Sell yourself perfectly on paper with a targeted proposal that describes problems and offers solutions.
By Matt Alderton
In a perfect world, new business would grow on trees, materialize out of thin air or come when it's called, like a dog that's hungry for a treat. Unfortunately, small businesses don't work in a perfect world. Instead, small businesses exist in a world where sales must be mined and hunted.
"When I founded 2 Virtues, I was starting from scratch," says Heather Allard, founder of 2 Virtues Inc., a Rhode Island-based company that makes safe sleepwear for infants and toddlers. "I had designed an innovative product, but there were several competitive products already on the market. To land customers, I had to do some serious pitching to wholesalers, consumers and press."
By drawing on the right words, pictures and ideas in her written business proposal, Allard was able to win new business.
What's in a Proposal?
A written proposal is perhaps the most important weapon a small business owner wields, according to branding expert Rob Frankel, the Los Angeles-based author of The Revenge of Brand X: How to Build a Big Time Brand on the Web or Anywhere Else, and How to Create Perfect Proposals, his popular e-book that outlines proposal dos and don'ts. Yet, he insists, too many people get it wrong.
"Among the most common — and worst — mistakes is that people tend to give away the solution to their prospects' problems, instead of using the proposal to educate those prospects as to why they'd be crazy to hire anyone else," Frankel says.
The problem is fundamental, Frankel suggests, and stems from a misunderstanding of what written proposals are, why they're written and how they ought to be structured. "You never send a proposal to introduce yourself to a client," he says. "The point of a proposal is to confirm how and why you're the only solution to the client's problem."
More simply, the point of a proposal is to make money. "The goal of a written sales pitch is to land a sale," Allard says. "A written pitch should have great content first and then presentation."
Write About Yourself
To generate content, start by looking in the mirror, suggests Jay Lipe, president and founder of Minneapolis-based EmergeMarketing.com and author of Stand Out From the Crowd: Secrets to Crafting a Winning Company Identity. He's written dozens of new business proposals, and he always starts with himself.
"I think it's very important to take a 'me' approach," Lipe says. He suggests writing about the approach you take to your work, the types of solutions you're known for and some background information on your company. Include short case studies that demonstrate what you've done for other clients, and don't forget to write about you, the person.
"Include significant bios of the individuals in your firm," he says. "The person who's looking at the proposal wants to know who's going to work on the project with them."
Frankel says the key is to be confident but not too self-aggrandizing on the page. "The trick is knowing how to balance the presentation so that it's not all about you, but demonstrates your unique capabilities," he adds. It's important not only to provide the right answers, but also to ask the right questions.
Write About the Client
Your proposal needs case studies. It needs bios. It needs company history. More than anything, though, ahead of all else in your written product, it needs problems and solutions.
"Ultimately, the clients want to see themselves in the proposal," Lipe says. It should therefore be highly targeted. "They have to see themselves, they have to see the problem clearly, the way you've identified it, and they have to see your services as a clear choice for them as a solution."
To help you deliver the right information about your client to your client, be sure to have a conversation, either in person or by phone, before you even think about generating a written proposal.
"You have to do your homework on the person or the company to whom you're writing," Allard says.
Presentation is Key
Just as important as what's in your proposal is how your proposal looks, Lipe insists. He learned that the hard way, when he once delivered a proposal by fax. "The client called me," he recalls, "and said, 'Hey, I have two proposals sitting here on my desk. One of them is a faxed proposal, which is yours, and the other is a smartly bound proposal, which is your competitor's. Which one do you think I should go with?'"
Lipe insists that old-fashioned proposals are likely to make the most impact. "As much as I would like to say that presentation is not important, it's extremely important," he says. "It's the packaging of your services, so proposals should be bound, printed on high-quality paper and delivered either by hand or by a delivery service. That communicates to a potential client, 'Hey, they're taking this seriously.'"
Ultimately, though, proposals are about substance, not semblance. "A powerful pitch could be written on toilet paper and be effective," Allard says. "By the same token, a poorly written pitch could arrive on gold-lined stationery, and it wouldn't make any impact."
Frankel agrees. "Once I'm done," he says, "the prospect has no other choice than to conclude, 'This is the right guy for the job' — and price usually has little influence on that."