyer’s market when it comes to freelance services. For every job you bid on, you’re competing with five, ten, or even more other freelancers. I recently put out an RFP for a Web design contract and received inquiries from 65 different designers!

When you’re stuck in a crowd like that, you’ve got to find a way to set yourself apart, or face 20:1 (or even longer!) odds on winning that contract. As I’ve described in past columns, the best way to set yourself apart is to build a personal relationship with a potential client before you ever pitch your business, but writing a good proposal comes a close second. Even if you have a prior relationship, a good proposal helps reinforce your ability to deliver. And if you’re part of a cattle-call, a good proposal can push you to the top of the stack.

If the thought of writing fills you with trepidation (and memories of that darn paper on Moby Dick that you never quite finished), here are five simple steps you can follow to write proposals that sell.

  1. Steal a proposal that works
  2. Understand (and flatter) your target
  3. First the end, then the means
  4. Use simple words
  5. The price is right (and this is a buyer's market)

Let’s look at each of these now and see how you can apply them to turn your next proposal into a winner!

1. Steal a Proposal That Works

The best way to write a good proposal is to start with a good proposal that’s already been written! Unlike your school days, the business world is built on plagiarism. The next time you receive a standard document from someone, use Word’s “Properties” command to check out the names listed under the title, author, and company fields. Chances are, one, two, or all three will be different from the person who sent you the document. Checking the document in which I’m typing this column reveals that I stole this template from an article that appeared last year.

If you find a document that works, adapt it to your own purposes. My proposals borrow from several documents; in my last proposal, I took the best ideas from a few sources and applied them to create this structure:

  1. Background
  2. Situation
  3. Project Specification
  4. Project Pricing and Return on Investment (ROI)
  5. Action Plan
  6. Proposal Acceptance

While I wrote the proposal document from scratch, I borrowed the flavor and style of sections 1, 3, 4 and 6 from my wife’s market research proposals, and sections 2 and 5 from some proposals I wrote when I was freelancing. While you shouldn’t stamp out proposals with a cookie-cutter, you can and should reuse successful ingredients as much as possible.

2. Understand (and Flatter) Your Target

The most important thing you can do with the introduction to your proposal is demonstrate that you understand the prospect’s needs and wants. This doesn’t take long; usually a quick Google search suffices to provide background information on your client that you can include in your introduction.

You may ask, “Why tell the client what they already know?” Think of this way: if you can’t show that you understand the basics of your client’s business, they sure as heck aren’t going to trust you with a mission-critical project.

The other thing to keep in mind is that flattery seldom hurts. If your prospective client calls itself “the leader” in its field, it’s probably not a good idea to argue with that claim in your proposal. Instead, acknowledge the claim, but keep your own independent opinion in mind as you work with the client.

Here’s how I applied this principal in my successful proposal:

“Client X has developed a strategic promotions platform for Global 2000 brand marketers and their agencies. Currently, this platform offers three promotion engines: Tournaments, Preference Auction, and Collectibles. Client X uses this platform and its concept of “Mechanism Design” to help clients build consumer interactions that will tie together consumer motivations and brand objectives.

Client X needs to develop a strong set of reference accounts and a readily “transferable” client value proposition that will allow the relatively small company (of 22 employees) to use a leveraged sales model.”

Much of the language describing my client was paraphrased from its own Website, but I made sure that I had a clear understanding of what the VP of Sales wanted, and why.


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