Different Types of Proposals and When to Use Them

Proposals and when to use them

A proposal can come in many forms. It doesn't always have to be a major effort.

In the early days of Barrel, we painstakingly crafted every proposal as if it was the most important document in the world. Over time, we learned to reserve these efforts for situations that absolutely demand it.

Here are our most common "proposal" methods and when we typically use them:

1) The email proposal

We do a lot of work upfront to qualify and vet out new business opportunities. This means that by the time we're ready to "talk details", the prospect is likely to consider us as a finalist and, in many situations, really eager to start working with us. Oftentimes, if we're fairly certain that the prospect is very likely to work with us and their budget aligns with what we'd like to charge, we quickly craft up a simple email that outlines the project to serve as a proposal. We ask for the green light so we can quickly generate a contract for signature.

Here's an example:

Hi Jean,

Thanks for answering all of our questions regarding the website project. We had a chance to regroup with the team and put together a proposal. These include the approach and features we discussed on our last call. Let me know if the pricing breakdown looks good and if so, we can get all of this in a contract.

Website Redesign Project
Project start date:
Target launch date:
  • Planning phase — brief description, rough timing
  • Design phase — brief description, mention of revision rounds & deliverables, rough timing
  • Development phase — brief description, bulleted list of key features, rough timing
  • QA / Pre-launch phase — brief description, rough timing
  • Post-Launch support — brief description, rough timing
Pricing: $125,000

Happy to review this on a call as well if you need further clarification, let me know.
It's important to note that these need to be used in the right situations. If there's any uncertainty about whether or not such an email is appropriate, by all means, ask the prospect if it's okay to send the proposal in email format or if they prefer something else. It's possible that the prospect's organization has certain expectations of how proposals must look, so an email format might not fly.

2) Straight to SOW

For prospects who're gearing to start and have given verbal confirmation that they want to work with you, sometimes it's best to skip the proposal step altogether and jump straight into Statement of Work (SOW) mode. We find this most common when working with existing clients who want to start another project and already have approved budget to get started. This also happens when we work with a stakeholder whom we've worked with in the past who's moved to a new company and already certain they want to engage with us.

3) The Pre-Made Proposal

For some of our more straightforward services that we've outlined clear and repeatable processes (e.g. audits, discoveries, support & maintenance plans), we simply attach the PDF that outlines the service and use that as the proposal. If you've done the ground work of explaining the value and feel like the prospect is a good fit, this can be a seamless process.

4) The Works

This is the proposal that tries to put your firm in the best light possible. It's got a nice cover, background about your agency, details about how you'll approach the project, case studies, and maybe even an appendix with further specs and supporting documentation that try to show why your firm is best qualified for the opportunity.
These proposals take time to put together and often require multiple calls with the prospect as well as internal conversations to get inputs from different departments. They're their own mini projects that can eat up a good chunk of time.
As mentioned above, this was our default for a very long time. Problem is, if you create a fully-baked proposal for every one of your opportunities, you will be drowning with proposal work and likely to be wasting a lot of time. I regret the many missed weekends and holidays that were spent pumping out proposals that often amounted to nothing.
This is why this type of proposal needs to be reserved for the appropriate opportunities and used sparingly.
So what are the appropriate opportunities? A couple come to mind:
  1. A strict RFP process for a sizable contract, usually government, nonprofit, or the procurement department of a large corporation, where you have no inside track or existing relationship with the stakeholders. While your positioning and reputation will be the most important factors, the proposal and how it represents your firm will matter, especially if the review process is literally one in which proposals from competing firms are compared side-by-side.
  2. When you've got the support of key stakeholders in the organization as well as their word that they'll push your firm through but a proposal can help "check the boxes" and get other stakeholders to feel good about the recommendation.

In Conclusion, a Sports Analogy

A good analogy I like to keep in mind comes from baseball.
The key to winning is to be a disciplined batter. New opportunities in the form of pitches will come your way, but not all pitches will be good ones. In fact, many will be poor throws that will lead to strikes, or losses, if you swing.
If you develop a keen eye and can look out for good, hittable pitches, then your batting average will go up and you will score. These are opportunities that are worth pursuing with any of the proposal types mentioned above.
And once in a while, you may get a fat pitch right down the middle that's just screaming for a huge swing, and this is when you can go all in with The Works and invest the time into putting together a beautiful proposal.
But like a good batter, you know these are rare opportunities and you won't waste your energy swinging big at a subpar throw.