The Art of Perfect Proposals

For contract-based businesses, bidding for work is a necessary evil—and there are good and bad ways to do it

Written by Brent McPhail

As a business that relies on contract work, we constantly face two challenges: one, to win jobs, and two, to make money. You need to do the first in order to get the second. And that means bidding on a lot of work.

There are good and bad ways to pitch clients. Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about what customers want to see—and what you need to communicate to them.

Read: Is Your Sales Pitch a Cliché?

When I started Brave Control Systems, the proposals we’d prepare for clients read like legal documents. They were filled with disclaimers and lists of all the things we would not provide. At the time, this seemed completely logical. We wanted to be totally upfront with customers, and were keen to demonstrate the things we’d seen go wrong in all our years of experience. We thought our thorough approach would make us appear knowledgeable, responsible and detail-oriented. Plus, we were trying to protect ourselves.

Customers didn’t respond quite as we thought they would. It turns out, buyers didn’t generally want to read one sentence of what they’d get from a service provider followed by three paragraphs of what they wouldn’t.

So we’ve changed our approach. We now prepare proposals for clients that appeal to their needs without bogging them down with details (those come later). And we’ve had much more success bidding on business. Here are three of the tips that have helped us most:

1. Make it friendly

Nothing is quite so abrasive as pages and pages of legalese. We front-load our proposals with the work we will do, and include the small print at the end.

2. Include only what’s relevant

Our old proposals included an entire, lengthy section on clarifications and assumptions. This included details about everything we thought might come up at the time of quoting. Most of these were generic “what if?” statements that we’d included as a sort of catch-all for anything that might go wrong. They were so broad as to be all but meaningless.

Now, we include specific assumptions tailored to the needs of the project. Because customers don’t have to sort through a wall of generic disclaimers, they’re more than happy to discuss the terms and conditions before they award the project.

3. Don’t use one-size-fits-all disclaimers

This point is related to our quest to become better project managers. In the past, we’d include a statement explaining that if we go outside the scope of the originally agreed-upon work, we’d charge $X extra. But overages aren’t created equally—different instances of scope creep require different treatment. Including a blanket statement only alienated clients (most of whom know how costly overages can be) and didn’t necessarily protect us, anyhow.

So we’ve removed that wording in our proposals. Instead, we ask clients to participate in a project kick-off meeting, during which we explain the scope of the project as we see it and solicit their input. At that meeting, we agree on exactly how long the project should take and what materials will be involved. We also agree on how and what we will charge for if things go over. Our project managers are extremely well-trained in scope management and take responsibility for it in each job they take; this minimizes overruns. But when they do happen, no one—especially not the client—is surprised by it.

Read: Before You Sign That Contract…

Brent McPhail is the founder of Brave Control Solutions Inc., a control systems integration company that helps manufacturing clients improve productivity, safety and efficiency with the use of automation technology. Brave has grown exponentially since its launch in 2008 and has twice made the PROFIT HOT 50 ranking of Canada’s Top New Growth Companies.

More columns by Brent McPhai

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