Empathy May Be the Most Important Selling Skill
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella often speaks of how his career – and his company – have been shaped by empathy. He views it as a quality to be consciously cultivated, practiced, and applied – “not just as something nice to have, but as the core to the innovation agenda in the company.” He believes empathy can be a differentiator when working with clients.
Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s position and understand their situation. It’s the capacity to feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference.
It’s not always easy to do.
Empathy is the foundation of consultative selling
Empathy is important in many aspects of business, but why is it important in selling?
First, you have to acknowledge some negative stereotypes. There is a perception that salespeople lack empathy, and some of it is warranted. This may be a stereotype because salespeople are too busy pitching, not listening, and thinking they already know the answer – treating the customer as a potential sale instead of a human being with a business need. They are often so busy 'selling' that they don’t take time to understand the customer or the background behind their business problems.
Sales professionals generally know that relationships are foundational but may not be aware of how to take them to the next level. By framing empathy as a key to developing rapport, leaders can encourage sales reps to do as Nadella suggests: cultivate, practice, and apply empathy in their daily interactions.
At Sales Readiness Group, we work with sales teams every day across various industries and geographies to improve the performance of their sales teams. The interactions with thousands of sellers every year have given my team and me a unique perspective to answer the question "Why is empathy important in selling?" We hear what techniques and skills are working with their clients and prospects.
What I hear from them is that selling has gotten more complex across the board. There are more people involved, and buyers are further along in the buyer process – so the opportunity to simply sell based on a relationship has diminished. The trend toward virtual meetings that spiked during the Covid-19 pandemic compounded this challenge.
When selling in a virtual world, people may feel more isolated and their personal and professional lives may overlap in the same space and time. There is less room for humanizing interactions – unless salespeople intentionally create them.
Empathy helps individuals become better consultative sales professionals who are working to solve customers’ problems in creative ways – ones that add more value than the competition. It also helps us recognize how their unique needs may be changing in a fast-paced marketplace that is still recovering from the impacts of the pandemic.
How can you build empathy?
There are many techniques that contribute to building empathy in a sales conversation. First, before even meeting with a prospect, sales reps need to invest time researching both the company and the individual. This will help them lay the groundwork for understanding the customer’s business and personal objectives. To the greatest extent possible, you want to understand personally and professionally what’s going on in their world.
During sales conversations, a sales rep’s role is to ask thoughtful questions and take the time to actively listen to their responses, showing genuine concern for the customer’s situation. They should avoid talking about their solution until the customer has had the opportunity to discuss their problems thoroughly. The key is to consider the business problem from the customer’s perspective and contemplate what it means to the individual personally and professionally.
Throw away your pitch deck for the first sales call. Instead, ask questions. Summarize what’s being told to you. Talk less than the buyer – seriously.
Active listening is foundational to bringing empathy into your practice. To understand the buyer, you need as much information about them as possible, and you need to listen to what they tell you. Listening to the buyer allows you to build a more relevant sales proposal and, ultimately, have a better chance of closing the deal.
Where do we go from here?
Building empathy among salespeople isn’t a one-and-done proposition. It may take intentional training and follow-up coaching to make every member of a sales team proficient at applying the techniques mentioned. Empathy is a proactive investment and returns don’t always happen immediately. Being the “go-giver” and doing things without the immediate promise of a sale can really differentiate you from the rest of the pack.
In the second quarter of 2020, many businesses – SRG included – suffered from the dramatic effects of the pandemic. New business opportunities seemed to disappear overnight. But that didn’t mean we stopped working. From March through May of last year, SRG was busier than ever, scheduling webinars, engaging in customer conversations and check-ins, all while talking to new prospects. There was little promise of immediate sales, but the team invested more time than ever to build relationships through empathy. There was no guarantee of a payoff with this approach, but we were fortunate enough to follow Q2 with the best quarter in company history.
Just as with any other selling skill, continuous improvement in empathy should be a goal for the salesperson, their manager, and the organization’s leadership. Demonstrating empathy starts at the top.
About Ray Makela
Ray Makela is CEO and Managing Director at Sales Readiness Group (SRG). He oversees all client engagements as well as serves as a senior facilitator on sales management, coaching, negotiation and sales training workshops. Ray has over 20 years of management, consulting, and sales experience and writes frequently on best practices for coaching and developing sales teams.