What is a Proposal?
Proposals provide the foundation for trust between business owners and their clients. Those who excel at proposal writing establish profitable partnerships by stating clear intentions and providing distinct solutions. Additionally, a strong proposal includes projected completion dates for every stage of work. A written document provides a higher level of accountability so that if a client believes the work being done and what was promised do not align, the proposal serves as a reference.
As with any type of relationship, setting expectations from the beginning is essential. This ensures both parties agree upon the terms of the partnership they are forming. Oftentimes, when goals and priorities aren’t clearly defined, disputes and friction arise. No one wants to do damage control or lose a customer because of an avoidable problem.
How to write a proposal is something every business leader should master, or at least understand the elements of what makes a proposal successful. The proposal is an essential tool in ensuring that projects run smoothly from start to finish. In essence, a great business proposal leaves no stone unturned. It sets expectations on the front end by providing a step-by-step plan for how your company will solve a potential client’s problem.
Learn how to write a proposal and set the foundation for a great customer experience by following the steps below.
Step-by-Step on How to Write a Proposal
Step 1: Gather Information
The number one key to success in a proposal? Listening skills. The more a leader understands the problem they’re solving for their client, the better proposal they’ll write. This is why the first step in writing a proposal is conducting a discovery meeting with your client.
While you want to be a good listener, discovery calls need structure. Without it, you could answer too many questions. This could result in running out of the time needed to learn about your potential client’s problem. Additionally, you don’t want to give away too much strategy and advice without signing the company first. Instead, use this call to get to know your potential client so you can close the deal and get to work helping them.
Frame your introductory meeting like this:
Introduction: Introduce yourself to the prospective client. Take time to briefly describe your background and how it is relevant to them.
Questions: Do your research on the company beforehand and come prepared with a list of questions. Regardless, don’t jump to conclusions or come into a discovery meeting with assumptions about the client’s needs. Furthermore, listen carefully to their answers and adjust your questions as needed, taking time to uncover what is holding them back. For example, get clear on the issue by asking the client about their:
- Team, plan, and current budget
- Frustrations and pain points
- Ideal outcomes in solving their problem
- Potential hazards, roadblocks, and blind spots
Next Steps: Once you have a clear picture of the potential client’s issues, conclude the meeting by scheduling a meeting for the next step — introducing and discussing your work proposal.
Step 2: Begin Outlining the Proposal
The next step in writing a proposal is to create a solid outline to work from. First, review the notes from the first call, looking for any emerging patterns. For example, did the client mention multiple times they struggle with a particular issue like social media engagement? If so, start organizing this information under the “problem” section in your outline.
Additionally, the outlining process is a great time for conducting further research on the client’s issue. Take a closer look at why their business isn’t performing well.
When doing this, ask yourself:
- What are successful competitors doing differently?
- How can you help them achieve similar results?
- What steps should be taken?
- How long will this take?
- What will it cost?
- Why does solving this problem matter?
Sort this information into the following sections:
(What is it?)
(How is it hindering the business?)
(Why does solving it matter?)
(How will you solve it?)
(Why will this work?)
(Who will help?)
(What will it take?)
(What will be the result of solving the problem?)
(How are outcomes projected?)
(What does life look like after the obstacle is removed?)
Step 3: Write a Strong Introduction
Once you’ve finished outlining, it’s time to start laying out the introduction to your proposal. In essence, think of the introduction as a summary of the entire document. This brief synopsis immediately explains why the proposal was written and what the reader can expect. To make the proposal more engaging, personal, and influential, speak directly to the person who will be reading it. Start strong by using the first sentence to address the “why” behind the proposal. Do this by stating two or three main goals you want to help the client reach.
The introduction of a proposal is broken down into five different parts:
- Overview of the problem
- Summary of the suggested solution
- Description of why your team is equipped to handle the challenge
- Estimated costs for the project’s completion
- List of benefits and projected outcomes
Step 4: Define the Problem Plaguing Your Client
After the introduction is complete, dive deeper into the problem your client faces. Above all, this part of the proposal sets the stage for your solution by discussing the gravity of the problem. To begin, provide a little background information on the roadblock and how it limits the company’s success. For instance, every sentence in this section should make a compelling case for why the problem must get solved by your company.
Develop a case for why the issue can’t continue by:
- Estimating the cost of the company’s losses caused by the problem.
- Supplementing the discussion with statistics, white paper studies, and quotes.
- Explaining why any previous efforts haven’t worked.
- Visualizing what would happen if the problem was solved by your company.
- Using this to transition into the next section where you provide a solution.
Step 5: Provide a Viable Solution
After you’ve defined the problem, it’s now time to prove you’re the right person to solve it. This section is the most important part of writing an effective business proposal. The provided solution will either close the deal or cause you to lose it. For this reason, spend the most time mapping out this section of the document.
Lay out your solution in six parts:
What: Describe what solution your team has put together for addressing the problem.
Why: More importantly, discuss why your company selected this solution. For instance, discuss why this option is the best choice and how it gets the business closer to achieving its purpose.
Obstacles: Shut down any doubts by addressing potential roadblocks and obstacles before your client brings them up. Especially present facts, stats, and research that show your solution is legitimate. Remember, the point of a proposal is to provide proof that your solution will work.
Outcomes: Create a clear picture of what the outcomes of the implemented solution will be. Above all, you want the client to understand how the solution will benefit their company in the grand scheme of things. For this reason, boost your credibility by backing up any claims with research that shows how what you have to offer produces real results.
Phases and Deliverables: Let the client know your plan by breaking the project down into phases. Then, for each phase, indicate deliverables and clearly define “done”. This will provide a clear path to project completion, create momentum for the working team, and minimize frustration.
Key Players: List the key players, what they do, and why they’re qualified to solve the problem. In essence, you want to make a case that the solution provided will produce a successful outcome. Therefore, influence the potential client’s decision in a positive direction by highlighting your “A” team players. For instance, provide background information and results they’ve achieved for other clients.
Step 6: Sum Up Your Proposal with a Conclusion
By this point, you’ve addressed every facet of your customer’s problem and your plan for solving it. Next, it’s time to complete the proposal by recapping the information above. For instance, briefly go back over your pitch, hitting the hardpoints: “what,” “why,” “how,” and “who.”
After you’ve restated your purpose and intent, conclude with costs. Be as candid as possible—never set the expectation that costs are lower than you know they actually are. Not only is this unethical, but it’s also the path to destroying a business relationship. When it comes to expenses, another important thing to remember is to be clear about what the costs cover and what they don’t. No matter your intent, unclarified costs will look like an attempt to collect more money. Avoid consequences like refusal to pay, bad online reviews, and complaints by itemizing every single cost involved in doing the work.
Finally, while this step isn’t required, it does show you’ve done your research. Appendices provide supplemental information that’s too extensive to include in the body of a proposal. For instance, they might include additional resources such as tables, charts, statistics, data, and quotes from research papers. Title each appendix alphabetically. For instance, if you have five appendices, list them as “Appendix A,” “Appendix B,” “Appendix C,” “Appendix D,” and “Appendix E.”
Step 7: Edit the Proposal
Before meeting with the client, make sure someone on your team has edited and proofread the proposal for grammatical errors and copy mistakes. Additionally, during the editing process, avoid using passive voice as much as possible. This makes copy more compelling, influential, and persuasive because it is active. It lives in the present, not the past.
For instance, in the sentence, “Your company suffers from a drop in sales,” the subject—the company—actively does something: suffers. Nevertheless, if you’re not a professional writer, or you don’t have one on staff yet, grasping grammar rules is not so easy. With this in mind, opt for downloading the Chrome extension of Grammarly. It’s like having your very own copywriter inside your computer, constantly checking your text for errors.
Step 8: Submit the Proposal
When learning how to write and submit a proposal, many people make the mistake of presenting it via email. This can result in confusion, room for objections, and ultimately a missed opportunity to close the deal. For this reason, it’s best to always initially go over the proposal in a phone call or in-person review. This establishes clarity and trust, which in turn gets you closer to walking away from the meeting with an enthusiastic new client.
Frame the meeting using the same strategy in the introduction call:
Introduction: Let the client know you’ll introduce the proposal first and reserve the second half of the meeting for questions. Discuss the major highlights of the proposal, such as the problem, solution, project phases, and costs.
Questions: After wrapping up the review, ask the client if there’s anything they want you to cover more extensively. More than likely, they’ll have a few questions, so take this time to listen and answer in a way that will help alleviate any fears or second-guesses they might have.
Next Steps: Once any questions and explanations are laid to rest, talk about what comes next. Show that you’re proactive and ready to help solve their issue by discussing the benefits of an early start. If they verbally agree to sign on or approves the proposal that day, let them know you’ll send over the first invoice, along with several options for the next meeting which will jumpstart Phase 1 of the project: onboarding.
What Happens After Finishing the Proposal Process?
Take what you’ve learned from how to write a proposal a step further by developing a great customer-client relationship through your onboarding process. This process is vital to customer experience. In fact, it’s so important, a survey from Wyzowl found “63 percent of customers say that onboarding—the level of support they’re likely to receive post-sale—is an important consideration in whether they make the decision in the first place.” Yet, this is something most companies haven’t mastered. An astounding 90 percent of those surveyed in the study said the businesses they purchase from could have a better onboarding process.
Tips for creating a great onboarding process include:
- Discussing client briefs with employees so they’re up-to-date on new projects.
- Mapping out a plan of action with your team that will be communicated to the customer.
- Making a friendly, face-to-face introduction to the team via video call.
- Letting the client know the role of each team member.
- Connecting the stakeholder to the company’s project manager.
- Giving the project manager time to discuss the goals for each phase of the project.
- Providing an opportunity for the client’s questions.
- Setting up a check-in time before the first call ends.
After the call, keep evaluating, anticipating, and fulfilling the client’s needs. This is a great opportunity for upsells, add-ons, and other offers. Additionally, implement a marketing flywheel to keep your clients delighted, and engaged through their entire customer journey. In short, this turns a marketing funnel into a cyclical process. It generates repeat customers who market the business due to their great experiences with your company.