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Whether you’re a B2B or a B2C company, you’re in the business of convincing customers to spend with you. But the biggest difference as a B2B business is sometimes how you land those customers—and that usually involves a business proposal. Once you’ve attracted new customers, you have to seal the deal. Learning how to write a business proposal that’s effective is core to your business’s survival if you need to dependably secure new clients.
As intimidating as writing a business proposal might be, it gets easier with practice—if you know what you need to include in the first place, that is. Understanding the fundamentals of how to write a business proposal that conveys your company’s advantages over your competitors’ is even a bit formulaic.
We’ll go through the general protocol of how to write a business proposal, how to make sure you’re including the right information, and also suggest some tips to make sure you stand out. After you go through this checklist, you’ll know you’re proposing the right kind of work in a commonly understood format, and be able to add your own tailored touch to really stand out.
Before you dive into determining how to write a business proposal that will give you the competitive edge, you should make sure that you’re accomplishing the right objectives. When writing a business proposal, you’re trying to walk a tightrope between both promoting your company and addressing the needs of your would-be client. That’s difficult for any company, no matter how established.
Keep in mind a business proposal is different (but similar) to a business plan, which you may have already written for your company. A business proposal speaks directly to a specific could-be client, while a business plan specs out your company’s overall growth goals.
You can’t really begin writing your business proposal until you resolve these seven core components within your own firm:
Not only are these questions at the heart of clear and concise writing, but you also fundamentally can’t accomplish writing a business proposal without their answers. Keep in the back of your mind as we go onto the next section that the best business proposals will address these core tenets thoroughly, while still being persuasive about the perks of working with you instead of someone else.
Whether you’re just learning how to write a business proposal, or want to change up the one you’ve already been using, you’ll want break down writing to a step-by-step approach. Organization is key when you’re writing a business proposal; structure will not only help you answer the core questions mentioned above, but it’ll also help you create consistent, successful proposals every time you’re pitching new business.
Here are the major steps in the process of writing a business proposal:
2. Executive Summary
3. Project Details
4. Deliverables and Milestones
Bonus: Appendix (if necessary)
The introduction to your business proposal should provide your client with a succinct overview of what your company does, what sets it apart from its peers, and why it’s particularly well-suited to be the selected vendor to undertake a job—whether the assignment is a singular arrangement or an ongoing relationship.
The most effective business proposal introductions accomplish more with less: It’s important to be comprehensive without being overly wordy. Resist the temptation to share every detail about your company’s history and lines of business, and don’t feel the need to outline every detail of your proposal. Keep the introduction section to one page or shorter.
Your business proposal should always include an executive summary that frames out answers to the who, what, where, when, why, and how questions that you’re proposing to the client lead. Here, the client will understand that you understand them.
Important: This isn’t a summary of your whole proposal. (In fact, if the word “summary” is confusing, ignore it: This is a pretty ill-named piece of the business proposal.) Your executive summary should serve as your sales pitch. You want to make an explicit case for why your company is the best fit for your prospect’s needs. You should talk about your strengths, areas of expertise, similar problems you’ve solved, and the advantages to provide over your competitors—all from the lens of how these components could help your would-be client’s business thrive.
Steps 3 through 5 the body of your business proposal is where your potential client will understand how you’ll address their project and the scope of the work.
Use the first part of the body to explain your recommendation, solution, or approach to servicing the client. As you get deeper, your main goal here is to convey to the client that you’re bringing something truly custom to the table—that you created this proposal entirely for them based on how you’ve sized up their needs. Next, detail your proposed solution, the tactics you’ll undertake to deliver on it, and any other details that relate to your company’s recommended approach.
This section will nest inside the project details section, but it’s an essential step on its own.
Your proposal recipient doesn’t get merely an idea, of course—they get proposed deliverables. Outline them here with in-depth descriptions of each (that might include quantities or the scope of services, depending on the kind of business you run). Never assume a client is on the same page as you with expectations, because if you’re not, they might think you over promised and under delivered. More detail is better.
On that note, you can also use this section to restrict the terms and scope of your services. This can come in handy if you’re concerned that the work you’re outlining could lead to additional projects or responsibilities that you’re not planning to include within your budget. These are often called “caveats”—descriptions of tasks that you’re not inherently including in your proposed scope of work.
You might also want to consider adding milestones to this section, either alongside deliverables or entirely separately. Milestones can be small, such as delivery dates for a specific package of project components, or when you send over your first draft of a design. Or, you can choose to break out the project into phases. For longer projects, milestones can be a great way to convey your company’s organization and responsibility.
There’s no way around the fact that pricing projects isn’t easy or fun. You’re back on another tightrope: balancing earning what you’re worth and proving your value, while also not scaring away a potential client, or getting beaten out by a competitor who’ll undercut you. (Here’s a little help if you need a baseline of where to start with project pricing.)
A few additional insights on pricing: If you fear the fee might seem high to your potential client, you could either break out the individual components of the budget (for example: social media services, $700; web copywriting $1,500…), or create a few different tiers of pricing with different services contained in each. The second approach might not work for all types of businesses or proposal requests, but is worth considering if you’re worried about sticker-shock.
Once you feel good about a budget for your project, or a few tiers of pricing, you’ll want to include them here.
Your conclusion should wrap up your understanding of the project, your proposed solutions, and what kind of work (and costs) are involved. This is your last opportunity to propose a compelling case within your proposal—reiterate what you intend to do, and why it beats your competitors’ ideas.
The appendix is where you might want to put any supplemental information that either doesn’t fit within the main proposal without being disruptive for the reader, or is less than essential to understanding the main components of your proposal. You’ll only need an appendix if you have stats, figures, illustrations, or examples of work that you want to share with your potential client. If you don’t have supplemental materials within your proposal, don’t worry about this part.
Writing business proposals that work requires you to provide information about your company and its services as they relate to what your prospect needs. The proposal should be informative above all else, but the right language helps persuade your leads. Here are a few additional things to consider:
Although you might feel the urge to show off your language skills while trying to impress a client, when you’re writing a business proposal, it’s not the time. Your best bet to win business is to be clear, concise, and direct. No overly flowery language, and nothing that could possibly be misconstrued.
Make sure your proposal is zipped up tight, with no room for misinterpretation around what you say you’ll do or deliver. That means leave the industry jargon behind (it doesn’t make you look more informed, and it can alienate your reader if they don’t understand it).
If you were an artisanal preserves company, you wouldn’t want to read a buttoned-up business proposal going to an asset management company. But if you were an asset management company, you wouldn’t want to see the casual, chummy brief that the food company expects, either.
Your best bet is to stick to the details when writing a business plan—just don’t be too afraid to tailor your writing to your audience. Create a proposal that shows you not only understand them but you also respect them professionally.
This comes back to organization. A table of contents helps keep longer proposals (say, for projects that are more than a one-time affair) easier to navigate. Just like you’d find in a book or magazine, a business proposal’s table of contents provides a rundown of each section name, plus where it begins within the proposal document itself. It’s basically a directory to help people find specific sections of your proposal without having to thumb through each individual page.
You don’t need a table of contents, but if you find that your proposal is unwieldy—and you definitely need everything within it—then you might want to think about a TOC to make everything more visually manageable.
And, on that note, include everything you need—and nothing more.
One additional thing to consider when mastering how to write a business proposal is whether or not your proposal was requested, or whether you’re sending it along cold. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
If you’re sending along a business proposal in response to a request (often called an RFP), then it’s likely that this potential client already knows at least a little about your business. Or, enough that they chose you to ask for a proposal.
Spend less time convincing them that you’re the greatest consultant around, and more on making your proposal feel custom to their specific brief, project, or problem. The less boilerplate, the more likely you are to win business.
These, as you might expect, are the hardest sell.
As you’re writing a business proposal to a company that doesn’t know they may need your services, you’ll want to focus on getting them to understand why your company is specifically unique, and that you can add a weapon to their arsenal that they don’t already have. There may even be someone currently performing your function—or something close to it—so you’ll have to do the work of unseating an incumbent.
Be prepared for a few rounds of possible back and forth. But getting a response is a victory in and of itself.
Yes, writing a business proposal is a lot of work. But there’s a formula for what to include, and best practices for how to include it all, too. And you’re great at what you do—there’s no one better to talk about what your business brings to the table than you. Now that you have a template to put it all together, you’re set up for success.
Most importantly, though, the work of learning how to write a business proposal—or going back and giving your existing business proposals a makeover—is worth it. Investing the time in a solid proposal that makes the right case to the right clients again and again pays for itself by winning you business, and allowing you to grow your company.