How to write a winning business proposal

Working on a business proposal

The difference between winning and losing a contract could be down to the quality of your initial proposal. Simon Wicks finds out how to say the right things in the right way to make the shortlist for a competitive tender

"Few contracts are won with a proposal alone," says business communications consultant, Terry Hunt. "But many are lost by the proposal."

Although it's just one step in a competitive bidding process - which may include a detailed tender response and a presentation - the proposal is critical. It introduces your approach to business, outlines your solution to the potential client's problem and differentiates you from competitors.

It also clarifies your value proposition. "This is what your client will get in terms of value from you, not what you will get from them," Hunt explains. "They just want a decent supplier - somebody who is good to work with and who delivers."

What information should your proposal include

A client will normally set out what they want to receive in a Request For Proposal (RFP). This can be extremely detailed, even down to specifying font sizes and whether it should be emailed or posted.

"Read the RFP with great sensitivity," Hunt advises. "Read between the lines and be sensitive to unusual or repeated words - they give a clue to what really matters to the client.

"Don't just repeat what is in their RFP, but show that you really understand the business problem or opportunity they face. And tell their situation as a story - even business people like reading stories."

Hunt recommends a rapport-trust-persuasion approach that shows how you are looking at the problem from the client's point of view. "Write about the client's background and industry as a way of building rapport and establishing your credibility," he says.

"Show the reader that you are considering their best interests. Discuss the various approaches they could take, and eliminate the irrelevant ones. Then give them the rationale of your proposition."

Business proposal dos and don'ts

"Don't cut and paste from standard documents or previous proposals, other than in appendices where you are describing your product and introducing your personnel," Hunt emphasises. "Every client is unique and deserves their own text.

"And write about yourself only if you are invited to do so," he adds. "That's one of the biggest mistakes a lot of businesses make. Write about the client's problems and use their language. Save your own name for the appendices."

Be honest

What you write may form the basis of more binding tender documents later on. If you mention employees and consultants you will use to deliver the work, for example, the client will expect that these are the people they will be getting.

Before you even embark on a proposal, however, assess whether you really need the business, whether you can deliver the contract and what your chances are of winning. Going through a tender process can be costly and time-consuming.

"If you cannot place your chances at 70%, don't bid," Hunt concludes. "And don't bid if the customer doesn't know you - most contracts are awarded to the incumbent supplier."

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