As a business owner, securing clients is likely your top priority. But it's difficult to gain prospective clients' trust right off the bat without an opportunity to show rather than tell. However, a business proposal is an efficient way to introduce yourself to potential consumers.
Business proposals, not to be confused with business plans, give you the chance to explain who you are and what you offer in a single document. Creating one requires time and thought, but it's essential to any business. Here's everything you need to know about writing a business proposal.
What is a business proposal?
Before signing a contract, you'll want to make sure you and your client are on the same page. The purpose of a business proposal is to discuss and negotiate the needs of both sides, said Crystal Richard, president of Crystal Richard & Co.
"A business proposal ensures that both you and the potential client are well aware of the scope of work that you are negotiating and all of the tasks, goals, and outcomes within it," said Richard. "Depending on the level of your service offering, it's incredibly important to be clear about what you will be doing for the client and what you don't be doing."
There are two types of business proposals: solicited and unsolicited.
"A solicited business proposal typically follows an initial email or phone conversation where a potential client has expressed an interest in working with you," said Richard. "They have openly shared that they are interested in your services and would like more information."
A prospective customer may ask for a solicited proposal through a request for proposal (RFP). This is typically an easier pitch to sell, since the customer is already interested in your business.
An unsolicited proposal, also known as a cold proposal, is presented to a possible customer who has not asked for or expected one, Richard added. It is your responsibility to reach out and pique their interest in your products or services.
How to format the document
You'll want your proposal to be as concise and organized as possible. Bplans recommended formatting the document in this order:
- Title page
- Table of contents
- Executive summary
- Statement of problem, issue or job at hand
- Approach and methodology
- Schedule and benchmarks
- Cost, payment and legal matters
However, there's no one-size-fits-all format you must follow, and the layout does not require strict categories. For instance, Jessica Lawlor, president and CEO of Jessica Lawlor & Company, typically includes a summary of her business, who the management team is (including photos with a bio), why a client should choose her, how she can be of assistance (package and pricing options), a timeframe and additional notes.
"I keep my proposals short and to the point," she said. "A proposal is meant to serve as a conversation starter, not a be-all and end-all document. My proposals are typically no more than four pages long."
Richard advised saving your document as a PDF before sending it to prospects. That way, you won't have to worry about your formatting or design looking different on the client's end.
What to include
Availability. Make sure your clients know when and how often you will be available to offer your services to them. They're likely not your only customers, so scheduling yourself with each client will ensure you're equally dedicated across the board.
"Not only does this hold you accountable, but it also ensures the client knows how much of your time they're getting," said Richard. "Especially if you have other clients, you don't want one thinking they have you 40 hours a week when in reality, you're only working on their account for 10."
Breakdown of fees. Don't commit to a client before sorting through costs. Discuss what's included in your fees, extra costs, invoicing, etc., said Richard.
For example, as a PR professional, Richard doesn't include the cost of distributing on a newswire in her fees. It's important for clients to understand that, if interested, it comes at an additional cost.
Expiration date for the proposal. Details change, from costs to services. Your current business proposal might not be relevant in the months, or even weeks, to come. Make this known in your document.
"This way, a prospective client can't come back to you three or six months down the line and expect the same pricing," said Lawlor. "I typically include an expiration date of two to three weeks from when the proposal is sent – this also puts a bit of pressure back on the prospective client to make a decision, as the new business process can sometimes take a long time."
Meet in person first. A formal meeting will give your prospect a chance to become familiar with you before blindly diving into a business contract.
"A proposal, in my opinion, should never be a first point of contact," said Lawlor. "I send a proposal to a prospective client after an initial conversation and ensuring the project seems like a good fit on both ends. At that point, the prospective client already has an idea of my personality and what my company can offer."
While a proposal introduces you and your product or services, nothing beats an in-person consultation.
Simplicity is key. Your proposal doesn't need to be an elaborate persuasive essay or art project. In fact, it's better to keep it succinct. Richard stated that the best feedback she's received were for proposals of which she focused on quality over quantity, and cut out additional fluff.
Add a personal touch. When you present your document, express yourself and your company in ways that set you apart from others. Whether it be leveraging your quirky design skills or expressing your character in a conversational tone, commit to your own personality.
"I make sure that the first page of each business proposal I create has a warm welcome about how I'm excited at the idea of working together, what I loved most about our initial conversations leading up to the business proposal, and, of course, I insert a few fun one-liners that fit my branding so they get a true idea of my personality and why I'm different," said Richard. "Show them what makes you special."
Show what you've got without giving it away. You can showcase your success by displaying previous work you've done for clients. Lawlor noted that this gives an idea of what you can do without openly sharing your process.
"Don't be afraid to showcase your successes, even if it feels a little braggy," she said. "This is your time to shine and to show a prospective client all that you've done and all that you can do accomplish on their behalf. Now is not the time to hold back or be humble."
Schedule a follow-up call. Reaching out after sharing your proposal is crucial to securing clients. That way, you can clear up any questions they have, clarify your pricing and further sell your business.
"It's helpful if you can schedule a call for the day you send the proposal," said Lawlor. "This way, you can walk through the sections of the proposal and explain items in further detail before a prospective client digs in on their own."