I’m going to tell you right now that if your approach to writing a project proposal consists of looking for a generic template online, filling it in, sending it, and hoping that you’ll get the project, it most likely won’t work.
Not only do you need to be a bit more strategic when thinking about how to write a project proposal, but there are a couple of additional steps that I suggest you take that will have a dramatic impact on your ability to get the client.
Today we’re going to go over what to include when writing a project proposal, an important aspect that people often don’t consider, (and which can completely ruin your chances of getting the project), and two steps which you should take, one right after you become aware of the request for proposal (RFP), and one immediately after submitting your project proposal, both of which can improve your chances of winning the project.
Now. Note that this approach is mostly based on my experience writing project proposals for consulting, for very large companies, and these consulting RFPs usually had budgets over the 6 figures mark, so it paid off to put a lot of work into writing the proposals.
Therefore, what I’m going to go over, is the way of answering an RFP that will give you the best chances of winning a high-ticket projects. Unless you’re trying to sell to government institutions that only allow you to fill in standardized forms. In which case, you cannot do most of what I’m about to suggest.
But for any other situation in which you are free to submit your proposals with some degree of freedom, I believe this to be a good approach. Because regardless of the industry that you’re in, at the end of the day, we’re all selling to humans, and people tend to behave in surprisingly similar ways.
But let’s jump into it, shall we?
Steps to write a project proposal
An interesting thing that I have noticed, is that the process of getting a project has at least as much to do with what you do before you start writing the proposal, as it does with the proposal that you finally submit.
And there’s a bit of homework that must be done after answering the RFP too, so I’m going to split this post in 3 sections:
Let’s then start with what you should do as soon as you become aware of the request for proposal.
What to do before you start writing a project proposal
The first thing to do when receiving an RFP from a potential client, is try to talk to them.
And there are several reasons for this:
- The first one, is that you want to make sure that you understand the RFP. There is no room for different interpretations here.
- The second, which is a super important one, is that you want to establish a personal relationship with the person who can hire you. You need to start building trust as soon as possible.
Because people buy from those they trust. Put yourself in the client’s shoes. When they are looking to hire someone to deliver a project, clients are afraid of making a wrong decision.
They don’t want to spend their money on a project that does not deliver the results that they were hoping for, or on a professional that won’t deliver on their promises. They are terrified of making a poor decision, and ending up without their money (if their buying the project for themselves), or of looking like incompetent idiots with very poor judgement (if they’re using an employer’s funds).
So, one of the first things that you can do to make sure you improve your chances of getting a project, is do whatever ou can to help the potential client feel less scared about choosing you.
- Then, another thing you want to get out of this initial contact with the potential client, is understanding what their goals really are.
You see… what the client really wants, may not be well reflected in the RFP. Writing a good RFP isn’t always easy, especially if the person writing it does not fully understand the area of work for which they’re buying the project. Potential clients may think they are communicating their needs just fine, when in fact, they don’t even understand what they really need to begin with.
So by understanding the real need, you may get an opportunity to suggest a different approach to achieving the desired outcome that the client didn't think of, setting you apart from the competition, and making your RFP response, much stronger.
But there’s still a couple more things that you want to understand before submitting your proposal.
- And the next one, will be understanding who else, apart from the person requesting the proposal, is involved in the purchase decision-making process.
Because… is there anyone else that your proposal needs to convince so that you’re hired, this person's wishes and concerns are relevant too, and you should try to address them in your proposal. Sometimes people who do not seem to be directly involved in the purchase, actually have a very high degree of influence over de apparent decision-maker.
- And lastly, before you even start answering an RFP and writing an amazing, project-winning proposal, you should ideally get a feeling regarding the available budget.
This is a tough one, I know. You may not ever get an answer.
But you should try to get at least a rough idea. After all, there is no point in investing your scarce time into writing a project proposal to build a Ferrari if your client has the budget to buy a scooter. And vice versa. You assume the client wants a scooter, and they’re actually looking for a Ferrari.
Note that sometimes people don’t want to disclose their budget because they’re afraid that you’ll stuff the project to get as much money out of them as you possibly can. But if this becomes a problem, you can always explain that you will still offer a quote for a lean option, but that knowing how much the client can spend will allow you to submit a proposal that maximizes the value achievable for the available amount. You may still not get an answer, but no harm in trying…
Unfortunately, setting a meeting or a call will not always possible, but it's always worth the try.
After all, you may go from a situation in which your proposal goes from having to be the main seller of you project, to one in which the client is already interested in working with you, and the only thing that the proposal needs to do, is not ruin the sales work that you already did.
But it’s now finally time to see how to answer an RFP, and write a winning project proposal.
How to write a project proposal: content
I would suggest that you include 8 sections in your proposal. Let’s go over my suggested project proposal outline, shall we?
Section 1: Why your company.
Clients have little time to go through proposals, so you must put your best foot forward and convince them that your proposal is worth reading.
Include answers to typical questions the client may have, such as: For how long have you guy been doing this? How many similar projects have you done? If not exactly similar, how many in the same area? Can you provide a list of impressive client names? Can you show a portfolio if applicable?
I’m aware that for confidentiality reasons you may not be able to mention past client names. I never was. But you can still prepare anonymized examples of past projects.
And if you have little or no experience?
Well, in that case, jump right over to the next section.
Section 2: Describe the context.
The next section in your project proposal, will be a description of the situation that the client is in, of the challenges faced, and of potential consequences deriving from those challenges.
People buy projects to achieve a desired future state. Either they’re trying to get something, or they’re trying to avoid something, or both. But there’s something that’s not quite right, or they wouldn’t need to buy the project to begin with.
Show that you understand the client's aspirations and potential pains.
And try to include three things:
- A description of the current situation the client is in. That is, describe the context: either the opportunity that can be seized but which the client cannot seize without help, or the threat that the client is facing, or both.
Sometimes, when the client isn’t an expert in your area, they may not be fully aware of all the opportunities and threats in front of them.
So you can use this section to show your expertise in your area of work, and that you understand exactly what the client is going through. If they see that you really understand their situation, they’re a lot more likely to believe that you will be able to help.
The point with this, is to both show off your knowledge regarding your area of work, but also to highlight aspects that will motivate to action. Clients know they are pursuing something, but they may not be fully aware of the extent of the opportunity or of the risks lying ahead.
- The second thing to include in this section, would be a description of the challenges the potential client is facing.
Why may they not be able to take advantage of the opportunities lying ahead of them? What risks are they exposed to? What could go wrong in their pursuit of their goals, or in the process of mitigating the risks they’re trying to avoid?
The point here, is to agitate the client a bit, to intensify their motivation to act. The great thing about including this, is that again, it gives you a great opportunity to show how much you know about your area of work, and how well you understand the details that can result in outcomes that a less experienced service provider may not be aware of.
- Then, the third thing, would be to add a description of the potential consequences of not overcoming the challenges just mentioned. You want to remind the client of how much they have to lose if they don’t get this right.
You want potential clients to be fully aware of the importance of taking the correct next steps, and of working with the right service provider.
Being a bit of a fearmongerer in this section isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Now… I realize this may sound complicated, but if you’re putting together a proposal for a simple project, you can even do all this in a single slide with 3 columns, one for characteristics of the situation, one for challenges, and one for consequences. It can be that simple.
And now that we’ve hopefully freaked the potential client out by highlighting all that can go wrong, it’s time to move on to how we can save them from the impending doom.
And that’s why the next section in our proposal will be...
Section 3: Describe project goals and benefits.
This is when you will bring up how much the client has to gain if they buy this project. This is where you describe their envisioned future state when it comes to this area.
And following that, you will describe what needs to happen to achieve that desired future state; what things need to be put in place. Not how they will be put in place, just what. These are the concrete goals that the project will help achieve.
You can be as creative with this as you want, but again, if you’re doing this for a small project, you can again just use a couple of slides with 3 columns, in which you put the project goals in the first one, the project deliverables (that is, what the client will receive from you) in the second one, and finally, the benefits that the client will get from each of those deliverables in the third column.
Although… this is a key selling feature of your proposal. I’d invest a little time to get it properly done.
And it’s now time to move on to the next section in your business proposal:
Section 4: Describe your methodology
Here, you will explain how you will approach solving the problem. How will you get to the desired outcome?
Go into detail regarding relevant aspects of what you will do, such as might be analysis methods, technologies used, etc. However, don't be too specific regarding how you do your work.
Remember that the potential client might just take your great proposal and approach a cheaper competitor to ask for a bid to do exactly the same. Sadly, this happens. And they don’t stop to think about how come you are suggesting this methodology that they apparently consider to be superior, and your competitor isn’t. That should be kind of a clue.
But sometimes people are just looking to save some money, and they don’t realize that the quality may not be exactly the same. So they approach less qualified people and ask “Can you do this?” Sure.
To prevent this, you want your client to get an idea of what you'll do, but you don't want to go into enough detail as to teach your competitors how to do something that sounds like it’s the same (even if it isn’t).
Section 5: List what is included, and what is not.
Defining exactly what the deliverables are is key to manage client expectations (they have to be managed before the project is bought if you want happy clients), and to avoid scope creep later on.
And just as important as listing what is included, is listing what is not.
You don't want you and your client to have different assumptions regarding scope. Get any potential misunderstandings out of the way at the very beginning.
Section 6: Propose a timeline.
It should be specific about important milestones, such as partial deliverables, rates of completion, project phases, important client decision-making dates, etc.
And be extra clear regarding what is expected from the client by when, to meet the target dates. Whether you will need information, resources, or decisions, the client must understand that delays on their part, will delay the overall timeline.
And don't forget to factor in holidays. You might even be willing to work through them, but your client and any third parties involved may not.
Section 7: State the project cost.
I personally believe that in some cases, it may be a good idea to offer two quotes:
One would be a "Lean" project quote, which would include the basic activities to get a minimally functioning solution for the client. This one is important if you know that the available budget is low, or if you promised a lean option in exchange for budget information.
But depending on the situation, I could add an additional quote. In some cases that could be:
Alternative A: A "comprehensive" project quote. This would be roughly the same project, but done in a more robust way.
This one would only be included when it would be the perfect project solution, but you already know that it is pushing the available budget.
This would be used in cases when using different budgets could have implications regarding the methodology to perform the work already in scope. For example, it would allow to use more expensive technologies, more meetings and revisions, stronger sample sizes, etc.
And in some situations, you may want to include alternative B, which would consist of showing a price per additional project module which is out of scope in the "lean project" version, but that the client might be interested in, because it would be a more complete solution.
In this case, the additional budget wouldn’t be put towards doing the same project with a higher degree of quality, but towards doing more work. In other words, it would be put towards increasing the project scope.
Alternative C would be to offer both alternatives. Just be careful to not offer more than 3 alternatives. Ever. That just creates confusion, and the client may not ever hire you because of the fear of making the wrong decision.
But why would I suggest opening this can of worms of showing more than one price quote to begin with?
Well… in my opinion, showing the different quotes has several benefits that compensate for the added complexity.
- The first one, is that if you promised to show a lean option, you must keep your word, while still trying to sell a more robust project.
- Then, when you know that budget is a problem, you can show the client the difference between their dream project and the one that they can realistically afford.
Clients always want the moon, but sometimes they don’t have the budget to buy even an acre of land. This helps them see the gap between what they want to invest, and what what they’d like to buy actually costs. That’s why we’d even include alternative A, the one with the higher quality project, already knowing that there’s no budget for it.
- Then, another big advantage, is that the cost of additional items is specified from the beginning.
This not only strengthens the message that these items are out of scope, but also shows that they have a value, and that they can't just be offered for free. Sometimes clients expect all kinds of freebies thrown in; they tell you that you need to be flexible.
This way of showing prices helps prevent that type of attitude; because we must start preventing scope creep before we even walk in the door. We may willingly let it creep a tiny little bit if we’re charging premium prices (flexibility and stuff; going the extra mile is kind of factored-in in the price), but we cannot ever let it get out of hand.
- And finally, showing several optionsgives your client the opportunity to seek additional funding for the project if one of the out-of-scope tasks is really important for them.
In case the funds cannot be raised right now, this still opens the door for a follow up project in the future.
And finally, the last thing before moving on to what to do after writing the proposal:
Section 8: Include the CV of key project team members.
Not the entirety of the CVs, of course. Just a couple bullet points with highlights that are relevant for the project and likely to positively impress your client.
In case you’re a freelancer without a team, there’s no need for this section, since the “why your company” at the beginning is already about you. Unless you have little experience and went straight into the problem description. In that case, this is where you’d talk about you.
And finally, let’s talk about some additional notes, and things and you should do after you summit your proposal, to increase your chances of winning the project.
Additional notes and next steps
The format of the business proposal matters.
People are busy and will skim. Therefore, you should make the proposal as easy to read as possible.
Avoid long text paragraphs and highlight the most important aspects. Make it easy to find the information that you want the potential client to see.
When possible, use tables and graphics to structure the information to make it easier to understand and skim through.
And if due to the nature of the project a lot of detailed technical specifications are needed, put them in an appendix.
This is especially important if several people will evaluate the proposal, and not all of them understand these aspects. Don't cut the flow for everyone. Especially if you’re dealing with senior people (role, not age). They don’t have the time to read small print.
And then, there are a couple of important steps to take when sending your answer to the RFP.
Important steps after submitting your business proposal
The first one, is that when sending your proposal, don't forget to offer to go through it in a call. That will give you the chance to explain details that might otherwise be overlooked or not well understood.
Also, ask whether there is anything the client would like to change.
Requests for changes in scope and timeline are typical. Do try to accommodate the requests, but do not set yourself up to fail by committing to impossible timelines.
The client will never remember that they were the ones who pushed you to accept an unrealistic timeline, and that you had reservations. They’ll hold you to the timeline you accept, and forget that they were the ones who insisted, and that you weren’t completely convinced.
And don't forget to offer to explain complex aspects of the proposal to any stakeholder that is less likely to understand the benefits that the project will bring.
This is especially important if the person requesting the proposal needs to sell the idea to another person. If that’s the case, working together with your direct client will get you better chances.
I’ve had clients help me selling a project to their bosses. Seriously. I did a specific type of project that required the global company CEO to be on board. And these were very large companies. So, that’s how these situations came about. But you just sell the project as well as you can to your direct client, and once they are convinced, allow them to help you selling it to other people involved in the decision. They know who they’re dealing with, and what matters most to them, and you don’t.
Now… this may seem like a lot. I know; it actually is. But if you do the same type of project over and over, you can usually reuse the self-promotional part of the proposal, so it makes sense to put some effort into getting it right, because you just have to create it from scratch once, and and then you can adapt from one RFP to the next.
Also, keep in mind that a good business proposal is the one that not only gets you the project, but also avoids future issues with scope creep and misaligned expectations. Remember that you want to get the project, but also to complete it successfully, while keeping your clients happy. And your sanity, whenever possible.
Anyway, I hope it helps!