Business development and proposal writing can be one of the most painful parts of any consultant’s job. Here are four tips to improve your client-win ratio.
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I have probably worked on nearly 100 business proposals over the last five years and closed dozens of clients for digital, communications, and strategic planning projects across industries. My proposals have come alive through decks, docs, memos, and emails. I remember putting together very few with any joy.
Of course, it’s exciting when you have the prospect of new business or are told you’re part of an “exclusive” team working on that secret proposal. But when it comes time to put it together, business proposals can feel like an endless rut of deadlines, edits, and emails that read, “pls fix. Thx.”
Although the lead source or ability to gather information is not always in your control, there are a few things that you can do to make the proposal writing process a little easier. Below are my top five tips that I keep in mind whenever I’ve written a proposal for a new or prospective client:
Who decided decks made up of 20 slides are the way to go? In my experience, it’s rarely the client. It’s been the client. It’s derived from a malformed notion by someone who had an uncle at McKinsey or a Partner at a firm where they interned. First, did anyone ask the client?
While you may have your “winning proposal template,” a great first step is to ask the client: what do you want? Maybe they’re thrilled to read a 30-slide presentation, or maybe they’re interested in a short email they can easily forward. People process information in different ways and accommodating their preferences and time is a great first step to proving your value and making the client’s life easier.
Start with a phone call or Zoom. Deals rarely close over email, and offering prospective clients a visual representation of who they will work with gives them more information to consider when reading your proposal. More importantly, it allows you to ask intelligent questions and gather additional information to customize your proposal.
You can also look up the RFP point of contact or the team leading the project on LinkedIn to see who are your mutual connections. A warm introduction from someone you both know and trust will do wonders to boost your standing when it comes to evaluation time.
Suppose you find it impossible to build that connection or even schedule a meeting. In that case, you should reconsider the opportunity and figure out why they are unwilling to give you time when you will offer so much of yours in just writing a proposal. Although getting your name out as a business is critical, especially when you’re starting, it’s also important to know which battles are worth fighting.
What sets you apart from the rest? If you’re submitting in response to any open solicitation like an RFP, even one you were invited to participate in, you can be reasonably sure that other businesses and proposals will compete against yours. Your business proposal and conversations must reflect your unique offering and why YOU are right for the job.
While it’s easy to rely on templates that have shown success in the past, it’s essential to put the work in that showcases why this specific project matches your particular skills and offering. For example, if you’re a web developer skilled in WordPress and Drupal, but the RFP states they would like a new WordPress website, then it doesn’t make sense to make more than a single mention of Drupal in your proposal. Talk up your WordPress skills and experience, and explain why you are the best possible WordPress agency for this new website.
Whenever I applied to a college program or a new job (before I became my own boss), the one piece of advice I always stuck to was that it’s ok to brag about yourself. Take the same direction when you’re writing your proposal - brag about yourself, your team, and your accomplishments.
To brag with some subtlety, include case studies and client references that relate to the project you’re submitting for, even if the RFP or client doesn’t require it. It’s helpful for a reader to see that you and your team have successfully done something like this or similar.
Details matter, even the minor ones. Making small insertions that reference the prospective client, who they are, and what they are trying to achieve shows that you care about representing them and yourself in a professional manner. By writing a proposal for no one else but them, you can make it seem like there is no other project they can carry out but yours.
Dale Carnegie writes, “a person’s name is to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Including the organization and team names can make the proposal more memorable. Even something as simple as using the client’s color palette and logo on the first page of your proposal can be better than a cover page that could be found on any other bid.
Putting these five tips into practice might not get you a 100% win rate or make the RFP process completely painless, but it will make your life easier than if you were not using them.