Sunday, September 14, 2008

Written proposals are critical to success

In many lines of business — especially for consultants and professional and technical service companies — submitting proposals is an essential part of business life. Yet, no matter how many proposals we've written, most of us freeze when faced with an empty computer screen and the knowledge that our words are going to decide whether we'll be making money or not.

The good news is that there are ways to make writing proposals easier and landing clients more likely.

The first trick is to create a template. Develop a standard format (or formats if you prepare more than one type of proposal frequently) so you don't start from scratch every time.

Here's what I include in my proposal template:

• Background: A brief statement of the problem. This basically restates how your potential client has described their situation. This lets them know you understand why they're undertaking the project.

• Scope: This is a fairly detailed description of what you are going to do for the client.

• Deliverables: If you're creating tangible items for the client — such as writing a report or designing a brochure — list exactly what you'll be giving the client.

• Personnel: Indicate who will be staffing the project and their qualifications. In many cases, this may be you alone, but in others you may have staff or subcontractors who also should be indicated.

• Timetable: State when the project will start, when certain milestones will be reached, when the project will be considered finished.

• Fees: Clearly state how much you are charging for the project, which expenses are included, whether there is an allowance for possible overcharges and all other fees.

• Equipment/outside contractors/other expenses: If the project entails other major expenses — such as equipment rental, hiring outside contractors, printing costs — describe who will be responsible for engaging/supervising these services and how they will be billed.

• Terms: Detail when payments are due, how expenses that are not part of the project fees will be billed (at cost, cost plus 10 percent), what happens when payments are late (amount of interest charged, work stops and so on).

Finally, be brief and make your proposal look good. Most proposals for consulting work need only be one to three pages long. You can add supporting materials, such as brochures, client lists, biography. Make certain your proposal and supporting documents look professional and polished — even if you're e-mailing the proposal as an attachment.

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