Whether you are responding to a request for proposal or offering an unsolicited proposal for services, remember what Kyocera founder, Kazuo Inamori, once observed: “No customer ever goes to a store merely to please the storekeeper.” Even when you must provide a large amount of information about your ability to service a project, focus on the customer’s needs, instructions and hot buttons. That way, your proposal’s tone, content and organization will fall into place responsively. Demonstrate a clear understanding of a customer’s business and highlight the benefits of using your services to pack a compellingly persuasive punch into your proposal.
Plan your content. If unspecified, ask the customer what factors she will consider in making a buying decision and then plan your proposal accordingly. At a minimum, address your understanding of a customer’s needs and what distinguishes you from your competition in terms of training, experience, capabilities and relationships. Also address your approach to resolving a customer's needs, along with how long it will take and how much it will cost.
Create an outline, which could later serve as your table of contents. If you are responding to a formal request for proposal, then follow its specific instructions. Otherwise, organize your information from what is most important to least important to a customer. For example, place résumés toward the beginning of a proposal for a new customer, or toward the end of your proposal for a repeat customer who is already familiar with your credentials.
Create a matrix that assigns one row to each section in your outline, and one column to each of the customer's areas of concern or selection criteria. Within each resulting cell, enforce the aspects of your qualifications and approach that address your customer’s hot buttons. Use this matrix to keep your content anchored to your customer’s needs and remind you of the points to be emphasized within each section.
Stress customer benefits consistently throughout your proposal for services. Always begin a section describing how a customer will either get what he values or wants, or avoid what he fears or dislikes, by using your services.
Provide evidence to support the claims you make in your proposal. For example, substantiate a successful track record with similar work with letters of recommendation, complimentary quotes or the contact information of satisfied customers.
Adopt an appropriate format and tone. Sometimes a formal letter will suffice, other times a lengthier document with tabbed sections is necessary. If unspecified, ask the customer how she would like to receive your information, and if she can lend you copies of past winning proposals to review.
Create easy-to-read material. Use short, coherent sentences within paragraphs of no more than 10 lines. Employ 10- to 12-point font size and liberally incorporate white space between sections and paragraphs. Use headings to help the customer skim, scan and easily locate information. Accentuate important points with graphics and visuals, and bold, italicized or underlined text.