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7 Steps To A Winning Business Proposal

Seven essential steps to guarantee you get the contract.

In today's competitive business environment, your ability to write powerful proposals could mean the life, or death, of your business.

When government agencies and large corporations need to buy products or services from an outside source, they often release what is called a Request for Proposal (RFP), a formal document outlining their needs. To bid for the job, you must submit a proposal, which will explain how your company would meet the client's needs and should convince the client to hire your company, instead of a competitor.

Charles Wakefield's company, Tectonics International Inc., is a Scottsdale, Arizona consulting firm that helps organizations change their business processes, systems, and other internal structures. Wakefield says that getting their first service contract was not a matter of luck.

"We provided a very professional proposal that was well thought through," explains Wakefield.

"And we had people with the specific total quality management and participative management experience this Texas-based transit organization was looking for."

Don't leave your business's success up to chance. Follow these seven steps to write winning proposals:

1. Study the Requirements. Writing a winning proposal begins with a clear understanding of the client's requirements. Read the RFP thoroughly. As you're reading, ask yourself, What are this company's goals? What is my role in achieving these goals? Is the time frame, budget and scope of work reasonable? And if we're awarded the contract, does my company have the time, expertise and resources to complete the project?

Next, decide whether you want to proceed. Preparing this proposal will require a lot of time and effort in research, analysis of the client's needs and writing, and you may decide to wait for a better opportunity.

Wakefield examines every RFP carefully. "We don't send everybody a proposal who asks for one, because researching and writing a proposal is a fairly expensive process," admits Wakefield. "First, we decide if we can design a good program for them. Then, we look for projects that have some potential for us strategically, contracts that offer continuing relationships and good networking possibilities."

2. Understand the Client. "If you don't understand the client's problem, you certainly can't propose a methodology that is going to solve the problem," says Shervin Freed, coauthor of Writing Winning Business Proposals (McGraw-Hill). "Many times a client or potential client will say, 'This is what we're looking for.' But when you start researching, you find out that isn't what they're looking for at all."

The best way to understand what the client really needs is to talk with them. Ask people in the organization about their concerns, their operating policies and their management philosophy. Discover if any previous attempts have been made to reach the goals outlined in the RFP and why those earlier solutions didn't work. Ask what they like and dislike about dealing with consultants like yourself and what criteria they'll be using to evaluate your proposal.

You'll also want to get some general information about the organization and the industry it's in. Ask questions like these: How long has the company been in business? Who are their major decision makers? What are their main products or services? How is this company better or worse than its competitors? What is the company's financial position?

To prepare their proposal, Wakefield's company interviewed the senior managers in the client's quality and training & development departments, as well as a purchasing agent. "We learned that our client's goal was to reach a higher level of customer service," explains Wakefield. "And they wanted to do that by changing the management process."

If you're not able to speak with the organization's employees, do some secondary research. Visit the library or check with colleagues who may have worked for the same organization; it's worth the effort. This research may save you from proposing a tack that has already been tried or is unacceptable to the client for some other reason. You may also discover some underlying issues that weren't addressed in the RFP and need to be considered.

3. Develop a Methodology. Once your client's goals are clearly identified, it's time to develop the steps, or methodology, necessary to reach them. If you're having difficulty with it, use Wakefield's suggestion of brainstorming sessions.

"My partner and I get together and discuss what kinds of things our clients need and in what order," Wakefield says. "It's going to be different for each of our clients, depending on whether they focus more on customer service or on cost savings. We then custom-design an intervention that is specific to their organization."

To ensure that your methodology is practical, analyze its costs and benefits, as well as the time and resources it will require.

4. Evaluate the Solution. You may have developed a brilliant methodology, but if it's unacceptable to your client, you'll need to find an alternative solution. "You have to understand the decision maker's orientation," explains Freed. "You have to know precisely what their background is, and how they look upon this particular project. For example, find out whether the person is financially oriented or operations oriented." You should then describe the benefits of your solution in a way that will receive the most favorable evaluation from the decision maker.

You should also evaluate your solution according to criteria outlined in the RFP. For example, if your proposal is being evaluated on price and completion time, a lengthy, expensive solution is unlikely to win your company the contract.

5. Outshine Your Competitors. Don't forget that a proposal is a sales document, designed to persuade the client to hire your company instead of a competitor. So make certain your proposal reinforces your company's strengths and addresses any potential reservations the client may have about hiring you.

"If your competition is a company that is much larger than yours, then you've got to show your strengths," Freed says. "Maybe you specialize in the client's field or can focus intensely on solving their problem."

To properly present your strengths, you must know how you stack up against the competition. If you're lucky, the client will divulge your competitors' names, describe what they're like to work with and offer an opinion of your competitor's abilities.

6. Write the Proposal. Now that you've completed the first five steps, most of the work is done. All that's left is assembling the information into a proposal format, so we'll be referring back to the work you completed in the previous steps.

If the RFP specifies the format of your proposal, follow that exactly. If no format is specified, Freed recommends the following headings be used:

A. Current Situation. Explain the background or problem that motivated the organization to issue an RFP. This section will be compiled from the background information outlined in the RFP, as well as from the research you performed in Step 2.

B. Goals. Clearly explain the goals of your proposal. You formulated these in Step 2, based on the RFP and your understanding of the organization and their problems.

C. Proposed Methodology. Describe each of the recommended steps, developed in Step 3, that will lead the organization to meeting their goals.

D. Time and cost. Thoroughly explain the time and cost requirements for each step in the methodology, based on your calculations from Step 3. This section should also specify how you will be billing the client, and when payment will be expected.

E. Qualifications. Fully describe why yours is the best company for this job. This information will be based on your competitive strengths and on the proposal's evaluation criteria, which you developed in Step 5.

F. Benefits. Discuss the many benefits the client will receive by implementing your recommendations. This section is based on the benefits identified in Step 4.

7. Apply the Finishing Touches. Review the proposal carefully to ensure it completely fulfills the requirements set out in the RFP. Make sure the information is arranged logically and that it fully addresses each of the decision maker's concerns. Finally, have someone you trust proofread the proposal to catch spelling and grammatical errors.

Many contracts are awarded solely on the quality of the proposal, so don't let sloppy writing or careless mistakes ruin an otherwise terrific proposal.

"To me, good writing is symptomatic of your basic abilities," says Freed. "Poor writing and poor grammar would make me ask, 'How good can these people be if they can't even express themselves intelligently?'"

To make sure that the completed proposal looks as professional as possible, print it on quality paper and have the final copy professionally bound. Then get ready to put your proposed solution into action.

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