One of the biggest challenges when starting your own business, particularly when servicing large corporate clients, is how to respond to a tender brief you receive. In some industries (such as advertising), a huge proportion of your business will come from preparing proposals in response to client briefs.
Here is my eight step programme for writing your first (or any, actually) proposal:
Step 1: Do your research
The first thing you must do is find out all the information you can about the prospective client. Now this means the Internet. Go to their website and try and absorb the way the company works (of course, if they are asking you to make their first website, this could be tricky!). Search industry information portals and business newspapers (ft.com is excellent) for recent developments and to get the dirt the company is unwilling to put on their own website. This will ensure that your proposal is targetted to their culture, a proposal for Ben and Jerry's should look and sound different from a proposal for IBM.
Step 2: Make Contact
The tender brief issued by the company will include a contact name for the proposals to be submitted to. Phone that person up, and ask one or two pertinent, intelligent questions that will allow you to better respond to their brief. Do not ask a question to which you already have the answer because will just be wasting their time. Like in a job interview, even if you cannot think of a question you need the answer to, try and come up with something. Be polite and charming (if you can be) on the phone. The result of this (aside from you getting more information than your competitors) is that when you deliver your proposal, they won't look at it and go "oh, theres a proposal from Bloggs Inc.", they will think "there is a proposal from that nice Mr Bloggs who called with that excellent question about our IT strategy last week".
Step 3: Introduce your company
There is a good chance the prospective client does not know your company "from adam". Tell them. List your prior clients and how the work you performed not only helped your prior client, but also relates to what you want to do for them. Do not lie, but err on the optomistic side of the truth. If you are a new company, then you have two options; either come out and say this (many companies are more than happy to support new business, as they are more likely to go the extra mile), or you can skirt around the issue. From your research and your conversation with the client, you should be able to judge the best way to go.
Step 4: Introduce yourself
If you are reading this, you are probably from a small business (if you have more than about 10 employees, then don't trust your collective livelihoods to something I have told you for gods sake, buy a book or something) and in a small business, people matter. This goes doubly if you are dealing with a large business. They cannot trust your business so they have to trust you. Introduce the team that will be working with your client, starting with yourself and work your way down. The same principals from step 3 apply here. Do not worry about the truth too much, but don't make any outright lies (you may get found out, which is awkward).
Step 5: Write the proposal
Sit down and outline exactly what you will do, and how you will do it. If you work in a technical industry then describe the technology in terms of the benefits it will bring to their business, in terms your target audience will understand (remember, that is one of the reasons you phoned them). Go through everything you will do in clear, unambiguous terms. Any creative elements (such as design mock ups and what have you) should be fully explained; each decision you took and your justifications should accompany the designs. Any shortcomings should not be glossed over, but explained ("we did not include your logo beacuse we have not got access to your corporate branding standard document and we want to get it right" is an excellent excuse). Conclude the proposal with a sales pitch, tell them why they should choose you.
Step 6: Read the proposal
Read it through from cover to cover and make sure it has made sense. Next, get someone from outside your company (here is where family is useful) and get them to score through all the redundancies and "marketroid speak" in the document. Now redraft and repeat until all the scoring out has gone.
Step 7: Deliver the proposal (on time)
The first impression your potential client will get is almost certainly going to be the cover of your proposal, make sure it is nicely printed. Find out how much it will cost to get commercially printed and bound, it may be worth it. To give yourself one more (albeit tiny) advantage, get your proposal delivered by courier. This just makes you stand out and shows that you mean business - at the very least, it cannot hurt.
Step 8: Wait
And don't stress out...
Right, hopefully you will have delivered your proposal on time, so what next. You should receive a response of some sort from the prospective client, which should break down into one of the following categories (if you receive no response, get in touch and find out what happened):
However it is phrased, this is a knock back. They do not want you, your company or your services. Call them, find out why, find out how you can improve in the future. Do not let this get you down, it happens to everyone (except me of course). Treat this as the perfect opportunity to learn how your next proposal can be better, keep in touch with the client as well because they will need more work in the future and now you know what you need to do to get it.
More information please
You receive a request to expand upon a particular area of your proposal. This is great news, they like what they see, they just want to see more of it. Try and arrange a face to face meeting to discuss their informational needs and then fulfill them as best you can.
Well done, you have reached stage 3
This is also very positive, the next stage may involve presentations, mock ups, flying to far off lands to speak to their board, the list is long and pointless. Make sure you are as prepared as you can be for this stage, if you got this far you should do fine.
Well done, you have got the contract
Umm, what are you doing here? Go get busy!