How to write proposals that get accepted and don’t take forever to write

by Ana Lopez

Time kills deals. So if you’ve ever struggled to write a business proposal, check out the most recent installment of the Launch your business podcast.

You will learn how to write proposals that are accepted and don’t take forever to write. I’ve provided some of the key takeaways below.

But as a heads up, this is a pretty detailed guide (including a sample proposal) so I suggest you save it, make time to read it, and share it with another business owner who could use some help.

The three questions to ask before making a proposal

The process of writing a proposal actually starts with the sales pitch and the questions you ask. So once the prospect indicates willingness to move forward, here are the three questions to ask.

“What should you see in the proposal?”

Too often we assume the prospect wants a 30-page essay about how you’re going to change their life when all they really want is an invoice. Asking this question in advance will save you a lot of time and stress.

And you can go so far as to ask if they prefer a specific format, details, or even a sample proposal that has been accepted in the past. The more you know, the faster you can act and the more likely your proposal will be accepted.

“Who else needs to see this proposal to be approved?”

You may have a good relationship with the prospect you’re chatting with, but you never know if there’s a spouse or co-worker—whom you haven’t met—who also needs to be included in the approval process. And since they weren’t involved in any other conversations, you wouldn’t be aware of any stipulations or questions they might have about the engagement.

You can speed up the sales process and avoid a lot of back and forth by understanding whether or not it makes sense to call another stakeholder. This additional call will allow you to develop a relationship with them and answer any questions you may have before writing the proposal.

“How soon do you want to start?”

You’re going to ask this in case they take forever to sign the proposal. So, let’s say the state they need to get going on May 29. If it’s May 22nd and they still haven’t signed the proposal, you can email them and say, “Hey, if you want to start on May 29th, the contract needs to be signed this week. I need to send you some onboarding materials and it will take me a few days to prepare in advance.

This should get you a response as you reference the deadline they made. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but you’ll be prepared in case it does.

Important elements to include in your proposal

So now that we have all the information we need, it’s time to write the proposal. And my approach is based on the book Million Dollar Consulting Proposals by Alan Weiss. I picked it up when I first started my business and was surprised by the fact that a proposal didn’t have to be a dissertation. In fact, its recommended size is only a page and a half long. I will now walk you through all the sections.

Overview

The first is the overview. And this is the part where you explain what you will be doing along with the impact it will have on the company or organization. The example you will find on my website is based on a service provider that helps companies optimize their email marketing campaigns.

The overview is quite simple. I will include an excerpt from the example proposal below.

The purpose of this engagement is to provide tactical level guidance and support in optimizing your email marketing strategy. Key results include increasing your list size and monetization per subscriber.

Critical Performance Indicators

In the next section, you define how success is measured. These are the key performance indicators or KPIs. And I will again share an excerpt from the sample proposal.

Key measures of success:

  • Grow email list
  • Email open rate
  • Email click-through rate
  • Website purchases

The metrics you mention will of course be different and you want to make agreements about this during a conversation with the prospect.

For example, say you offer training that helps companies boost employee morale. And the goal is to reduce turnover and increase employee satisfaction.

The KPIs can be:

  • Reducing staff turnover
  • Increase in employee satisfaction (based on a pre- and post-training survey)
  • Net Promoter Score. (how well participants rated you and your training)

Your KPIs are important because everyone needs to be able to scan them quickly and immediately understand the impact of your work. So think about it carefully.

Services offered

We’ve got our overview and our KPIs, now we’re going to list the specific services you’re going to provide. And, unless requested, keep this relatively short. Stick to bullet points if possible.

These are the services referenced in our example.

The Consultant agrees that it will provide its expertise to the Client for everything related to optimizing its email campaigns, including:

  • Maintain email list
  • Subject line optimization
  • Best practices for copying email
  • Increasing revenue per subscriber

Again, this will all be based on the service you offer, but you get the point, keep it short. If you want to give more detail, I recommend adding sub-bullets instead of paragraphs.

For example, I referred to email list maintenance. A subbullet could break down exactly what I mean by that.

  • Maintain email list
    • Remove people who have unsubscribed from the email list
    • Labeling of subscribers who purchase specific products
    • Identify individuals who spend more per purchase

I don’t want to turn this into an email marketing lesson, but you get the point here, provide additional details without getting into the weeds.

Fulfillment process

After providing information about the services, it’s time for the next section, your process. What does the customer journey look like from start to finish? The more you can help someone visualize the entire engagement, the easier it will be for them to wrap their heads around it and say yes. Again, you want to use bullet points here.

So, here’s the process based on the email marketing training we talked about.

  • Customer grants access to email marketing platform
  • Consultant checks running campaigns
  • Consultant provides summary and optimization roadmap
  • Consultant trains team members
  • Team members implement new techniques and tools for 30 days
  • Consultant monitors new campaigns and identifies improvements and ongoing optimization opportunities

So now it’s your turn. Write down every milestone that happens from start to finish, but say it in a concise way.

Delivery & Communication

The following section describes how to provide this service and how to stay in touch throughout the project. This one is also pretty simple, but it’s important. So, here’s an example for you.

The Consultant performs work remotely, unless stated otherwise.

In addition to emails and messages, the Consultant will meet with the Client once a week to discuss progress and continue the implementation of solutions. The consultant agrees to respond to all communications with the client within one business day, aiming to answer all inquiries within 48 hours.

That last part is important because it sets expectations about how quickly you get back to a customer. I usually get back to people relatively quickly, but this is a great way to establish communication protocols.

Conditions

The next part is the terms of the agreement. And by terms I am not referring to a legal contract, this is just a summary of when the engagement will begin and end.

This agreement goes into effect [Begin date] and go ahead [Time period]. Either party may terminate this Agreement for any reason with [Days written notice] days written notice to the other party.

Again, this is clearly not a legal contract. But if you’re looking for help writing legal contracts, I’ve provided more information on my site at terryrice.co/proposal

A fee

The last part is exciting and scary at the same time, compensation. As you may have guessed, this is the part where you specify how much it will cost and when you will get paid.

Here is the copy in the example.

In consideration for the services referenced, the client pays the consultant a flat fee of $30,000.

The consultant invoices the client according to the following schedule:

  • 33% in consultation
  • 33% half way
  • 33% on completion

So, a few things to mention here. Always get paid before doing any work, even if it’s just a 20% down payment. And you do this in case the client drops out for some reason after you are already working. For larger assignments I like to divide it into phases, especially if it is going to take several months. You can choose to get paid upon completion of each stage of the process.

Put everything together

So there you have it, a simpler approach to writing proposals that don’t last forever.

And if you want to make them even faster, use a template that can be quickly modified. I use a tool called Honey book for this and you can also send invoices with it.

As a warning, they have a promotion where you can use the service for just one dollar a month for the first eight months. So it’s a great opportunity to try it out for a very low price. You can sign up here. And I should note that I am an affiliate partner for HoneyBook and receive a small commission if you choose to use their service. But like I said, it’s my go-to platform, which is why I highly recommend it.

Just a pep talk for you

I know the proposal creation process can be challenging, so my goal here was to help you save time and avoid confusion.

But before we go, I want to address a few questions that may be on your mind.

  • What happens if something is missing from the proposal?
  • What if they want more details?

And those are valid questions. In fact, it happens to me quite often. But luckily, the foundation you’ve laid is so clear that the prospect will ask more pointed questions instead of getting confused about what the hell you’re going to do.

These are buying questions, not “What are you talking about?” to ask. So you may just need to make a few adjustments before your prospect is ready to sign and you get paid!

What’s next?

Block an hour to complete your proposal. But remember, done is better than perfect.

And if you want help growing your professional services business, consider joining my video course, The shortcut of the solopreneur. Through a combination of videos, worksheets, and templates, you’ll discover how to package, price, and promote your services so you can attract high-paying clients.

Anyway, I wish you the best of luck and if you have any questions feel free to contact me LinkedIn or Instagram.

To hear the full conversation and access additional resources, tune into this week’s episode of the Launch your business podcast.


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