Noah is the COO at Palo Alto Software, makers of the online business plan app LivePlan. He started his career at Yahoo! and then helped start the user review site Epinions.com. From there he started a software distribution business in the UK before coming to Palo Alto Software to run the marketing and product teams.
How to Write a Business Plan for a Service Business
10 min. read
Updated November 13, 2023
If you’re starting a business that sells a service, writing a business plan is one of the first steps you need to take. Whether you are starting a consulting business, a car repair shop, or a construction firm, a business plan will help you figure out your strategy, develop your marketing plan and figure out the all-important financial forecasts so that you can be successful.
Writing a business plan can seem complicated at first. There are multiple topics you have to cover and you want to impress your readers with a complete plan. Whether it’s a loan officer reading your business plan or a potential business partner, you need to make sure you get your plan right.
That’s why we put this guide together. Business planning doesn’t have to be intimidating and we’ll guide you through the process of pulling everything together for your new service business.
What is a service business?
A service business typically focuses on selling services to customers instead of products. For example, a consultant or lawyer typically sells their time and expertise to customers. A repair business typically is selling the service of fixing broken equipment and appliances. Event planners are selling the service of planning and managing events such as weddings and corporate retreats.
Service businesses don’t just have to sell services. Many service businesses sell a mix of products and services. Take a car repair shop, for example. They’ll sell the service of repairing your car in addition to the parts required to get your car serviced. Even though the repair shop sells parts, it’s different from an auto parts store that only sells parts and doesn’t sell any repair services.
Why you should write a business plan for a service business
It’s tempting to just dive right in and start building your business. A business plan can seem like a waste of time and it’s certainly more fun to start working on things like logos, business cards, and finding office space. But, it’s important to remember that a business plan is a vital step in the process that will prevent you from wasting precious time and money as you get your business up and running.
Taking a little time to plan now can save you from making critical mistakes and prevent you from wasting thousands of dollars. Even though it may not be as “fun”, it’s worth every minute. Here’s why you’ll want to plan:
1. Clearly define your offering
Although you may have a good idea in your head for the services you’ll be offering, it’s important to write down exactly what you plan to offer to your customers and what you plan to charge. Especially for service businesses where you may be selling your time, it can be tempting to take on any job. That can lead to distractions and lead you away from your core business.
You also want to ensure that business partners are on the same page as you and that you agree on the services you are providing, what you’re going to charge, and how you are going to deliver those services.
What’s your biggest business challenge right now?
2. Create a marketing plan
A clear marketing plan is crucial for getting your service business up and running. You’ll need to know not only how you plan on landing your first customers, but also your hundredth customer.
Taking the time to describe your ideal customer and craft a marketing plan to reach them in a smart and cost-effective way is the key to a business that can grow efficiently over time.
3. Know your numbers
Before you start any business, understanding what it’s going to take to make money is a crucial first step. As you create a sales forecast and expense budget, you’ll be able to see what it will take to become profitable. Understanding how much it’s going to cost to start your business is also a critical number to know.
For some service businesses, startup costs can be high. Looking back at our car repair service business example, startup costs may be significant. This business will need to purchase a workspace, tools, and other equipment before it can offer any services.
In contrast, a consulting business may not have many startup costs. You may be able to simply work from home and offer your services online, avoiding the need for any physical overhead costs.
Regardless of whether your startup costs are low or high, understanding what level of sales you’ll need to make money is something a business plan will tell you.
4. Build your business strategy
A business plan helps you outline your business strategy. Knowing your strategy before you start helps you focus on building your business the right way from the beginning. Figuring out your strategy while you’re trying to build your business is somewhat like building an airplane while you’re headed down the runway. It’s potentially possible but very difficult to do.
Your business plan will force you to think through and answer the questions you need to answer to have a successful business.
How is a business plan for a service business different from a product business plan?
Although business plans for service businesses are fairly similar to plans for product businesses, there are a few key differences.
Often, service businesses have fairly low cost of goods sold. This is how much it costs you in parts, products, or other tangible items to make a sale. Most service businesses have low costs to deliver the service and therefore have fairly high-profit margins. Software-as-a-service businesses are a perfect example of this because the incremental cost of a new customer is so low.
Service businesses often have little or no inventory as they are focused on selling their service, not a product. That said, this isn’t always the case. Any kind of repair service usually has to have replacement parts on hand. But, lawyers and accountants almost never have any kind of physical inventory.
What you should include in your business plan
A good business plan includes six key chapters. Following this business plan outline will ensure that you have a complete and effective business plan.
1. Executive Summary
Every business plan should have a short executive summary. Your executive summary is an overview of your entire business and a preview of the rest of your plan. Ideally, your executive summary can be used as a stand-alone document that you can use to introduce your business to investors who don’t have the time to read a complete business plan.
Your executive summary should describe the services that you are offering, who your target market is, and provide a snapshot of your sales goals and profit projections for the coming year. If you’re raising money to launch your business, be sure to include how much money you need to get the business launched.
Write your executive summary last, after you’ve written the rest of your plan. Because it’s just a brief summary – two or three pages at most – writing it last will ensure that you cover all the key points in the rest of your plan.
2. Problem and Solution
The first major chapter of your business plan will cover the problem that you solve for your clients and describe the services that you provide. If you’re starting a landscaping service, the problem you’re solving is your customers’ desire for a well maintained, beautiful lawn and garden when they don’t have the time to do it themselves. A headhunting firm helps businesses find and recruit new employees without having to have a large HR department.
When you describe the services you provide, make sure to describe your pricing and how you stack up against the competition. What makes your services better than other businesses that provide similar services? What sets you apart?
3. Target Market
The target market chapter of your business plan focuses on the customers that you are selling to. A good business plan describes your business’s ideal customer very specifically. No business sells to “everyone”. Instead, good businesses know the type of customer that they are after and where to find them.
For example, a financial planning service business might target millennials that work in technology companies who like to communicate mostly online.
When you describe your target market, make sure to indicate how large the market is. You’ll want to make sure that there are enough potential customers for your services out there so that you can grow your business.
4. Marketing and Sales
Once you’ve defined the problem you are solving for people, how you solve that problem for them and described exactly who your customer is, you’ll have a great platform for creating a marketing and sales plan.
With your target market information, you should know where and how to reach your ideal customer so that you can come up with a marketing plan to reach them. If your business is local, focusing on local advertising and social media groups might be a good idea.
If your services are expensive, you’ll also want to describe your sales plan since customers most likely won’t just sign up for your services immediately after hearing about you. You’ll most likely need to deliver information about your services, create bids, and have a follow-up strategy for closing deals.
Use this chapter of your business plan to create your marketing and sales roadmap so that you can start executing on your marketing plan when your business is up and running and have sales processes in place so you make sure that you maximize your marketing efforts.
5. Company & Team
Your idea is surprisingly not the most important part of your business. It’s actually the people that build the business and run it that are the most important. Even the best idea that’s poorly executed is likely to fail, so it’s critical that you assemble the right people to make your business a success.
In this chapter of your business plan, describe who is behind the business and why this team is the right team to build it. Investors often focus more on the team than the idea because they assume that a smart and motivated team will adjust and refine an idea to make it successful, even if the first iteration isn’t perfect.
6. Financial Plan
Finally, your business plan needs a financial plan. This plan should include:
If you’re starting a subscription service, include a forecast for subscriptions, renewals, and cancellations — otherwise known as “churn”.
Your Profit and Loss statement will show your sales and expenses so that you can calculate your predicted profits.
The Cash Flow Forecast will predict how cash moves in and out of your business and will help you identify potential cash flow problems that may occur in the future.
The Balance Sheet will detail the assets and liabilities that your business is predicted to have over time.
Free business plan examples & templates
It might be helpful to explore how other service-based businesses have written their business plans. Check out our free library of sample plans and templates for service businesses. You can download any of these documents in Word form and get some structure for your own plan.