If you are in a position where you need to draft your first, third or thirty first proposal it may seem a daunting task.  Especially when your field is innovation and all things new and unchartered.  Where do you start, what do you do?  Well, there is a need for structure, and process and control.  There is also a need to include simple headings that aim to qualify the offer and describe the exchange of value.

The checklist is not for all types of commerce and is set in the context of innovation so will need to reference industry sector domain knowledge, commercial sensitivities and terms.

At its heart the proposal top 10 is not a ‘pick n mix’ of headings and questions to put into a proposal.  Each one of the ten speaks to the steady building of a client and provider relationship.  These are built on understanding the customer’s needs, getting the provision in line with the respective strategies, describing the intentions, scope and deliverables and pricing, resourcing and planning the project.  With those in place you can then represent the outcome and benefits to show what success looks like.  The contracting stage of the sales process then becomes relatively straight forward because you have not only delivered the aforementioned points of the proposal but you have neatly built the confidence that you know what you are doing, the offer is clear, the exchange of value is qualified and the return looks pleasing to all sides and leads to positively fostered relationships that can be built on for future projects.

  1. Have we identified the problem/opportunity?
  2. What does this do for the market –
  3. Do we know what we are planning to do?
  4. Do we know what success looks like?
  5. Is this what we do?
  6. Do we know what everyone is putting in to the deal?
  7. Is it clear what is produced?
  8. Is this proposal viable and achievable?
  9. How will the parties work together?
  10. Do we understand the contractual relationship?

To understand the offer and the exchange of value the top ten are not singular in identifying those two vital components.  As mentioned they build the story.  Along the way they build confidence also.


Have we identified the problem/opportunity?

Potentially the most important

  1. Listen to the customer – strangely the most common fault of a commercial proposal is not identifying what the customer wants or needs or is having a problem with. This may sound odd but many business development and sales teams waste time dreaming up how a service or product may fit a potential customer without engaging with them.  This is easier to decide when your products and services are ‘off the shelf’ with a clear product roadmap and product/service portfolio.  Even easier when your market is small and specialised or niche with limited competition.  Then most of your effort is on price and quantity.  You can create a need where it may not exist.

However, when the offer is less clear and the exchange of value between your organisation and your potential customer is unqualified your first step is to listen to the customer and understand their needs.

  1. Demonstrate you understand – A customer needs to know that it can work with and trust the innovation provider. The customer also needs feel confident that they have been listened to and proof of that comes by demonstrating your organisation has listened and understands.   A common mistake however with innovation and new technology proposals is the idea that your organisation needs to know the answers.  In a sector where the answers aren’t always clear, stepping back with the client a few steps to get the questions right, is usually a better platform to work from.  Having worked with many organisations that have broad concepts of innovations that might work I have often seen the clients state equally what they might  ‘Might work’ and ‘might want’ need to solidify.  The key to understanding is to get the questions right rather than the answers.  Research, use-cases, interviews, and questionnaires are useful joint exercises to get the understanding for the project.

It is equally fair to say that a shared approach speaks well to an innovation project particularly.  Joint understanding can often bring a much stronger proposal to the stage of contracting.  You may not want to put effort into that phase, often called ‘initiation’, ‘exploration’ or ‘pre project’ but rest assured you will find it more difficult to understand the offer and the exchange of value if you don’t.

  1. Provide some broad concepts or options – don’t be afraid to provide some ideas once you have investigated as potential. There is collateral in demonstrating the willingness to share concepts and ideas as it shows invested common interest.  Demonstrate that your organisation has listened, understood and can proffer some solutions.  The ideas may bounce back and forth for a period but eventually this ‘sweats’ out the opportunity/need/problem.  Ensure you factor this into you costs though as invested common interest may require more overhead from your organisation initially.

End Results

Number one (identifying the opportunity/problem or the need) in our top ten relies more on the approach and applied techniques of human intervention and cohesive thinking than it does on any detailed scientific equations or methodologies.  It is experiential and therefore sometime difficult to quantify success in the process of establishing the potential for doing business with a customer.  Some potential customers may see the process detailed in points 1 to 3 as unnecessary.   It is at this point that your organisation needs to use its developed trust to avert such thinking.  If the relationship has developed then the customer should understand your processes and reasoning.


  1. What does this do for the market?

Imagine a scenario where your proposal assumes the client knows what this proposal may mean for the market they are in and also assume that your organisation thinks the same.  Six months later during implementation, expectations on either side are not being met around this subject because perhaps the assumptions were not expressed and discussed.  Critically, not expressed in the proposal.

Whilst some reading this will find the idea of expressing the strategies of provider and customer in the proposal somewhat odd, remember that the field of work expressed here is innovation and all things new.  Again, as with the previous article on knowing the opportunity or problem the level of trust required by customers in innovation and unknown service and product developments means the market strategy can equally require further work to ensure the partner/provider is the right one.  Its not until you actually right these strategies down and shine the light on the proposal that the true picture emerges.

Demonstrate that the respective market strategies can meet

As an example consider hypothetically that a potential customer wants to disrupt the market with patient administration systems (PAS/ADT) in an open source software development to bring about change in the licensing power of the large software vendors.  As an open source provider your organisation is one of those potential providers and aligned closely to that strategy but you are nascent and your organisation’s strategy is to land your first reference client to base your market growth potential on.  There is no conflict in either market strategy yet the proposal would do well to explain how both market strategies would be achieved for the respective organisation and where the strategies combine in the proposal.


In another example picture the emerging city landscape of the UK.  Urban innovation is one of the emerging themes of the UKs efforts to create new markets whilst improving cities.  The cities understand something of their needs but need help.  They know they have information, data and technology in disparate locations, formats and sources.  They need to deliver better air quality living spaces for residents, alternative energy transport programmes and citizen centric service design amongst may other initiatives. They have some of the data and technology but its not connected.  They have need of your expertise.

Your organisation can explore the options, design the questions that need to be asked, research the answers and provide prototype technologies as solutions.  Your organisation’s strategy though is to bring that cumulative effort to the point of getting the SME community engaged in providing the production live solutions and long term support.  You are not the solution provider.  You are the designer, market creator and agitator.

If therefore cities have the strategies for change in the three areas mentioned and your organisation has the strategy to market create in this area: then say it.  Stitching together the strategy as explained above will speak appropriately to the sector and market the potential over and over for other similar initiatives.

If you don’t know your market – find someone who does. 

Who owns your market strategy? Are they the thought leaders and BD execs shaping the market strategy that you are working towards?  If you are responsible for the proposal and development of the opportunity, make sure you know the market strategy.  Get close to those owning the strategy and make sure you own it too.  When you speak to your potential customer it is crucial that you have this ‘down’.  Know the market ‘elevator pitch’.


End Results

Hopefully your will be noticing in these two first elements of the Commercial Proposal top 10 must do’s, that innovation opportunities are based on knowledge of your sector (market value).  In the next blog we deal with something often assumed and poorly crafted. “what are we planning to do”? and then “what does success looks like”.  You will see in the next blog why these two are inextricably linked.