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Business proposal format – start with a winning structure


Business Proposal Format

A successful business proposal format begins with a compelling framework – a structure for your proposal that sells your ideas and solutions. This section introduces the Winning proposal framework – a structure that will maximize the success of every proposal you write in future.

Let’s Talk Proposals

Too many people get caught up in thinking too much about the specifics of different businesses proposal formats – forgetting the purpose of their proposals – to establish a dialogue with their prospect readers. If, instead of writing a proposal, you were having a one-on-one conversation with your client, trying to sell your superior solution to their requirements, you would very likely make the points outlined in this greatly condensed conversation:

‘We understand your requirement inside out, and we have designed a great solution that meets every part of that requirement. Here’s why that solution will have so much value to your organization. We will deliver all of these benefits for a cost of just…Oh, and by the way, I have detailed information to prove every one of the claims I just made – here it is…’

The most effective business proposal format establishes precisely this dialogue with their readers, and that’s why the Winning proposal structure is based upon it. Each element of this conversation suggests a section essential to every business proposal:

“We understand your requirements inside out”

The first thing you absolutely must establish for your client is that you understand their requirements inside out; that you have as detailed an appreciation of what they are trying to achieve as they do themselves (perhaps even better than they do themselves). This is essential.

Many proposal writers undervalue the persuasive power of re-stating their own understanding of the client requirement – doing an exemplary job of outlining the requirement in your proposals can very often be the difference between winning and losing the target business. Dale Carnegie said that sales success depends upon “getting them saying ‘yes, yes’ immediately”. How better to do so than confirm the requirements they outlined to you?

The logical first section in the winning business proposal format does, therefore, detail the client requirement, and for discussion purposes we will call this section: “The Requirement”.

“We have designed a great solution to those requirements”

Your first section sets out to convince your client that you have a good understanding of what they are trying to achieve, of their requirements. You now have their attention, so continue your conversation by describing the way in which you can address these requirements – outline your solution. This is the key section of your proposal. You are, after all, writing the proposal to sell this solution.

So, your second proposal section will be a staple in any proposal format and should be called something like “The Proposed Solution”.

“Here’s why that solution will have so much value to your organization”

The client will certainly want to know just what is in your solution for them, what benefits will accrue to them from selection of your solution over that of your competitors.Your business proposal format must support you in emphasizing the particular strengths of your solution, and minimize any weaknesses in your solution. At the same time you will also need to highlight any particular weaknesses in likely competitors’ solutions, whilst, at the same time, minimising the importance of any strengths they might be able to demonstrate.This is your third proposal section: “Benefits of the Proposed Solution”.

“We will deliver all of these benefits for a cost of just…”

Having established that you understand the requirement, that you have a good solution to these requirements, and that your solution will be of particular benefit to your client, your client is certainly going to want to know how much this solutions is going to cost.

Your fourth section will detail the costs associated with your proposed solution, and for discussion purposes we will name it: “Costs”

“I have detailed information to prove every one of the claims I just made”

Up to this point you have focused on communicating just one basic message – “we have the best possible solution to your requirements”. To communicate this message most effectively you should confine yourself to the main points that support this contention, staying away from excessive detail that might distract the client, drawing their attention off on a tangent.

In the sections mentioned above include only as much detail as is necessary to support the main message you are trying to communicate with each of them. Many business proposal formats take an approach of cramming everything into the main body of the proposal – making the proposal overly heavy and difficult to read. To be effective all of the detailed technical material such as technical specifications, product descriptions, supporting research and so on, should be confined to appendices at the back of your proposal, with your main text making frequent reference to the presence of this supporting material in the“Appendices” section of your proposal.

The Winning Framework for Your Proposals

So, by establishing this simple “Requirements-Solution-Benefits-Costs-Proof” dialogue with your client in your proposals, you end up with a basic business proposal format for all of your proposals that will always contain at least five sections.

The figure below graphically illustrates this basic proposal model that you can now use as the basis of all of your future proposals. Besides the self-explanatory ‘Title Page & Table of Contents’ this figure also contains an additional section that has not yet been discussed – the “Executive Summary”.

Business Proposal Format

The Executive Summary

The Executive Summary is a section that provides an overview of the total content of your proposal. It is designed for those senior executives in your client organisation who do not have time to consider any more than the “highlights” of your proposal. It is also designed to be a general introduction for other readers who will wish to read your proposal in its entirety, orienting them on how your proposal is laid out and preparing them for the main points which your proposal will present.

Think of your Executive Summary as the equivalent of what you find on the jackets of novels – a quick-to-read summary that provides the reader with what they need to ‘buy your story’.

Build your Executive Summary using the Winning structure – with a few lines summarising each of your completed main sections. Think of the main points you want each proposal section to make and ensure that these are briefly covered in this summary.

After the Solution section the Executive Summary is arguably the most important section of any proposal – it truly crowns your business proposal format as it may well be the only section that some key readers will bother to read. So invest the time in getting it right.

Adapt and Thrive

Undoubtedly some of your business proposals will not be of a size that allows you to make your case adequately in just six sections. Similarly, some of your proposals will not be longer than a single letter and you may think at first glance that this winning business proposal format could be overkill.

Not so. Regardless how large or small your planned business proposal you can very effectively employ the basic “‘Executive Summary-Requirements-Solution-Benefits-Costs-Appendices’” structure.

A one-page letter proposal should still use the same structure, with brief paragraphs substituting for the sections discussed above. Similarly, larger proposals may demand many more sections with entirely different titles. The key is to ensure that, however large or small your proposal, you successfully establishes this dialogue flow – get your readers saying ‘yes, yes’ throughout.

I can’t promise that adopting this winning business proposal format will result in eliminating your hate of proposal writing – but I can guarantee that you’ll get a vastly higher hit rate for your hateful labours.

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