Empathy in Sales: The Crucial Human Touch
The next article in our series on Network Selling covers a skill without which a salesperson just won’t survive in this 21st-century digital selling environment. That skill is empathy. Empathy in sales is crucial. Why is it so very important today? Simple: we’re awash in a giant overwhelming wave of technology. The internet, along with this vast technological tide, has created a world in which too many of us have become anonymous. The human factor is fading away—even more so when you consider things like fake Twitter and LinkedIn accounts utilized by AI robots.
In older times we lived in smaller communities; everyone knew one another or was at least acquainted. Now we’re in an interconnected world of billions of people—with different cultures, different languages, different backgrounds and belief systems. It can be difficult for people to immediately relate.
Within our Network Selling model, empathy is the next factor following respect. Respect just on its own won’t do the trick—even when you clearly respect someone else, their next question (verbally asked or unasked) is going to be, “Can you relate to me?” If you want to sell something to someone, that feeling of being related to is something the buyer must experience. If that isn’t happening, the sale will not be successful.
What Is Empathy?
So what is empathy exactly? The dictionary tells us that the word “empathy” originally comes from a Greek word meaning passion. In the German language, it becomes defined as “a feeling into” and it then became translated into English as the word we now know. So to have passion and feel for a person is more or less to have empathy.
Crossing the Digital Divide
As I said earlier, salespeople today just won’t survive and succeed without empathy. Why? We’re way out of touch. Often we don’t even see each other. The only thing a salesperson can put across is that the prospect’s situation is understood in some form.
In my company, 95 percent of our meetings are on the web. I recently made it a company policy that we need to show ourselves on the screen when we’re talking to people, at least for part of the meeting. Why? So that people can relate to the speaker, not just their voice.
By being able to see and hear a prospect, you as a salesperson can much more easily empathize. You can recognize what they’re going through, and what their role is: decision maker, analyst, gatekeeper or another.
Many salespeople are looking in the mirror today—listening to themselves, monitoring themselves, checking out their appearance. The problem is that while they’re doing that, all they really perceive is themselves. They’re feeding off their own thoughts.
The answer for a salesperson is to become a mirror for their prospects. The salesperson absorbs and reflects back the prospect’s situation.
Not to appear sexist in any way, but traditionally throughout the ages, women have been better at empathy than men. This comes from the fact that since the beginning of time women have cared for and nurtured children and the rest of the family. They can read a child’s face and know something is wrong, or something is right.
But this in no way means that men aren’t capable of it. In fact, every human being is born capable of feeling empathy. If they’re not currently feeling it, they can certainly learn it—even across differing cultures. Some have an easier time grasping it simply because they had an upbringing in which empathy was practiced and taught throughout the family.
Interestingly, recent research has found that cognitive empathy—empathy which is consciously and genuinely practiced—is actually more effective than emotional empathy when it comes to making decisions.
The Golden Rule
From the Bible, we have the most famous version of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done to you.” This maxim exists in many other religions as well, for a very good reason. You’re being taught or advised to treat anyone else as you would want to be treated.
When you empathize and are able to feel what your prospect or buyer is feeling. You should also feel how you would want to be treated in that situation, and behave accordingly.
This rule is often violated in sales. For example, I love sports cars, especially the Aston Martin. If I go down to the dealership to just kind of fantasize about one day owning one, a sales rep might make me feel like a loser because I came in there not being able to afford that car. And, he certainly would be nowhere near the top of my list of salespeople when and if I do decide to buy an Aston Martin.
Or in another example, my 10-year wedding anniversary is coming up. I could go into a jewelry store and the salesperson might hear that it’s our 10th anniversary, and think, “Oh, this is good—this guy is going to spend some money.” She then puts something in front of me with a price tag of between $20,000 to $50,000. I would then say I can’t afford it, and she’d make me feel rather less than successful.
The Golden Rule has clearly been violated in both examples—the salesperson would certainly not want to be treated that way.
A much more intelligent approach (and one taken by better salespeople) would be for the salesperson to casually inquire or otherwise figure out how much I actually want to spend. They would then show me something beautiful in my price range and give me the feeling that I’m actually buying something precious for my wife on our anniversary. This is empathy in practice.
Not Compassion, Sympathy or Pity
A salesperson does need to differentiate between empathy and sympathy, for they are not the same thing. The difference between empathy and sympathy is a fine line but a very important one that salespeople must learn. You’re not in an emotional state in which you just reach out to the prospect and help them.
Empathy also doesn’t have anything to do with compassion or pity. These are also quite different.
Compassion runs very deep. The Greek word for it is splanchizomai. It’s a feeling that sits way down in the pit of your stomach—a feeling that something most definitely isn’t right, and that you must do something to change it.
This isn’t what’s needed by today’s salespeople. Empathy, as described above, just means that you understand where the person is coming from. You don’t have to cross over and literally walk in that person’s shoes.
Pity is also not required—you don’t need to express pity if your prospect has some life situation. Again you can be empathetic and say, “I understand where you’re coming from.”
On page 55 of his excellent book Sales EQ, Jeb Blount writes, “This is a dual process. Sometimes as a salesperson, you have to be empathic—but on the other hand, you have to reach your goal.” So you can’t go into total sympathy with a prospect because they’re going through a terrible situation, because if you do you’re no longer engaged in a sales cycle. You’ve instead become their pastor or a shoulder to cry on.
So don’t confuse these emotions!
Intellect and Empathy
Really good salespeople perform the ultimate in bringing together the two pillars on which their craft rests: intellect and empathy.
With empathy, you’re expressing and tapping into the emotion of the person, because we’re human beings, not computers. On the other hand, though, you must perform like a computer, too. Why? Because you have your target, your quota, your sales period—you have goals you have to fulfill. You’re dedicated to that target like a machine: you must call a hundred people a day, you must bring in leads, and you must turn leads into opportunities.
At the same time, you have to reach out like a human being and be empathic to that person you’re calling. That’s the “dual process” that Jeb Blount was referring to in the quote above. We need empathy because the world is cold! Machines are cold—they have no feelings.
Relating to the Prospect
The best salespeople always find ways to relate to the prospect. They tell stories. They tell jokes. They call and actually speak to more live people instead of just sending out 10,000 emails.
At Pipeliner we strongly believe that the entire methodology of email correspondence no longer connects to people. That is why we have created our digital SalesPOP! and analog GoAhead! platform for the purposes of having salespeople and sales executives connect and physically meet with each other.
In the end, nothing can replace a human interaction—a call, a talk, a meeting, a dinner, lunch or breakfast. Whatever it is, it needs that human connection.
Steve Jobs obviously made this observation, too—simply walk into any Apple store. They have more live salespeople than any other brick-and-mortar outlet for technical products. And buyers show up there in droves! Not because the products are so complicated they need help figuring them out, but because of the experience, they have in the store.
The Instant Analysis
Very often you have a very short call in which to discover the role of the buyer or prospect and what kind of situation they’re encountering. If the prospect is under pressure to make a snap decision (such as whether to continue the call or schedule another one or a meeting), you can make this discovery very gently and nicely.
Then think for a second: how would you react if you were in their shoes? You immediately feel empathy. Then you can ask the right question, or relay a story from your own experience. By doing all this, you take the pressure out of an interaction that, handled another way, often turns clumsy.
Into the Future
To restate: empathy is a very important aspect of sales, vital for success. It will only become more so as we move into an increasingly technological society and culture.
It comes after respect and is correlated to respect because if you cannot respect yourself, you cannot respect your buyer. Equally, if you’re not empathetic to yourself, how can you be empathic toward the buyer? It’s the same principle.
Some people are extremely touchy when it comes to themselves (“Oh, you hurt my feelings!”). But they certainly have no qualms about hurting someone else’s feelings.
Being empathic to yourself is self-awareness. Empathy begins with self-awareness. To some degree, you have an awareness of how you feel. You also must acknowledge your own blind spots, and as long as you do so you’ll continue to succeed.
In conclusion, I once again turn to Jeb Blount’s book Sales EQ, this time from page 50: “Cognitive intelligence is empty without empathy.”
Going back to our earlier “dual process” analogy, cognitive intelligence is what a computer is doing—and so must you, to keep making your quotas. But a machine doesn’t deal well with prospects, and that’s where you need that empathy, which makes you a human being.