Create proposals that WIN!

If you are reading this, chances are you are good at what you do, but sometimes find it hard to communicate this to clients.

Good quality work is the backbone of business development in trades. It’s your biggest sales tool! But what’s the best way to use it?

Putting together a good proposal comes down to 4 things:

  1. Understanding your client
  2. Understanding what your client has asked of you (big difference between 1 and 2)
  3. Having good templates in place
  4. Having a process to get your sales documents from lead to submission and winning work!

In this article I will:

  1. Show you the different types of proposal documents you might want to submit
  2. Show you how to structure and format them to give the client what they want
  3. Show you what need in your portfolio of documents to be prepared for a top quality submission in record time.
  4. Provide you with tips on how to implement a process of good submissions.

Who is your client?

The first step in submitting any winning document is to know your client, and what they will want to see to have confidence picking you over a competitor. The questions to ask:

  1. have you submitted a document to this client before? If you have, and they are already well aware of your capability, you may be able to send a slimmer proposal
  2. The next thing to consider, what are they asking for? Was the tender request just an email, or was it a detailed RFT with requirements for submission?
  3. A less obvious question to ask is, what does the client want? Do they value quality and smooth program over price, do they value innovative engineering, are they working to a certain dollar figure (harder to determine, but sometimes you will know this).
  4. What is your strategy to win? Are you going to offer the cheapest price, the most innovative solution, or rely on supreme quality to win the work. This all comes back to knowing your client and their motivations, both explicit (what they are telling you), and implicit (what you know about them).

What are you submitting. So, what exactly did the client ask for? Do they want a formal proposal, an informal email, just a capability statement? It’s really important to give the client what they want, the way they want it. If it makes sense to put a final price in an email and send it over, there is nothing wrong with that if that’s what it takes to secure the work.

Cover Letters

A cover letter is a good way to introduce yourself and your company, to summarise what you are sending, and to encourage the client to engage with you.

  1. Start with a warm intro. Something like “Dear xxx, thank you for allowing us to provide a (Tender, EOI, capability statement) for your project located at xxx”.
  2. Summarise the document. “In this (Tender, EOI, capability statement), you will find 1. our final price and breakdown, 2. summary of insurances and certifications, 3. a selection of our completed projects demonstrating that we are capable of performing the work on-time and on-budget. etc…”
  3. Request contact. “If you have any followup questions, please reach out to me on 04xx xxx xxx or [email protected]
  4. Reiterate your intention. “Again, we thank you for the opportunity to submit for this project. etc….”

Capability Statements

So what is a capability statement? Basically, it’s a document to show a client (or potential client) what you can do, FOR THEM! This is critically important. If you have multiple streams of work, create multiple capability statements, focusing on each stream. It’s ok to mention your other work streams, but this document is trying to tell the client how good you are at doing the type of work they are engaging you for. If you put all of your work streams in a single capability statement, you might come off as a generalist, which doesn’t look as strong as a specialist.

What do you put in a capability statement:

  1. A cover letter (detailed above).
  2. Any certifications or licenses you possess, that pertain to the work you are quoting. Things like builders licenses, ISO audit summary reports or insurances are good things to put in this section.
  3. Project Profiles. These are the meat and potatoes of your capability statement. Create a single page profile for every project you have completed, include pictures and a description of the work, any unique challenges and how you overcame them.
  4. Contact details. Make sure you give the client clear directions on how to reach you if they want anything clarified, or want to engage you.


A Tender is a direct response to a request to tender work. The request could be a phone call, email, or formal RFT document. It’s similar to a capability statement, but usually includes a price and any specific information the client has requested with their tender. What do you put in a tender:

  1. A cover letter (detailed above).
  2. A final price, with breakdown if required by the client. If you are proposing design changes or other value engineering in your price, or including alternative material options that will increase the price, this is where you would want to include these. Remember, you are telling a story with a tender, and the structure has to make sense or the reader could get confused. Make sure to call out your provisional sums if there are any. You can find a good structure for this pricing layout at the end of this article.
  3. Any certifications. If you are working from an RFT document, there may be minimum certifications or insurances you have to have in place. Make sure you are including documentation for all of these requirements, or a sentence or two explaining why you don’t have xyz certification/insurance and that you are working on obtaining it by a certain date that fits in with the construction program.
  4. Project Profiles. Include any project profiles that you have of similar work. If you don’t have profiles similar, include ones that show how well you work on key structure elements the client is looking for.
  5. Contact details, as per capability statement


What is an EOI? An Expression of Interest is a document that is sometimes prepared before a tender, usually to get on the tender list for a project. It’s a formal document you submit to indicate you are capable or performing the works going to tender and want to submit a price.

Here are the differences between a Tender and EOI:

  1. At EOI stage, you are not submitting a price, just reviewing the supplied project documents and confirming you are capable of doing the work.
  2. At EOI stage, there may be specific requirements for submission, or not. It’s important to respond to all of the EOI requirements if there are any.
  3. Usually an EOI is done for a first time client to get onto their tender list. Making sure your EOI is good representation of the capability and quality of your work is vitally important.

How to create a solid Project Portfolio

Creating a solid portfolio takes time. If you don’t have one yet, start NOW! Take the template at the end of this article, schedule in 30 minutes to create a portfolio from your last completed project. Do one a week. Every time you finish a project, take 30 mins to create another one. Before long, you will have a large portfolio to work with.

Some tips on creating a good portfolio item:

  1. Include photos of finished work. In the trades, your strongest sales tool is quality work history. A few good photos of finished work can go a long way to instilling confidence in the client.
  2. Include the basics like: who the work is for, when it started a finished, the approximate project value.
  3. Include a brief summary of the work you completed.
  4. Include any specific challenges with the work, and how you overcame them. You are trying to show the client that you can deal with complex challenges during the project, so they don’t have to.

Who should create your portfolio items? To write a good portfolio item, the writer should have 3 things:

  1. A brief understanding of the project
  2. Experience enough to talk to and resonate with the client (relevant trade experience)
  3. Basic word processing skills.

This isn’t always possible in a small business, so consider splitting it into chunks. Get your Project Manager to write out some bullet points, get admin staff to create the portfolio item, and then get a project manager or other senior person to check the final document. Get them to review the photos too, we don’t want any HSE violations in photos to clients.

Style and Branding

Creating a set of documents to use for sales can be made so much easier if you already have a “style” defined. A style guide aims to take all of the style decisions away from the person who creates the documents, and make sure all of your documents are consistent and branded the same.

What things should be defined in your style guide? As a bare minimum, you should define:

  1. The fonts you use, including type, size and colour.
  2. The logos that are approved for use, including rules about how much spacing should be left around a logo.
  3. Links to skeleton documents Capability Statements, Tenders and EOIs (or whichever it makes sense to have in your business).

Want to get more honed, try creating a “client avatar”. This is more of a marketing document, so I won’t go into detail, but a well created client avatar will help you with “how” you speak to your client, and the style of writing that appeals to them.

What software to use

There are two ways you can go with this:

  1. Use Microsoft Word or a similar word processor. This is the path most businesses go in the beginning, because nearly everyone knows how to use Microsoft Word, or already has word processing software.
  2. Use Adobe InDesign or other professional desktop publishing software. If you have a marketing person in house, this may be the way to go for you. There is a learning curve with these types of software, but they can produce very slick looking documents, and allow you to keep a library of “pages”, so it’s easy to insert pre-made parts into the document.

But who has got the time for all of this?

The key thing to remember is that creating sales documents is a long-term continual process within your business. Taking your proposals from where they are now to solid, informative, tender winning documents takes time! Don’t get overwhelmed:

  1. Start with adding or improving your current cover letter
  2. Create your portfolio items over time
  3. Create template as you need them, but remember to revisit and reuse them so they are honed and improved over time
  4. Break your submission process down, and see what parts of it you can delegate
  5. Use the submission checklist in the resources section.

Footnote: Your website, and how it works alongside proposals

Apart from submitting proposals, your website is the other source of business information that you make available to the public. It will also be viewed by your prospective clients, possibly while considering what you submitted directly to them.

Your website should look like your submissions, with similar branding , fonts and information. Here are the things you should have on your website:

  1. An “about us” page. Explaining the business vision, the way you work, the types of work you have done in the past.
  2. A “portfolio/capability” page, with an online version of each project profile you have created.
  3. A “contact” page, with all of your contact details and a form to use to reach out. Make sure your form submissions work and they go to someone in the business who will be responsible for checking them daily.
  4. A “team” page. A team page does two things, it show clients what your work environment is like (long-term team members equal experience to draw on for the client), and it shows prospective new team members what it would be like to work for you.
  5. A page for each type of work stream you have. This is good for SEO, and also makes it easy for a prospective client to find out about the specific part of your business they are interested in.
  6. A “testimonials” page. Do your clients say nice things about you? Make sure to tell your prospective clients about it! Remember, our industry is small, if you put words on your website that a client wrote, put them in without any changes. One day a prospective client will know one of your testimonial submitters and call them for a reference. It’s best not to stretch the truth.