Proposal cover letters.
Does that phrase strike fear in your heart? Or at least give you some anxiety?
From job applications to business proposals, writing a good cover letter, executive summary, or some other introduction isn’t easy.
So, this post will give you an easy-to-follow five-step process to create a killer CUSTOMIZED cover letter for every proposal you send out.
A proposal cover letter is important. It’s your proposal’s first impression with your prospect. It sets the tone, for better or for worse. And writing it can sometimes provide clarity on what should or shouldn’t be included in your proposal.
It shouldn’t be something you slap together before moving on to the ‘meat’ of the proposal or a dull fill-in-the-blank exercise that ends up sounding more canned than Campbell’s.
But, at the same time, you can’t spend hours upon hours crafting a bespoke one. You have a deal waiting on that proposal to get done.
So, what you need is a good writing formula.
I’m borrowing from the outline that my colleague Jennifer set out in her proposal executive summary post. She knows what’s up, having written dozens of cover letters/executive summaries during her time in the digital agency world.
If you’re looking for the why and when, plus some dos and don’ts, of writing one of these bad boys, be sure to check out her post.
Now, let’s dive into the who, what, where, and how here, including some examples.
Executive summary vs. cover letter
What do these phrases actually mean?
It’s tricky because the terms ‘executive summary’ and ‘cover letter’ are sometimes used interchangeably in the world of proposals.
I mean, I just used both in the intro to this very post.
You might also hear other terms, like overview or introduction, being tossed around for this piece of proposal writing. But rest assured we’re all talking about the same thing.
Technically, there is some nuance to how each of these sections function in a B2B proposal.
First, a proposal cover letter and an executive summary have some things in common:
- They should appear at the beginning of your proposal.
- They should be one page long, maximum.
- They should be prospect-focused.
- They should NOT be overly sales-y or pitchy.
- They should NOT be a detailed rehash of the entire proposal.
- They should get the recipient excited to read on.
Now, here’s where they differ.
What is a proposal cover letter?
A proposal cover letter:
- Is more conversational.
- Is formatted as a letter with salutation and sign-off.
- Doesn’t contain strategy or execution.
- Can be more persuasive (like how a cover letter for a job mentions why you’re the best person for it).
What is a proposal executive summary?
A proposal executive summary:
- May be formatted as a statement.
- Tells the story of how you provide solutions for your clients and the impact (evidence) of your solutions.
- Stays quite high-level.
Sometimes a prospect will specify that your proposal should include one or the other or both, like when you’re responding to an RFP. However, if there are no client specifications it’s up to you which one you include, how you write and structure it, and what you want to label that section in your proposal document.
Okay, now let’s get writing—with some examples to help you visualize the steps and tips.
How to write a cover letter for your proposal in 5 simple steps
One of the hardest aspects of writing a cover letter is including all the information you want to convey while keeping it as brief as possible and being compelling or even entertaining at the same time.
It’s okay. Here’s how to achieve all that in just five steps.
Step 1: Get their attention
“Snoozefest Co. is excited to submit this proposal to you.”
Are they though?
It reads more like this to a prospective client: “Snoozefest Co. is going through the motions in this proposal intro so we can cash your cheque.”
This is the very first thing the prospect will read in your business proposal! It needs to grab some attention.
Here are some examples of more impactful ways to open your cover letter.
Why these examples work
They put the focus on the client.
Congratulate them on a recent (relevant) company achievement. Show that you get what it’s like to be in their shoes. Offer up a fun fact or industry statistic that signals you’re already thinking about their market niche.
They build curiosity.
Segue your way to success. Each of these first paragraph examples creates build-up, curiosity, and excitement for what the prospect will read next and throughout the rest of the proposal. Ask a question. Don’t give away all the answers just yet. (what is the “light at the end of the tunnel”?)
They start to allude to the pain point.
You’ll go more in-depth into the challenges you’re solving in the next few paragraphs but it’s good to get it out there up top. It could be more explicit, like in example 1 (how to go from good to great when you’re already at capacity), or it could be more subtle, like how the specific mention of “heritage home” starts to set up the challenge in example 2.
Step 2: Show you understand the challenge
Sometimes when we write, we gloss over the pain point. It can be awkward to write about the challenges someone is facing in their professional life; you don’t want to suggest they don’t know what they’re doing or they’re not good at their job.
In a cover letter, though, it’s essential to dig into the ‘pain point’ they’re feeling in order to close the deal. Showing you understand the obstacles they’re facing is the best way to position your company as the only solution to their challenges. (See Step 3.)
But avoid any urge to make it about you. It can come off as “Look how smart I am!” Again, turn it back to the prospect. A good way to do this is to make sure you use the word ‘you’ more than ‘I’ or ‘we’ in this section.
Why these examples work:
They say what the prospect is likely thinking.
Show you understand all aspects of the prospect’s challenge by bringing up objections before they have a chance to, and then knock them down. Legal advice is too expensive and complicated? Not when you partner with us!
Butter your prospect up a bit. They’re not experiencing these challenges that you understand so well because they’re bad at their jobs. No, maybe it’s just a resourcing issue! Like in Example 5, you can position your team as the experts who take challenging tasks off people’s plates.
They show off the benefits of doing business with an expert.
Give them peace of mind. You’ve done this before and this isn’t your first rodeo. You see and understand the full challenge so you can help clients avoid problems before they crop up.
Step 3: Show you have the right solution
Okay, NOW you can talk about yourself. With a few cautions:
- Keep it relevant. Your company’s Best Float win at the local parade is cool and all but now’s not the time.
- Keep it concise. It’s time to ‘elevator pitch’ your solution.
- And keep it upbeat without overhyping. You want your solution to sound attractive, but don’t write cheques with your cover letter that the rest of the proposal can’t cash.
Why these examples work
They keep things high-level
No need to outline the eight different ways you’ll test their website or every single PR tactic you’ll use. This isn’t a book report on your proposal.
They still stay specific.
“Public relations...creates and maintains your public image, and positions you as a leader in your industry” is better than “we make you look good”.
But notice that these examples don’t use jargon. If a jargon-y phrase is used, like responsive design, it’s immediately explained in a non-technical way. Stick to plain language like this, unless you cater to a highly-specialized specialized audience that will understand acronyms and look for that industry-insider lingo.
They show how you’re putting everything on the table.
Look at how these cover letters talk about the sales document they’re about to read over. For example, the proposal is not just a package; it’s a “comprehensive package”.
It’s the difference between presenting the proposal as ‘here’s some info’ and ‘we’re presenting you with all the details, including facts and figures’. Let the reader know that your proposal gives them everything they need to make an informed decision.
Step 4: Show your work
Time for a not-so-humble humblebrag.
Maybe it’s a team skill set you’re known for. Or some original research you’ve done that would resonate with this prospect.
You could showcase how your company is a power-player in your niche via previous work you’re especially proud of or awards you’ve received. Or give a quick preview of your proprietary process.
Basically, the information you include in this paragraph should provide an answer to the question on every prospect’s mind: why should they work with you?
Why these examples work:
They give the references some ‘meat’.
If you’re talking about existing customers, don’t just name drop. Highlight some impressive outcomes you’ve achieved for them as well. For example, they didn’t just construct a building at NYU, it’s an award-winning building they built at NYU.
They cite the facts.
If there’s a specific accreditation that clients will need to know about (i.e.: are you licensed, bonded, board-approved, etc.?), now’s the time to mention it. Basically, anything that would differentiate you from competitors. In a market dominated by big national brands? Talk about how your business is family-run. Or vice-versa.
They go granular but don’t get into the nitty-gritty.
Again, be as specific as possible without going into too much detail.
Talking about “our process” is okay. But “Our four-step process” is an ideal amount of information for the purposes of this cover letter since you’re going to explain the steps later on in the proposal.
Step 5: Tell them what’s next
Your sales team wouldn’t end a sales call without discussing next steps. Your proposal cover letter is no different.
The closing is your chance to set expectations, either for the prospect or yourself. Don’t forget that you have to keep your end of the bargain. If your cover letter says you’ll follow up with them in a certain amount of time, for Pete Campbell’s sake, do it.
(Bonus: If you’re using proposal software, you’ll be notified when your prospect opens your proposal so you can perfectly time your follow up.)
Why these examples work:
They show how the vendor and the prospect together.
Why will this specific partnership work? You’ve talked about them, you’ve talked about yourself, now it’s time to talk about why you’ll go together like a square-hole colander and quinoa. (A square shape keeps the round grains from falling through while you’re rinsing it. Obviously.)
They ask for the sale.
You’ve refrained from selling throughout this cover letter. Now’s the time to ask for the close. Don’t shy away from presuming that you’ll be the winning proposal, that you “hope” they’ll pick you.
They talk about the next steps.
What literally happens next? Should they sign now? Will you be meeting to walk through the proposal before a signature is expected? Are you going to follow up with them? Let the reader know what’s expected of them and what they should expect from you.
A quick caveat before you rush off to write your proposal
There you have it. And now you just plug these pieces into your cover letter and copy these examples word for word and…
Not so fast.
The 15 example snippets above are all pulled from our proposal templates, all written by professional writers. Templates and samples like these are amazing starting points. But they aren’t the end-all, be-all.
Notice that all these samples are written in a slightly different voice? How you word your proposal if you’re in legal or financial services might be different than how you would write one in the marketing industry or the world of pressure washing.
And how YOU word your proposal should be consistent with your brand voice, including language, tone, and style. The information you include should speak to YOUR ideal customer. Remember, the cover letter is your proposal’s first opportunity to persuade your prospect that you’re the best choice to hire.
Conversions don’t come from canned, uncustomized content. Use these steps and examples as the catalyst for your own authentic version of a pitch-perfect cover letter for your proposal.