Power Up Your Proposal

Here's what it takes to get a potential client to say yes to your pitch

You’ve got a top-notch product, superior manpower, and enough business acumen to rival your toughest competitors. Still, the best and biggest contracts continue to elude you.

Chances are, your business is popping, but your business proposals aren’t. You may need to check your writing skills. It all boils down to how well you can communicate your services, experts say. What can you do better than the rest? How much more value can you provide the customer? And, ultimately, did that come through in your proposal?

Proposal writing is a vital skill that many business owners haven’t mastered. If it were up to David Pugh, every B-school in the country would offer a program on the process.

“It’s truly a black hole in the business curriculum,” says Pugh, who co-wrote Powerful Proposals: How to Give Your Business the Winning Edge (AMACOM; $24.95), a seven-step tutorial that attempts to fill the gap. Through their company, Lore International Institute, Pugh and partner Terry Bacon have been helping companies develop and win contracts for the past 20 years.

The biggest mistake business owners make, Pugh says, is leaving out important details. “The very DNA of a proposal is that it is a sales document. You must describe the benefits and the features,” he says. “Customers buy what [a product] will do for them.”

A flawless proposal worked wonders for Maynard Smith, whose company, CAM Systems in Clinton, Maryland, landed a deal with the FBI in October 2004. CAM Systems is a contractor specializing in engineering, information technology, recruiting, and logistics. Over the next year, the FBI is paying Smith’s company to recruit minorities for various jobs.

Smith toiled over his proposal for nine months and says a combination of cost, value, and experience gave CAM Systems the edge. Preparation also played a part. But Pugh says many business owners write before they’re ready.

In fact, the plan outlined in Pugh and Bacon’s book is intended to postpone the writing until the end. Ideally, by the final stage, the business owner is better equipped to begin.

Got your mind set on a new contract?
Before you start to scribe, review this snapshot of tips from Powerful Proposals:

  • Determine the content. What does the request for proposal ask for? Address your customer’s needs in detail. Your willingness to customize sets you apart from the competition.
  • Write the text. Now you can begin to draft a proposal that will knock the competition out of the water.
  • Deliver proof. What evidence can you provide to show you’re capable of following through on your proposal? Include details such as experience, revenues, size, product features, or customer base.
  • Organize the content. In a reader-friendly way, outline your proposal with headings such as Theme Statement, Opening, Middle Paragraphs, Closing Paragraphs, and Sidebars.
  • Develop visuals. Communicate as much as you can graphically, preferably your top idea or selling point.
  • Create a mock-up. More than an outline, a mock-up of your proposal will help you create the best-looking document possible. See it first, so you
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