Business proposals can be tricky. In some ways, they’re quite high risk. There’s a perception that they take a lot longer than other methods of selling, but with lower chances of success. At the same time, you pretty much can’t win a high-value contract without submitting a formal proposal.
Luckily, if there’s a problem with your proposals, it shouldn’t be hard to diagnose.
In this article, we’ll be looking at one of the most common proposal pain-points. The thing is, as someone writing business proposals, you obviously know a lot about your industry. In general, it’s safer to assume the person reading it doesn’t share this knowledge.
Failing to present your expertise can be a serious problem when you work in a technical field.
Take the example of building a website for a coffee shop. Their priority isn’t which front-end framework you use. The most important thing to them is how many new customers you’ll bring through the door.
The question then becomes: how do you communicate value to non-expert readers?
Today, I want to share a framework for creating reader-friendly business proposals for technical niches. The goal will be to communicate the value of your solution to stakeholders without needing to know how it all works.
Let’s dive right in.
Focus on Business Goals & Problems
There’s typically only one reason that a business leader ever reads a proposal—they’re not making as much money as they’d like. Your first priority is to figure out why this is, or more likely, one of the reasons.
Your proposal should be framed in terms of a concrete goal or concrete problem that is causing revenues to suffer. Here are some examples of the most common pain points you can help with, depending on your industry:
Inefficient processes (software development, consultants, logistics),
Not enough new customers (web developers, designers, inbound marketers),
Low customer lifetime values (conversion rate optimization, content marketers, feedback management).
The list goes on. The key is to find a tangible bridge between what you do and the source of the target’s revenue problems.
It’s vital to focus on this from the outset.
The thing is, if you work in a technical business, chances are your proposals will tend to be a little bit boring to non-specialists. This isn’t your fault. Generally, no-one is as interested in a field as the people who actually work in it. This is only natural.
Focusing on concrete business goals right from the beginning helps to hook in your reader. If you communicate that you can solve their problems, then of course they’ll continue reading.
Help them to Understand your Solution
Once you’ve established the problem you’d like to solve in the Introduction section of your proposal, it’s time to fill in the details on how you’ll go about this. This is called a project specification. In some ways, this is the most challenging part of your proposal, especially in niches where there might be more than one potential solution.
For instance, levels of new business could be increased any number of ways.
Your task here is to convince the reader that your solution is the right one.
The balancing act here is to give a detailed overview of what you’ll do, without burying the reader in details. To achieve this, I like to do the following:
Provide topic headers: These are the main activities we’ll undertake. Each one comes with a little bit of text to flesh out the details,
Build excitement: This involves using language which conveys action. An easy way to achieve this is relating everything you set out in your specification to what it will achieve.
Another easy way to project value without getting into technical details is to offer detailed timescales. This is often overlooked, but it offers a number of benefits.
For one thing, timescales allow you to educate your leads about what you’ll need from them and when. In turn, this creates credibility and offers them project details that they actually care about. Essentially, this helps you to communicate value without being boring.
In other words, timescales provide the reader with two value-laden pieces of information:
What they are going to receive and when,
The extent of how much hard work you’re going to put into delivering the project.
Timescales also project what’s known as soft value. This is any value your business provides beyond the project itself - for instance, dependability or good communications. Providing detailed timescales projects the image of a safe pair of hands.
In turn, this improves project buy-in, so it’s easier to close your sale.
Use FOMO in your Proposals
The fear of missing out (FOMO) is one of the most powerful sales tools at your disposal. This comes down to showing off how you’ve provided value to other people just like your reader. This is vital, as non-experts are often skeptical of your solution. And rightly so.
But they can’t argue with results, can they?
For this reason, case studies are an essential ingredient in any proposal. The more relevant the case study is to your reader, the better. This is because this communicates the value you’re already providing to their competitors.
Nobody likes falling behind the competition.
When you do this, it’s still best to focus on outcomes rather than processes. For instance, if you run an SEO agency, focus on increased traffic numbers from your analytics, and only include your strategy's essentials.
The pricing page is a challenging part of any proposal. Your instinct is probably that high prices are off-putting to proposal readers. To a certain extent, that’s true. However, it’s not a good reason to undercut yourself.
So how do you convince the company you are pitching that you are the right company for the job.
The easiest way is to focus on ROI. This means leading with the value your service will provide, and then presenting the cost. This takes advantage of a piece of psychology called an anchoring bias. Basically, this means that we naturally pay more attention to information that we hear first.
In other words, if your reader sees a large number representing the money they’ll gain, followed by a smaller number representing what they’ll have to pay, they’re hard-wired to think this is a great deal. Humans are amazing, right?
Another psychological trick is to call your pricing page “Investment” instead of regular words such as “Costs” or “Budget”. Investment evokes the thought that money will be positively returned and be beneficial for your client’s business (proven by analysing more than 180,000 proposals).
It’s also a good practice here to offer some kind of guarantee. That is, if you don’t meet a certain project threshold, then your client doesn’t pay. Of course, this takes a certain amount of confidence on your part. However, it also communicates massive extra soft-value to your prospects.
Make Project Sign-Off Easier
This is another way to project soft value. Gone are the days of sending off a paper proposal and then scheduling an appointment to go and sign off a project in person. Instead, you need to start assuming everyone is at home working in their pajamas.
Even if your prospects are in their office, it still helps to make the client onboarding process as smooth and painless as possible. Using proposal management software, you can achieve this by providing electronic signatures, or even integrating directly with a payment platform.
Tools like Better Proposals will also allow you to track the status of your proposal—you’ll know exactly when your proposal has been opened, signed or paid online, and how much time has your potential client spent on each section of your proposal.
This may sound like a gimmick, but it provides serious benefits. Remember, soft value is all about projecting the benefits of working with your business outside of the project's actual scope.
Interactive features of proposal software tools achieve this in a number of ways, including making life easier for the client, as well as projecting a slick and modern image of your organization.
How to Create Reader-Friendly Proposals for Non-Experts
We’ve covered a few different concepts today, so let’s recap. Many companies don’t invest enough time in proposals because they think they’re high-risk. What they fail to realize is that with the right framework in place, they’re also incredibly high-reward. In fact, a business proposal is the most important document your organization needs.
However, in many technical niches, there are additional challenges. Essentially, these boil down to convincing readers who don’t know anything about your product that you can offer them value. There are a couple of interrelated ways of doing this.
Focusing on a concrete business problem,
Presenting your solution to this in a detailed but understandable format,
Emphasizing soft value as well as hard value.
Once you’ve got your head around these simple principles, it’s easy to put in place a repeatable process for winning business proposals, even in the most technical of industries.