Subscribe to The Art & Science of Complex Sales

    How to improve sales with the right type of empathy

    New Call-to-action

    Empathy gets a lot of lip service in sales circles. We talk about how to transform sales with empathy. The importance of empathy in coaching. Whether some people have a sales advantage due to natural empathetic abilities. And the role of empathy in AI’s ability (or inability) to support or even replace salespeople.

    But do we really understand what empathy is and how to apply it effectively in sales?

    I caught up with an expert on empathy in sales, Minter Dial, author of Heartificial Empathy, Putting Heart into Business and Artificial Intelligence, to discuss exactly this question.

    What exactly is empathy? The two types

    In his book, Dial recounts an experience with artificial intelligence that supposedly had been trained to express empathy. He and a number of others were recruited to download this “empathetic AI” onto their mobile devices and interact with it over the course of several weeks.

    In the end, it was revealed that although he and the other participants were interacting with a bot, there was an entire team of humans who were managing the bot’s interactions to improve the sense of felt empathy among the participants.

    For Dial, this experience highlighted the importance of understanding the difference between two types of empathy.

    “It’s a complex notion, empathy,” he says. “There’s giving empathy... And then there’s receiving it.”

    Given empathy is the feeling that I have when I experience the emotions that you are experiencing. For instance, imagine that your spouse is in the hospital, and you are very worried. When you share your worry with me, I may also feel very worried, as though my own spouse were in the hospital. When experienced empathy is strong, my internal experience may mirror yours almost precisely. This is given empathy.

    Received empathy is a sense of being heard AND of served efficiently and effectively

    However, you may or may not be aware that I am experiencing empathy, depending on how I express my experience.

    Received empathy is the feeling that you have when I have effectively expressed my empathy for you. For instance, in the example above, if I say, “That must be so scary. I imagine that you are going through a lot right now, with that on your mind. Is there anything I can do to support you?” then you are likely to feel that you have received empathy.

    The difference between the two has important implications for how our salespeople interact with customers. It’s not enough to feel what the customer is feeling if we are not expressing empathy in a way that it can be received.

    Even more interestingly, to me, is the fact that received empathy doesn’t necessarily have to be accompanied by given empathy. This has huge implications for AI.

    Empathy and AI

    In the experiment Dial shares in his book, he and the other participants felt that the AI was expressing empathy to them. They received empathy. However, the AI itself was simply code that was programmed to respond a certain way (plus the input of managers who were overseeing the bot’s interactions).

    In the futuristic series Star Trek: The Next Generation, an artificial intelligence (android) named Data has a longing to feel emotions in the same way that humans do. He has to retrieve a chip and install it in order to feel what humans feel.

    This story highlights the difference between two other ways of looking at empathy, according to Dial:

    1. Cognitive empathy. “Understanding on a cognitive level your thoughts, feelings, and the data points around your experience,” he says. “I can weave those into a conversation so that you feel like I am getting to know you. But do I FEEL your emotions? Not necessarily.”
    2. Effective empathy. “Effective empathy is about FEELING your emotions,” he says. “Your laughter makes me laugh, I feel your heartbeat, I’m leaning into your emotions. Instead of just merely understanding what’s going on from the data points that I have.”

    It’s unlikely that AI in any near future scenario will be able to receive an emotion chip like Data’s and develop effective empathy. But being able to feel emotions isn’t actually necessary for artificial intelligence to express empathy in a way that humans feel that they have received empathy. That requires only that the AI develop cognitive empathy.

    This has huge implications for salespeople. In the end, does it matter if a salesperson feels someone’s pain, as long as they respond to it in a way that the buyer feels they have received empathy? Is it perhaps enough to develop cognitive empathy rather than effective empathy?

    Is it possible, in fact, that effective empathy can sometimes go horribly wrong?

    When empathy goes wrong

    A recent Harvard Business Review article, “Compassionate Leadership is Necessary but Not Sufficient,” addresses this question in regard to leadership: Yes, in fact, empathy can go wrong.

    Imagine a salesperson coming to you to complain about another member of the team. Perhaps you feel the same pain about that member of the team (experienced empathy). You decide to express your empathy, and tell the salesperson that you feel exactly the same way and will do everything in your power to address the situation. Perhaps you feel their frustration so strongly that you join them in cussing out the other salesperson and together you write up a long, angry email to send.

    Your team member may feel heard and even experience received empathy. But your strong empathetic response has moved past the point at which it is useful and productive, and has in fact become destructive.

    This is where you as the leader must bring wisdom. You must be able to express empathy (compassion) in a way that the salesperson feels heard, but that does not amount to getting down in the mud and wallowing with them.

    A more appropriate (yet still empathetic) response might be: “Thank you for sharing that with me. That sounds like a very frustrating situation for you. Let me circle up with the rest of the leadership and get to the bottom of this.”

    In the second scenario, the salesperson still receives empathy, but also receives wise leadership.

    Apply empathy wisely in sales

    So what does all this mean for sales?

    First, we need to understand that it doesn’t help our customers for us to simply FEEL what they’re feeling.

    It also doesn’t help them if we get down in the mud and wallow around with them. In fact, wallowing in the mud with them can lead to all kinds of problems such as price erosion. When we feel too deeply the pain of our buyers, it’s too easy to simply give in to cost pressure and offer unnecessary discounts, for example.

    In sales, we must focus on whether the customer feels that they have received empathy, not on whether we have delivered it. And we must add in wisdom to ensure we’re not giving away the farm with empathy.

    When I spoke with him, Dial pointed out that received empathy in a business setting very often doesn’t feel like empathy. Customers who feel they have received empathy are more often likely to talk about how efficient or effective the service was.

    I recently had a very frustrating experience trying to get a package shipped from the US to Sweden. The carrier kept messing the process up, which was a hassle for me and for my friend with whom I was coordinating.

    When we finally reached someone who could help us, the customer service rep expressed empathy with our frustration: “I’m sorry that’s been happening for you. That sounds very frustrating.”

    But much more importantly, she took charge of resolving the situation. The resolution was a critical part of our feeling that she empathized with our situation, even though it didn’t “sound” like traditional empathy. Yet, without the resolution, we would have felt that the empathy was empty.

    Can AI assist with empathy in a sales setting?

    Despite advances in artificial intelligence, we are still a long way from AI that actually feels empathy. Dial says that what really matters in AI is whether the people developing the AI express empathy when programming it. If they are empathetic with the experience of the user, then the AI is more likely to provide “received empathy.”

    But the more complex the situation, the less likely an AI can provide even a sense of received empathy.

    In complex situations, a much more useful application of AI is in assisting salespeople in providing received empathy to buyers.


    • It matters less what your salespeople feel and more what your customers receive
    • Received empathy is both a sense of being heard AND of being served efficiently and effectively

    With this in mind, then, we can begin to see where technology can assist salespeople in providing better-received empathy. For instance, a sales process that keeps salespeople on track with every customer so that there is consistent communication and response will help customers feel that they are being responded to empathetically.

    Likewise, content enablement can help salespeople provide relevant and up to date information and materials to customers so that they feel they are having their questions answered.

    Embedded training and coaching can help salespeople practice the skills that make customers feel heard and empathized with. Reminders can be embedded to listen and respond to the buyer’s emotions.

    In the end, it comes down to whether the people creating, programming, setting up, and customizing the technology exercise empathy in planning and design.

    At Membrain, we pride ourselves on having built software based on empathy both for the buyer and the seller. We make it easy for salespeople to follow effective processes, to implement empathetic and wise sales skills, and to find exactly what they need when they need it to serve the customer effectively.

    We’d love to show you how it works. Schedule a demo today.

    George Brontén
    Published December 16, 2020
    By George Brontén

    George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills, and processes. George is also the author of the book Stop Killing Deals and the host of the Stop Killing Deals webinar and podcast series.

    Find out more about George Brontén on LinkedIn