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12 ways advanced empathy skills lead to better proposals

Taking your empathy for the customer to the next level can substantially improve your win probability. Here's how...

Maximizing win probability requires going beyond simply trying to provide the best response to the customer’s requirements. This is because:

  • The customer is more than one person.
  • Evaluators often have different ideas about which submission is “best.”
  • We often do not know who will be participating in the evaluation.

And yet, we know we need to write our proposals from the customer’s perspective instead of our own.

This makes understanding the range of perspectives that the evaluators might bring important. You can’t write to their perspectives unless you can empathize with them. Unfortunately there is a whole range of potential perspectives to consider. This requires advanced empathy in order to write proposals with the maximum win probability.

Advanced empathy requires going well beyond what does “the customer” want. It requires understanding that there are multiple stakeholders in making an organizational decision, and what matters to each of them as individuals.

Here are some ways to apply empathy to winning proposals:

See also:
Customer Perspective
  1. Roles. A Contracting Officer plays a specific role that is very different from a Program Manager or a Source Selection Officer. And they are all different from the end user. Each brings a different perspective regarding what they want to accomplish. The result is that what they want to see in the proposal is different. You should write your proposal to satisfy the needs of all the potential evaluators.
  2. Stakeholders. Some stakeholders will participate in the evaluation. Others may not participate in the evaluation, but may influence the decision. These stakeholders can even be people outside the customer’s organization! It depends on the nature of the customer’s mission, how strong the voices of their stakeholders are, and how much this procurement will impact those stakeholders. If the customer cares about keeping its stakeholders happy, your proposal may need to address that.
  3. Goals. Goals occur at multiple levels. There can be individual goals and organizational goals. There can be personal goals and business goals. There will be unstated goals as well as stated ones. And within an organization, every territory can have different goals. But when the individual sits down to evaluate a proposal, they are looking to fulfill their goals. Put yourself in the place of all the possible individuals and imagine what might be shaping their goals. Maximizing your win probability depends on figuring out which goals of which individuals to address.
  4. Agendas and motivation. Similar to goals, each person participating in the decision will have things they want to accomplish. Those are the things that motivate them. But they are never clear and can sometimes contradict those of other evaluators. It can be as simple as wanting to complete the evaluation so they can get back to their “real” job. Or it can be as big as reshaping their own organization by impacting how this procurement plays out. You will do better if you help them get what they want.
  5. Culture. The culture of the organization strongly impacts how it makes decisions. Is it hierarchical? Is it chaotic? Is it serious? Is it deliberate? Is it accountable? Is it the opposites of these? How will that impact the individuals participating in the customer’s decision? How can you write the proposal to be a better fit for the customer’s culture?
  6. Attitude. We are rational animals. We are also emotional animals. Each individual participating will be a mixture of both. What attitude will they bring to the evaluation and what can you say to influence it?
  7. Processes. Formal evaluations follow a process. Proposal evaluations are conducted according to that process. So how closely will they stick to their process? And how does that change what the evaluator needs to see? How does that change the evaluator’s attitude, preferences, goals, and agenda? The more you understand about the customer’s acquisition process, the more influence you can have on it.
  8. Training. Do the evaluators know what they are doing, or are they making it up as they go along? Do the evaluators understand what matters about what is being procured? Do they even understand the terminology? Who are you writing for? Should you be subtly training them through your proposal? Or would that be patronizing? What do you know about who will participate in the evaluation and how should that impact the way you present your proposal?
  9. Regulations, directives, policies, etc. Rules are rules. Usually. We think of proposal compliance in terms of the RFP. But the customer thinks of compliance in terms of all the rules at all the levels that impact their organization. The RFP is just a small part of that. Showing that you are not only aware of that but will make it easier for the customer to achieve compliance at their level can put you ahead of your competitors.
  10. The great unknown. Does the customer know what they should ask for? Or even what the implications are of the requirements they wrote? Do they know how to achieve their goals? Do they even know what their goals should be? Do they even know what they don’t know? How can you help them face the great unknown? You do that without making them admit what they don’t know, simply by explaining the trade-offs and why you recommend the approach you chose to offer. This gives them something to rally around.
  11. Conflicts. The individuals that comprise the customer may not all agree. They may not agree with what’s in the RFP. They may have conflict between what they want and what they can afford. They may have conflicts with their end users and other stakeholders. They may be indecisive. Proposing something that helps the customer unravel their own conflicts is a great way to leap ahead of the competition. But being in the middle of their conflicts is a great way to lose if the turf battles don’t go your way. I have seen more than one customer lose because they thought they knew the customer, only to discover the one person they were talking to was on the losing side of a conflict inside the customer’s organization that played out during proposal evaluation.
  12. Aspirations and the future. Beyond this procurement, how do they want the future to turn out? How do they see themselves in that future? Do you understand your customer well enough to know? Can you paint a picture of that future? How will that vision impact how they evaluate your proposal today? I have helped companies win with customers who didn’t know how to get there, but knew where they wanted to end up by focusing on their future aspirations and being flexible about the steps required to get there.

Take all that into consideration before thinking you know what the customer will find compelling.

Taking it all into consideration is basically, trying to understand what the evaluator thinks and feels. That’s empathy. Trying to do that across the customer’s organization or even just the team of evaluators is advanced empathy. Turning what your empathy tells you into compelling proposal messaging is where great proposal writing comes from. 

It’s also why actually talking to your customer before bidding is so important. You can project what you might think if you were in their position, and it’s good to be able to do that. But your accuracy will be questionable if you haven’t actually interacted with them. Building an information advantage is important for winning. But right behind it comes building an empathy advantage.

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Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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