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When I conduct proposal training sessions, I always tell my attendees if they remember just one thing from the class, it should be that proposals are about our client. Creating client-centric proposals is an APMP best practice, and for good reason. Putting the client at the heart of our bid responses provides compelling content that can differentiate us from the pack. However, over the past year, I have begun to realize that just talking about the client is not enough. To be truly successful, we need to make a deeper emotional connection with our evaluators. We need to go beyond the client-centered approach to develop empathetic proposals.
What Is an Empathetic Proposal?
Writing a client-centric proposal means identifying what the client needs and writing to those needs. The bid clearly outlines the needs of the client and demonstrates how we can address them. It provides compelling content that aims to influence the buyer to choose us. However, in today’s ultra-competitive business environment, you need to go further. A proposal needs to appeal to the client’s core buying emotions. As APMP Fellow Mike Parkinson often says in his talks, people buy with emotion and rationalize with logic.
When people buy in a professional capacity, they have an emotional stake in the success of the product or program. It might be that they worry about losing their jobs, harming their professional reputations or damaging their company. Whatever the reason, we need to consider the emotional stakes of proposal evaluation. Empathetic proposals make a clear emotional connection with the evaluator. It goes further than showing we know what the client needs — it shows we know why they need it.
This is a subtle but critical difference. By focusing on the why, we get to the heart of the evaluator’s professional needs. By knowing why something is a pain point or hot button, we can better articulate how our solution is the best fit for their needs. In return, this language and understanding allows our clients to feel at ease with what we propose and builds a level of trust and engagement through the proposal. It creates that needed emotional connection to influence their buying decision. The empathetic component provides the emotional rationale; our technical and sales inputs provide the contextual information required for later rationalization.
Three Key Tips to Writing Empathetic Proposals
There are multiple ways we can layer in empathy throughout the proposal process. From opportunity identification through proposal submission, we should be focused on identifying the needs of our client, why those needs are important and how we can address them. It should be a major part of our client interactions, research and capture. We need to ensure the needed building blocks for empathetic proposal content is a part of our solution and win theme development. When we sit down to create proposal narrative, we should have all the information we need to create empathetic content. So, how do we layer that content into our responses? Here are three basic tips to get things started.
1. Use the executive summary to set the scene.
The executive summary or overall introduction sets the stage for your entire proposal. It may be the only thing the decision maker reads after the committee recommends your bid. Your proposal’s opening should not include your name or anything about your firm. The first two to three sentences should provide an overview of the opportunity and the client’s environment and needs. What has the client identified as the key issues, concerns and opportunities ahead for this project/program? This makes the section client-facing. The next two lines, instead of focusing on the solution you provide, define why the client is having the issues and concerns we have identified. This allows us to show intimacy with their needs and issues.
For example, on a hypothetical bid, we discover incumbent capture is viewed as a critical factor in program success. Normally, we would assume this is because of the need for knowledge retention, ready-built relationships, security risks and continuity of operations. However, we need to know which of those reasons, if any, are what drives our client in this instance. Writers should receive this information from their capture or sales team, which is then crafted to meet the needs of the executive summary.
Defining why a specific hot button or pain point is important and customizing the features and benefits to the specific client is what makes it empathetic. It takes an idea or concept and makes it personal to the evaluator. It gets the reader nodding along with your assertions and leaves them with the feeling that “this firm knows me.” It becomes the cornerstone of your empathetic proposal.
2. Use section introductions to make a connection.
Begin your sections with the same approach, focusing on the client needs and their “why” in the opening paragraph. Oftentimes, especially in federal proposals, individual sections are handed out to knowledgeable reviewers. They may not have read the executive summary or any other piece of the proposal for that matter. Therefore, you need to instill in them the same level of familiarity and comfort you did with the senior decision-makers with the executive summary by following the pattern outlined for the executive summary at a more granular level. Depending on your page count, this can be a full paragraph or just a single line devoted to what is needed and why. Be economical with your words and phrases. Get straight to the point and immediately make that connection by outlining both what is important and why. Doing so lays the foundation for the rest of your section.
3. Build empathy into your narrative.
We need to continue writing empathetic content throughout each narrative section. There are two ways to accomplish that. First, at a section level, it is even more important to make sure you use the client’s own language. Each organization has its own culture, its own way of referring to things. For example, on one bid I worked, we knew the client referred to the support as “strategic communication,” as opposed to the more common “strategic communications.” Therefore, we made sure to capture the preferred vernacular. By doing so, we were able to show a level of familiarity and comfort that directly translated into a level of trust that was a factor in our success.
Secondly, when possible, speak to alternative solutions and how yours is the right one for this client (using their own criteria). We choose our solution from a wide range of options because it is the right fit for the client and their current situation. Address why other solutions pale in comparison to ours. Documenting these alternatives moves your bid from proposing an approach to selecting a solution tailored to the client. It shows you have their best interest at the heart of your proposal instead of just pushing what you want to sell.
Most of us want to go the extra mile to ensure not just client satisfaction but also success. An empathetic proposal is the first step in showing that level of commitment and dedication to your clients and beginning a successful long-term partnership.
Kevin Switaj, Ph.D., CF APMP, is president and CEO of BZ Opportunity Management, a consulting firm providing high-quality bid management, process optimization, contracts and training support. He is an experienced proposal manager and executive who has supported and trained a wide range of government contractors. A multiple award-winning writer in the field, he has presented at numerous APMP regional and international conferences.