Format for Writing and Designing a Business Proposal
written by: Mike Sweeney•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 5/19/2011
Writing a business proposal that is organized, and hits on the hot buttons for the reader, closes more business than any other approach. The format you use should be designed exclusively to sell your proposal of your products, services and recommendations. Everything else is secondary.
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Keep it Simple
Proposals that are successful are very easy to identify – they get business! And what’s the secret? They are simple to understand, written exclusively for the reader, usually brief, and are well laid out in a nice logical flow for the customer.
Common mistakes with business proposals are, they are either too simplistic with no supporting information, or they are too complex with too much information that is hard to get through. Finding the right balance of information is an important part of the format and a key skill for the writer.
Remember, the overriding goal of any proposal is to get a positive decision about your recommendations. That needs to be your number one focus when creating your proposal content. A simple rule of thumb is to develop your format exclusively with the customer in mind. Look at everything you include in the proposal from their perspective, not yours. If there is little or no value for the customer, don’t include it.
For most proposals, there is a very strong probability that other people will read the proposal in your absence. Structured business proposals that are well-designed and have valuable information, get passed around for others to comment on.
Keep this in mind as you design the format and create the content. You won’t have an opportunity to clarify anything when others are reading it, so write the content with that thought in mind. Everything must be clear and understandable, and ideally, everyone who reads your work will come to the same positive conclusion about its content and recommendations.
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Your introduction briefly sets the stage for the remainder of the proposal. A useful introduction will provide the reader with a basic framework for the proposal. If warranted, it will also briefly explain your company history, the business relationship of the two companies, any industry trends or innovations that impact the recommendations, and the impact your suggestions will have when the recommendations are implemented.
Make the introduction interesting enough so the person reading it will want to continue with your proposal. If your company offers any unique experiences or qualifications, this section would be the place to include them. Keep it brief and to the point.
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Current vs. Proposed
The compare and contrast approach is very effective and should be included when writing a business proposal. It is very easy to understand for most people and is a common method in proposal designs. Very simply, it shows how the current situation can be improved by the proposed solutions.
For example, if monthly operating costs are the overriding problem in the current situation for the customer, then identify each of the monthly operating costs by line item. Present the information in an easy to follow and logical format. Highlight or zero in on the items that have been shown by the customer to be the most pressing. When you contrast your solutions, these will be most important points in the proposal.
Outline your proposed solutions in basically the same format. Again, make it easy to follow and understand. If Item A is listed as a current operating expense, and is a key item to improve in your proposal, then your proposed solution needs to be in contrast to Item A on the same line. Don’t make the compare and contrast approach any more complicated than it needs to be.
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The cost summary is pretty straightforward. You simply show the corresponding costs associated with the proposal. Some of this information may have been part of your current vs. proposed section.
An often overlooked part of this section is the use of return on investment (ROI). If your cost recommendations can also be shown from a ROI perspective, then by all means, include them for the customer.
Keep your ROI analysis as simple as possible, recognizing that not everyone fully understands it. ROI creates value for the customer, whereas focusing only on cost, does not. The tendency for most proposals is to look only at the bottom-line cost expenditures. Generally speaking, the greater the value you derive through your ROI analysis, the greater the acceptance of your proposal.
This section is also the best place to outline any cost justifications that you feel are needed. If some costs appear to be new to the customer, or very different from what they’re experiencing in their current situation, then provide some written explanations for the customer to help them better understand what they are reading.
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This section is where you tell the customer, in very convincing language, to purchase your products and services. This is why you a write business proposal. Be very clear in what you write and what you suggest. You don’t want any confusion or misinterpretation.
Included would be topics such as; suggestions around dollar amounts, timetables, which products and services to purchase, milestones, what to spend, when to spend it, who is involved, how the implementation will work, any follow-up strategies, initial paperwork, and contracts or agreements.
Also consider the “what’s in it for me?" mindset when crafting your recommendations. If you can clearly answer this question for the customer than you have a potentially winning proposal.
If there are several possibilities for the customer to consider, then provide those ideas. Using an alternative choice close in your recommendations can be very effective in gaining some level of business.
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The executive summary is the place for you to summarize all the key points in the proposal. If you had to email, fax or mail a single section to a customer, this would be it. Take each section and write a very concise summary pointing out the key points. Many times, this is the section the customer goes to first for a quick look. Keep it simple and easy to follow for this reason.