In today’s increasingly competitive business world, the ability to write effective business proposals is a critical skill. When large companies and government entities seek to purchase specified products or services, a request for proposal – or RFP – is released to potential external suppliers. The business proposals submitted in response by potential suppliers are initially used to eliminate certain candidates, thereby narrowing the pool of prospective contractors. As the process progresses, only the most effective proposals offering the most compliant terms will remain in the running for the eventual contract award.
RFPs generally outline specific requirements, so there is no one-size-fits-all RFP template or strategy that will serve to provide a winning business proposal. The inquiring entity’s objectives must be considered in-depth, as well as budget, schedule, and the prospective contractor’s ability to provide the proposed product or service within specified parameters.
While all RFPs are not governmental in nature, a great wealth of guidance on the subject of preparing a successful business proposal in response to a RFP can be found on the Small Business Association website: www.sba.gov.
In a 2014 blog post by kmurray entitled “Government Contracting and Certification – What’s it all Really Mean?” (1) the SBA contributor explains the basics of government contracting for small and minority businesses in great detail, including links to additional, helpful resources for small business found within the SBA website.
In a 1996 article (though still thoroughly relevant today) by contributor, Sue Clayton, in the February “Startups” issue of Entrepreneur Magazine entitled “7 Steps to a Winning Business Proposal,” (2) the author presents the key steps to winning a contract in an easy-to-understand format with an emphasis on the “bigger picture.”
The “Seven essential steps to guarantee you get the project” suggested by Clayton include:
Study the Requirements
This same bit of advice can be found in virtually every resource available on writing successful business proposals. The RFP will outline, specifically, the requirements of the issuing entity, and should be adhered to completely. Failure to follow the instructions often results in automatic dismissal of the proposal.
Understand the Client
This is an area that is, unfortunately, often overlooked in business proposals prepared in response to RFPs. The potential client has outlined what they’re looking for, very specifically, and so it is easy to neglect the “human aspect” that is so critical to best practices in any business. In some cases, a potential client may think they know the precise solution they are looking for, but upon further investigation you, the potential contractor, may discover a better, more efficient approach or product. This kind of insight often only comes from one-on-one interaction. Herein lies the opportunity to gain a more in-depth understanding of an entity’s needs, challenges, and goals. Additionally, there is a common saying in the business world; people buy from people. It’s easy to neglect the “human element” in this digital age, but, perhaps for that very reason, one-on-one contact and negotiation becomes an extremely important element in successful business proposals. With this strategy, RFP contenders can effectively stand out from the competition by putting a literal face to the proposal and developing inter-personal relationships.
Develop a Methodology
Naturally, it is essential to form a plan which specifically addresses your potential client’s needs and goals. This process should reflect an understanding of priorities as well as budget, and this understanding is greatly enhanced by the deeper understanding of the client accomplished in Step 2 (and ongoing).
Evaluate the Solution
Whether an RFP is submitted in search of a product or service – or both - this is the company’s way of reaching out in search of a solution. Once again, a personal knowledge and understanding of a company’s challenges and motivations can go great lengths in creating custom, creative solutions, which increases a contractor’s chances of not only winning the contract, but also of developing a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. A successful business proposal addresses all points outlined by the potential client, but may also introduce alternative, flexible solutions to address a greater range of business goals.
Outshine your Competitors
As with any sales opportunity, you must “brag” about your company. Why is your company the right choice? What will you do differently from your competitors if awarded the contract? In some instances, competitive bidders are disclosed. Use that information to differentiate your company from the competition. If there are concerns of areas of weakness, address those, too, with a positive spin to alleviate potential concerns. Once again – and this cannot be reiterated enough – introducing a personal aspect into your business proposal and subsequent negotiations can go a long way toward distinguishing yourself from the competition.
Write the Proposal
The heavy lifting, so to speak, is complete by this point, but all that can be won or lost in the presentation of the business proposal. Some RFPs will come complete with a very specific format to be followed. In that case, follow those instructions to a tee. In the case that your business proposal format is left to your own discretion, there exists a multitude of templates to choose from. The business proposal format should be concise and professional – no fluff. Refer to the RFP, itself, for specific instructions and take care to provide all of the information requested.
Apply the Finishing Touches
It’s show time, at this very critical point. You’ve done the research. You’ve reached out to establish a personal relationship. You’ve followed the RFP instructions to the letter. Unfortunately, business proposals often lose their potency at this final stage of the game. Review, review, review. Are statistics accurate? Is your proposal aesthetically pleasing and grammatically sound? Does your proposal address every point requested in the RFP? Have you shown your company in a manner that outshines your competition? It is likely that a great deal of time and expense have gone into the creation of your business proposal. So, it’s a good idea to ensure that those resources are protected and given the greatest chance of success. Have a professional review your business proposal prior to submission, if necessary.
Follow instructions, do the research, make personal connections whenever possible, highlight your company’s strengths…in short, put your best foot forward, and your business proposal is sure to stand out, even in the most competitive of contractor arenas.
Murray, H. "Governmental Contracting and Certification - What's It All Really Mean?" SBA. Aug. 2014. Web. <https://www.sba.gov/blogs/government-contracting-and-certification-whats-it-all-really-mean>. Clayton, Sue. "7 Steps to a Winning Business Proposal." Entrepreneur. 1 Feb. 1996. Web. <https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/21834>.
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