As a contractor, you must be able to sell your services to a potential client with a proposal that fully conveys the scope of work you intend to provide while also conveying confidence in your company’s ability to perform the work. In the construction industry, many companies demonstrate effective leadership, have dedicated hard-working employees, or even possess a niche many others do not; but, if a company is unable to articulate its qualities to a prospective customer in a written proposal, many new business opportunities may be lost.

In the construction industry, writing an effective proposal is no different than a researcher writing a grant proposal or a large engineering firm specializing in government defense work presenting a 1,000-page proposal to the U.S. government. Effective, well-written proposals are comprised of key components designed to attract and hold your audience’s attention ultimately for the purpose of acquiring new business and protecting your company's interests by helping to eliminate any ambiguity in the proposal.

In this guide, I present five areas that will help you write your best proposal:

  1. Know your audience
  2. Gain your audience’s attention
  3. Identify what you are selling
  4. Describe your product or service
  5. Emphasize the expertise of your company

Many areas can be considered, but for the purpose of writing proposals within the construction industry, the key areas I identify here are common in proposals of any industry.

1. Who is your audience?

Identify your client

Your audience is your prospective customer or client from whom you are seeking an award for services. There is a difference between a prospective customer and a client. A client is somebody your company has already established a relationship with, but a prospective customer is somebody you are working to begin new business with. Your audience is the people you address your proposal to whether to an individual or a group. Understanding your audience (the client or prospective customer) is essential in the development of your proposal as it needs to incorporate and cater to who they are and what they are all about.

Communicate with your audience

Regardless of whether your audience is an established customer, it is important that you initiate some type of communication with them prior to the final submittal of your proposal. Getting to know your audience might include learning more about their company’s niche and how it is related to the work you are seeking to acquire, or it might include gathering important details on the project, which could be critical to address in your proposal. You should also consider if your targeted audience will be the party that ultimately makes the decision. Whether you speak with your audience by phone or do so electronically by email, incorporating essential items learned of the client’s company and any relative information of the project you are seeking to win demonstrates your knowledge, expertise, and the ability to perform the work. Essential items you might consider including in your proposal are intricate details of a project and how your company would best address the installation or conveying a niche that would best serve the project.

2. How do you gain your audience’s attention?

Proper formatting

Gaining your audience’s attention is critical to any proposal. Most of us have heard that time is money, so we shouldn’t need to waste our prospective client’s time with useless jargon and banter in our proposals. It only forces them to reread for a clearer understanding. Once your audience hits a speed bump while reading your proposal, the chances of successfully winning an award go down. Speed bumps include repetitious and inconsistent content, lack of detail, spelling and grammatical errors, poor presentation, and a failure to include any recognition of how your company compliments and delivers value to the prospective client’s company.

Be succinct and concise

Your proposal should be succinct and concise. Focus on the products or service your company intends to provide. A few simple sentences should suffice in providing a clear message on what you are proposing. Hitting the main points of the product or service and leaving finer details out of the proposal is enough to provide the reader a good idea of the product. To offer additional detail to the primary points risks the overuse of banter. When the proposal includes banter, the audience becomes bored.

Presentation

The presentation of your proposal is another important component to consider. The type of fonts and their arrangement play a part on how easy we make it for our audience to read our proposal. Emphasizing critical components of our product and services in bold and perhaps a larger font are useful in keeping our audience’s attention. In limited and rare occasions, the use of pictures or graphics are helpful but care should be exercised not to make this too complicated by having busy or detailed illustration.

First-person vs. third-person voice

One last item to consider is whether to write in first-person or third-person perspective. In general, first-person provides a more personal approach for your reader. The first-person approach is typically more appropriate when addressing an established customer in a more casual environment; otherwise, using first-person plural perspective, which incorporates "we" and "us," can be considered for a more formal proposal where there might be risk to internal management practices within your company.

In a third-person perspective, using this voice is typically reserved for a more formal proposal when sending to multiple parties or if the audience is not known; this is a safer approach because it avoids any direct liability to one person when using a first-person perspective.

3. What are you selling?

Identify the service

Your proposal must clearly identify the product or service your company will provide to the prospective client. By identifying the service that you will provide, you should prominently note it as one of the first parts of your proposal. The reader of your proposal wants to know what you are trying to sell but does not want to search for it. As in the previous step, staying succinct and concise keeps the product emphasized for the reader. When the readers understand early on what the proposal is selling, they will be more inclined to read the entire document. Often, well-written proposals fall short in fully describing the products or services the writer is attempting to describe. When this happens, the reader will have many questions to ask to fully understand the proposed scope. When your reader needs to expend a lot of effort reading your proposal, there is a good chance he will not read all of it, and at that point, you have failed to convince the prospective client that you are the best company for the job.

Strategic layout

Prioritizing the most important or costlier items first is a good way to grab your reader’s attention. Many readers are short on patience, so as they get through the initial pages of your proposal, boredom begins to set in unless you have thoughtfully and strategically addressed your most important items early on instead of saving them for the end of the proposal where there is a good chance they might never be read.

Working from a prepared draft or any kind of outline helps to organize your main selling points while also helping to organize the more prominent items first. Taking your outline items and adding a little to describe each point helps again to keep your proposal concise and succinct.

4. How would you describe your product or service?

The best sell

Now that you have provided a concise account of the products or services you are presenting to the prospective client, how best do you sell it? A proposal simply stated is the best path. In highlighting the main scope of work or product features, sometimes a simple proposed-means-and-methods description of how your company intends to address the work goes a long way to providing the prospective client an understanding of your scope and even their own.

Alternates

In addition to describing your scope to the client, you should give consideration to identifying alternates that might bring added value to the project or, on the other hand, reduce project cost though value-engineering. Consistent use of offering alternative pricing not only illustrates the service you provide but also demonstrates the value your company brings as a partner to any project.

Concise language

Using concise language and valid points that you typically use and can easily digest most times ensures that the reader will most likely do the same.

Within the construction industry, it is mostly made up of the ‘lay’ people, so using layman's terms will help your proposal be at your reader's level, provided you know who your audience is. Is important to note once again that understanding and knowing who your audience is will determine the tone of your proposal.

5. Emphasizing the expertise of your company

Means and methods

One of the most important parts of your proposal is how you articulate or explain your company's method for providing its products or services. Regardless of proprietary risk, describing your means and methods displays an advantage your company might have over competitors while demonstrating the company’s expertise to the prospective client. Additionally, a brief yet confident description of how you intend to address your scope of work also gives confidence and assurance to the client while increasing your chances of getting an award.

Highlight your company’s expertise

Like any job inquiry, your proposal is your company’s resume for the prospective company so highlighting the benefit your company brings to the project is essential in making an impression upon your client. Many companies will claim they can build the work; it is your job to take the extra step in noting how your company will do the work better.

Conclusion

With a foundation of knowledge and understanding of how to construct an effective proposal, this baseline of expertise can be carried into several other areas of professional business writing, such as memorandums and business letters. Effective proposals immediately grab your reader’s attention because they focus on the most important information. Effective proposals demonstrate confidence, professionalism and a level of expertise that puts your company over your competition and, above all, the best opportunity for new business.