How to Craft the Perfect Business Proposal
By Casandra Campbell
Landing clients is hard work. Especially if you’re a freelancer.
You know that the service you provide is better than big agencies. As an individual, it’s much easier for you to stay current in your industry and get your clients results.
But proving it seems harder. Especially if you don't know how to write a business proposal that converts.
It’s not your fault.
We all know slick freelancers who swindle hard working business owners. They land client after client, even though that have no clue what they’re doing. And the next time those businesses go looking for help, they’re skeptical. They don’t trust freelancers and you have to go above and beyond to prove yourself.
You spend hours putting together proposal after proposal, only to have the companies you're pitching go with a more expensive option that's just not as good. Or worse, no option at all.
Meanwhile, you’ve already given away hours of your time and you’re no closer to that vacation you’ve been dreaming about.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Anyone can learn how to craft the perfect business proposal. One that consistently closes clients. Clients that are great to work with—and pay on time!
The kind of clients you want.
The Perfect Business Proposal
Here’s what a great business proposal does:
- builds trust and confidence
- addresses the needs of the decision maker
- sets expectations and boundaries
- proves your value
- demonstrates problem-solving
- closes the sale
These are critical elements for converting a lead into a client. Let’s break down how to do it.
Step 1: Do Your Research
Consider the Decision Maker
Before you do anything, you need to think about who you're writing the business proposal for. Anytime you're selling something you need to know your audience. This is a huge part of creating an effective proposal. It should be customized to needs and preferences of the decision maker you're trying to persuade.
Here are a few questions to think about:
- What is their role in the company?
- What is their primary concern in their professional role?
- How is their success measured?
- What can you glean about their personality?
- What problem needs to be solved?
- Why are they outsourcing this project?
Try to learn as much as you can about the decision maker. Put yourself in their shoes and imaging what you would worried or excited about. The more you know the better. Any information and perspective you gain can be used throughout the writing process.
Responding to an RFP?
If the business proposal you're creating is responding to a Request For Proposal (RFP), there are unique considerations.
The disadvantage, of course, is that there may be many people trying to land the same project. However, RFPs also carry a very important advantage. You probably already have a lot of useful information available to you. In many cases RFPs will tell your exactly what the company is looking for and you can tailor your proposal accordingly. Don't ignore it.
Still, even if there is a lot of information waiting for you on a silver platter, don't stop there. There are likely a many additional points you should be addressing in your proposal that are not mentioned in the RFP. In this case, a little research goes a long way.
Try and find out as much as you can about the decision maker and the context around the RFP. Here are a few things to think about:
- Why does the company really want this work done?
- What landmines are they trying to avoid?
- What does success look like for this project?
- Who are the stakeholders?
If at all possible, try and actually talk to someone from the company. Some companies will refuse to take questions about an RFP but if they don't explicitly say so, try and get as much information out of them as possible.
Don't worry about looking bad. If they don't want to talk to you, they'll let you know. No harm done. In any case, it will show that you're smart, eager, and prepared. Trust me, the company wants you to understand its needs.
How to Gather Intel
Alright, aside from talking to the company, you might be wondering how to actually gather intel. You want to find as much data information as you can. Fortunately, there is more publicly accessible than you think. Here are a few places to start:
Customers and Clients
If possible, talk to customers and clients. They likely have a wealth of knowledge about the company, and more importantly, they have a very valuable perspective. If you can gather intelligent insights, they will strengthen your proposal and help you come up with good ideas and opportunities—as well as issues that need resolving.
Competitors can also likely provide a wealth of knowledge about the company you want to sign. Look at how they're similar and different. Look for strengths and weaknesses and compare them to the company you're pitching. If information about the company you're pitching you need isn't public, see if it is public for a similar company. You may even find an opportunity to actually talk to competitors. If so, make sure you don't disclose who you're pitching to or do anything that would make them look bad.
Sometimes industry trends can be helpful and they're usually easy to find. Use Google, Industry publications, individual experts, trade publications, or any other sources you can find to get to know the industry. No matter what you find out, the business you're proposing will pick up on your familiarity with the industry. This will help them trust you.
After your research, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- Is the industry growing, shrinking, or undergoing significant change?
- What types of products, services or features, are in high demand?
- What external pressures are affecting the company you want to pitch?
- What opportunities are opening up for them?
Don't Worry About Wasted Effort
Although it may seem like all this research is a lot of wasted time, it's not. Think of it as an investment. If you do enough work upfront, actually writing it will be easy. A simple matter of filling in the blanks. Most importantly, you'll be much more successful.
Even if you do all the work and you don't win the project, it's still the right call. The fact is, you won't win every project, but the things you learn with each attempt will help you in the future. Whether you follow up and pitch that company again, or another similar company, it will only help not hinder.
Finally, when you do lose the occasional deal, use it to get feedback. Ask the company why they didn't want to move forward with your proposal. You'll be surprised how many people are willing to give feedback when you ask for it. Especially if you're friendly and polite and you make it easy for them. If you're asking by email, make it clear jot points are fine.
Know When to Say No
Finally, know when you should be the one saying no. It’s hard to imagine when you’re starting out or dealing with a cash flow crunch, but you're better off passing on projects that aren't a good fit for you.
As you get to know the company or the project, watch out for red flags. Companies that are difficult to work with, have different values from yours and are otherwise not a good match.
If you're not excited to start a new project, you won't do a great job and you'll hate yourself for it. In the end, you risk a sour relationship and a bad reputation that could follow you around.
More importantly, doing work you don't enjoy will burn you out. That will make if harder to do the work you actually enjoy while devoting time to growing your business.
Step 2: Write Your Proposal
Do yourself a favor and start with an outline. If you've already done the research, you'll have a good idea of what you need to include. After you create an outline, it's basically a matter of filling in the blanks.
Generally, the bigger the budget and the newer the relationship, the more information you should include. It's about closing the trust gap. Give them as much information as they need to trust you and make the decision to move forward.
Fill It In
It's finally time to write your business proposal! If you've done the research, and created an outline, this part should be pretty easy. You already figured out what you need to say, now just elaborate.
Use competence Triggers
It's important to create trust and show that you're competent. The language you use will have a big impact on this. One important way you can do this is by stating your opinions confidently and emphatically. You're writing the document, everyone knows it's your opinion—you don't need to explain that. Instead of saying, "I think your business would benefit from social media", say, "Your business is losing money by ignoring social media".
Make it clear you understand their business. Whenever possible, tailor your writing specifically to their needs and challenges. Try not to leave room for assumptions or they'll worry you don't really know what you're doing.
Finally, include as much data as possible to back up your claims. If you can't find hard data, use quotes and anecdotes from customers and competitors. The company you're pitching probably spends a lot of time thinking about both so this will hit close to home.
Even if your proposal sounds great, they're going to be thinking a lot about you. Can they trust you, do you really know what you're doing, what are you like to work with. You may want to consider including a section about yourself. It should be brief but could include your expertise, any relevant training or experiences, awards, other credentials, testimonials, and references. You may also consider directing them to your website or portfolio, which could also house some of this information. Use whatever will make you look good.
Selling the Price
Hopefully, you're charging a fair but premium price for your service. If that's the case, you need to be conscious of how clients perceive it, and what you can do to convince them your services are worth it. One key way to do this is to explain how you can save the business money and/or make operations more cost-efficient. What is the bottom line impact of your services on the business? The closer you are to making your clients more money, the easier this is to do.
To help clients feel confident handing over their money, there are few additional things you should include to show you're truly a professional, such as:
- any contractual obligations on both ends
- an intellectual property agreement
- the expiry date on the offer and timeline
- expected expenses and how they will be handled
- payment due dates
Go Over Next Steps
The last thing you want is for the business to love your proposal but not know how to move forward. This is where things can really fall apart. You need to carry confidence all the way to onboarding them as a client.
Make it easy for them to say yes and get started. Include all the important details they'll be looking for, and go over how you'll get started. A few examples are:
- what they need to do to accept the proposal
- how you'll communicate
- what you need from them to get started
Please, please do not leave your proposal to the night before. You must have time to edit. It sounds crazy, but a typo can be one of the first things that will get your proposal thrown out. Potential clients will worry about don't care or don't have attention to detail. Don't get filtered out because of something so minuscule.
Another easy way to get your business proposal thrown out is to ignore the concerns of the company you're pitching to. Go back over your notes and the RFP (if relevant) to make sure you're hitting all their pain points.
When editing for style, consider using simple phrases. It should be easy to read so short sentences and paragraphs will help too. No one wants to read a wall of text. Good writing is about effective communication. Don't confuse people. Make it easy for anyone to understand. Keep in mind, they might not know much about your industry or expertise so avoid jargon.
Also go back and look for places to back up your points. If there are any facts or other data missing, add them in here.
Remember, your proposal doesn't have to be perfect from the beginning. Save the polishing for the end and write the whole first. Otherwise, you'll get stuck.
Step 3: Close the Deal
You're almost finished, don't blow it in the final seconds. Make sure you give your proposal to the right person. If there are instructions for submission, including where and how to submit, and what format to submit in, follow them!
Next, if you don't hear back,follow up. Check and make sure the decision makers don't have any questions or concerns you can address. Sometimes just asking is all it to takes for them open up. You want a chance to address potential issues.
Finally, if you don't get the job, remember to ask for feedback and then get back out there. But if you've followed all the steps in this blog post, the odds are in your favor!
Congratulations! You now know how to write a business proposal that closes!