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Writing killer proposals for software services

A well-written proposal has perhaps the biggest influence on the decision of the customers to award a software project to a particular service provider. A proposal is the culmination of all the efforts that the marketing or the sales team expends – right from creating the interest in the customer thru submitting the bid. A well-written proposal should contain everything that has been discussed with the clients with respect to the service being provided and everything that you feel the customers need to know.

Getting Started

Before starting a proposal, you should be very clear about the purpose of the proposal. It is counterproductive (and costly) to begin writing a proposal until you know your target audience and the precise advantages your product or service can offer them. Having answers to the questions similar to the following is a good way to ensure that you are well prepared.

  1. Who is this proposal addressed to i.e. do you have an idea about the business and profile of your customer
  2. What are the exact needs of the customer
  3. How do you plan to satisfy that need – technologically
  4. What would be the rough shape of the solution
  5. How would the management and monitoring of the project be achieved
  6. How would you ensure good quality of the work
  7. Who are the other people who are providing similar service
  8. What is it that differentiates your service from theirs
  9. How much time would you take for the entire work
  10. How much money would you charge the customers
  11. What are your assumptions
  12. What are your terms and conditions

Components of a killer proposal

A killer proposal should have everything that'll convince the customers that you have not only understood his problem properly, you also have 'the' solution he needs. All the components of a proposal should aim at achieving the faith and confidence of the customer. Your proposal should first define the boundary of your work, then talk about what you are proposing and how you will achieve it technically, then you have to convince him how the entire project would be managed keeping customer focus and satisfaction in view and finally inform him how much you'll charge for your services and how long will it take to complete the whole work. The following components cover all these:

  • Cover Page
  • Table of contents
  • Executive Summary
  • Scope of work
  • Technical Plan
  • Management Plan
  • Commercial Plan
  • Appendices

I hope you all know what a cover page and the table of content means. For those of you who don't, the cover page should contain the name of the service, the name of the company or the organization this proposal is addressed to, the date, and of course the name of your organization. The table of contents should contain all the headers in the proposal and their page numbers.

Following are the details of the rest of the sections of the proposal. Remember that there are no hard and fast rules regarding these sections. You should modify these according to the requirements of the customers. Remember, the important thing is not to have a good proposal, the important thing is to have a proposal that sells.

Executive Summary

Usually the person who has to take a decision is a very busy person. He does not have enough time to go through the entire proposal hence we provide a summary of the entire proposal in the beginning and call it the Executive Summary. Keep the following things in mind while writing an Executive Summary.

  • Provide a couple of lines about the business and the needs of the customer
  • Provide a couple of lines about the proposed solution
  • Provide a couple of lines about why this is the best solution. Try keeping the language as lucid as possible. Remember the guy who'll read this is perhaps the CEO who does not have any idea about what "Collaborative Computing using the APIs of XSLT XHTML and XLinks" means.
  • Put down couple of lines about the supremacy of your organization in providing similar solutions
  • Finally mention a line about how much you'll charge for this service including the taxes etc and how long will the project last.
  • The entire executive summary should not be longer than one page. You make it longer than this and you have just lost the interest of this CEO and hence this project.

Scope of work

The scope of work is where you define in very precise terms both the problem that you are trying to address and the boundaries of your service. This section is perhaps the most important section in the whole proposal because the rest of the proposal is based on the contents of this section. You should keep at least the following things in mind while composing this section

  • Mention what you have understood about the requirements of the customer
  • Mention in quantifiable terms your service
  • Mention what is included in the scope of work
  • Mention what all you will NOT do, so that there are no ambiguities in the requirements.
  • Remember to keep your Scope of work good and accurate as this is almost equivalent to defining the requirements ib which the entire project is based on.
Technical Plan

The Technical plan is where you show your technical prowess and your ability to provide the solution using a technology that is most suitable for the customer. This is one place where you can use all your favorite jargons and TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms ;-) . It is a good idea to break down the entire project into phases. Some of the most common phases are Requirements Study, Project Planning, System Design, Development, Testing, Acceptance, Support etc. Each phase should have clear entry and exit criteria and should have well defined deliverables on the completion on each phase. Also mention about the location of each phase i.e. whether the phase would take place at your development center or at customers premises, and also mention how long will each phase last. Be very clear about the proposed solution while preparing this section because if the customers don't like what you propose, then thats the end of it. Hence, as I always say, be very clear about the needs of the customers and then come up with a solution. Some of the things to be kept in mind while working on this section are as follows.

  • Although there is no limit to the length of this section, you should ensure that your explanations are relevant and precise
  • Try using numbers, bullets and subheadings to make this section more readable
  • Remember that your technical plan is not your system design. The customers are not interested in knowing the set of APIs or screens or database tables you plan to design, they are more interested in getting an overview.
  • Whenever you have certain phases that'll be executed at the customers site, always mention the number of consultants you'll place there. This'll give them a good idea of the resources that they have to arrange for you.
  • Try keeping your language lucid. Remember, you don't want to confuse your customers, you want to convince him.
  • Provide a list of assumptions that this technical plan is based on.
Management Plan

Management Plan is the section where you convince the customers that they'll always be in control of the entire project. This is the section where you tell them how the project monitoring, status reporting, quality assurance etc happens in your organization and how it'll happen during this project. In this section you also specify the team structure and hierarchy and the role and responsibility of each person in the team as well as the contact person of the customers. Some of the things to keep in mind are:

  • Again there are no limits about how long this section should be but that only makes it more difficult for you.
  • It is a good idea to have diagrammatic representation of the team structure
  • If your consultants have to be placed at customers location, mention clearly about what facilities you expect the customers to provide them e.g. computer with WindowsNT and MS Office and mail and internet access etc...
  • Mention very clearly what you expect from the contact person of the customer. Do you want him to be a person with technical knowledge or functional knowledge or do you want him to be a manager or all the above.
  • Mention the assumptions that you have used to create the management plan.

Commercial Plan

This is perhaps the first thing that'll be read by your customers. This section tells about the cost, duration, breakup of the payment and terms and conditions of this proposal and the project. Don't forget to mention any additional costs that the customer might have to bear viz. "the consultants placed at customers site have to be paid a sum of USD 120 per day by the customers" etc.

It is usually a good idea to breakup the entire payment and associate each payment with a deliverable. Be very clear about the terms and conditions and don't forget to mention the duration of the validity of this proposal.

Appendices

Add any supporting document that you think the customers might need to get a better understanding of your solution and service. You might put some sample status report, templates for user communication, a write up on the methodology of your service etc.


Written by Gunjan Karun



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