Job InterviewI think I have an easier time with proposals than most small business owners because I was a proposal manager when I worked at Deloitte. I look at developing a proposal like working on a jigsaw puzzle. First, you find the edges, then look for the patterns, and slowly the whole thing starts to come together.

That said, I have seen my clients pull their hair out or get completely blocked and shut down when they need to submit proposals to their prospects. I thought I could provide a framework that might make it easier for you.

Here are the main sections that you will want to include in a basic proposal:

1. Date, Dear xxxx, and Thank You. This is the easy part. Just like you would with any correspondence, add in the date and the person (or people) you are addressing your proposal to. Then thank them for giving you the opportunity to present your proposal, and include a short summary about what you are proposing to do for them.

Example: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to help you and <company> with this assessment project to define business strategy, messaging, and associated projects for growth.

2. Our Understanding. This is where you recap what you heard the prospect say about their current situation and “pain points.” This shows the prospect that you were listening, and gives you the opportunity to add some context as well. Often there will be an introductory paragraph followed by some bullet points recapping the most important topics.

3. Why <insert your name or your company name>. You are telling the prospect why they should pick you. Include any relevant qualifications, including industry knowledge, similar types of projects completed, your professional background – whatever you think positions you well to give the prospect what they are looking for.

4. Process. The prospect will want to know how you are going to approach the project. This section could also be called “Approach.” To some extent the prospect will use this section to figure out how many hours it is going to take you to justify your price, if quoting a fixed price. Be detailed but don’t get too granular.

Example: If you decide to retain our services, we will go through the following steps:

  • We will review your current website, marketing materials, and any other related print and online content.
  • We will look for messaging disconnects, and identify possible ways to address these.
  • We will evaluate current branding and make suggestions for possible enhancements.
  • If necessary, we will schedule one or two 30-minute calls to answer any questions.

5. Timeline. Warning: All consultants underestimate the time it will take to do something. Add in 15-20 percent for time overruns and other projects getting in the way, and to give you some room for price negotiation. Every consultant on the planet has had to “eat time” – so try to manage against this.

5. Deliverables. What will the client be getting? How will you document your findings or what will you be creating for them? Be very specific.

Note: For longer projects you will want to add in specific deliverables that represent “milestones” and trigger payments for work up until that point. Cash flow is very important to the small business owner, and you don’t want to be waiting for all your money at the end – maybe for 30 days or longer!

6. Dependencies. You will be working your magic, but what will the prospect need to give you in order for you to do your part of the project? Insert what your success is contingent on. What kind of response time does the prospect need to commit to? 24 hours? 48 hours? Do they need to be available for phone calls? Make office space available? This is where a project can fail through no fault of yours. Cover your butt.

7. Not Included. It is just as important to let the prospect know what will NOT be included as what will be. You know that old joke about what happens when you assume….

8. Proposed Pricing. This is the total price for the project. It may be time and materials or a fixed price. If there is a discount, explain what it is and why you are providing it here. If there are milestones that trigger payments, don’t forget to add them here as well.

Example: The total cost for this assessment will be $650. As an investment in our relationship and as a “friend of Carol Roth,” we are prepared to offer a $150 discount – so the total investment would be $500.

9. Payment Terms. I strongly recommend getting an upfront payment to help cover some of your costs. I would aim to get half upfront if you can. This also helps ensure buy-in from the prospect. Also add in how you like to get paid and any terms like 14, 30, or 60 days.

Example: A deposit of $250 will be required to commence work. The balance will be payable immediately upon acceptance of deliverables defined above. Invoicing and payments will be completed through PayPal.

10. Moving Forward. Tell them again why they should choose you and that you are looking forward to working with them.

Example: I am very excited about this opportunity and am confident that this assessment project will generate a significant return on your investment. It is evident that <company> offers great value to its customers, but in order to grow your business, a better definition of WHAT you provide and the BENEFITS your customers receive from your <services> need to be more clearly articulated.

Thank you so much for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you and beginning this important project.

Best regards,

Over to You

I would urge you to keep your proposals on the shorter side. I aim to keep mine to two pages whenever possible. You also will probably want to attach your resume or bios for your team.

As you can see, there are only 10 sections that you need to include, and each section may only be a sentence or two. Happy hunting!

Now that I have dissected a basic proposal into its component parts, does it seem less overwhelming? I would love to hear if you found this helpful in the comments below.