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  • Writer's picturePhil Todd

Winning research proposals!

Running any research business is inherently risky and stressful and there are many online resources that cover the business planning aspect of this so I won’t touch on those issues here. What I will talk about in this article are some structured approaches to writing winning market research proposals.

Here is simple proposal structure checklist as a template. This is what you might call a full proposal. It’s not set in stone, so adapt to suit the specifics of your client, your project, or your own company style.

Note, some of this may seen basic but it’s all there for completeness’ sake, and you can create a shorter abbreviated proposal template instead if that suits your style better. But, the more you specify details in writing in your proposal, the less room there is later for misunderstandings and scope drift.

1. Simple title page

2. Introduction to the proposal including next steps

3. Statement of the client’s objectives, and how that maps to the research objectives

4. Why you? What makes you a great fit for the project?

5. Methodology or project overview

6. Methodology or project in detail

7. Options, if any

8. Team

9. Deliverables and timeline

10. Limitations, conflicts, risks etc

11. Costs and validity

12. Acceptance form

13. More detailed experience, and Ts and Cs in an Annex

Before you start to write: Here is a good practice checklist of points to think about:

· Explore the RFP or brief with the client, ask questions and understand what they are trying to do, make sure this is in fact the right project for what they need! The more you engage at the start, the more the client will remember you when they read the proposal.

· Be easy to work with (I can’t over-emphasise this). Be constructive and helpful, offer expertise.

· Discuss with the client some alternative approaches, set out some ballpark costs, make sure you flush out any hidden issues, preferences, timing and budget constraints.

· Some clients want a short proposal – check that out with them

· Decide on PowerPoint or Word, some clients have a preference. Word is good if there is a lot of detail, but PowerPoint can look surprisingly effective.

· Do you know the decision process on their side, and how long that might take?

· Before you write the proposal make sure you have nailed down the methodology in some detail (more so than you plan to write into the document) as this will drive your costing (see next article on that one!).

· Think about how attractive your possible costed options will be, make them really good!

· Create some boilerplate standard text for key credentials statements, and also for deliverables, costs, etc. get all that correct once, then re-use and tailor. Create a list of previous projects with short descriptions you can drop in (nb. project examples and case studies take a surprisingly long time to draft).

· Use relevant diagrams as much as possible.

· A brief note on costing – know your margins (surprisingly not always easy), know what are competitive day rates, know your mark-up on external costs, strike a balance between sensible and competitive pricing, and think whether you will need to negotiate on price.

· Don’t give a discount on the vague promise of future work. But do consider a discount on a contract for multiple projects as you can find some economies of scale.

· And, be prepared to walk away if it’s not do-able, or not do-able to a decent price or you’re not comfortable with it. Better to walk away than do a bad job and have an unhappy client.

Now let’s step briefly through each of the sections.

Simple title page. It may sound obvious but make sure you include the project title, date, client name, and a reference number. You may go through several iterations so you and the client need to know about versions!

Introduction to the proposal including next steps. You can include an opening single page that is conversational and references the discussions you have had with the client leading up to the proposal. It should also say what the next steps are (a call, a meeting, or a process to iron out any final tweaks). This can alternatively be as a cover letter or cover email.

Statement of the client’s objectives, and how that maps to the research objectives. What is the client trying to achieve with this work? Show that you grasp all this, demonstrate understanding the issues and challenges. And then, how the project or program of work will deliver what is needed. You can also discuss here the alternative approaches you have considered.

Why you? Somewhere in the proposal you need to show your relevant experience. One approach is to have a single summary page that highlights how great and relevant you are, and then have more detail later, possibly in an Annex. But you are selling the proposal so make it so compelling that the client wants YOU to do the project above all others. Great credentials and thinking moves the decision away from being price driven.

Methodology or project overview. Ideally just a one page overview of the methodology or project stages. Use a diagram especially if there are sequential stages of work as you can reference this diagram in the detail in the next section.

Methodology or project in detail. Here is where you talk in more detail about what you will do. Note, some clients don’t want lots of detail, so work this out beforehand! There’s a balance to be struck between the WHAT and the HOW here. You must say what you will do, but personally I only give brief details on how (enough to be credible but not so the client can pass the proposal to someone else to implement). Be specific where needed (eg interview numbers) but circumspect enough to allow you flexibility (eg approx. spread of interviews by segment). If you are really unsure how one stage might work out, include a formal review point to discuss with the client. Make sure you reference any deliverables as you go along (eg ‘stage’ report).

Options, if any. Can you upsell or add more value? Make sure you give some extra options such as more interviews or research, different delivery options (eg face to face presentation to their team), additional reports or summaries aimed at different client stakeholder groups. These are all costed options so they must genuinely add value.

Team. Name the team, with some credentials and the role they will play (project manager, lead analyst etc), and show the team structure.

Deliverables and timeline. List out everything the client will get (meetings, progress calls, drafts, and final versions, presentations etc). Summarise the timeline with the caveats that the longer the project, the more approximate the timings may be. If timings are especially uncertain, add in a timeline review call or meeting half way through.

Limitations, conflicts, etc. Are there constraints, or any limitations that you need to flag? Do you need to state that there are no conflicts of interest? Is there anything else you want to raise? Its too late to do this later!

Costs and validity. Some clients will tell you how they want this specified but you need to provide a total cost exclusive of any applicable tax. Possibly broken by stage. Some public sector clients will want this in terms of man days or day rate, but my advice is to be wary of too much detail! Remember to state how long the proposal is valid for (eg 1 month from date). And to refer to the Ts and Cs.

Acceptance form. You can add a simple acceptance page that the client can sign and return to get things started, but often clients will want to sign a contract of which the proposal will form a major part. This is important as the proposal will reflect exactly what you are bound to implement and deliver, so any caveats and limitations need to be in there!

Ts and Cs. It’s often good to add in a short standard set of Ts and Cs in an Annex.

Lastly, you can include an Annex with more example projects if needed. And remember you may not need all these sections, but if you choose to miss one out or combine a few, at least do so knowledgeably!

Use a set of sections that suits you best, there is no ‘one size fits all’ !

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