A proposal is a written offer of products or services from a seller to a consumer. High-quality proposals can attract customers and can help boost sales, win big clients and build your business identity. Therefore, it is essential to know how to write a proposal if you want to grow your business.
The first step in writing a proposal is identifying what type of proposal is required. There are different rules for different types, and submitting one when another was called for is a short path to the trash can.
There are three main categories of business proposals: formally solicited, informally solicited and unsolicited. If you want to know how to write a proposal, you must understand the differences. In addition to the tips below, consult our article on types of business communication to be sure you have the right tone and format for your customers.
Solicited proposals are written responses to specific requests. The seller who wins the bid is usually the one who fulfills all the requirements and has the lowest price. If you wind up on the short list of several vendors, you will typically be granted an interview.
- Requests for proposals (RFPs) generally provide directions for the proposal and the customer specifies exactly what he wants to buy. Customers can issue RFPs if their needs are not met by the products you have available or if they are making a large purchase and want to secure several bids. These proposals can be short or thousands of pages long.
- Requests for quotation (RFQs) seek the best deal for a large order. Pricing, availability and delivery are all considerations in an RFQ. RFQs are often very long, so a proposal in response to one should be as well. Your RFQ response should include information on cost, handling of customer issues, and quality control.
- Invitations to bid (IFBs) are issued when a customer is purchasing a service, such as construction services. Bids must be very detailed and price is often paramount, as the lowest bid that will provide the best quality service usually wins. A proposal for an IFB is lengthy and usually consists of information on the overall cost and precise schedules for completion.
An informally solicited proposal is often sent as the result of a vendor or manager having a conversation with a customer. The customer may be interested enough to ask for a proposal. These informal proposals may just contain basic information summarizing what was discussed in the phone call and what type of products can be offered at what cost.
Another form of proposal is an unsolicited proposal. This is a proposal made to a new customer, or to an existing customer, about a new product or service. These proposals are usually designed to generate new customers or to get existing customers to become repeat customers.
The most important rule in writing a proposal is that the customer is always right. When the proposal has been formally or informally solicited by the customer, you should ask them for proposal guidelines. When submitting an unsolicited proposal, you should still reach out to the customer for guidance and refer to any previous proposals submitted to the same buyer.
Certain basic best practices apply to all proposals. A good proposal is about establishing a relationship between your company and your potential customer. Focus on answering these simple questions about your business and what you have to offer:
- Who are you? Establish your business identity and how it fits with the customer's needs. Be brief!
- What does your customer want? Nothing will put your proposal at the top of a customer's list more effectively than knowing what they want, and nothing will put it in the circular file quite as quick as failing to say so.
- What are you offering to do? Don't overpromise! Be clear about your deliverables and the customer needs you're fulfilling.
- How you intend to do it? Stay concise and focused on this point. Your proposal doesn't need every trivial point of your business model. Instead, it needs a clear summary of your methods and why they're a perfect match for this customer.
- Why are you the best choice for this project? Use this as your conclusion, and as a summary of what's been said. Every answer should support the statement "we are the best fit for your project." This is your chance to say so.
For many proposals, the Request For Proposal submitted by the customer will include a format to follow. If you receive such a format, stick to it religiously. The smallest deviation is enough reason for a customer swamped with proposals to remove your submission from consideration.
If you don't receive a requested format, it's up to you. Use our examples of informal proposals for inspiration, or follow the list of questions above. As long as you've delivered the relevant information in a clear and readable fashion, your proposal should be acceptable. We've also provided some useful tips to help your proposal stand out from the rest.
As with writing a proposal, formatting a proposal follows some basic best practices. Stick with the following rules to be sure you've got a complete and appealing product.
The purpose of a proposal is to persuade the reader to consider buying from you. Your explanations need to be clear, concise, and to the point. Keep your sentences short. Be as specific as possible. Avoid buzzwords, slang and idiomatic language.
In a global economy, your proposal may well be read and approved by someone for whom English is a second language. For more guidance on the kind of ruthless clarity that makes for good proposal writing, check out our advice on ESL business writing. The advice there applies to all good business communication.
Your proposal should start with a visual aid in the form of a title page. If your company has visual assets, use them with the title and in the proposal text as a whole. Even if you don't, every proposal should have a title page that includes the company name with contact information, the proposal recipient, and the date of submission.
The emphasis on visual appeal extends beyond the title page to the text of the proposal. If you have pictures and graphs, use them. If you don't, make your text engaging. Put whitespace between your paragraphs. Use headings and subheadings to break up large blocks of text. Break lists out into bullets or numbers. The easier your proposal is on the eye, the more likely it is to be accepted.
Every proposal rule is based on one simple principle: your reader is looking for a reason to throw your application away. They have to. There are almost always far more proposals for a job than actual jobs. A single typo can be enough to kick you out of contention. Spell check is not enough. Have multiple people look it over and make sure there are no mistakes.
Proposals provide a means of effectively promoting your business. Contractors would get nowhere without the proper proposals. Advertising and marketing are the only ways to grow and develop your business. Offering a wide variety of products and services is great, but the products and services generate no profit unless people know what they are and why they should pay for them.
For more help making your proposal the best it can be, take a look at our examples of persuasive writing. Good luck!