Business proposals are documents that attempt to persuade targeted clients to buy a particular service or product. These documents, which are used in academia and government as well as business and industry, may range from relatively short (a few pages) proposals to "formal" documents of 50 or more pages. Many business proposals—and especially those proffered by startup businesses seeking to obtain new clients and business—are unsolicited (those that are created at the request of the prospective client are known as "request for proposals"). Given the fact that many business proposals have not been formally requested by the recipient, businesses that put these documents together have to make sure that they create a final product that will grab the attention of the prospective client in a positive way. As Tom Sant wrote in Small Business Reports, "whether you're selling products, services, ideas or projects, you need a proposal to persuade clients that whatever you're selling is the best solution to their business problems. In short, a proposal is a selling tool."
ELEMENTS OF THE BUSINESS PROPOSAL
Business proposals are sometimes lumped in the same category as competitive bids. But other analysts point out that proposals—and especially unsolicited proposals, whether aimed at convincing a publisher to publish your new book idea or convincing an investor to take a look at a potential new business site—are essentially designed to pique the interest of the prospective client. For this reason, such proposals often do not get into the nuts and bolts of compensation, time frame, and other matters. Competitive bids, on the other hand, provide detailed information on all aspects of the proposed business arrangement.
Standard elements of basic business proposals include the following (although, depending on the degree of formality of the proposal, not all parts are always necessary) :
* Cover Letter—This should provide an over-view of your proposal as well as an introduction, if necessary, in which you include a brief synopsis of your company's background and qualifications.
* Title Page—This part typically includes your name and the name of your company, the name of the person or company to whom the proposal is submitted, and the date of submission. "Some titles are one line long, occasionally two," commented Herta A. Murphy and Herbert W. Hildebrandt in Effective Business Communications. "Some even include a colon—followed by words to clarify the thought. Clarity and comprehensiveness are dual criteria for a good proposal title."
* Table of Contents—While usually not necessary for shorter proposals, these are sometimes used for big, formal proposals (such as request for proposals).
* Executive Summary—This is the portion of the proposal where you make your case for a business arrangement. "This is the most important part of your proposal," said Sant. "It's the section that will be read by every decision maker. Make sure it's easy to read. Avoid technical jargon and technical details. Focus on organizational issues and benefits, and keep it short."
* Body/Procedures Section—This is the section in which you place technical details and explanations, as well as information on price, implementation schedules, logistical and support issues, documentation, and training. Legal experts note that if the proposal is accepted, it can become a legally binding document. For this reason, and because of the length of time that is usually necessary to produce this section, writers of unsolicited proposals may wish to hold off on preparing this section unless the targeted person or company expresses interest in the basic proposal.
WRITING A SUCCESSFUL PROPOSAL
Writing a successful proposal requires both salesmanship and fundamental communication skills. "Basically, proposals—like other reports—should be factual, objective, logical, well written," said Murphy and Hildebrandt. "They should also be persuasive. All proposals should present facts honestly to justify the requested expenditure to be paid by the reader's organization to the writer's firm or to an individual for solving a problem or altering a procedure." In addition, many business communication experts counsel their clients to arrange their proposal in such a way as to emphasize persuasive arguments at the beginning and the conclusion of the proposal, which often are the most remembered sections of any presentation.
Ultimately, however, it is commonly believed that the likelihood of garnering new business via business proposals, whether solicited or not, lies with anticipating the priorities of the targeted firm or individual. As Colette Nassutti observed in Outlook, an essential ingredient of successful proposals is the proposal writer's ability to understand the prospective client's circumstances, requirements, and business objectives. Sant agreed, pointing out that "a focus on cost is advantageous if your client is experiencing a period of decline," while "advanced, automated solutions will appeal to growing companies." Proposals aimed at companies that are well-known for attention to quality, advertising image, or quick product development can be structured accordingly as well.
Writing in the Los Angeles Business Journal, Sharon Berman noted that "Doing your homework and making the required preparations can make all the difference. This is especially important in light of the enormous time and effort required to craft a professional proposal." In order to create proposals that address the client's needs more directly and persuasively, Berman suggests meeting with key decision-makers ahead of time and asking probing questions to determine exactly what they are looking for. Sometimes a prospective client may request a proposal as a way to gain leverage with their current service providers, or they may be planning to change their current operations and anticipate new or different needs. This type of information can be invaluable in shaping the proposal.