Empathy in Proposals

Article published on techUK Insights and due for publication in "Winning Edge" in April 2017.

In the last of this three-part series, we'll explore how the Six Habits of Highly Empathic People, identified by Roman Krznaric in his book “Empathy”, can help us to write better proposals.


In Part 1 of this series, we got acquainted with the concept of empathy; tuning in sensitively to our audience’s feelings and perspectives, and adapting our behaviour accordingly.

In Part 2, we looked at empathy in selling – how it can help build relationships, differentiate and create shared values.


Now, let’s explore how we carry our good work into our proposals.

The role of the proposal


Last time, we established that aligning your sales activities to the steps in your prospect’s buying process shows empathy, which helps build trust – crucial for a successful sale in the 21st century. Modern selling is a far cry from sales methods such as the infamous ‘ABC’ (Always Be Closing), which are old-fashioned and downright un-empathic.


In the six-step approach in Figure 1, the proposal is the fourth stage when the prospect requests a formal offer from interested sellers.


By this time, if you followed the recommendations in Part 2, you should be in pole position to win. You will have brought insight to your prospect’s business, positioned your company as an important player and shaped your prospect’s needs. If you did a stellar job, your prospect may have decided not to bother with a proposal at all. 


Let’s assume your prospect wants or needs a proposal for legal or professional procurement reasons. Think of the proposal as a continuation of your work to date. Think of it as the opportunity to pull everything together in one compelling document confirming why you are the best choice. With that in mind, we can turn back to our six empathic habits.   

Remember your prospect


Too many proposals forget about the prospect; putting pen to paper seems to cause amnesia. We end up with a document all about ‘us’. How fantastic we are, how marvellous our products are, what super features our products have. So, remember a key part of Habit One: “Shifting our mental frameworks to recognise that empathy is at the core of human nature.”


In a proposal, build empathy by shifting the focus from you to your prospect. Plan and craft your writing so the prospect comes first. For example, begin sections, paragraphs and sentences with the prospect’s name. I often see entire pages where the first word of every paragraph is ‘SUPPLIER’; not exactly empathic.


Once we’ve got our prospect back in sight, bring what’s important to them onto the page – their visions, goals and objectives, the problems they are aiming to solve, and the benefits they are planning to achieve. Write about your offer in the context of the prospect and how it will help them. Instead of:


“SUPPLIER’s Wondrous™ widget was the first of its kind and is exceptionally small.”




“PROSPECT can use the ‘Wondrous’ widget, measuring only 1 x 1, to help solve the engineering challenge to reduce the overall size of the Billy boiler.”


That’s a good start.

Step into your prospect's shoes


Hopefully, during the early stages of the sale, you nurtured and built trust with each person involved in the buying decision. In the vein of Habit Two, you made “a conscious effort to step into other people's shoes…and to acknowledge their humanity, individuality and perspectives.”


Build this knowledge into the proposal. Write for each person using key messages that will resonate with them. Position these messages in the sections they are most likely to read. Show them you understand and care by using language that makes connections. Instead of:


“SUPPLIER will provide 24 x 7 maintenance from our Miniminster depot.”




“PROSPECT’S operations staff need to be confident of a 99.9% uptime. This peace of mind will come with SUPPLIER’s local 24 x 7 service centre where we have a 100% one-hour fix rate success.”  


Combine facts and figures with feelings to satisfy your prospect’s emotional needs as well as their logical needs. Buying is as much about the heart as the head, even in business.    

Create shared experience


If you spent time exploring your prospect’s business in the selling stages through the “direct immersion, empathic journeying and social cooperation of Habit Three, you will have developed a deep understanding. Did you try a job swap or a mystery shop? Or did you work together with the prospect to co-create brilliant visions and solutions? If so, make a list and move on to Habit Four.


If it was difficult to get close to your prospect, did you identify parallels between their aspirations and those of your established customers? Did you publish thought-leading white papers or blogs? You are looking for material that goes deeper than simply trotting out the same old patter about you and your products; something that brings insight and makes you stand out from the crowd.  

Hit replay


In Habit Four, Krznaric schools us in the art of “

radical listening.” In your proposal, remember all the conversations, shared experiences and value that you have brought to the process so far. Show your prospect you listened by including reminders of the interaction. Just because you have moved into writing mode doesn’t prevent you having a ‘conversation’. For example:


 “In dialogue with PROSPECT at the Wondrous™ widget demonstration in July 2017, we agreed it would fit the Billy boiler re-design perfectly.”


Krznaric also explains “taking off our emotional masks” meaning we should admit vulnerability where appropriate. In a proposal, this equates to dealing head-on with weaknesses in your offer rather than sweeping them under the proverbial carpet.


For example, if your prospect has expressed a concern that affects your probability of winning, you should replay it and explain any mitigating action. Let’s say your prospect is based in Manchester and your main competitor is close by, while you are in London. Your mitigation plan is to open an office in Manchester if you win the contract. In your proposal, you would explain: “To allay PROSPECT’s concern that SUPPLIER is remote, we will open a local office to support this contract.” To make this promise feel credible, include plans of potential office buildings and explain a local employment strategy.

Prove it


Five encourages us to get to know the world through theatre, films, photos, books and songs. When selling, you can enhance your knowledge by continually researching via the rich source of traditional and online media. 

For your proposals, spend time at your desk or with your colleagues building strong proof to support sales messages. An immutable law of proposal-writing is to always make the connection shown in Figure 2:

Develop case studies that include testimonials, making sure they are linked to quantified business benefits. For example, cite that you saved your customer costs or increased their revenue in a specified time.

Add third-party reports and internal research and statistics to your evidence bank. Remember to always note the source and the date – prospects may want to dig deeper, so don’t be caught out with an unsubstantiated claim.

Consider ways to present evidence in graphical format or any appropriate media. Photos add authenticity (do you have a photo of the demonstration of the Wondrous widget?), and charts, graphs, drawings and process flowcharts all help to reinforce your story.


Be visionary


Habit Six takes us into the realms of the impossible when writing a proposal, challenge yourself to be different. With a dash of creativity, even boring proposals can be spiced up.   

It helps if you think of your proposal as a story: where are you now (“once upon a time”), what’s the vision of the future (“happily ever after”) and the journey to make that vision a reality with you.


Chuck out unimaginative, clichéd language and think up vibrant new ways of describing yourself and your products.


Think how you can package and present your proposal so it’s a winner from the first impression. I remember a building restoration company competing to refurbish a famous World War II building – they presented their proposal in a genuine postbag from the period found on eBay.


Journey’s end


We’ve come to the end of two journeys.


We’ve travelled through the six habits, seeking how to transform our proposals from dull narrative to a captivating tale that focuses on the prospect and persuades why you are better than and different from your competitors.


We’ve also come to the end of the various routes we’ve taken through the subject of empathy as defined by Roman Krznaric. With thanks to him for inspiring this series. I hope I’ve inspired you.

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