Complete Guide To Proposals

Your business proposals represent who you are and aspire to be. Read on to learn all about using online business proposals to save time & win more work.

writing business proposals

The proposal stage is THE critical moment between winning or losing a client. And that means the difference between new revenue or lost opportunity.

If you aren’t winning your proposals, your business will die. It’s as simple as that.

Before I started Qwilr, I was a design & software engineering consultant. And I wrote a lot of proposals. Eight years worth.

During that time, I experimented with a whole host of proposal structures, formats and mediums. And I thought a lot about what a proposal is, and how I ought to be presenting my services and products to potential clients.

By year four, I had settled on a medium (dropping PDFs for webpages — the genesis of Qwilr) and whittled things down to a tight proposal structure.

This structure worked.

I wrote proposals that won me year-long contracts with design multinationals like Saatchi & Saatchi, large-scale technical projects for the Victorian Government, as well as a host of boutique agency and product work.

What follows is an in-depth breakdown of that structure and a discussion of the underlying purpose and drive behind each piece of content.

Sound good? Let’s get to it!

Introduction

The best business proposals recognise that first impressions last.

Business proposal structure – introduction

High level

Your introductory section, a.k.a the “cover page” for your proposal, is essentially just the meta data related to the proposal.

Items you might include

  • The name and logo of the company you are pitching to.
  • Your company’s name and logo.
  • The date of the proposal.
  • Your name and the name of the client.

Discussion

Remember this is the very first thing your client will see. This is the content from which they will form subliminal judgements about the professionalism and attention-to-detail your service offering provides. They won’t consciously realise it, but realise it they will. (See Daniel Khaneman’s work on unconscious bias).

So pay special attention to the design elements here. Make sure it’s aesthetically top-notch and that the layout, colours and typography choices are just right.

Use imagery. Either as a full-page splash image, inline images, or both. Again, this is an opportunity to set the subliminal tone of your proposal in the reader’s mind: something they are not explicitly aware of, but will shape their psychological reaction to the material.

Here are some examples from the Qwilr Proposal Library:

Challenge Analysis

Winning business proposals demonstrate empathy.

Business proposal structure – Challenge Analysis

High level

A breakdown of the major challenges your client’s business is facing, contextualising your project proposal within the broader scope of their business goals.

Items you might include

  • Brief market analysis.
  • Brief competitor analysis.
  • A concise summary of the core business challenge your client is facing.
  • Ideally, the KPI relevant to that challenge (i.e., organic traffic to a website, units sold of a physical product, monthly revenue growth, cross-sell conversions, etc.).

Discussion

This section is an opportunity to show your client how intimately you understand their commercial concerns and the business ecosystem within which they operate.

This isn’t so easy. A business is a complex and detailed beast, whose primary concerns are changing month to month. From the outside, it’s easy to make incorrect assumptions about internal challenges. So get it from the source. Discover the core challenges and their details through direct discussion with your client. (We’ve written about this kind process in: how to run an effective first client meeting).

The important thing here is to setup the commercial context for your project: to describe the problem space for which you’re proposing a solution.

Here’s an example from the Qwilr Proposal Library:

Solution

The best business proposals demonstrate value through concrete solutions.

Business proposal structure – Solution

High level

Description of your product or service, and how it provides a direct solution to the business challenge laid out previously.

Items you might include

  • A simplified overview of how your product / service works and delivers its value.
  • How it addresses the client’s core business challenges.
  • Draw a line between the project, its delivery, and a positive impact on the KPI associated with the business challenge you’ve identified.

Discussion

This section is not where you go into detailed analysis of what you are going to deliver. Rather, it simply situates your proposal as a solution for the challenges of your client’s business.

An example from the Qwilr Proposal Library:

Data-Driven Success Story

Compelling business proposals offer social proof.

Business proposal structure – Data Driven Success

High level

A case-study from a previous client project.

Items you might include

  • Previous client’s name, market and product or service.
  • What the business challenge they were trying to meet was, and what the target KPI associated with that challenge was.
  • How you implemented your solution to meet that challenge.
  • Present data (graphs or figures etc.) that demonstrate the positive impact of your solution on the target KPI.

Discussion

This section is an opportunity to provide hard evidence of the assurances you’ve made in the previous section. Proof that you execute and deliver value. In a business setting, the best way to evidence this is with hard data. Being able to show a tangible percentage, or hard figure, improvement in a particular target KPI. Not a projection, but a historical fact. These are the nuts and bolts of justifying the business case for your proposal.

That being said, a strong testimonial, a relevant award and/or a demonstration of recent high quality work (e.g., you might embed your portfolio in Qwilr) will also convey the necessary proof.

Approach and Process

The best business proposals allow clients to visualise proposed workflows.

Business proposal structure – Approach and Process

High level

An overview of your approach to projects and client relationships, and a high-level breakdown of the process you will undertake.

Items you might include

  • A brief summary of your approach.
  • An ordered list (i.e., stages / phases etc.) of the process the client can expect during delivery of the project.

Discussion

The purpose of this section is two-fold.

First: it helps the client to conceptualise what the delivery of your proposal will entail. Having a clear process, laid out from the very beginning, is vital to maintaining a successful working relationship. It anchors the discussion around process and workflow on your own terms.

Secondly: this section, in the “approach” piece, is an opportunity to differentiate your business from the competition. To describe what is unique about your ethos and values, above and beyond the hard data. Your process should flow on a natural extension of your business approach.

The philosophy of every business is different. Each has its own unique stance and focus. Explain yours. Why do you do what you do? (Approach) And why do you do it the way you do? (Process).

Project Investment (i.e., the Price)

The best business proposals leverage pricing to impress.

Business Proposal structure – Investment

High level

A breakdown of the cost of implementing the proposal.

Items you might include

  • A line item breakdown of each component of the project.
    Business proposal screenshot – Quote line items
  • A single cost, without an itemised breakdown.
    Business proposal screenshot – Quote single cost
  • Possibly, an approximate total cost (depending on the industry).
    Business proposal screenshot – Quote approximate cost

Discussion

This is the pointy end of the proposal stick.

Strategy around quoting and pricing is a big topic. Many articles, heck a whole blog, could be dedicated to that topic alone.

But some brief things to keep in mind:

  1. Provided you have accurately and intimately understood your client’s business challenges and associated KPIs, you should be able to assess (at the ballpark level) what X% improvement in those KPIs means for the gross revenue of the business.
  2. During the first client meeting, you should do your diplomatic best to fish out the client’s approximate budget. Obviously, you are in the opening stages of a negotiation at this point, so take any client-supplied indicators of budget with a grain of salt.

Combining these two figures you should be able to formulate an approximate price point. One that makes sense given the client’s ballpark budget, and the potential bottom-line return you believe you can deliver.

Here’s my one piece of advice on pricing: if you believe that you are fantastic at what you do, and that you will work fanatically to deliver outcomes to your clients (you should, or maybe you’re doing the wrong thing), go for the higher end of the price point. Your client has almost certainly got other proposals on the table — position yourself as the premium option.

It’s important to note that, if you want to take this route, everything about your proposal needs to exude that best-in-class quality. The analysis and content, as well as the design and aesthetics of the material needs to be spot on.

Finally: if you’re in a digitally oriented business — don’t deliver your proposals in an offline format! Sure, have a PDF as an option for printing. But if you’re promising to deliver on a digital product or service — be digital from the inside out.

Here are some example quotes from the Qwilr Proposal Library:

Team

Winning business proposals promote credibility and differentiation through the expression of calibre and experience.

Business Proposal structure – Team

High level

A list of the personnel who will be executing on the proposal.

Items you might include

  • Picture of the staff member.
  • Their role in the project.
  • A brief summary of relevant expertise and history.

Discussion

Following on from your pricing, now is the time to highlight the calibre and experience of your team. What are the special skills, experience and qualifications they possess in order to effectively deliver on your proposal.

The team section of proposals can sometimes be neglected. A few throwaway lines about each member. But that’s a mistake. Describing the composition of the team, and why they in particular are so well suited to executing this project, is another opportunity for differentiation against competing quotes. The team description is therefore a vital aspect of getting a client across the line.

Conclusion

Strong business proposals end with concise statements of challenges, solutions and expected ROI.

Business Proposal structure – Conclusion

High level

A concise summary of your challenge analysis and solution.

Items you might include

  • A reiteration of the core business challenge.
  • A reiteration of how your offered solution will meet this challenge.
  • A “thesis” statement tying these two points together, and describing the expected return on investment (i.e., impact on KPI etc.).

Discussion

There is a classic debating technique when making any argument:

  1. make a high-level point.
  2. flesh it out in detail.
  3. conclude by reiterating the high level point.

This is what the conclusion of your proposal should be. It reiterates, in concise terms, the business challenge of your client, how your solution will address that challenge, and the expected return on investment from that solution.

Call to Action

The best business proposals include a clear and singular call-to-action for the client.

Business Proposal structure – Action

High level

A clear next step for your client to take to proceed with the proposal.

Items you might include

  • An explicit description of how to move forward.
  • Contact details (email, phone, etc.).
  • Ideally, an action that can be taken then and there.

Discussion

A clear and singular call-to-action is imperative in moving the deal to the next stage. Ideally, have the facility available right there on the page to take the next step — i.e., an “Accept” button with a digital signature, a Pay Now form for a deposit, or even just an email field.

Now, I’ll admit, as the founder of a platform that allows users to create interactive proposal webpages, I’m probably be pretty biased here — but your client is never so well primed for a positive buying decision as when they’ve just finished reading your detailed, well-researched and compelling proposal. So why not enable that positive disposition with the ability to undertake an actual business transaction?

Over to You

Proposals require a lot of work to get right. But if you foster the right mindset (i.e. seeing things from the perspective of the client’s commercial challenges, rather than your own) and invest in the tools and processes to create your proposals efficiently, you’ll find that you’re able to close more deals, with bigger and more prestigious clientele.

Good luck!

 , CEO & Cofounder, Qwilr

Dylan Baskind

CEO & Cofounder, Qwilr