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All About Business Proposals: Guidelines and Extensive Resources

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

Sections of This Topic Include

Preparation

What is a Business Proposal?
Should I Just Use a Business Proposal Template?
Guidelines About Style of Writing to Use

First Learn About Prospect's Organization

You Can Learn a Lot Just From Their Documentation
Meet With the Prospect Before Submitting Proposal?

Write Your Business Proposal

Draft Each Section of Your Proposal
Review Your Drafted Proposal

Submit Your Proposal

Submit Your Proposal
Follow Up to Your Proposal

Samples and Templates

Business Proposal Samples
Business Proposal Templates

Also consider
Related Library Topics


PREPARATION

What is a Business Proposal?

Definition of a Business Proposal

A business proposal is a documented, formal offer to provide a product and/or service to a potential buyer (a prospect). The proposal can be in response to a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) which is a solicitation issued by the prospect that is seeking bids from providers. The business proposal documents the provider's bid.

It typically includes brief description of the prospect's problem, why you can solve it better than anyone else, your general approach to solving it and the approximate cost to solve it. It also includes brief description of your organization and the people who will be working on the problem.

To get more of an impression of what a business proposal is, it would help to look at some samples of business proposal samples. However, do not start selecting a preferred sample to use now until you have reviewed the guidelines in the rest of this Library topic.

Business Proposals and Business Plans Are Not the Same

In contrast to a business proposal, a business plan "is a formal written document containing business goals, the methods on how these goals can be attained, and the time frame within which these goals need to be achieved. It also describes the nature of the business, background information on the organization, the organization's financial projections, and the strategies it intends to implement to achieve the stated targets. In its entirety, this document serves as a road map that provides direction to the business." (Wikipedia). Also see
All About Business Planning

Other Names for Business Proposals

There are various different terms used to refer to a business proposal, depending on any conventions used by those requesting and/or offering the proposal. For example, a business proposal is sometimes referred to as a "bid", which, in this context, is an offer of a product or service for a price. When proposals are written by sales personnel, they often refer to them as sales proposals. Another phrase used for a business proposal is a contract proposal. If a proposal is in response to an RFP, then notice the terms used in the RFP.

Should I Just Use a Business Proposal Template?

The more your proposal is customized to the prospect's needs, and to the culture and style of their organization, the more likely that your proposal will win a project with them. Standardized templates are not as likely to match the unique features of your prospect as would your own customized proposal.

Also, if your prospect regularly issues RFP's, then it is likely they have already seen many of the standardized templates, including the one that you had used for your own proposal. They might expect something more original and customized from you.

However, if you still are committed to using a template, then you still will benefit a great deal from reading the rest of the guidelines in the Library's topic. If you prefer to review some samples of business proposals now, then this article provides several, as well as critiques each.
10 Best Proposal Examples [With Critical Critiques]

Here is a link to numerous other samples, as well.
Business Proposal Samples

Guidelines About Style of Writing to Use

General Guidelines

Unless your prospect requires you to complete an online form when writing and submitting your proposal,, you can tailor your proposal as much as you would like. Consider these guidelines:

  • Your proposal will appear more credible if it is written on your organization's stationery, including its logo and coloring.
  • Standard business writing often uses Times Roman font, 12-point sizing and 1-inch margins. In addition, consider the guidelines in Business Writing Tips for Professionals.
  • Number all of the pages and mark them as "confidential".
  • If you received an RFP, then write in the same style and format as the RFP. If you had met with the prospect before writing the proposal, then write in the style of the conversation that you had.
  • Avoid the use of jargon -- words or acronyms specific to your industry, product or service. Otherwise, define them before you use them.
  • Avoid the use of humor. While it can invite a relaxed and casual atmosphere in communications, there are too many risks that it would be misunderstood or offensive.
  • In the case of an RFP, express your gratitude for the prospect's providing the RFP to you.
  • Despite the importance of your proposal, you should still format it so that it can be skimmed. Use short paragraphs with titles. Do not repeat sentences or other information. Use graphics and tables to quickly depict numerical information.
  • If you submit your proposal online, be sure your prospect could read it on a small tablet or smart phone, that is, that your proposal can be shrunk to that size.
  • Unless you're convinced that the prospect will not have many proposals to review, you should limit your proposal to the number of pages that the prospect could grasp in 5-6 minutes.
  • Write confidently, but avoid exaggerations. Too much of that will hurt your credibility.

Polish Your Writing Skills?

As far as your prospect is concerned, the quality of your writing shows the quality of your products and services. So, if you do not have complete confidence in your writing skills, then you would benefit from reviewing guidelines in the following topics. After you have drafted your proposal, you should have it reviewed by at least one person will strong skills in proof reading documents.
Vocabulary | Spelling | Grammar | Writing for Readability | Reviewing Your Writing


FIRST LEARN ABOUT PROSPECT'S ORGANIZATION

You Can Learn a Lot Just From Their Documentation

You can learn a great deal about your prospect's organization, even without having met the prospect in person. That learning can help you to match your proposal and other communications to the culture and style of their organization. That, in turn, can make your proposal even more persuasive and credible to your prospect.

For example, look at the prospect's website, annual report, sales literature and the Request for Proposal. Some things to look for are:

  • Completeness – Have they produced the typical documents that you would expect for their particular stage in organizational development? If so, then they probably value completeness and accuracy.
  • Currency – How up-to-date is the documentation? If it’s up-to-date, then they probably value timeliness.
  • Scope – Does the documentation include the typical contents of that particular type of document? If so, then they probably have good knowledge of standard management documents -- and so should you.
  • Depth – How in-depth is the content of the document? If it is in-depth, then they probably value thoroughness.
  • Alignment – For example, does the content between the documents seem consistent and complementary? If so, then they probably are fairly clear in their thinking and management.
  • Authorship – Who has developed the various documents? If it is appropriate authors, for example, the CEO is not doing the Board’s documents, then they probably value having clear roles.

So what have you learned about:

  • How their culture values completeness, timeliness, understanding and accuracy, thoroughness, clear thinking and management?
  • How might you customize your proposal and other communications to match their culture and style?

Meet With Your Prospect Before Submitting Proposal?

If your prospect regularly issues RFPs, then it is not likely that they are willing to meet with the bidder's to their RFPs. Instead, they opt to write very specific RFPs and rely on those to help them to reliably select the best providers.

Otherwise, it can be extremely useful to first meet with your prospect. The sections below suggest what questions to ask in the meeting. In that meeting, don't forget to use strong people skills including the following:
Interviewing | Listening | Non-Verbal Communications | Questioning | Building Trust

Learn More About the Prospect's Problem

In the meeting, useful questions to ask include:

  • Why do they want to address the situation now?
  • What did they see or hear that brought them to that conclusion?
  • What will happen if nothing is done?
  • What has been the effect of the problem on the rest of the organization?
  • What have they done so far about the situation?
  • What happened as a result of their efforts so far?
  • How did they conclude that they needed a consultant now?
  • Respectfully and tactfully ask, what might be their role in causing the problem?
  • What do they consider to be success now? What would the situation look and feel like after the problem has been solved?
  • What is the budget for doing the project?
  • What is the timing, especially any deadlines for completion?

Learn More About the Prospect's Organization

For example, ask:

  • How do you like to make decisions and solve problems?
  • What is unique about the culture of your organization?
  • How can a consultant best work in that culture?
  • How do you prefer to communicate? In-person? In writing?
  • What is your approach to situations, for example, do you refer to "problems" or "opportunities"?
  • Do you talk most about the "business" side of the organization or the "people" side?
  • What do you know about change management? How would you like to learn?
  • What is the personality of your meetings?

For more guidelines for this meeting with your prospect, see
How to Do the First Meeting With Your Client


WRITE YOUR BUSINESS PROPOSAL

Draft Each Section of Your Proposal

There is no standard format for a business proposal. If the prospect issued an RFP, then notice if it suggests a certain format that you are to follow. The following sections are typical across the different types of formats. When writing each section, don't forget the above Guidelines About Style of Writing to Use.

Cover Letter

This should be a one-page letter with your company letterhead (logo and coloring). It is not part of the proposal itself, but accompanies it. Be sure that the cover letter:

  • Is addressed directly to the contact information that you were told to submit the proposal to. An RFP would specify that contact information.
  • Thanks them for the opportunity to submit a proposal.
  • Asserts your confidence that your organization can very effectively meet their needs in a timely manner.
  • Avoids duplicating information that is already in the proposal.
  • References the attached proposal by the exact title and date.
  • Includes your direct contact information.
  • Includes your original signature (not a copy).

Be reluctant to set a deadline for them to get back to you because that raises the risk that it won't match their timelines.

Cover Page

The phrases "cover page" and "title page" (below) are sometimes used interchangeably because their contents are so similar. Because of duplication with contents of the title page, it may not be necessary to include a cover page in your proposal unless an RFP specifies to include it.

Some proposal writers prefer to have a cover sheet that encapsulates the proposal. It includes the title of the proposal and perhaps the organization's logo and color scheme. If a cover sheet is included, then there also is a back cover at the end of the proposal, and it duplicates info from the cover sheet.
Example of Cover Sheets

Title Page

As mentioned above, the phrases "cover page" and "title page" are sometimes used interchangeably because their contents are so similar. The title page typically includes:

  • Title of the proposal
  • Date of the completed proposal
  • Title of the author
  • Brief description of the purpose of the proposal (4-5 sentences)
  • Direct contact information of the key contact in the prospect's organization
  • Direct contact information of the person in your organization who is knowledgeable about the proposal

Examples of Cover Pages

Table of Contents

A table of contents is very useful if your proposal will be more than four pages long. Along with associating page numbers with topics, the listing of the topics themselves can be used to quickly convey the nature and organization of the content in the proposal.

It is very handy if the titles can be active Web links, so the reader can conveniently click on a title and immediately be transferred to that section in the proposal.

Executive Summary

Because the Executive Summary is a summary of the highlights of the proposal, it is usually best to write the Summary after having written the other sections in the proposal. Highlights to be sure to include are clear, concise and persuasive descriptions of:

  • Your excitement and confidence in submitting your proposal
  • The prospect's problem, including its adverse impacts on their organization
  • Your proposed solution, and how it particularly suits the nature and needs of your prospect's organization
  • Listing of the key benefits of your solution in their organization, including reference to relevant research and results regarding your solution
  • Your proposed methodology toward the solution, and how it is relevant, realistic and flexible to their needs
  • Your unique value proposition -- how your company is the prospect's best choice among your competitors

How to Write an Executive Summary for Your Proposal
How to Write a Business Proposal Executive Summary
How to Write an Executive Summary for Your Proposal

Introduction

Some RFPs specify an introduction that briefly describes your organization, including its mission, strategic priorities, history, successes and why it is an excellent choice for your prospect's situation.

This section might not be needed if you plan to include more information, for example, about your products and services and any personnel who will be involved in the work with the prospect. In that case, you might instead include a section later on, such as "Company Overview" (later on below).

Statement of the Problem

Here is where you show that you completely understand the current need that your prospect has, whether they refer to it as a "problem", "priority" or "goal".

In this section, focus on what you can provide. The next section explains how you can provide it. Don't forget to consider any learning that you got from previously reviewing the prospect's documentation, as well as if you had met with the prospect in person, as explained above. In this section, include brief descriptions of at least the following:

  • The prospect's need in terms of the problem or the significant goal to be addressed
  • What the adverse effects will likely be if the prospect's problem is not solved
  • How your product or service will meet that need
  • What overall success will look like after the need was met
  • Individual outcomes, or benefits, to the organization that together will comprise that success

In the case of an RFP, your descriptions should closely match -- but without exactly copying -- the wording that your prospect wrote in the RFP. Your tone should convey a sense of urgency to meet the need, and yet strong confidence in what you can provide.

It can be very powerful to include a testimonial or two now from a previous client in whose organization you were successful in solving a problem similar to the prospect's.
How to Write a Problem Statement for Business
How to Write a Problem Statement

Methodology (Outcomes, Deliverables and Timelines)

List Outcomes and Methodologies to Achieve Each

Here is where you specify how you will achieve the what that you had specified in the above information about the problem. The "how" is best explained in terms of action plans that are associated with each outcome that you itemized in the above Statement of the Problem. For each outcome, specify:

  • Tangible deliverables, for example, documented assessment plans, status reports, presentations and post-assessment reports.
  • Who will produce and provide each deliverable.
  • To whom it will be provided and by when (timetables).

The following article can be very useful when developing and associating action plans with individual outcomes or goals:
Guidelines and Resources for Action Planning Phase of Consulting

Organize Methods Into Various Project Phases?

This information is most concisely and clearly depicted in the form of a table. For complex or long projects, it might be most understandable if you organize the outcomes and associated methodologies into various phases, for example:

  • Phase 1 - Diagnostic and Pre-Assessment
  • Phase 2 - Implementation
  • Phase 3 - Post-Assessment and Follow-Up

Be Careful About Finalizing Methodologies

It might be that, if your prospect hires you, then further exploration (or discovery) into the problem might reveal that what the prospect thought was the problem was actually just its symptoms.

Thus, there might be a different problem and methodology required than what was originally described in your proposal. So be sure to specify that your proposed methodology is in accordance with the current problem reported by the prospect.

Pricing and Payment Terms

Use Detailed or Overall Pricing?

There are different viewpoints about how to derive the pricing in business proposals. Some experts advise not including detailed pricing, for example, per-hour pricing. They suggest that your pricing should be based on the overall value of the outcomes that your products and services will achieve for the prospect.

Others advise that detailed, for example, per-hour pricing, is the most understandable and, thus, the most credible way to present that information to prospects.

If you have an RFP, be sure to reference how the prospect wants the pricing information to be described. These articles provide very useful guidelines to selecting which approach to use.
Consulting Fees and Rates: How Much Should I Charge?
How to Determine Consulting Fees
Guide to Value-Based Pricing for Consultants: 10 Experts Share Their Fee Strategies

Payment Terms

In this section, specify your proposed payment schedule, including:

  • When you will invoice the client
  • Which prices are to be paid and when, including any initial and final payment amounts
  • How prices are to be paid, for example, in US dollars
  • Interest and penalties for late payments

Mention any additional payment options, for example, early payments or lump-sum payments. Mention that your proposed schedule can be adjusted to suit any standard payment terms used by your prospect.

Terms and Conditions

The decision now is to decide what should be included here in the business proposal compared to what should be specified later on in a contract if your prospect selects your proposal. Be sure to reference an RFP if available to discern what should be included in your proposal. It might require that you specify terms regarding:

  • Proposed roles and responsibilities of the prospect's and your organizations
  • Terms of confidentiality
  • Ownership of intellectual property
  • Licensing and bonding

Different experts would assert that certain information should always be included in a business proposal and others would assert that the contract is the most appropriate place to specify terms other than payment terms.
Core Elements to Include in a Consulting Contract
How to Do Consulting Proposals and Contracts
Protect Your Business with Proposal Terms & Conditions

Company Overview

Here is where you impress the prospect with the appropriateness and credibility of your company's expertise and resources. Include:

  • Mission of your organization
  • Legal structure
  • Key personnel and resumes
  • Professional code of ethics
  • Key awards, presentations and publications
  • Testimonials relevant to the prospect's problem
  • Case studies that more fully depict similar projects, including their problem, methods and solutions

Signature Pages

Here is where you include the original signature of those who composed the proposal. Be sure to sign in blue ink, which more readily indicates that the signatures were not merely copies of original signatures.

Similar to the Terms and Conditions section, if your proposal is including terms and conditions that typically would be in a contract, then specify the:

  • Positions
  • Dates
  • Agreement that is assumed by the signature, for example "By signing this document, you agree to the terms and conditions specified herein"

Appendices

In this section, include information and materials that further explain the information in the body of the proposal, for example:

  • Resumes
  • Graphics and charts
  • Testimonials

In order to accommodate the likely tight schedules of prospects who will be reviewing numerous proposals, title the Appendices as "Supplemental Information and Materials" to indicate that it is optional for the prospect to read.

Review Your Drafted Proposal

Have someone else review your proposal, ideally someone who is somewhat familiar with your product or service. Have them follow this checklist:

  • If you are following an RFP, does your proposal exactly match the requirements specified in the RFP?
  • Are there any spelling and grammatical mistakes? Avoid common mistakes in vocabulary and grammar, for example, use of "affect" for "effect".
  • Check apostrophes and quotation marks to be sure they are used correctly.
  • Do your numbers total correctly, for example, in your pricing?
  • Do the deliverables seem reasonable? Are the timelines reasonable with each deliverable?
  • Read the document aloud to someone, and ask them to interrupt where the document does not make sense or seems repetitive.
  • Focus especially on condensing the wording. Avoid These Filler Words in Your Writing.

SUBMIT YOUR BUSINESS PROPOSAL

Submit Your Proposal

Electronic Submission

If your prospect prefers that you submit your proposal electronically, then attempt to include a read receipt, that is, verification that the proposal was indeed received by the prospect. Also, print out any response from the electronic system that indicates that your proposal was received.

If you are concerned about the electronic submission changing any of your formatting or preferred writing style, then you might also email your proposal. However, if the prospect is likely to receive many proposals, then they are very likely to screen out any proposals that do not closely match the requirements specified in the RFP.

Make Changes to Your Submitted Proposal?

If you prefer to make any changes to a proposal that was already submitted, then be sure to change the date of the proposal, especially on the title page. Be sure to notice if an RFP specifies any deadlines for changes to submitted proposals.

Similarly, if your prospect suggests changes to the proposal, then be sure to change the date of the proposal. If you expect several changes, then it might be useful to include a Revision Page in the proposal that specifies the dates and nature of each change.

Follow Up to Your Proposal

Contact Prospect About Your Submitted Proposal?

If an RFP specifies dates in which the proposals would be reviewed and a candidate selected, then be reluctant to contact the prospect beforehand. If you do, then do it only once, so as to not irritate those processing the proposals, especially if the prospect is likely to be reviewing numerous proposals.

Preparation for Interviews by Your Prospect

If your prospect selects you for a follow-up interview, then you should carefully prepare. Guidelines to consider for the interview include:

  • Study the RFP one more time to be sure you understand the prospect's problem.
  • Review your proposal one more time to be sure you can concisely answer any questions they might pose about its contents.
  • If you had not met with the client before, then during the interview, consider posing the questions listed above in the section Meet With the Prospect? It can be very impressive to the prospect that you had thought of such useful questions.

These articles in the Library will also be useful:
How to Interview for a Job
P is for Poise and Persuasion
Tips On Presenting A Proposal


SAMPLES AND TEMPLATES

Business Proposal Samples

PandaDoc
Sample Business Proposal
Venngage
Business Proposal Sample
Free Business Proposal Samples

Business Proposal Templates

Proposal Templates
Free Business Template
Business Proposal Form
Free Business Proposal Template
Free Proposal Templates


Learn More in the Library's Blogs Related to Marketing

In addition to the articles on this current page, also see the following blogs that have posts related to Marketing. Scan down the blog's page to see various posts. Also see the section "Recent Blog Posts" in the sidebar of the blog or click on "next" near the bottom of a post in the blog. The blog also links to numerous free related resources.

Library's Marketing Blog
Library's Public and Media Relations Blog


For the Category of Marketing:

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