Successful Business Proposals in Just Ten Minutes a Day

Posted by Heather Villa, CMA, MBA, MSM on October 19, 2010 in: Business - Plain & Simple, Freelancing, Tips in 10

As a coach and consultant, I frequently have to create a proposal when I meet a potential client. Since every client’s business is unique, I want to understand their business and their needs and then write a proposal with some competent recommendations. But since proposal writing is non-billable work that may or may not lead to a signed contract, I need to find the balance of time to spend on it.

In talking to colleagues who are also consultants, many have admitted to me that sometimes they lose potential business simply because they have several outstanding proposals that they need to write, but not enough time in which to write them. So this Tips In Ten is designed to help you:

  • Find the balance between spending a little bit of time creating a proposal – just enough to provide insightful recommendations but not enough to lose hours of your day every day
  • Keep your business proposal writing process efficient so that you can generate plenty of proposals and get a good stream of prospects turning into customers.

This process will require a series of ten minute efforts. There are a few steps up-front that you will do one time, and that way you only have to spend 2 or 3 days (just ten minutes each day) on the proposal itself.

Size does matter

I have seen (and written) really, really long proposals. They look good and make the proposer seem like a genius. But unless the project is a multimillion dollar long term NASA rocket-building program, there’s no need for such a long proposal. If you serve small to mid-size business clients, a small proposal will work fine. They’ll appreciate and read a smaller proposal.

I have a template that is about 5 pages long, and once you add content it can get up to 10 pages. Ten pages is my absolute max and I’d prefer to send a proposal that is 5-6 pages over a 10 pager. I’ve also seen proposals that are 1 page long. (In fact, the book The One-Page Proposal: How to Get Your Business Pitch onto One Persuasive Page by Patrick G. Riley is worth the read, even if you end up writing longer proposals).

Proposals of 1 page get read and there is enough information for many businesses to make a decision. I’ve found that I often need to follow up that proposal with other information (such as supporting documentation or a time-line) which is why I tend to write proposals that are 5-10 pages in length – I just want a bit more detail earlier in the process.

Up-front proposal creation – Duration: 10 minutes

The first thing you’ll want to do is create a template for your proposals. I recommend that people start with a fairly standard proposal format and modify it over time based on your business, your industry, and feedback from your audience. (For example, if everyone is asking you the same question over and over, that should be a big, fat hint that you need to put the answer into your proposal.)

I like the very solution-focused format of:

  • Executive Summary
  • Key Needs & Desired Outcomes
  • Our Solution
  • Next Steps

This may or may not work for your situation, although I’ve found that it is a good, easy-to-use system to start with (but you may modify yours over time). If I add a cover and try to keep each of the above 4 headings to just one page, I end up with a 5 page proposal. In my experience, the Solution section tends to be 2-3 pages because I like to add the steps, the time-line, and the cost. In some circumstances, I have added another page between “Our Solution” and “Next Steps” where I”ve outlined cost and time-line, but I’ve only done that separately in situations where I wanted a really detailed outline or I felt that the return on investment for the potential client needed to be more clearly highlighted.

So, open a Word document and spend 10 minutes creating a nice-looking proposal that includes a cover page, some branding, and those headings – one per page. Oh, and in many cases I use a fairly standard “Next Steps” page that includes a customizable sign-off and some contact information (so if you finish that page now, you may not have to write it again).

Up-front additional content development – Duration: 10 minutes

Next, you may want to pull together information that you think will help to support your position. I have a few pieces, but most of my additional resources are linked from the proposal to the web. A colleague of mine, though, has lots of downloadable stuff and he keeps it all consistently branded and sorted in the right filenames, so he can attach his proposal and the correct supporting documents quickly.

Okay, this might take more than 10 minutes if you have a lot of material but if you only have one or two pieces it won’t take long. Break it up over a couple of days if you need to.

That”s the up-front work you need to do. Now we get down to the actual proposal writing when you get a request for proposal.

Creating a proposal, day 1 – Duration: 10 minutes

Now, you”re ready to create a proposal. How you find out about the proposal doesn’t matter. Maybe you use a site that offers requests for proposal (RFPs) such as Guru.com or Elance.com (for freelancers), government RFP sites, job boards with contract positions, etc. Or, maybe someone just calls you up out of the blue and asks for one.

So, after you’ve reviewed the project details, sit down and write the Key Needs and Desired Outcomes page. This really does only take ten minutes. If it takes you longer, you’re spending too much time on it! Your potential customers usually know what many of their problems are, so the “key needs” section isn’t for their information but merely to show that you know. (And if you discern that they have additional key needs that they don’t realize, this isn’t the place to announce those things anyway).

That’s all you need to do on day 1. Now just let it percolate in your brain overnight. Chances are, you already know a few of the solutions you’re likely to offer but it doesn’t hurt to give yourself some extra time to sleep on it.

Creating a proposal, day 2 – Duration: 10 minutes

Now that you’ve had some time to sleep on it, write down your solutions. In many cases, that fastest way to do this is to create a 3-column or 4-column chart.

  • f I’m giving the client one single package of services with one price, my chart will simply have 3 columns: Solution, Details, and Time-line, and I’ll summarize the price in a paragraph at the end.
  • If I’m giving my client several options from which they can pick and choose (or if they have a budget but I don’t know the details), I will use 4 columns: Solution, Details, Timeline, and Price.

The Solution column simply names the solution: “Telephone Coaching”, for example. The Details column does two things: First it gives more detail about the telephone coaching in bullet points (“prescheduled”; “once a week”; “3 hour time blocks”). Second, it aligns the solution with desired outcome. So, for example, in a bullet or two I’ll show how telephone coaching aligns with the client’s desired outcome of better productivity. Maybe I’ll say something like: “Learn ongoing tools in an encouraging, guiding environment” or something related to an outcome mentioned earlier.

The time-line and (if included) price columns are fairly self explanatory. Be as detailed as you need to be. If you have just one deliverable, write just one due date into the time-line column. But if you have more, write more in the column.

Since you already know your solutions and you’ve had some time to think about what solutions will work best for your new client, you may only need ten minutes here. If you need longer, of course you should take it. However, the more you write proposals and the longer you’re in business, the faster you’ll get at identifying solutions to customer problems.

Wrap and send, day 3 – Duration: 10 minutes

On the third day, spend ten minutes proofreading everything and writing an executive summary. Keep the executive summary short and don’t say anything in it that you don’t say elsewhere. (It”s a SUMMARY). I’d suggest just two paragraphs of summary – perhaps three paragraphs for a 10 page proposal, but don’t do much more than that!

Once you’ve done all that, proofread it one more time (or get someone else, like a virtual assistant to proofread and send out the proposal).

That’s it! Effective, results-generating proposals in small, actionable 10 minute steps. It’s worth the time to do the up-front work and then to create shorter, semi-customized proposals. Soon, you’ll be proposing on more projects than you thought possible! Better go back and read the time management Tips In Ten so you can find the time to handle more work.

Heather Recommends:

I love working with coaches, freelancers, and entrepreneurs to help them become more successful. If you'd like to improve your business, find out how I can help.

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