Whether you’re writing a proposal in response to a request for proposal (RFP) or trying to set yourself apart from others competing for a contract, take care with what you include and how you sell your services with your proposed solution. I’ll outline the necessary components of a formal proposal and tell you how to approach an informal proposal. I’ll also discuss what happens after you submit the proposal and what to do if you’re asked for your best and final offer.

Second in a series

This is the second article in a series that discusses strategies for submitting proposals to potential clients. The previous article discussed the makeup of an RFP and sources for RFPs on the Web.

What to include in a formal proposal
A formal proposal, such as one you would submit in response to an RFP, should always start with a title page, a table of contents, and an executive summary or abstract of the proposal. After this introduction, include the following main sections, titled as appropriate for the project and further subdivided, as necessary:

Introduction: Break this into two parts. First, introduce yourself and your organization, if applicable, and summarize your qualifications. (You’ll go into greater depth later.) Second, introduce the issues by summarizing your understanding of the client’s problem.

Discussion of the problem: Extend the second part of the introduction here with the goal of demonstrating your comprehension of the issues. Analyze the requirements established in the RFP and briefly discuss the possible approaches to solving the problem. Finally, explain the approach you propose and why it is the best solution.

Proposed project: Detail exactly how you intend to deliver the solution. Don’t limit it to a discussion of the technology. Provide the specifics of the implementation, including:

  • All major phases, tasks, and the expected results.
  • Schedules for all of the above.
  • Functions; if you’ll be working with a staff or a colleague, specify duties.
  • A detailed cost analysis, breaking down your direct and indirect costs, covering supplies, labor, and other expenses.

Experience: Go further into your qualifications, providing the following:

  • Your resume and those of other key players, if applicable
  • A description of your resources, such as office facilities and equipment
  • A summary of past projects relevant to the proposed solution (For example, you could outline a brief case study that notes how much money you saved another client with a similar approach.)

Appendices: If necessary, attach as appendices any material that isn’t directly relevant but supports the proposal. This is the appropriate place for letters of recommendation from previous clients or reports or studies to reinforce claims you’ve made elsewhere.

Use flowcharts and graphics where appropriate throughout the proposal for elements such as organizational charts, milestones, and implementation phases. These visual aids help keep reader attention and reinforce your text.

For all but the largest projects, your proposal is likely to be between 25 and 50 pages. I’ve found that the discussion of the technology and the implementation description and schedules take up the largest amount of space.

If you’re truly knowledgeable about how you plan to solve the client’s needs, you’ll find that writing the description goes quickly. If you find yourself at a loss to explain your solution, it’s likely that you need to tweak the solution, not the proposal.

How to write a less formal proposal
An extended proposal isn’t appropriate in every circumstance. At those times, you still want to include some of the elements from a formal proposal, but you can do so in a less formal manner. If you’re summarizing a solution after a few meetings with a client instead of responding to an RFP, consider submitting what’s called a letter proposal. (It is so called because it resembles a long letter.) In this approach, you explain your qualifications and offer a detailed outline of your solutions.

With the letter proposal, you don’t need to use as many graphics and you may not want to go into as much detail in a cost analysis. Depending on how much you know about the project, you may suggest a price range rather than a fixed price.

After the proposal
So you labored away and submitted your proposal—now what? Generally, an RFP notes the date by which a contract will be awarded. It’s possible that the client will contact you in the meantime and may even invite you to meet with him or her or give a presentation on your proposal. This can indicate that you’re in contention for the contract, or the client may be asking this of all who have submitted proposals.

It also isn’t unusual for a client to ask you for a “best and final offer.”  In such  instances, the client has probably narrowed the field to a few consultants and is looking for the absolute best deal. As an ethical consultant, you probably already put forth your best and final offer in your proposal, based on the information the client made available in the RFP. So you have the following options in the face of such a request:

  • Stand by your original price in the proposal.
  • Lower your price with no reduction in your scope of work.
  • Lower your price but also reduce the amount of work you’ll do.

Every time one of my clients has been asked for a best and final offer on a proposal I’ve authored, I’ve recommended that we let the potential client know that we can reduce the bid price if we’re provided with a list of the requested services to omit from the scope of work.

You can do the same: Pore over the RFP and identify the bells and whistles the client would like to have but doesn’t consider necessities. Then submit a new cost analysis, along with a revised work plan in the form of a line-item list, showing the client how much you’re cutting from the price right next to the services or deliverables he or she will give up. Usually, the client opts for the bells-and-whistles package after all.

Alternatively, if the client has met with me and provided information above and beyond what I based my cost analysis on, I might adjust my price but make sure the client understands why.

Meredith Little runs WriteWork, a documentation consulting business she started in 1998. Based in Colorado, the company provides procedural documentation, knowledge management expertise, and solutions such as user manuals and online help to IT companies nationwide.