If you are a consultant, your product is often the services that you will perform yourself. Sooner or later you will need to give your customer a proposal, either because they ask for it, or because it can help you persuade them to approve the project. To approve the use of a consultant, many companies will need a written statement of work and other information. Putting it in their hands can expedite the process. If you are not a consultant, you may still need to prepare a proposal from time-to-time to expedite a decision or persuade someone to take action on your behalf.
Your goal will define the content of your proposal. People sometimes write proposals to persuade the reader to take an action, make a selection, reach a decision, spend money, offer a job, or grant a raise. Large, formal proposals are often prepared in response to a written Request for Proposals (RFP). One person proposals often do not have a written proposal to provide guidance. You must anticipate the information that will be required by the reader to take the action you desire and then design a document that will achieve your goal.
Your proposal should be more than your resume and a work plan. As an individual, your proposal will be partly an introduction, partly a statement of qualifications, partly a work plan, partly pricing, and partly an articulation of the reasons why the client should approve your recommendations.
Your resume only addresses your qualifications, and even these a resume tends to address only in a generic way. You should customize your resume every time you use it to emphasize the qualifications that are most relevant to the person you are trying to persuade. For example, are you a network technician, an administrator, an engineer, or a project manager? Many networking consultants could play all of these roles. But which is more important to this project and this client -- your education, your experience, you certifications, or your capabilities? You should customize your resume to make the relevance clear, to prove that you have the qualifications required to do what you propose, and to support you rationale for why the client should accept your recommendations.
In addition to your resume, you have some explaining to do:
- What will you accomplish for the client?
- How long will it take?
- What resources will be required?
- How will they benefit from the project?
- How much will it cost?
- Who are you to be making these recommendations?
- Why do they need you?
- Why should they have confidence in your ability to do the work correctly?
- Why should they accept your recommendations?
Here are some additional topics for more complex proposals:
- Management and Oversight
- Allocation of effort
- Orientation and Phase-In
- Metrics, measurements, and performance standards
- Quality assurance
In order to answer these questions, your proposal should start with an introduction to what you plan to accomplish and how they will benefit (start by explaining what's in it for them). Then provide your work plan, including methodologies, resources, and schedule. You might also provide your resume to support your ability to deliver as promised. Once you've laid this foundation, provide your pricing and rationale, emphasizing the return on investment and value.
Depending on the complexity of your work plan, this can usually be accomplished in a couple of pages. You can use any format that will fulfill the client's expectations. Your proposal could be in the form of a letter, memo, report, document, email, or contract. When to require a contract is a matter of personal and legal judgment. When you do, I recommend that you include it as an attachment to your proposal. Contracts tend to be perceived skeptically, so you want the message delivered by the proposal, with your goal being to persuade them to sign the contract.
Whether your goal is the signing of a contract or something else, and whether your proposal is delivered in the form of a one page memo or a three-inch binder, the entire proposal should revolve around persuading them to take the action you desire. You must be clear about your goal and turn that into a clear call to action in writing.
Because you will probably be producing your own proposal, you should make sure that you design the layout of the document around your own capabilities to produce it. In other words, don't get too fancy. Go for simple elegance instead of complicated sophistication. Just make sure that it fulfills the reader's expectations. This is harder to do when you don't have a written RFP. If you don't know their expectations, make an effort to discuss their expectations and issues such as:
- Do they want something formal or informal?
- Does it have to meet the requirements of the purchasing department?
- Do they need a strong financial justification?
- Have they already decided and just need something to facilitate completing the paper work?
- Are there any forms that must be included or formats to follow?
- Will they follow a formal evaluation process?
Remember, your proposal is only a part of how you achieve your goal. If you are a consultant, remember that what they are buying is you — not the proposal. You will need to practice your salesmanship. This is especially true if there is no formal evaluation process. There is a school of thought that says that you shouldn't submit the proposal until you know what the decision will be. If you can't achieve this, then make sure that you have a personal follow-up plan for after the proposal is submitted. The follow-up can be crucial for supplying additional information and validating what you put on paper. You don't have to be pushy to follow-up, just be helpful, and remind them that you can be even more helpful if they accept the proposal.