The Write Stuff

By Jody Shilan

Writing a proposal is one of the least enjoyable tasks in our business. Truth be told, most of us hate it. The real irony here is that we consider writing proposals hard work, yet look at running equipment and building things all day as enjoyable. As contractors, we would much rather be doing anything other than sitting at a computer typing a proposal. They are time consuming, often challenging, and always stressful. But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be? Written correctly your proposals can be completed faster, more accurately, and with fewer problems.

I think it is pretty safe to say that proposal writing is something that we all struggle with — and often avoid doing altogether. What is a proposal? Stated quite simply, a proposal is a written document that describes the work that your company is going to perform at an agreed upon price. It seems easy enough and pretty straightforward. So why is it that we avoid writing them?


Many of the problems stem from the fact that we just don’t like to write in general. What can we do to minimize this? The easiest thing to do is develop a proposal template. Over the years I have developed a standardized template in QuickBooks that lists all of the things that we typically do in any installation project (paver patios, plantings, lawn repair, etc.) along with a brief description of the installation process. This can be done for any service that you provide; the concept is always the same. Many of the things that we do are repetitive, so why not write the information once and then use it over and over again? In my proposals, the only thing I ever need to change is the quantities, material choice or the plant names (all of which have been previously entered in my items list). The descriptions always stay the same. Also, keep in mind that by using a template you can get back to your clients faster and minimize the risk of forgetting to include important information.

As per plan

Another way that I get around writing so many descriptions is that I almost always work off of a landscape plan. This allows me to use my three favorite words: “as per plan.” Given the following two choices, which would you rather write?

“Paver patio as per plan;” or
“We will build a paver patio in the backyard that is approximately 412 SF, 7 feet off of the back steps extending into the rear yard approximately 17 feet by 24 feet with curved areas and cutouts that will have an average 9-foot radius (18-foot diameter) connecting to the existing walk from the driveway.”

Not only does the second option take time to figure out how to write, it’s doubtful that anyone — even the contractor — has a clue about what the patio is going to look like. Your proposal should never be too wordy and confusing. Also, if you are including a lot of technical information, you should probably stop. Most clients don’t really care if you are compacting the base to 98 percent, and, even if they did, they probably don’t understand the value of this. Remember, what you write is just as important as what you don’t write.

Lump sum vs. itemize

I have experimented with both lump sum and itemized proposals, and both have pros and cons and are appropriate for different situations. Throughout the years I have developed a proposal style that is a hybrid of the two — some items are one group price, others are priced individually. This approach has been very successful for me, and I’m sure many of you do it this way as well. My goal is to always have a “signable” proposal that can easily be modified at the sales meeting to be able to close the deal. I never want to leave a sales call without a deposit and signed contract because I had to go back to the office to revise the plan or the proposal.

Sales tool

Your proposal should be well organized, easy to follow and easy to present. The best way to do this is to organize your proposal in the same sequence as you would organize your installation. Start with the rip-out and removal, and end with the mulch and lawn repair. It is logical and easy for you and your clients to follow. Also, your proposal should be presented on your letterhead, in a company folder, and should have been previously signed and dated by you. This shows the customer that you and your company are committed to the project and ready to go. This also shows them that this is the meeting to sign the proposal, get a deposit, and get things scheduled.

Proposal writing is a very important part of your business and cannot become an obstacle that slows you down. The good news is that a proposal that is well written and presented properly will actually help you make more sales. By creating templates, using consistent language, and defining your processes, you are speeding up your sales cycle and you are actually beginning to develop standard operating procedures for your entire company.

Jody Shilan, MLA is a former landscape contractor, designer and salesman. Now as a green industry consultant, he uses his 30 years of experience to help landscape design/build companies organize their systems, grow their businesses, and increase their profits by developing standard operating procedures. He is a board member of PLANET, NJLCA, APLD and BCC and can be reached by phone at 201-783-2844 or via e-mail at


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