Business Writing For Dummies
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If you’re a small- to medium-sized business owner, a salesperson, or a lone proposal writer, this Cheat Sheet provides you with a helpful reference for writing commercial business proposals.

This information will help you understand how to write customer-focused, persuasive proposals that win more business. If you boil down a good proposal to its essence, you can take away four overarching principles that will significantly improve your ability to write winning proposals.

Focusing on the customer

The one constant of all business proposals, be they proactive or reactive, is that the customer is central. The proposal isn’t about you or your organization — it’s about your customer. Make sure every theme, every image, and every word are pertinent to your customer and the custom solution you’ve built to meet its needs.

Keep these tips in mind as you plan and write your proposal.

Build a relationship

People do business with people they like. You don’t have to be best buddies, but you do need to go beyond the business opportunity and establish trust. Follow these guidelines for building a customer relationship:

  • Get to know your customers. Understand their vision, their objectives for success, and the challenges they face.
  • Understand your customer’s hot buttons (those key benefits that will prompt a customer to buy). Confirm that the solution you offer satisfies each hot button from the customer’s perspective.
  • Position your solution early. Positioning your products or services early and getting your customer to know, like, and trust you improves your probability of winning a contract.
  • Speak to your customer directly. Use the customer’s name far more frequently than you mention your name.

Show how you’re different

Are your business’s products and services really all that different from those of your competitors? Technology is a pretty level playing field, so how you behave around your customers is much more important than how your products behave. Differentiate yourself in the following ways:

  • Demonstrate your value. Focus your proposal on how it benefits the customer (the “so what”), not on the products, services, and features that make the benefits possible.
  • Prove what you say. Proof points, drawn from past performance and experience, give tangible evidence for your claims and builds the customer’s confidence in you.
  • Comply with the customer’s requirements. But go beyond mere compliance and exceed the customer’s expectations by being responsive to the underlying need of the requirement.
  • Find the “silver bullet.” Articulate your discriminator(s) — the things most important to the customer that you provide and your competitors can’t.
  • Look over your shoulder. Understand how your customer views your competitors and use that knowledge to ghost their weaknesses and mitigate their strengths.

Using a repeatable process for writing business bids and proposals

Winning business through proposals takes a plan — a repeatable, flexible process that you can implement whether the window of opportunity is short (a matter of hours or days) or long (many weeks or months). A repeatable proposal process provides a road map with consistent milestones so proposal teams know where they’re going, where they are at any given moment, and what steps remain to reach their goal.

Organizations with a defined end-to-end proposal process win more deals, reduce their bid costs, benefit from increased leadership support, and improve their proposal team’s morale.

Keep these tips in mind as you develop and deploy your proposal process.

Before you begin

To successfully craft winning proposals, you have to stay one step ahead — and the only way to do that is by never falling behind. Get ahead of the curve by following this list of pre-proposal activities:

  • Build a core process for your most typical engagement. This provides a baseline framework that prevents you from having to reinvent the wheel for every opportunity.
  • Use industry best practices to construct your processes. These include opportunity qualification, in-progress reviews, and clear inputs/outputs.
  • Document your process and use just-in-time training to instill and reinforce the skills your contributors need to follow the process.
  • Make the process scalable to adapt to different opportunity values, time frames, and resource requirements.
  • Get senior management buy-in for the process. Provide a senior-manager “champion” to help implement and reinforce the benefits of the process.
  • Define clear roles and responsibilities.

While you’re working

All opportunities are unique, and no standard plan will anticipate 100 percent of the issues that a given proposal will throw at you. Don’t set your process in stone — you must test and track every activity and milestone as you go, and be ready to stop and change direction immediately if the proposal requires. You should also remember to

  • Keep the process flexible. Align with your customer’s buying process — the customer’s interests, priorities, and accessibility will vary. Tailor elements in the process to be responsive to the customer.
  • Define levels of authority for decision making. Tailor the “level of authority” for decisions based on the size and risk associated with the opportunity.

After you’re done

A proposal writer’s work is never done. Every opportunity yields a chance to refine your process and improve your deliverables. Shortly after the ink has dried (or the file is transferred):

  • Conduct postmortems to review your process after each major effort.
  • Apply the lessons you learn to improve your process.

Writing persuasively

A business proposal is a written argument — an appeal to gain a reader’s agreement. When you write a proposal, you’re telling a story and you’re trying to convince your customer that you understand its story — its industry issues and specific problems — and that you have the best solution. Above all, to successfully persuade, you must know your customer so you can use the right techniques to match its point of view.

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you plan and write your argument:

  • Be specific. Even if you solved a similar problem for someone else, you still have to show how that success will translate to this particular customer’s unique environment and situation. Do your homework to make sure your solution really fits. Don’t spare the details: Use real scenarios and precise statistics and measures to prove your solution is right.
  • Make it personal. Discover what keeps your customer up at night and speculate on the corporate and personal repercussions of not acting or acting incorrectly. The best way to build urgency in a proposal is to make your solution an alternative to real, personal pain.
  • Find common values. To create empathy, make your readers see that you care about the same things they do. People like people who are similar to themselves, so work to understand their corporate and personal stances on business, social, and environmental issues to see if you have common ground.
  • Establish the validity of your proposal with logic. In proposals, you state claims and provide proofs to support them. This is the most intellectually satisfying of persuasive techniques. The more objective your proofs, the more compelling your arguments.
  • Appeal to the emotions of your audience. People make decisions as much on emotion as they do on logic. A time-tested persuasive technique is to express how inaction or the wrong action can jeopardize your reader’s well-being. Telling a story about what may cause an outage or interruption to your reader’s business is a great way to bring an acute awareness to a problem and its potential consequences — and a way to bring urgency, another key to persuasion.
  • Use concrete words instead of abstract terms. Language is vivid when it conjures an image in people’s minds. Concrete words (carpenter, endocrinologist) are faster to read and easier to understand than abstract equivalents (worker, doctor). As a writer, you may have vivid images in your head as you describe the workings of a process, but if you don’t use words that accurately describe what you see, your readers won’t see things as you do.
  • Anticipate your readers’ questions so you can remove reasons for rejection. Some proposals are rejected because the writer makes it easy for the reader to say no. Your job as a persuasive writer is to take all the roadblocks to yes out of the way. You can do this by anticipating every point at which your reader may become uncomfortable, skeptical, or fearful. To do that, you have to ask yourself the same questions your reader will ask you.
  • Use graphics to demonstrate the potential of your solution. Graphics are powerful tools for persuading audiences. People equate visual design with professionalism. Readers recall information more readily when presented with images. Images trigger emotional responses better than words.

Reviewing to revise and renew your business proposal

You must inspect your business proposal if you expect to improve. This concept applies to not only what you produce but also how you produce it. To be a true proposal professional, you need a mindset for continual improvement. Proposals are just too complex, customers too demanding, and competitors too crafty for the status quo. You’re either getting better or you’re getting behind.

Keep these tips in mind as you work through your proposal process and craft your proposal arguments.

Improve the process

Holding reviews is the only way to improve the way you work. You have to look back before you can look forward, so consider these tactics for getting better every time:

  • Before you propose, hold a proposal strategy review to validate your approach and suggest improvements. Review all your potential technical, management, and pricing solutions against the customer’s needs and requirements.
  • As you create your solution, hold a competitor review by engaging with your customer and competitor experts to assess and analyze your competitors’ likely strategies and solutions.
  • Before you make your bid/no-bid decision, hold a senior management review so leadership can sign off on the solution, pricing, and legal requirements.
  • Establish daily stand-up reviews at the same time every day during the proposal development phase to keep the proposal team focused on near-term tasks. When managing a virtual team, hold your stand-up reviews via web conferencing, teleconferences, and email.
  • Conduct after action reviews (AARs) when you reach key milestones to extract the learning from an event or activity. Ask these questions: What should have happened? What actually happened? What can you learn and apply for the future?
  • Conduct a lessons-learned review after each major proposal to assess the proposal development and management process. Document and store your findings for others to access and reference on future sales opportunities.

Improve the proposal

As you work on your proposal, always include ample revision time and cycles for your proposals to reduce overall cost, test the validity of your ideas, and ensure that you’re writing ethically:

  • Early in your project, give your lawyers an opportunity to hold a legal review to ensure that you can meet your customer’s terms and conditions.
  • Use objective subject matter experts to perform functional reviews as you near completion of the proposal to ensure its accuracy, persuasiveness, and appropriateness.
  • If you’re part of a proposal team, request peer reviews for your work, and offer to do the same for your peers. Peer reviews look for opportunities to improve the proposal’s accuracy, grammar, and style.
  • Conduct a final document review to allow independent reviewers to comprehensively examine the entire proposal while emulating the customer’s evaluation team. They should assess the proposal’s readiness and responsiveness to the solicitation, its effectiveness in conveying strategy, themes, and discriminators, and how well it ghosts the competition.

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