How to Write a Business Proposal
If you want to know how to write a business proposal, the best person to ask is your customer. When writing a business proposal, your goal should be to answer your customer’s questions and persuade them to select you. To do this, you need to discover what the customer needs to read in order to select you, and then present your proposal from the customer’s perspective. A business proposal should be about what matters to the customer, and not just what you want to tell them. That is why winning a business proposal depends on what you know about the customer, opportunity, and competitive environment just as much (if not more than) as how you write, format, and present your proposal.
Here is a simple approach to help you cover all the bases in your proposal. You can use it like a formula. For each section or requirement that you must address in the RFP, make sure you answer: who, what, where, how, when, and why. Repeat it like a mantra, until it rolls off your tongue and you have it memorized. Then use it to anticipate and answer all of your customer’s questions.
After you have written your proposal, you can use the same formula to review it and help ensure you have addressed everything you should have addressed. In each section of your proposal, simply ask yourself if it answers “who, what, where, how, when, and why?”
- Who: who will do the work, who will manage the work, who does the customer call if there is a problem, who is responsible for what
- What: what needs to be done/delivered, what will be required to do it, what can the customer expect, what it will cost
- Where: where will the work be done, where will it be delivered
- How: how will be work be done, how will it be deployed, how will it be managed, how will you achieve quality assurance and customer satisfaction, how will risks be mitigated, how long will it take, how will the work benefit the customer
- When: when will you start, when will key milestones be scheduled, when will the project be complete, when is payment due
- Why: why have you chosen the approaches and alternatives you have selected, why the customer should select you
This simple little phrase (who, what, where, how, when, and why) can help you not only ensure that your proposal says everything it should, but that it answers the customer’s questions better than your competitors. You can even use it to exceed the customer’s minimum requirements by addressing the questions they forgot to ask.
When you read a simple proposal response written to address the customer’s requirements, and compare it to one that answers “who, what, where, how, when, and why?” you’ll see a dramatic difference in the quality of the proposal. Simply doing a better job of answering your customer’s questions can give you a competitive edge when everything else between them is equal.
In addition to using it for inspiration when writing, you can also use it like a checklist for reviewing a draft proposal. When you read a draft proposal, consider these questions and pretend to be the customer. Go over the questions and see if the proposal provides all of the answers you would want if you were the customer.
All you have to remember is “who, what, where, how, when, and why.”
And you thought proposal writing was supposed to be hard!
When you have this formula memorized and mastered, then you’ll be ready to take on more advanced proposal writing techniques.
Why what you learned in school about writing was wrong
If you are like me, you learned the basic five-paragraph essay format (and a bunch of variations) in school. You remember: introduction paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and conclusion paragraph. Most variations follow the same concept: introduce, support, conclude. Then within each paragraph, you do the same thing at the sentence level. If you are writing a proposal, this is completely backwards.
- People read proposals to make a decision — the first thing on their mind is why they should accept what you are proposing.
- Customers read proposals to find out what they are going to get — tell them what they are going to get or what the result will be so they will want to read about how you will make that happen.
- The goal of a proposal is to persuade — you need to communicate what you want the reader to conclude and then substantiate it.
- Nobody wants to read a proposal — if the evaluator quickly sees what you want them to conclude, they may not need to read the details that follow.
- A winning proposal is easy to evaluate. Picture the evaluator with a checklist in hand going through your proposal — check, check, check. State conclusions that reflect the evaluation criteria, and then substantiate with how or why.
Never save the best for last, or build to the finish. Give the reader what they want right up front in firm, positive statements. Don’t ease into it by writing around it. If you ever have the opportunity to be the customer reading a proposal, you’ll see how annoying it is when you have to dig into the proposal and read deep to find out what the point is.
You still need to provide the explanation and proof for due diligence, but if there is anything about your approach that you really want them to know, anything about it that is special, you should call it out first. Tell them what the approach will do for them, what the benefit of it is, and only then tell them what the approach is.
The goal is not to deprive them of necessary detail, but to give them what they want, in the order they want it. You have to give them a reason to bother reading the detail. Think about why they are reading — they are evaluating what you are proposing in order to do two things: get through the formal evaluation process (completion of scoring forms) and to make a selection. Unfortunately the former is often the primary reason.
In any event, what they are looking for is how to score you and why to select you. If they find those, then they’ll examine what you are proposing to make sure you can deliver. It is always a good idea, in any type of writing, to imagine what it’s like to be the reader.
What should go into a business proposal?
There are a lot of bad examples of proposal outlines out there on the Internet. Often what they teach at universities leads people to lose their business proposals. The nature of the outline depends on the type of proposal and the expectations of the evaluator. Here is an example of a proposal outline that was bad and how we improved it.
For business proposals, proposal outlines should be driven by the customer’s instructions. What goes into your outline starts with the Request For Proposals (RFP), and then incorporates the things you need to say in order to demonstrate that what you offer is the best alternative for the customer.
A typical RFP will require you to respond to the following topics. Different RFPs will use different terminology, so they often change the names. Sometimes they drop a topic or add a new one. But generally they require:
- An Executive Summary that says what you will do or provide to the customer and how the customer will benefit from what you propose. It is where you introduce your company and any teammates or partners. It is also where you should make your case for why the customer should accept your proposal ahead of any alternatives they may have.
- A Statement of Work or Technical Approach to describe what you will do or provide to the customer. This will usually include your approaches, an implementation or delivery schedule, and the specifications for any deliverables. If products are being proposed, then product descriptions are usually provided (the amount of detail depends on the customer’s requirements).
- A Management Plan to describe how you will organize and supervise any work to be performed. A schedule of major milestones and allocation of resources is usually included, as well as your approach to quality assurance and risk mitigation.
- Your Qualifications to demonstrate your capability to do or provide what you are proposing. Relevant prior experience is usually highlighted. Past Performance and References may also be required.
- A Staffing Plan to describe how the project will be staffed is sometimes required for service contracts. If particular people are important to the approach, their resumes are usually included.
- Contracts and Pricing. If the proposal is being used to close a business deal, then business and contractual terms are usually provided.
Some RFPs will set a page limit for the length of the proposal. Some don’t. Some RFPs will tell you the format/layout to use, and some won’t. Some RFPs will tell you what evaluation criteria and process the customer will follow. And some won’t. The customer sets the standards and defines the rules.
If your proposal is going to be submitted to a Government agency, then the composition and layout of the proposal may have regulatory requirements to comply with. In the case of the Federal Government, these are usually based on the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). Government RFPs can get so complicated that you need to create a compliance matrix in order to determine what the outline should be.
But what if there is no RFP and the customer has not given you any instructions for the proposal outline?
Then, you should base the outline on what the customer will need to see, and approach it by looking at it from the customer’s perspective. Here is a link to something we wrote describing the best way to approach creating a proposal outline so that it reflects the customer’s perpective.
Going beyond the outline of your proposal
There is a lot that goes into the content of a well-written proposal. It involves more than just what the customer requires and what you offer. What should go into your proposal should answer all the questions the customer might have, implement your strategies for winning the proposal, articulate your story and messages, and reflect what matters to the customer. Planning the content of a complex proposal requires going well beyond just an outline. In fact, we’ve created a whole methodology for figuring out what should go into the content of your proposals.