The thought of writing a proposal overwhelms many people, but the task does not have to be daunting. Proposals are written when people need to ask permission to make a purchase, get a grant for a project, sponsorship for an event, or for a research work. A proposal is a formal way of putting forth an idea and asking for action to be taken on that idea.
Companies and individuals spend a lot of their time working on new business proposals and sending them to potential clients to try and win new business, only to rarely get their proposals accepted or read because of poorly managed development process and without investigating the prospect paradigm and challenges. They are proud of the thickness and how their printed copy looks like.
But, they forget humans have short attention spans. And thanks to the great distraction known as the Internet, it’s getting harder than ever to focus on one thing at a time. The digital era has come to stay and people are spending less time to read. That is what happens to your proposal most of the time.
Presenting a business proposal is marketing and marketing is all about human psychology and influencing them for trust. So, how do you get your prospects to read your proposals?
Nowhere is the saying ‘first impressions count’ more relevant than when a proposal drops on a prospect’s desk. There is a brief window of opportunity to entice the prospect to read your proposal rather than file it in the ‘I will read that later, much later’ pile.
What can you do to entice the prospect to read and approve your proposal?
1. Proof read and spell-check.
Nothing screams “amateur” more than a proposal full of typos, and in your clients mind, a poorly executed proposal is a reflection of how you’ll treat their project. It’s really hard to edit your own work, so leverage people on your team or even friends and family by asking someone to proof-read it for you.
A common mistake in proposals is to accidentally leave the name of a past client instead of the current one you’re pitching. This is flat out embarrassing, so don’t make that mistake!
Font is much more than just a thing that makes your document pretty. There is actual research behind which font to use. Although Calibri and other sans serif fonts are becoming popular, you may want to think about it twice when you use it for your printed text. Serif font—fonts with little “feet” such as Times New Roman—can actually aid in the reading process because the “feet” provide an imaginary line which the reader can follow. If you are the type who gets a burning eye sensation when reading Times New Roman, select Garamond or Cambria, which look more modern but still have feet. For those big bold headings, go ahead and use a sans serif, since these fonts can improve visibility.
Color can provide the reader cues on what is important and thus deserve more attention. But before you get creative with a color scheme, keep in mind how your proposal will be submitted and who is printing it. With a hard copy submission, you can go all out with color because you are printing it, so every copy a reviewer sees will have consistency of color. But for electronic submissions, you may want to avoid color since it is likely that your proposal will be printed in black and white. That doesn’t mean that you have lost the battle. You may not have 50 shades of grey, but with the nine grey variations Microsoft Word offers, you can create interesting grey shades palette if you use it wisely.
Some basic rules for using color:
Rule A: Use dark colors where you want to draw the eye. That interesting data point in one bar chart (or line graph) or headings can be in black or dark grey.
Rule B: Use light grey to “hide” irrelevant visual elements. For example, you don’t need all those gridlines on a table. Hide them with a light grey so the eye can still make out the table organization, but the gridlines will not compete with the important text on it.
Rule C: Make sure you have good contrast when you use text over a colored area such as a text box. For best contrast, stick to black and white elements. Before hitting the “submit” button, print it out and make sure all the colors read well on the page.
4. Keep your proposals short
Long proposals won’t convince anyone, as no one will read them. People run from big blocks of text, and no one has the patience to read your life’s story.
5. Capture the client’s attention fast
You have just a few seconds to win your client’s attention, so you need to be witty in the first two or three lines. One trick is to look at the feedback on the client’s profile (if you have it) when applying. This lets me start my application with their name.
By doing this, it leaves the client wondering how you knew their name, which draws them to your profile to see if they know you. It also shows that you are very interested in the job and in collaborating with them; you paid attention to their job description and looked even further. Finally, it makes the application more personal.
6. Avoid bland cover pages such as:
A Business proposal for Company x.
Sponsorship proposal for Company x.
Training proposal for Company x.
An Event proposal for Company x.
They’re okay, but do they really entice the prospect to drop what they are doing and read on?
Focus on their need
People don’t need business, sponsorship, training or events proposals, they need to solve their problems and achieve their goals. The key is to talk about the outcome from implementing your proposal, for example
Launching the new Toyota xyz in the Lagos market.
Engaging communities in Amuwo Odofin, Nigeria.
Driving sales of product X amongst an AB demographic.
Bringing your brand to life for your key clients.
Creating lasting relationships with your key prospects.
To find the wording for the front cover of your next proposal, consider what need your proposal will address and what outcome it will deliver if the prospect were to implement it.
7. Add your samples to the beginning of your application
If there’s one thing in your proposal your clients are interested in, it’s your work samples. If your samples are good, that is your main advantage for winning the job. So keep your samples as high as possible, maybe after the first paragraph.
8. Answer the “Why should I work with you” question
Every customer wants to know why they should pick you instead of any other competitor out there. This is basically what your application has to be focused on.
No, don’t start your application with: “You should hire me because…” Present the advantages of a collaboration with you, as well as your qualities. Don’t brag, but be honest and present real facts:
Talk about experience (i.e. how many years). Mention your excellent feedback (if you already have some). Mention the number of projects you have worked on so far. Tell them about your education, if it is relevant to the job. Highlight your skill test results, if you have done well on them
Point out anything that makes you look good as long as you can prove it, via samples or your profile. You should leave the rest out.
9. Quoting the client’s guidelines without linking them to the work.
It’s difficult to understand why so many people think that pasting phrases from the
client’s guidelines into their proposal will unlock the money box. If the client
says they seek to support people working to improve the health of rural children,
don’t tell the client that your organization exists “to improve the health of rural
children.” All successful proposals need to fit within the foundation’s guidelines, if there’s any, but
detailing how and why they fit is the key to success, not simply showing you have
read the client’s website.
10. Present a budget in standard format
Budget must be done in a way that is legible and patently sensible.
People who have never used a spreadsheet as well as those who live and breathe spreadsheets can be equally injurious to explaining your money plan. Spreadsheet jockeys need to be kept from creating dense forests of tiny numbers. But also don’t let someone take their maiden spreadsheet voyage creating the budget that will be vetted by a foundation’s experts. And make sure everything in the proposal is accounted for in the budget. Conversely, omit items in the budget that are not fully explained in the proposal narrative.
11. Offer to meet. Once.
Let the client know you would be glad to come by and talk about your work, and, if appropriate, bring other staff or board members. If the client says OK, set up the meeting on their terms. If they’re reluctant, let it drop, so you don’t provide a reason for the client to stop taking your calls.
12. Be professional and friendly
Many people need to improve their professional manners. “Dear John Doe,” will always sound better than “Hi.” “Thank you for taking the time to read our/my application” is a great closing line. You can make your proposal more professional or warm with a friendly closing, like “Best regards,” or “Kind wishes.”
13. Presenting your Proposal
So your proposal is flawless and ready to send. Great! However, if you email the proposal, it’s very easy for your client to forget about it and you’ll wonder why days have passed with no confirmation that he received it. If at all possible, it’s best to present your proposal in person so that any questions or potential roadblocks can be addressed right away, and you can potentially close the deal on the spot. If that’s not possible, at least call your client up and tell him you’re sending the proposal and ask if he has a few minutes to review it over the phone.
14. Getting a faster decision by following up
One of the worst parts about writing proposals is that they can take a long time to close, and it sucks spending so much time on something only to leave it stranded in the lagoon of lost proposals. It helps to give your client a deadline to make a decision. You can state in your proposal that the offer is null and void after a given time period, say 30 days, that way your client knows if he sits on it for months he can’t expect you to honor the original price. Even if you would honor the price, just adding a sense of urgency can help get a firm decision, either yes or no.
If your client seems hesitant, ask what’s holding him back from deciding. If he has to review other competitors proposals, ask him how long he needs and then follow up to ask for a decision. As the old sales cliche goes, “the fortune is in the follow up”. Sometimes a phone call can be the deciding factor in whether or not you win the work. Experienced salespeople are not passive, they follow up until they get an answer.
15. What if the answer is ‘no’?
If the answer is no, ask him why. There’s no harm in doing so, and it can help you improve for next time. Generally, you’ll get a no for one of the following reasons:
Your proposal was too costly. If that’s the case, perhaps you can still close the deal by negotiating your price or reducing the deliverables. Also, remember next time to qualify the prospect better, so he’s not surprised by the price.
Your competitor outshone you Ask the client what it was that swayed him in his decision making so you’ll know for next time. Maybe your competitor is doing something you can copy to close more deals.
He didn’t see a fit Maybe you didn’t do a good enough job addressing the clients pain points, or you didn’t seem enthusiastic about working with him. Whatever the reason, make sure you understand why so you can either adjust your pitch for next time, or better qualify your prospect.
Sometimes no matter how hard you try, there’s nothing you can do. Perhaps there was internal upheaval or budget cuts and the project was put on hold by the powers that be. Whatever the case, make sure you leave it on a positive note, you never know what will happen in the future. The person you were dealing with may move on to another company, and if he had a positive experience with you, even at the proposal stage, he may just hand you another project when you least expect it.
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