Excerpts for Handbook for Writing Proposals

Handbook for Writing Proposals

By Robert J. Hamper, L. Sue Baugh

The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 McGraw-Hill
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-07-174648-9


1 Where to Begin
2 9-Step Proposal Process: An Overview
3 Selecting the Bid and Choosing the Proposal Team
4 Finding Your Unique Selling Point
5 Developing Your Program Design
6 Writing the Front Matter and Executive Summary
7 Producing Your Proposal
8 Making Client Presentations
Appendix A: Sample Executive Summary
Appendix B: Sample Proposal
Appendix C: Sample Résumé Boilerplates
Appendix D: Brief Guide to International Business English
Appendix E: Frequently Confused Words
Appendix F: Frequently Misspelled Words



Where to Begin

Opportunities and Pitfalls

Types of Proposals

Internal Proposals

Solicited Proposals

Unsolicited Proposals

Sole-Source Contracts

Request for Information and Request for Quote

Four Key Questions

Your Planning Process

Your Company Mission

Your Business Plan

Your Marketing Plan

Summary of the Planning Process

Locating New Business

Government and Private Agencies/Nonprofit Groups

Industry Sources


Which Jobs to Target

Management Responsibility

Bid-Decision Criteria

When Not to Write a Proposal

Characteristics of a Winning Proposal

Nicolle Herras, a manager at Integrated Medical Systems, studied a request for proposal that had arrived on her desk that morning. Everett Hospital, a local care facility, had a growing number of patients who did not speak English. The hospital staff was having trouble finding translators for all the different languages the patients spoke. This lack of communication resulted in poor treatment and follow-up efforts. The hospital management was seeking a high-tech solution to the problem.

Ms. Herras called her boss, Mr. Hardin Tagore, and told him about the request.

"Mr. Tagore, this is right in line with our revised company mission to develop interactive communication interfaces. We've got the systems, expertise, and databases to solve their problems. And I think we have an excellent shot at follow-up projects working with their satellite care facilities. Our competitors wouldn't be able to offer as complete a package."

"I know Everett's IT director," Mr. Tagore said. "He's wanted to update their in-house and external communication facilities for some time. Let's meet later this week after I get a bid/no-bid decision on this RFP. Meanwhile, see if you can put together a good proposal team."

Ms. Herras had only one reservation in going after the job. Two of the people she had in mind for the proposal team were new hires. They had limited experience in developing proposals at the corporate level. Well, she thought, this will be their chance to learn.

* * *

George Lee's marketing firm had been hit hard by a downturn in the economy. Searching for new business and new ideas, he noticed hundreds of little "green" companies springing up across the country that had no idea how to get their message across to potential customers. Here was a niche his company could fill. He explained his idea to his writing staff.

"We can target green energy and home renovation firms—we know the most about those fields. Our proposal has to convince these companies that putting money into targeted marketing materials can yield big returns. We have experience with some of the green energy fields and the target customers for this niche. Let's propose a partnership that combines the green companies' products and our media savvy."

* * *

Linda Valdez spread the requests for proposals across her desk. Her information technology company was new to the marketplace, so it made sense to try for any and all jobs her firm might win. There was a telecom company contract for market data analyses, a municipal study to examine traffic pattern flows to improve safety measures, and a corporate contract to develop inventory software for the company's international offices.

Her staff would be stretched a little thin on the corporate job, and they didn't really know the government process very well. But they could probably do the work with luck and long hours.

"What if we get more than one of these jobs?" her finance officer asked.

"We'll worry about that when the time comes," Linda said.

Opportunities and Pitfalls

These three scenarios illustrate some of the most common opportunities and pitfalls of proposal writing. In the first scenario, the firm has targeted the right market and has the required skills and expertise. But the proposal-writing team is not experienced in responding to a high-level request. If the new hires don't learn in time, the company will lose out in the bidding war.

The second scenario represents a good match of company skills and client needs. Since many "green" firms are startups, their management is likely to make costly mistakes in marketing their services. However, Lee's firm is developing an unsolicited proposal. Their task is to convince clients that the firm's expertise and services can provide exactly what clients need. If the team does its homework, this firm has a good chance of creating a new client base.

The third scenario describes one of the most tempting pitfalls that new and even experienced companies encounter: shoot at every target in sight and hope you hit at least one. Valdez has made little effort to match client needs with her company's services and skills. Even if a proposal is accepted, she has no way to assure the client that her firm can do the job within the proposed time and budget. If her firm has more than one proposal accepted, Valdez may not have enough staff to do any job well. At the very least, her company will waste a lot of time, money, and effort writing proposals for jobs they have little chance of winning or of completing to the client's satisfaction.

Types of Proposals

A proposal is primarily a sophisticated sales and marketing piece you develop to define a client's problem and/or opportunities and to sell the client on your ability to provide solutions and strategies to their satisfaction. To begin, let's look at the types of proposals you or your company may write. Proposals generally fall into four categories: internal, solicited, unsolicited, and sole- source.

Internal Proposals

Internal proposals are written within a company by a particular division, department, group, or individual to persuade top management to support an idea or project. For example, the product line manager may write a proposal to automate a particular assembly process. Even though these proposals are for internal consumption only, they follow the same principles as proposals written for outside companies or agencies.

Solicited Proposals

Sometimes, a company is formally invited to submit a proposal. They receive a request for proposal (RFP), request for quotation (RFQ), or bid invitation. The client has a particular project or problem and is looking for outside help to get the job done. The RFP or bid invitation outlines the requirements and criteria for the job. The client selects a supplier on the basis of a firm's recommended program, qualifications, and projected costs.

Unsolicited Proposals

Unsolicited proposals are the most risky to write. They may require considerable time and effort to develop with no guarantee that a client will be interested in the product or service offered. For example, a firm may develop a new program or concept, such as a new accounting method, and then must persuade clients to contract for the service.

Because the client has not requested the proposal, the firm must compete with a client's internal operations and other businesses for the client's attention and acceptance. On the other hand, these proposals are a way to generate new business for a company. As a rule, however, companies do not write unsolicited proposals unless they have solid reasons to believe they can win the client's business.

Sole-Source Contracts

In some instances, a government agency, private firm, or association will contract with only one company to supply a product or service. This practice is known as a sole-source contract and is generally established when a company has an outstanding record of reliability and performance. Such a company might submit a proposal for a sole-source contract not to compete for a job but simply to comply with regulations. The format is often standardized and requires detailed information about the product, delivery schedules, and pricing.

Your marketing research should be able to tell you when a supposedly open contract RFP is actually "wired," or targeted, for a specific company. This means that your firm has little or no chance of winning the contract, and you would be wise not to submit a proposal.

Request for Information and Request for Quote

There are a couple of variations of a formal RFP that you might want to consider answering. At times a client may send out a request for information (RFI) or a request for quote (RFQ).


A client may start the RFP process with a request for information. Basically, the client wants to find out:

• Whether the requirements for a job they need to have done are reasonable.

• Whether the appropriate technology for the job exists.

• Whether solutions the client is considering are realistic.

• Whether you and other firms can meet the requirements of the job.

The client may ask you to point out potential problems, evaluate the available technology, and critique the client's project goals, schedules, and cost estimates. Because an RFI often leads to an RFP, you should consider responding to the client's inquiry. In many cases, the document you develop for the RFI can serve as your core materials for the RFP.


In a request for quote, the client provides more detailed requirements than those found in an RFP and may even specify how those requirements are to be met. You would be asked to supply specific quotes for each part of the work—including staffing, benchmarks, and a detailed breakdown of projected hours and costs. Like an RFP, a written RFQ is considered binding on your firm, unless the client's requirements change.

Exhibit 1.1 summarizes these four types of proposals and their characteristics.

Four Key Questions

When it comes to developing winning proposals, it doesn't matter whether your company is a Fortune 500 firm or the newest venture on the block. You still need to answer four basic questions:

• How do you set up your planning process?

• How do you elicit requests for proposals (RFPs) or locate job opportunities?

• How do you choose which jobs your firm should target?

• How do you write a winning proposal?

Your Planning Process

It may come as a surprise that the key to eliciting RFPs or locating job opportunities is not to hire a professional proposal writer but first to develop your company planning process. Without your planning process firmly in place, you will find it hard to write winning proposals and follow through on them. The company planning process creates a hierarchy of plans:

EXHIBIT 1.1 Proposals and Their Characteristics

Internal Proposals

Proposal written within a company by a particular division, department, group, or individual in the firm; it may be solicited or unsolicited.

Advantages—those preparing the proposal know the firm's needs and the management structure; communication may be easier and decisions made more quickly than with outside clients.

Disadvantages—the proposal must compete for scarce resources with other company business; if the proposal loses its management champion, the project may be canceled.

Solicited Proposal

Proposal written in response to an RFP from a potential client.

Advantages—client is requesting a proposal, and the firm can select which RFPs to answer based on resources, expertise, previous experience, and time/cost calculations.

Disadvantages—if the firm's bid/no-bid decision-making process is flawed, the firm may expend valuable resources researching, writing, and presenting the proposal with little chance of winning the job.

Unsolicited Proposal

Proposal that a company initiates without an RFP and sends to potential clients in an effort to obtain new business.

Advantages—the firm can introduce itself to a wide range of companies; the same proposal can be sent to many firms, thus conserving company resources.

Disadvantages—proposals are not tailored to individual companies; the firm may get more business than it can successfully handle.

Sole-Source Contracts

Primarily government projects that are tied to a specific firm; the RFP is sent not to request a competitive bid but to elicit detailed information on the product or services to be supplied in order to satisfy government regulations.

Advantages—the firm contracted to do the work knows when the work will be coming in and the specifications; no resources are required to win the contract.

Disadvantages—an outside firm responding to the RFP has little or no chance of winning the contract away from the company currently doing the work. If the contract is awarded to the bidding firm, they may have to use the specifications and parameters of the prior contractor.

• Company mission

• Company business plan

• Company marketing plan

Once your planning process is in place, you can revise, update, and change your plans to meet changes in the internal and external environments. The planning cycle gives your company the flexibility to meet client needs and to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Your Company Mission

The company mission defines what kind of firm you want the company to be, what business you are in, and what your broad-range goals are. If you define your mission too narrowly, it can restrict your firm's growth. If you define the mission too broadly, it can take the company in too many directions.

The role of the company mission is clear: Until you know what business you are in and what you want to achieve, you can't plan for the future.

Your Business Plan

The business plan is the master plan that serves as the basis for all other plans in the company. It is a written document—prepared by top management—that covers all aspects of your business. Developing the plan gives you a chance to identify your firm's problems, opportunities, strengths, and weaknesses. The resulting business plan contains the company mission statement, agreed-upon goals and strategies for the company, market forecasts, new product development, pro forma financial statements, and many other aspects of the business.

Your Marketing Plan

Once the company's mission statement and business plan are set, you need to develop the marketing plan, or strategy. This plan supports the objectives of the business plan and helps the company achieve its goals and increase its profitability.

In today's economy, a well-defined marketing plan can serve as a blueprint to guide your firm as you seek to make the most of new business opportunities. The marketing plan can help you zero in on a target market, or niche, that emphasizes your strengths and minimizes your weaknesses. For example, a computer manufacturer may find that its current target customers are switching from desktop to notebook computers. The marketing plan can help the company reposition itself either to switch to the notebook product line or to find new markets for the desktop models.

In effect, you develop a marketing plan to narrow the field of potential clients to those you can serve exceptionally well, thus cultivating a reputation as a problem-solving firm. This approach can increase your chances of success for any proposal you write.

With a marketing strategy, your emphasis changes from simply selling products or services to selling service to clients, a subtle but powerful shift in philosophy. This requires that you research your clients to discover what needs or problems they have that you are uniquely qualified to help them fulfill or solve, those jobs that no one else can do as well as you can. The approach changes from, "Here are the services and skills we provide," to, "Here are how our services and skills can help to solve your problems and assist your growth."

Finally, a marketing strategy helps you take a longer view of business cycles and enables you to develop contingency plans for anticipating and responding to change. In today's global economy, national and international competition both within an industry and between industries is going to get a lot tougher. Everything from political systems to workplace technology to personal skills is undergoing rapid, unprecedented change. To survive, companies must use their marketing strategies to spot the opportunities that change brings and to adapt quickly, imaginatively, and effectively to new circumstances.

Summary of the Planning Process

In summary, a mission statement, business plan, and marketing plan enable you to:

• Identify what kind of firm you want to have, the type of business you are in, and what your overall goals and objectives are.

• Define your company's main product lines.

• Identify the company's strengths and weaknesses.

• Identify market niches in which your firm has an advantage over the competition.

• Identify potential clients within those niches and how you can help solve those clients' problems.

• Develop contingency plans to anticipate and adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace.

It is well worth your time to learn the planning process for your firm, whether you are a one-person sole proprietorship or part of a multinational corporate team.



Excerpted from Handbook for Writing Proposals by Robert J. Hamper, L. Sue Baugh. Copyright © 2011 by McGraw-Hill. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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