Lessons Learned While Writing 700+ B2B Proposals — Best Practices and Observations for Winning Work
Way back in what seems a lifetime ago, I got a job at Deloitte as a proposal writer. I suppose I’d written a few sales-pitch-type letters in my past, but nothing as formal as what this role required. For two years straight, all I did was write and project manage proposals, ranging in scope from tens of thousands of dollars well up into the millions. The services being sold ranged from audit and tax services to consulting work such as large-scale ERP implementations.
After a short while doing this, I realized that most proposals contain similar elements, so I thought I would review those elements here. Keep in mind that the items below reflect a typical proposal. But, in some circumstances, such as government proposals, the format can be quite different (e.g., if a Request for Proposals (RFP) requires ordering your document in a specific way).
1. The Cover
While a famous old saying warns against judging a book by its cover, the reality of marketing is that the book jacket (or in this case, the cover page) does in fact matter. Almost all proposals I drafted featured a well-designed cover page. Such a thing usually functions in a few ways:
- The cover establishes branding for the proposing company. It’s a great place to place your logo and contact information.
- The design should reflect the appropriate level of professionalism. Of course, that may differ depending on what you’re selling. But, if you’re selling tech services, for example, then a design that suggests something technical may be appropriate.
What constitutes appropriate is subjective, and may take some experimentation to arrive at a design that you feel sufficiently relays the mood you’re after.
This is also a good time to consider other non-substantive aspects of the proposal document — features such as the overall design, which might include considerations such as:
- Should it be printed in color?
- Should the sections feature tabs?
- What type of binding should it have?
Keep in mind that, depending on the situation, you may certainly opt for none of the above, and even for no cover page. I’ve certainly won some major efforts using plain letterhead. But, each situation is different. The above recommendations describe what I feel are the more usual proposal efforts.
2. The Cover Letter
In a formal proposal, this is usually the part where you’ll write a high-level summary of your company’s qualifications, distinctions, and approach. It’s the part in which you should really drive home the main selling points that your company has over others.
Naturally, if this comes first, it’s going to be one of the closest-read parts. So, I’d advise spending a good deal of time on this. Typically, even for a large job, the cover letter is under 2 pages.
This is also usually the place where you’ll sign the document. I feel that a signature can be as indicative as, say, a handshake. So use a nice pen to sign your hopefully confident, nice-looking signature!
Now we’re getting into the meat of it. Here is where you’ll want to introduce your company and cover your qualifications for serving the client. The approach here will probably differ greatly among larger businesses and smaller ones. That’s because the larger ones generally have much more experience to distill into text.
The elements you’ll want to cover would include:
- A general introduction to your company — discussing broadly all of the services your company does, focusing a bit more on the relevant one(s) being proposed on, as well as any potentially relevant value-added type services.
- Name dropping — regardless of the current opportunity, this is a good time to drop “marquee names” if you have any. Potential clients tend to find some assurance knowing that you serve others that they have heard of.
- Industry qualifications — talking about your services to other clients in similar situations / industries. In general, clients value hiring people who understand their business model already. They like also appreciate your involvement in industry-specific associations, if that sort of thing applies.
The more well-developed this language can be, the better. In my years at Deloitte, and then at a regional CPA firm, my approach was to build up a repository of information that I could tap into for any given opportunity. So, the general stuff would go in almost all proposals. And, over time, I’d have text that would discuss a wide variety of industries. All I needed to do was to pull up the appropriate industry text and I’d have a starting document for that effort. (This is a good example of how and why such a job gets easier over time.)
4. Approach to the Problem / Project
Now that you’ve introduced your company and its capabilities / qualifications, it’s time to focus more on the job at hand. In this section, you might include some text that discusses your company’s general approach to this type of work. It’s tough to distill all of the possibilities for what could go here in a general way, as it really relates to your specific company and its approach and philosophy about what you do.
But, in general, it’s good to demonstrate expertise in the service being proposed. So, spend some time thinking about what you do, and into presenting information about that here.
This is also a good place to discuss specifics of the project on the table. Including a client service plan and a timeline is always an excellent idea. It’s actually one area where a smaller company can overshadow a larger one. To be perfectly honest, I thought my later proposals for the regional CPA firm outshone the proposals I’d done at Deloitte.
5. Resumes & References
Next up would be a section for resumes. Most of the proposals I worked on were fairly large, in that they all had whole client service teams. So, this might be a smaller section for a small company. It needn’t be anything formal (although it could be). But, at a minimum, at least a solid paragraph for each team member.
Team member resumes are quite similar to the company qualifications in that you should begin with a nice, general introduction, but you’ll also want to tailor each resume to the opportunity at hand (if possible). So, if you’re a CPA firm bidding on a construction job, then you’ll want to include CPAs with construction experience, and list that within their bios.
References are also usually a good idea — and, if you’re with a larger company, you can be even more selective about the references used. If possible, try to use references that (1) your contact might actually know or have heard of, and/or (2) are from similar companies to the one being proposed on.
6. Professional Fees
Hopefully, everything preceding this has functioned to convince the potential client that what you’re offering is not simply a commodity. This section of course includes the price. For larger efforts, the price might be broken down for the client by service, and possibly shown over multiple years. It all depends on the situation.
Quite often, additional information might be used here, either before or after the pricing figures. This could include your company’s approach toward setting fees, maybe some philosophical language about providing the client with a solid ROI, etc. Any technical details, such as expected expenses and so forth might also go here.
While the above covers much of the formatting, I recommend this other piece of mine for some additional thought on proposal strategy:
Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece is adapted from “bindings” by liz west (Flickr, Creative Commons). Please 👏 👏 👏 for this article if you liked it (by clicking the applause icon below), as it really helps.