Part 5: Message types
Let’s say you work in a health care setting. What types of products or services might be put out to bid? If your organization is going to expand and needs to construct a new wing, it will probably be put out to bid. Everything from office furniture to bedpans could potentially be put out to bid, specifying a quantity, quality, and time of delivery required. Janitorial services may also be bid on each year, as well as food services, and even maintenance. Using the power of bidding to lower contract costs for goods and services is common practice.
In order to be successful in business and industry, you should be familiar with the business proposal. Much like a report, with several common elements and persuasive speech, a business proposal makes the case for your product or service. Business proposals are documents designed to make a persuasive appeal to the audience to achieve a defined outcome, often proposing a solution to a problem.
Common proposal elements
Effective business proposals are built around a great idea or solution. While you may be able to present your normal product, service, or solution in an interesting way, you want your document and its solution to stand out against the background of competing proposals. What makes your idea different or unique? How can you better meet the needs of the company that other vendors? What makes you so special? If the purchase decision is made solely on price, it may leave you little room to underscore the value of service, but the sale follow-through has value. For example, don’t consider just the cost of the unit but also its maintenance. How can maintenance be a part of your solution, distinct from the rest? In addition, your proposal may focus on a common product where you can anticipate several vendors at similar prices. How can you differentiate yourself from the rest by underscoring long-term relationships, demonstrated ability to deliver, or the ability to anticipate the company’s needs? Business proposals need to have an attractive idea or solution in order to be effective.
You can be creative in many aspects of the business proposal, but it can be advantageous to follow the traditional sections (using descriptive or functional headings appropriate to your proposal). Businesses expect to see information in a specific order, much like a resume or even a letter. Each aspect of your proposal has its place, so be sure to use sections effectively to highlight your product or service. Every section is an opportunity to sell, and should reinforce your credibility, your passion, and the reason why your solution is simply the best. These sections are described in Table 4.4.1.
Table 4.4.1 Typical sections in a proposal
|Cover page||Title page with name, title, date, and specific reference to request for proposal if applicable.|
|Executive summary||Like an abstract in a report, this is a comprehensive summary of the product or service and how it meets the requirements and exceeds expectations.|
|Background||Discuss the history of your product, service, and/or company and consider focusing on the relationship between you and the reader and/or similar companies. What is the business need or problem that you and/or your company can solve? What makes you and/or your company the best choice to solve this problem or provide the product or service?|
|Proposal||The idea. Who, what, where, when, why, and how. Make it clear and concise. Don’t waste words, and don’t exaggerate. Use clear, well-supported reasoning to demonstrate your product or service.|
|Benefits||How will the reader benefit from the product or service? Be clear, concise, specific, and provide a comprehensive list of immediate, short, and long-term benefits to the company. What currently exists in the marketplace, including competing products or services, and how does your solution compare?|
|Timeline||A clear presentation, often with visual aids, of the process, from start to finish, with specific, dated benchmarks noted.|
|Finance||What are the initial costs, when can revenue be anticipated, when will there be a return on investment (if applicable)? What are the monetary costs, staffing costs, and other costs? The proposal may involve a one-time fixed cost, but the product or service could be delivered more than once so an extended financial plan noting costs across time is required. What are potential revenues (if applicable)?|
|Conclusion||Restate your main points clearly. Tie them together with a common theme and make your proposal memorable and professional.|
Professional tone and format
A professional document is a base requirement. If it is less than professional, you can count on its prompt dismissal. There should be no errors in spelling or grammar, and all information should be concise, accurate, and clearly referenced when appropriate. Information that pertains to credibility should be easy to find and clearly relevant, including contact information. If the document exists in a hard copy form, it should be printed on a letterhead. If the document is submitted in an electronic form, it should be in a file format that presents your document as you intended. Word processing files may have their formatting changed or adjusted based on factors you cannot control—like screen size—and information can shift out of place, making it difficult to understand. In this case, a portable document format (PDF)—a format for electronic documents—may be used to preserve content location and avoid any inadvertent format changes when it is displayed.
Effective, persuasive proposals are often brief. Clear and concise proposals serve the audience well and limit the range of information to prevent confusion.
Two types of business proposals
If you have been asked to submit a proposal, it is considered solicited. The solicitation may come in the form of a direct verbal or written request, but normally solicitations are indirect, open-bid to the public, and formally published for everyone to see. A request for proposal (RFP), request for quotation (RFQ), and invitation for bid (IFB) are common ways to solicit business proposals for business, industry, and the government.
RFPs typically specify the product or service, guidelines for submission, and evaluation criteria. RFQs emphasize cost, though service and maintenance may be part of the solicitation. IFBs are often job-specific in that they encompass a project that requires a timeline, labour, and materials. For example, if a local school district announces the construction of a new elementary school, they normally have the architect and engineering plans on file, but need a licensed contractor to build it.
Unsolicited proposals are the “cold calls” of business writing. They require a thorough understanding of the market, product, and/or service, and their presentation is typically general rather than customer-specific. They can, however, be tailored to specific businesses with time and effort, and the demonstrated knowledge of specific needs or requirement can transform an otherwise generic, brochure-like proposal into an effective sales message. Getting your tailored message to your target audience, however, is often a significant challenge if it has not been directly or indirectly solicited. Unsolicited proposals are often regarded as marketing materials, intended more to stimulate interest for a follow-up contact than make direct sales. A targeted proposal is typically your most effective approach.