You Feel Me? Why Empathy is Critical for GovCon Growth

As 2023 drew to a merciful close in mid- and late-December, our favorite federal government continued to show the government contracting industry deep respect by releasing solicitations just in time for the holidays. Sympathy goes out to anyone who needed to work over the holidays.

Why does the federal government do this to us before every holiday? Think what you might about our government customers, but I don’t believe the answer is malice or incompetence. Our customers are working hard to get solicitations done so they can get out of town for a holiday, so it’s not hanging over their heads during their time away. I honestly believe they just don’t think about or understand the impact of that action on the contracting community.

Which is a lovely little illustration of the topic for this post: Empathy over Ego.

We hear all the time how important it is for us in the GovCon community to submit proposals to our potential customers that describe the benefits to the customer of our solution. We’re told to write more about the customer than about our company. The customer needs to be convinced that you understand their problems, and that your approach will solve their problems. And the key to writing such proposals? Empathy.

empathy [em-puh-thee]


the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the emotions, thoughts, or attitudes of another

Empathy is not just important in writing winning proposals—it’s also important for success as a capture or proposal consultant. Yes it’s true, if you’re a consultant you work projects because you’re an expert in what you do. And it’s sometimes the case that your client knows far less than you do about the capture/proposal business. You have a choice to make – you can decide the client is a bunch of morons and wield your ego like a sledgehammer. Or you could recognize the client’s situation and treat them with compassion, as you help them win. With no exceptions, the latter is always the better approach.

Earlier in my career I came across a larger proposal consulting company. I have never met a larger collection of massive egos in my life. Those consultants believed themselves to be, and presented themselves as, God’s gift to the proposal world. One example – I was asked to step in to work with a client through final proposal production and white glove review. There was one compliance question that came up, and I offered my opinion. But I said, “this is my opinion, but I could be wrong.” The client painted my response in stark contrast to the consultants with whom she had work from this consulting company. The previous proposal manager, who had gotten them through proposal development, evidently was not aware that he could possibly be wrong.

In another incident, a consultant for this same company was in a heated exchange with his client in a meeting, and to emphasize his point, he took his shoe off and pounded it on the conference table. Let’s just say that client was not impressed.

I’m sharing these fun little anecdotes to say, if you’re a capture or proposal consultant you should bear in mind the humanity and experience of your clients and colleagues when considering alternate ways of getting something done. You may be right. But then, you may not be right. And even if your client is wrong, delivering your message with compassion and with an eye toward how you may be perceived will go a long way toward creating a positive impression with the client.

Remember to check your ego at the proverbial door. Work hard to think about your client’s perspective and take into account the pressures and challenges they may be facing. Yes, you can win with a big ego and leaving a trail of broken bodies behind you, but you likely won’t be asked back. It’s much better to win through empathy, leaving a trail of admirers who respect you – and want to work with you again.

You feel me?