Writing a business proposal is something that few new business owners know how to do when starting a business. In the early stages, you’re focused on your product, your business plan, and getting everything up and running, which often makes creating a business proposal one of the last things on your mind.
But a business proposal is actually more important than you might realize. Even if you don’t have an immediate use for your business proposal, it can help create a plan of action for your business, secure funding, identify the strengths and weaknesses of your brand, and act as a reference point for the direction of your business.
Whether you’re looking to do business with another company or just want to create a business proposal for prospective clients, here’s our guide on how to create a well-written business proposal that can help you generate revenue for your business.
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What is a business proposal?
A business proposal is a document sent to prospective clients in the hopes of working with them on a project—whether it be a partnership or wanting to be the company who helps with a specific project. A business proposal can range from something smaller in scope (providing an SEO strategy document for example) or something large like running a company’s marketing efforts for them.
Business proposals can range in the topics they cover, depending on the nature of the involved businesses and your proposed solution.
At the most basic level, business proposals are about addressing the needs of prospective clients and showing them why your company is the best to fit those needs. For businesses focused on B2B services especially, knowing how to write an effective business proposal is crucial to growth.
What are the types of business proposals?
Business proposals can vary depending on the service and nature of the project proposal, but they typically fall into three distinct categories.
- Formally solicited proposals. This describes proposals where 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. Your job here would then be to create a proposed solution based on the specific needs of a potential client or customer.
- Informally solicited business 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 business 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. While they can generate business to some extent, unsolicited business proposals can sometimes be seen as spammy or, worse, unprofessional.
Not all proposals will fit neatly into these categories. There are proposals that might start off formally solicited but then be adapted into unsolicited proposals. But having a high-level understanding of each of the three common types will help you adjust where needed.
How to write a business proposal
Business proposals can vary slightly in how they’re formatted, but there are a couple of crucial elements that all business proposals should have. You can always compare your proposals with a free business proposal template to ensure you’re on the right track.
In general you’ll want to follow these steps.
1. Create your 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. If you’re putting together a social media marketing proposal for example, try and incorporate your social media marketing skill set when creating your proposal.
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 business proposal might look like.
2. Compile a 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.
Your contents page should be chronological. Avoid getting too granular with items on the list, because this will come off as noisy and overwhelming.
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. Write a cover letter
Not to be confused with your title page, your cover letter serves as an introduction of yourself. Some proposals might even include the cover letter before the table of contents as a way of setting up the entire proposal.
Your cover letter should be short and no more than one page. In a few paragraphs, briefly describe your company’s background, mission statement, and unique selling proposition.
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.
Unlike a résumé cover letter, visual graphics are encouraged, especially if they illustrate an important aspect of your brand’s accomplishments or mission.
4. Write the 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.
Your executive summary acts similarly to a value proposition that makes your company different and how your prospective client will benefit from working with you.
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 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 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.
Your executive summary should be about two to four pages, but try to keep it short if your overall proposal isn’t very long. Remember that the details will come later.
5. Outline your customers’ problem and your company’s solution
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).
When writing your proposal pages, it helps to consider what questions your client will have and provide them with detailed answers.
Many writers of business proposals think of their proposal pages in terms of problems and solutions. With each proposal, start by outlining the potential issues the client might face. In doing this, you’ll show your potential clients that you have a deep understanding of their needs.
Problem and solution pages require a lot of research. You want to show potential clients that you’ve done your homework: you understand the client’s needs and know exactly what they’re setting out to do.
How you choose to break down the client’s problems and solutions is up to you. Some proposal document writers will list a number of problem statements alongside detailed deliverables. Other proposals might focus on one or two larger problems and provide a list of solutions to them.
Timetables are also important here. Potential clients will want to know how quickly you’ll be able to enact your solution and when they can expect to see results. Timetables answer these questions and, as a bonus, they’re also a handy visual tool that break-up text while conveying important information.
Your own proposal will need to break down problems and solutions in a way that’s appealing to your prospective client and makes sense for your industry, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this section.
That being said, it’s generally a good idea to break up your proposal content into sections that specifically identify each problem and propose a solution. Here are some key points to address for each section:
- The problem. Use data to back up your claims, and be specific about where your client may be falling short of their goals.
- Implementation. Explain in detail what changes you plan on making, how long it will take to make these changes, and the purpose of making these changes.
- Goals. Explain how you will evaluate the success of your solution and when your client can expect to see results from the changes you’ve implemented.
- Benefits. Draw upon the assessment of the problem and explain the nature of the impact these changes will make.
Your proposal pages should cover all of the details of the plans you will implement. It’s best to break down the text into bite-sized chunks so it’s easier to read. Decorative graphics should be avoided here, but visual tools like charts and graphs are great for illustrating your points.
6. Create a pricing table
Your pricing table should follow your problem and solution pages. It will include all of your products and services, paired with their pricing information.
>How you structure your pricing strategy is largely dependent on the type of service you’re offering. That said, it’s usually a good idea to provide prospective clients with options. A single flat fee makes your proposal a yes or no question, which is easy to reject.
Adding pricing options provides clients with a more negotiable starting point, opening up the conversation about their particular needs, rather than acting as an end point.
Your pricing structure should be formatted in a table that’s easy to read. Offer recurring payment options, both monthly and yearly. Give discounted rates for long-term commitments. Offer add-ons, upgrades, and options. Transparency is crucial in this section. Make sure it’s easy for your clients to understand what they’re paying for and what options they have for customizing your service. Nobody likes hidden fees or fine-print stipulations. Include all the details of your pricing options in a way that’s clear and concise.
Depending on the type of business you’re in, you may not want to include your pricing upfront before serious discussions have been had, but it’s important to get into the habit of effectively communicating your pricing regardless.
PROPOSAL TIP: Some proposal software tools offer responsive pricing tables that allow your clients to adjust their plan to fit their needs and automatically recalculates their total.
Learn more: Psychological Pricing: What Your Prices Really Say to Customers
7. Share more information about your company
Like an About Us page on your website, your business proposal’s About Us page should share the story of your business, with you, the founder, as that story’s main character. A good About Us page should be brief, but still contain all the elements of a compelling narrative:
- Setting. Set the scene: introduce the story’s protagonist(s), yourself, and your co-founders, and describe how you came together to form your business.
- Conflict. What problem inspired you to start your business? Describe the issue your business identified and set out to solve.
- Plot. How did you and your team set out to find the solution to your problem? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
- Resolution. What was your solution? How has it changed your industry? What milestones have you hit and how did your business set out to solve the problem?
- Characters. Introduce the rest of your team. Offer brief bios of your team members and introduce your clients to the people they’ll be working with on your project.
- Denouement. What comes next? Describe what you see in your company’s future. Talk about how you intend to continue pursuing your goals. Make sure to set yourself up for a good sequel.
8. Summarize your qualifications
In your cover letter, you touched on what makes your company uniquely qualified to solve your customers’ problems. In the qualifications summary, you’ll be going into detail about why your business is best qualified to help potential customers achieve their goals.
The best qualifications summaries rely on social proof to make their case. Include case studies of previous clients, customer testimonials, praise on social media, endorsements from trusted experts in your field, and anything else that might showcase the value you provide your clients.
For example, Omsom, a shop that sells delicious Asian sauce starters that help people make speedy restaurant-quality dinners, includes endorsements from Vice, CNN, and Vogue on its homepage.
9. Lay out the terms of the agreement
At the end of your marketing proposal, you’ll want to clarify the offer you’re making to your clients by outlining the terms and conditions of your proposal. Proposals may be considered legally binding contracts in some jurisdictions, so it’s best to work with a legal expert in crafting this section.
Not all business proposals include a legally binding contract, so if your proposal is meant to draw your client into further negotiations, you might just include a simple call to action that provides instructions on following up with you for further negotiation.
If you do include a legally binding contract, make sure to provide clients with a space for signing the agreement, or indicating their preferred method of moving forward.
After sending: tips on how to follow up
It can be a little nerve-wracking waiting to hear back from clients during the sales process, but it’s important to remain patient. Give potential decision makers some time—remember that they still need to tend to the day-to-day functions of their business.
If you haven’t heard back and want to give potential clients a little nudge, here are some tips for following up on your proposal:
- Give them time. Wait at least a week before sending a follow-up. If they’ve confirmed receipt of your proposal, give them a week from the date of confirmation. Keep in mind that they may want to discuss it with their team before reaching back out to you.
- Grab their attention with a good subject line. As with other types of email marketing, a compelling subject line will increase the likelihood that they’ll open your email.
- Be brief. No need to go into finer details here—let your proposal do most of the talking. Use your follow-up to emphasize that you’re available for any questions, and make it easy for them to reach back out to you.
- Avoid high-pressure, salesy language. Your goal here is securing a partner, not a customer. Hacky advertising cliches like “Don’t miss out on this exciting opportunity!” will come off as alienating to potential clients.
- Be friendly, approachable, and authentic. Your follow-up is a good opportunity to preview what it will be like working with you. Be polite, but casual—as though you’re reaching out to your favorite work colleague.
- Know when to quit. It’s easy to overlook one or two emails, but much harder to overlook three or four. If your client hasn’t responded to the three follow-ups, it’s time to move on.
Where to find business proposal templates
If you’re just starting a business and have never written a business proposal before, it’s a good idea to take a look at a few of them to get an idea how they’re composed for different types of businesses. Here are some good places to find examples of templates and layouts to help you in business proposal writing.
- PandaDoc. PandaDoc boasts a wide library of over 167 free business proposal templates. Other features include interactive quote pages, contract templates, and e-signature capabilities.
- Canva. Among Canva’s wide variety of free design templates are a ton of free business proposal examples. Canva allows you to filter different proposal templates by style and theme, making it easy to find a template that matches your branding.
- Proposify/a>. Proposify offers a ton of templates for business proposals and business contracts that include features like electronic signatures, interactive client previews, language translation, and data metrics that help you track open rates—which is especially useful if you’re sending your proposal to multiple clients.
- Jotform. Jotform includes a wide collection of free and paid PDF templates for proposals in all kinds of industries, for all kinds of projects. Templates are converted into PDFs for easy printing, and even include a digital signature feature that allows your clients to sign your agreement digitally.
- Better Proposals. Better Proposals has a ton of free resources for business owners looking to learn more about how to write proposals. Along with business proposal templates, they also offer templates for quotes, contracts, and online brochures.
- Business Plan Template: A Practical Framework for Creating Your Business Plan
- The Road to Success: Business Plan Examples to Inspire Your Own
Don’t miss the opportunity to grow your small business
Working with clients is an incredible opportunity to grow your business. Not only because of the financial gains, but because building strong, working relationships in your industry will open up new avenues for growth and help build your reputation among your peers.
A lot of work goes into creating a business proposal, but learning how to compose an effective business proposal will set you up for years of success. No matter what industry you’re in, there will likely come a time when you’ll need to write a business proposal.
The more satisfied customers you have, the easier it will be to attract new clients. Each new opportunity at a partnership is a stepping stone toward continued success. Give some of these business proposal ideas a try today.
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Business proposal FAQ
How long should a business proposal be?
A business proposal should ideally be less than 10 pages where possible, but it’s largely dependent on the type of proposal you’re making and how far your services stretch. Things like your cover letter, summary, and pricing page should be kept short—no more than two pages for each. The majority of your proposal should be your proposal pages, which go into detail about each aspect of your proposal.
What are the different sections of a business proposal?
A basic business proposal consists of a titles page, tables of contents, cover letter, executive summary, proposal pages, pricing page, additional info about your business, and the agreement you’re proposing.
What is a basic business proposal?
A basic business proposal includes all of the elements listed above. Different industries may include unique features (for example, an app developer may include interactive elements to illustrate how their product works), but these aspects are considered standard features to business proposals.
How do you write a business proposal?
Start by choosing a template and considering what makes your business different from the competition, and why you’re in the best position to assist potential clients with their needs. Be specific about what you can help your potential clients with, and make it easy for them to find out how to get in contact with you if they have questions.