Here’s what this guide will cover (click to jump ahead):
An effective business proposal is a document used by a B2B or business-facing company (this may not always be the case) where a seller aims to persuade a prospective buyer into buying their goods or services.
What are the types of business proposals?
1. Formally solicited
In this scenario, you know all the requirements and have more (if not all) information about a prospective buyer. You simply need to write the business proposal for your buyer to evaluate so you can begin the sales process.
2. Informally solicited
Informally solicited business proposals are written when there isn’t an official request for a proposal. A prospective buyer is interested in your services and asks for a proposal so they can evaluate it.
An informally solicited proposal requires a lot more research from your end. These types of proposals are usually created out of informal conversations. They are not based on official requests which often contain more detail.
Think of this as a marketing brochure or a cold email. Unsolicited business proposals will often take a generic, one-size-fits-all approach to business proposals. Unsolicited proposals lack any understanding of the buyer or their requirements.
But with additional market research, personalization and identifying customer pain points, you can propose a customized solution based on your buyer’s needs. This can be a very persuasive approach, such as in this business proposal example:
What are the types of business proposals?
- Formally solicited proposals. This describes proposals wherein the business you’re hoping to work with has formally asked you to submit a proposal. They’re usually written in response to published requirements from the business looking for proposals. Typically, this is the result of a publicly posted request for proposals, where a prospective client is going through many proposals and finding the best one.
- Informally solicited proposals. Informally solicited proposals typically occur following conversations between a prospective client and a vendor. Usually, the customer in this case is not asking for competing proposals and there tends to be fewer formal requirements.
- Unsolicited proposals. These proposals tend to be more generic in nature, acting as a sort of marketing brochure. Unsolicited proposals are typically used at trade shows or other public venues, where a business is shopping around for prospective clients.
1. Title page
The title page acts as your proposal’s “cover,”, so it’s especially important in terms of aesthetics. Your title page should convey a couple of pieces of basic information about your business and the proposal, such as the title of the proposal, your business’ name, contact information, and the date you’re submitting the proposal (or the date the proposal is crafted, in the case of unsolicited proposals).
Your title page should be professional, but should still seek to grab the reader’s attention and draw them in. It’s pivotal in setting the tone of your proposal, so, like any advertisement, it should convey your brand’s aesthetics and character. It’s usually a good idea to include your company logo somewhere too.
This is the first thing your client will see, so it’s important to convey your brand and proposal in a way that’s succinct, yet specific. Think of it like any visual content: viewers will only glance at it for a brief moment, so it must convey a lot of information very quickly.
Avoid complicated graphics that may distract from the central message of the proposal. Stylistically, it should be neat and clean. Here’s an example of what a well-designed title page might look like:
2. Table of contents
A table of contents will make it easier to navigate the contents of the document. It doesn’t necessarily need to be the first page (occasionally, it follows the cover letter), but it definitely should be one of the first pages.
A good strategy is to have the items on your list reflect specific pain points or questions the reader may have so that it’s easy for them to use the table of contents as a reference point for all their questions.
3. Cover letter
Your cover letter should be friendly and polite—don’t forget your pleases and thank yous. Leave your contact information and encourage your readers to reach out to you with any questions.
4. Executive summary
The executive summary may be the most important part of your proposal. An executive summary provides details about why you’re sending the proposal and your methodology for why you’re the best option for the client to choose from.
Executive summaries summarize, but they should still be specific. Identify the client’s exact issues, explain what your company does, and outline your proposed solutions to the client’s problems.
More detailed information will follow in the rest of the proposal, so while it shouldn’t be too detailed, it should still be specific. There’s no need to cover logistics or strategies here, but it should still offer a specific solution to a specific problem.
Your executive summary should be finely tuned to the client’s needs. Even if you’re passing the proposal document on to many potential clients, it should read as though it was written for one client specifically. If potential customers have different problems, you’ll want to make adjustments to your executive summary for each of them.
Be mindful of your tone here as well. A company that rents out party buses for college students will expect a very different tone from a company offering financial advice to seniors.
Your executive summary should give the reader a clear idea of how your company can help them, and invite them to continue reading for more details. The summary should be specific enough to act as a standalone document but brief enough that it will inspire additional questions.
5. Proposal pages: problems and solutions
The proposal pages will make up a majority of your business proposal. In this section, you’ll want to go into more detail about the solutions you offered in your executive summary. Your summary explained what you can do and why you’re the ideal client to do it. In the proposal pages, you’ll cover how you plan on doing it and when it can be done (a time frame).
What goes into a business proposal?
Your business proposal should start with a title page, which should include your name, the name of your company, the name of the person to whom you’re submitting your proposal, and the date submitted.
Table of contents
Depending on how long your business proposal is, a table of contents is a nice touch. Include it after your title page, and before you launch into any details. If you’re delivering it as a PDF, including anchor links down to each section, so it’s easy to get to specific areas.
Introduce your proposal with a great executive summary, one that really sells your business and the products or services you provide—it’s about why you’re the right company for the job. You can draw from your business plan’s executive summary here, too.
Statement of problem, issue, or job at hand
Following your executive summary, go on to discuss the problem that the client is currently facing. Think of “problem” or “issue” loosely; after all, their main problem may just be finding the right person to complete their project. But be sure you understand why they want the product or service they’re seeking. If the proposal is for developing a brand new website, make sure you understand what they want to get out of the site—better sales, more content management flexibility.
This is the place to show your new client that you understand their needs, and fully grasp the issue they are trying to solve. Take this opportunity to restate the issue they are facing in your own words so that they know you understand what they are looking for.
Approach and methodology
This is where you’ll get into the nitty-gritty of how you actually plan to fulfill your client’s needs. While earlier sections might have been a bit surface-level, this section of the business proposal is where you’ll go into detail about what steps you’ll take to solve their problem.
Be careful of going into too much detail, though—keep the jargon to a minimum. Your client should be able to follow along and get a clear sense of your plan, but you don’t want to drown them in minutiae.
Schedule and benchmarks
Making sure you and your prospective client are on the same page from the outset will help make sure that the relationship stays positive for both of you, and that you don’t set your client up with unrealistic expectations.
If you’re offering a product, this section might not be applicable to you, so feel free to omit it. The business proposal format is flexible, so tailor it to suit your business and industry.
Cost, payment, and any legal matters
How you structure this section will largely depend on the particular project or service you are offering. A section entitled “Fee Summary” may be sufficient if one-time payment is required; otherwise, a “Fee Schedule” list or pricing table might be more appropriate. Always refer back to the client’s RFP whenever possible, to make sure you’re supplying them with all the information they need to help make their decision.
If there are any legal issues to attend to, such as permits or licensing, include this information here. Feel free to add a section entirely devoted to handling the legal side of the project if need be.
How long should a business proposal be?
When it comes to the format of a business proposal, this is the million-dollar question without an answer. Remember in school, when you’d ask your teacher how long an essay should be, and they’d reply, “as long as it takes to answer the question.”
The same applies to your business proposal. It ultimately depends on your industry, the scope of the project, and the client’s specifications in terms of detail and elements included.
That being said, the tighter your initial proposal can be and the more directly you can make your point, the easier it will be to pitch it to clients. Start by following the business proposal format above as a guide, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a winning business proposal—and securing new clients.
Briana is a content and digital marketing specialist, editor, and writer. She enjoys discussing business, marketing, and social media, and is a big fan of the Oxford comma. Bri is a resident of Portland, Oregon, and she can be found, infrequently, on Twitter.