A few weeks ago, a potential large client made a reasonable, but nerve-wracking, request, “Can you send me a proposal?” It’s not unusual—in many small businesses, creating proposals are a critical part of the sales process. Whether you’re bidding to build a company’s new website or a homeowner’s new deck, your proposal plays a large part in determining whether you’ll get the job.
Whether you have to create proposals every day—or a few times a year—the prospect of having to develop a proposal can be chilling. After all, a lot can be at stake.
I failed to land my very first client because I didn’t create a proposal that met their needs. And I’ve lost plenty of money putting together excellent, in-depth proposals for clients who never move forward with a job, or, worse, take my ideas and hire someone less expensive. Wow, that really hurts.
Proposals are both a sales document and the basis of what’s going to be your contract or agreement. So you need to entice the customer without misrepresenting what you’re going to actually be able to deliver.
Here are seven steps to creating a proposal that’s likely to win you the job:
1. Be clear on the client’s needs. Before you put one word on paper, make sure you understand exactly what the client wants. Spend time talking with the prospect, getting them to explain what a successful project would look like, what constraints they have, and what specifically they want accomplished. Make sure your proposal meets their needs. If you don’t think you can reasonably accomplish what they want done given time and money constraints, don’t bother creating a proposal.
2. Ask if they have a budget in mind. Nothing is more frustrating than putting together a great proposal only to have a prospect say, “Our budget is only a tenth of that.” Prospects try not to give you a number, seeing that as part of the negotiation. But be nicely persistent in trying to get at least a ballpark budget. Otherwise, if you’re just too far apart, you’ll have wasted time and energy. In most cases, you can trim or expand the scope of your proposal to meet their budget, so it’s helpful to them as well.
3. Create a proposal template. Develop a standard format (or formats if you prepare more than one type of proposal frequently) so you don’t start from scratch every time. I have a proposal “template” containing an outline of the information I think I need to include in every proposal, so I never face a completely blank computer screen.
4. Cut-and-paste “boilerplate” content. In most proposals, you’ll want to provide a short description of your company, perhaps background on the principal people involved and possibly testimonials from previous clients. You don’t have to create this every time from scratch; cut-and-paste.
5. List all deliverables. Provide a detailed description of what you are going to actually do for the client so there can be no misunderstandings later. Be specific. Make certain the client knows that any deliverables outside the scope of work in your proposal may entail additional fees. Detail the due dates for the various stages of the project or the final completion date; indicate if any contingencies may change the timing.
6. Be absolutely clear on fees and payment terms. Clearly list all fees and expenses for the project. If you’re charging by the hour, list both your hourly fee and the estimated total for the project. If you’re charging by the project, list an hourly fee if the client adds additional work. Describe who’s responsible for which expenses. List any payment terms and when payments are due.
7. Consider a brief PowerPoint/slide presentation. If you’ve going to be meeting with the prospect in person, a slide presentation can be a more engaging way to get your information across. Include pictures and graphics to make your proposal come to life.
Finally, be brief and make your proposal look good. Most proposals for consulting work need only be one-to-three pages long, and make your proposal and supporting documents look professional and polished. The quality of your proposal should reflect the quality of your work.
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2016
This article originally ran in USA Today on February 19, 2016