Proposals – How to make yours a winner

There are many schools of thought when it comes to proposals. Some estimators feels that a long document with extensive terms and conditions will insulate the firm from litigation. Other estimators prefer a more simplified proposal. The extremes range from an emailed dollar amount to a multi-page proposal. Good proposals strike a balance between brevity and controlling risk. This article will focus primarily on proposals for projects that don’t require specific bid forms.

Getting started with the ITB

Start with the objective of a proposal. The proposal is a contractual instrument submitted in response to an Invitation To Bid (ITB). Therefore much of what must be in the proposal will be addressed in the ITB. An estimator working for a General Contractor (GC) receives the ITB from the client or their design team. An estimator working for a Subcontractor (Sub) receives their ITB from the GC’s bidding the job. Something many GC estimators should consider is that they can include the clients ITB with the plans and specifications they distribute to the subs. There are a few concerns to be aware of. If the GC’s are trying to solicit early bids, the ITB will reveal the real deadline. Subs that are concerned about bid shopping will release their proposals just before the deadline to prevent the GC’s from having time to share their bid with competitors. Giving them the GC’s real deadline all but ensures that there will be no time to review their proposals before the deadline.

just right

Mort will look you right in the eye as he’s doing it,  he just doesn’t care.

Another potential concern is that some ITB’s list the pre-qualified GC bidders. Subs may send proposals to competing GC’s if this information is shared. Savvy GC estimators will include the pertinent information from the client’s ITB onto their own subcontractor ITB form.

The high points

Every proposal should be done on company letterhead with the company’s name, address, and phone number prominently displayed. The client, project, and project address should also be included. On small and simple projects, it may be reasonable to list important exclusions and exclusions along with the bid amount. More complex projects benefit from a scope narrative which helps to define how the project will take place. Often clients will request a schematic schedule or an anticipated duration on the ITB. Be careful about the differences between working days, business days, and calendar days.

Important factors

When your client receives your proposal, they are primarily looking for the cost. Public bid openings will generally read the bidder’s total along with a cursory check that the bidder has included all relevant construction documents before announcing “apparent low”. Some bidders place the final total at the back of the proposal in an effort to lead the client through their presentation of the project scope. Other bidders place the total in a summary/cover page with their narrative, schedule, etc. to follow. There are successful bidders using both methods however there are a few things to keep in mind.

Make it easier to use

Templates should be developed to ensure consistency, quality, and speed. Many companies fail to consider how difficult it can be to edit a multi-page proposal. Subtle items like monetary notation can encourage errors. For example, let’s say the proposal reads “We are pleased to present pricing for the Rutherford project. Our base bid proposal is Five Hundred Fifty Three Thousand, Two hundred and Two dollars ($553,202.00).” Spelling out the monetary amount involves typing ten words against typing eight numbers. Last minute changes may affect your base bid amount. A template that uses spelled out monetary figures and numeric figures greatly increases the odds of a typo.

Beyond typo’s, many word processor programs are plagued with formatting issues where page breaks are awkward or inappropriate. Considerable time get’s spent trying to move things around so the printed documents are properly formatted. Standardized templates built for quick data insertion are a godsend. Entering “$XXX,XXX.XX” as a place holder for a monetary amount allows the template to be formatted before the bid. Highlighting any placeholder text speeds the estimator through the template, adding last-minute information as needed.

Separate the dynamic from the static.

In some cases, it behooves the company to develop separate files for the summary, narrative, inclusions, exclusions, schedule, etc. Having all the sections within a single file document means the estimator will need to flip through many pages to make changes. Items like the narrative and the schedule are unlikely to change on bid day, however the summary and exclusion pages will almost certainly be modified several times. At a minimum, group the sections according to how likely it is you’ll need to modify them.

Put it all together

Regardless of how many files, programs, or pages you end up with, it’s good practice to consolidate the proposal into a single file that’s small enough to email. Whenever transmitting files, it’s good practice to use locked files visible through a free “reader” version of popular software. Many free programs exist which allow a program “printer” to be installed which allows the user to “print to the file format”. Scanners are another option provided they output to the desired file format. Image file formats native to one operating system should be avoided because they are cumbersome and can create formatting issues when printed on the client’s computers.

A proposal is not a contract

Consider how the proposal feels to the client. What does twenty pages of “boilerplate” communicate to the client? If the client provides a sample contract in the specifications, your firm’s boilerplate may have absolutely no bearing on the final contract terms. Some clients choose to sign a proposal and forgo a contract. In those cases, it could make sense to have a proposal that adequately covers contractual obligations, remedies, and so forth. Small projects for informal clients are more likely to go this route. Generally speaking it’s a better course of action to use a proper contract form, than to rely upon a proposal or a handshake.

A proposal and a contract are separate instruments. Combining the two is false economy. Contracts may be subject to negotiation after the notice of award, or notice of intent but there’s no guarantee. If the contract terms are unreasonable you must ask questions about them BEFORE THE BID. If the terms are still unreasonable, don’t bid the job. Tacking on your firms terms and conditions to the proposal is not likely to change anything when the contract is part of the construction documents.


Local tradition and corporate culture often define how and when a contingency may be applied to a proposal . Those in favor of contingencies point to the relative ease in which initial changes are addressed to get the project off and rolling. Those opposed look at a contingency as the dollar value of the firms inability to build to the plans. The fact remains that very few jobs are built without change orders. Whether the local tradition is for the contractor or the client to carry the contingency is irrelevant, it’s good practice to admit that construction projects have risk to be accounted for. Be advised that contingency is an easy target for client frustration. When comparing two similar proposals, the bid with lower contingency may appear to be more confident or competent.

Velociraptor pony

Now that’s a a guy who get’s things done!

Convey confidence

Does the proposal read well? Clients may not share your passion for how things come together. Long and pedantic narratives with trade-specific jargon aren’t likely to speak to your client. Ask yourself what the client is looking for. The client is excited about their project. They want to know that challenges are well met and that the build team is imminently capable. Weasel wording, artful dodging, and avoiding accountability will immediately raise alarms with experienced clients. Honesty builds trust, trust supports confidence. Many clients get their very first impression of your firm by reading your proposal, don’t try to sound like a lawyer, an auctioneer, or an encyclopedia.

Times where less is more

Laundry lists of inclusions are easy to generate for an estimator however they may create the impression that anything not explicitly listed is omitted. More general and sweeping inclusions can create a sense of competency and completeness to the proposal. Inclusions should attempt to bring particular focus to easily missed items or to costly items that are driving your price. Many clients compare competing proposals, so write inclusions with the intention of exposing items your competitor may have omitted.

Conversely, if you’ve found a good idea that saves money on the project without affecting the scope or quality of the work, it may be wise to keep mum about it. Unscrupulous clients may share your good idea with a competitor.

Inexperienced clients may prefer long proposals to better assuage their anxieties. A proposal is a sales tool, so it’s smart to tailor it to the client’s needs. Be cautious about generating questions or presenting extensive options with an inexperienced client. Many estimators treat an inexperienced client as though it’s perfectly normal to have a myriad of options available to every possible concern. This overwhelms the client with immaterial decisions that serve to delay contract award. Some issues are significant and must be addressed, others are flights of fancy. Keep the client on track by staying on topic. If the client wants to change direction, they should consult their design team who’s not as bashful about charging them for changing their mind.

Everything in business is about time and money so every price quoted needs an expiration date. Be sure to specify when your quote expires because you may need to revisit your pricing if the award is delayed.

Times where more is more

Not every set of construction documents will be a pleasure to work with. Incomplete, conceptual, or incorrect construction documents generate considerable risk to the bidders. Every effort should be made during the bid to secure answers to significant questions about the scope of work. Nevertheless there will be times that the estimator must protect their firm against a risky job. Simply excluding some scope of work on the grounds that it wasn’t well-defined is common practice. Depending on the project and the issue, an exclusion may get your bid disqualified.

For example, let’s say a project bid to remodel an existing office building. The plans include key notes calling for demolition of existing however no demolition plan or narrative was provided and there was no job walk opportunity. RFI’s seeking photographs, narratives, or job walks to verify existing conditions went unanswered. What do you do? Excluding demolition is likely to get you disqualified since it’s obvious that it will be necessary to do the job. Adding money to your proposal to pay for demolition may make you uncompetitive. In this case it’s wise to consider what you know. If the office building is occupied, then figure on a complete demolition of a typical office space. Items like hazardous waste, or salvageable materials need not be considered because “worst or best case” scenario’s are not “typical”. You could define the issue in your inclusions, along with a budgeted amount to pay for it. Depending on the situation it may be appropriate to note the RFI that went unanswered to prove your diligence.

Be wary of presenting too many solutions to design problems. Every price you provide may be used against you when unknown details are later revealed. Remember that the design team is paid to solve design problems and diplomacy is important to protect your interests. If you provide an allowance, expect to provide accounting for its dispensation and remuneration to the client for any unused portion. Many clients feel any profit on an allowance is unfair so bid accordingly.

Advice to subcontractors ; make it easy on the estimator

GC’s are reading subcontractor bids at 90 miles per hour. The estimator needs to have a solid subcontractor proposal for every scope of work. Once they have the entire project accounted for, they will pursue potentially cheaper subcontractor proposals. Time is of the essence for the GC, they may not have time to review every proposal coming through the door. Only those that seem lower than their apparent low proposals will get priority. It can be a big advantage to be the first apparent low since there may not be time for the estimator to review competing bids.   Easy to read and understand proposals are more likely to be scoped. Anything that smacks of a “gotcha” issue may send your proposal to the bid room floor. Put THE ESTIMATORS name and direct phone number in a prominent location. If the GC need to call with a question, they’ll absolutely hate losing time to a receptionist or dial by name directory.


“Please put your estimator on the line….bad dog!…Bad dog!”

Given the choice, the GC estimator will avoid calling time-wasting companies. More than once I have had only enough time to make one call before the deadline. It’s a simple thing that lots of companies do wrong.

Speed reading vs. the checklist.

Long, drawn out proposals are slow to read and inevitably hide important information in blocks of unnecessary text. The only thing worse than a proposal with chapters is a checklist. Some subcontractors use a checklist/matrix where they list out standard inclusions and exclusions by row. Columns carry an icon to designate if it’s included, excluded, not applicable, or whatever. These are immensely irritating to read and interpret. It’s possible the idea is to speed up bidding by having a template that’s quick to fill out. Whatever time it saves the bidder, it costs twofold for the GC. Trying to read through thirty odd items that aren’t applicable looking for something important is very frustrating. It’s a bad practice that needs to end. For every “gotcha” victory claimed for the checklist, there’s an estimator quietly removing a bidder from the invite list.

Understand the default conditions

If your proposal isn’t furnishing and installing some scope of work, it should boldly declare “Material only”, or “Install only”. The default understanding is that a subcontractor proposal is to furnish and install everything for that scope of work.  Fire alarm subcontractors often exclude conduit, back boxes, and pull strings even when they claim “turnkey” on their proposals. Often the bidders perspective is that “it’s always done this way” so they believe it’s their clients responsibility to address their shortcomings. This prima donna behavior is common among semi-autonomous trade retailers like Fire Alarm, Elevators, Kitchen Equipment, Pre-engineered building manufacturers, and office furnishings. These proposals generate additional risk with their confusing and duplicitous presentation. In some cases the shoddy proposal’s risk is high enough to merit hiring the second low bidder.

Some subcontractors refuse to include taxes on their proposals “to simplify” matters for themselves. Taxes may be complicated, but they are certainly not optional. Professionals should understand that whatever is required to actually do the job should also be included in their proposals. This potentially includes taxes, permitting, insurance, bonding, licensing, cranes, freight, and so forth.

airlift dino

Material handling, rooftop delivery… you know, standard stuff.

GC’s are understandably frustrated by subcontractors submitting bids missing obviously necessary items. Laying such a trap may backfire on you. If you don’t bid to the default conditions, the default decision may be to scuttle your proposal. Some GC’s will write contracts in full reversal of proposal exclusions like taxes that they view as entrapment. Attempts to “red-line” their contract or add to the bid-day amount typically end with a simple choice; do the job by their contract or be excluded from all future work.

Unit price your way out of a job

Some subcontractors submit proposals with unit pricing that goes on for pages. Concrete work is particularly given to complex contracts because companies often specialize in only site concrete, flat work, foundations, and/or rebar without consistently providing the materials. It may require the GC to write a half-dozen or more contracts pertaining to concrete alone. Long and detailed unit pricing forces the estimator to do dozens of calculations to answer basic questions. Many of these bidders feel that sharing every detail of how they arrive at their proposal will obligate the GC to accept any errors or omissions they failed to correct.  This is trying to avoid accountability for their takeoffs which is unprofessional and indicative of a high risk proposal. Many times a professional bid would arrive with a single price to furnish everything necessary for all the concrete on a project. Often, after hours of calculations involving lots of bidders, the net difference between that professional’s amount and the cobbled blend of partial-proposals was very slight. That meant that even if the professional was more expensive, they were less risk and therefore better value. Partial scope bids communicate that the bidder has focused on exercising their limitations instead of their abilities.

Unit pricing everything enables the estimator to take incomplete competitor bids and accurately plug the gaps. This may leave the unit pricing subcontractor with only small, and unprofitable portions of a larger project.   Any unit price you provide has the potential to be used against you not only for contracting, but for change orders as well. It’s less risk to use a unit price bid for smaller scope of work.

Good proposals lead to easy contracts

Subcontractors must understand that a proposal is a promise to tender goods and services for the project in exchange for a stipulated sum.  The scope of work needs to be done per the construction documents, period. GC’s write contracts in broad encompassing terms like “all flatwork” , as opposed to listing the square footages of all flatwork on the project for that reason.

The estimator wants to know you’ve got everything and they want to know if it’s install only, furnish and install, or material only. If you’re providing those options, simplify to sitework, flatwork, and foundations.

Don’t hide exclusions

Every bid is based on its exclusions. Bids that are “shy” about presenting the exclusions take longer to scope. Long subcontractor proposals are especially prone to concealing exclusions. The estimator may be in a terrific rush to scope bids. As the deadline approaches, the amount of time they can spend reviewing a bid that’s not apparent low diminishes. It’s possible that your list of inclusions and exclusions will cause the estimator to revise their apparent low. Making your bid easy to read and understand is pivotal towards snagging such a success. GC estimators are often very thankful for your professionalism which builds trust. That trust may bring new opportunities.

One page

Opinions differ however the vast majority of subcontractor proposals are a single page. A well written proposal does not improve with higher page counts.   Some companies require a hard copy of every proposal in the bid book. A one page proposal with four pages of boilerplate means more time at the printer and less time deciding if they’ll hire you. Estimators get plenty tired of reloading the printer. Do them a favor and stick to one page proposals. Some bidders will email two files, a one page proposal and a standard terms and conditions packet. This is one way to meet corporate requirements for boilerplate without irritating your client. Be sure to put the estimators name and phone number on every page. Wherever possible put the bidders direct phone number to avoid making clients call the main number and get transferred.

Final Thoughts

The proposal should be attractive, professional, easy to read, and informative. Photo’s and images on the proposal may not print or photocopy well. Digital watermarks may appear nicely on bonded stock but obscure the writing on cheap copier paper. Formatting needs to be based around standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper because not everyone will have legal paper stock in their printers. Provide enough open space on your proposal to make the writing easy to read. Landscape printing is not appropriate for text portions of proposals but has applications for schedules. It can be difficult to read a landscape printed page that’s stapled to a portrait printed packet. Every page should have your firm’s name, the project name, the page number and your phone number on it. It’s easy to miss a printed sheet in a busy office. Lots of packets get dropped before they’re stapled. Make it easy to assemble, collate, and verify that they’ve got the entire thing.

It should be obvious but run a spell check and have a colleague check your grammar. This is not the time to appear unprofessional. Clients may share your proposal with their colleagues, design professionals, even your competitors. Make sure that your proposal reflects well on you and your firm.


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© Anton Takken 2015 all rights reserved

About Anton Takken

I chose to focus on estimating for a few reasons. Chief among them was that it's a position that's hard to fill in most companies. Job security and advancement is easier as a result. Unique to this job is a higher vantage point over the company and its place in the market. Bids are generally over in a few weeks which keeps things from getting boring. The reasons few of my colleagues pursue estimating comes down to a few misconceptions. The first is that it's the builders version of accounting - perceived as a lonely and quiet life among the charts and plans. The second is that it's not engaged in the construction process. Lots of the appeal of the construction industry is the sense that individual effort brought a plan into reality. The teamwork and camaraderie present among tradesman seems conspicuously absent at the estimators desk. Finally, I think the last reason is that it's daunting to be responsible for setting the price of something that's never been done. The good news for folks in estimating is that it's much more social than advertised. An estimator's phone is constantly ringing. Taking the opportunity to build relationships with the bidders creates a positive atmosphere and encourages everyone to do their best. It can be too much of a good thing which is why it's common to arrive at their voicemail when you're calling with a question. A strong rapport with the bidders can be invaluable. Subcontractors have much more exposure to what's going on in the market and they're often eager to share their knowledge. Learning from these experts is a priceless opportunity that's often overlooked. More on this in a bit. I decided to start this blog because I noticed that estimating has applications in many arenas. Over the last few years I've helped estimate in fields ranging from software development to blacksmithing! The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's not about knowing what everything costs, it's about knowing how to figure that out. I believe the very first step to knowledge is to seek it, the second is to retain it, and the third is to pass it on. I hope to share some insights into how estimating is done and hopefully have some fun doing it. My experience is mostly commercial construction, but I'll try to make everything as generally applicable as I can. There are many aspects of business that all markets share yet it's remarkable that one of the most consistent is the failure to recognize that estimating is the very first step to a successful project. So if you're frustrated that work isn't profitable, or exasperated that there's never enough time to get the job done, this blog will be worth your time. Feel free to email me at: View all posts by Anton Takken

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