There are a lot of skills and techniques that are important to sales effectiveness, but few are as overlooked and undervalued as empathy. We don’t talk about it when we’re building sales process, we rarely discuss it in sales meetings, and it’s not usually mentioned in sales training.
Yet in many cases, a solid grounding in empathy is exactly what a sales team needs to reach the next level. Here’s why, and how to develop it on your teams. But first, let’s take a look at what, exactly, empathy is (and isn’t).
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and feel another person’s emotions. It is commonly confused with sympathy, but it is not the same thing. Sympathy is the act of feeling sorry for someone else’s trouble.
While sympathy may be appropriate at a funeral or when someone is sick, it is not appropriate in sales. In fact, sympathy can be counterproductive, as it can cause the recipient to feel that you are looking down on them, which undermines trust.
Empathy, on the contrary, is critical in sales. Here’s why.
Why empathy is critical to sales performance
When salespeople exercise empathy during sales conversations, they automatically improve their ability to engage in other important skills including trust-building, asking questions, and collaborating on solutions. Let’s take a look at why.
Empathy builds trust
One of the foundations of trust is the feeling of being seen and heard. When salespeople exercise empathy, prospects and customers notice. They may not have words for what they experience, but the psychological result is a sensation of well-being and safety, which leads to greater trust.
Empathy improves questioning
Asking great questions is a critical sales skill. Salespeople who exercise empathy more readily understand the customer and respond to their cues to ask the right questions that get in deeper and reveal more information.
Empathy helps define the problem
When salespeople understand and feel what the customer feels, they gain deeper insight into the emotional foundations of the customer’s problem. This enables them in turn to define and articulate the problem in terms that resonate with the customer.
Empathy aids in defining the solution
With a clear and empathetic understanding of the problem, the salesperson is better equipped to develop a solution that addresses it effectively.
Empathy maintains bonds
Over time, relationships between salespeople and customers can erode for any number of reasons. When salespeople exercise genuine empathy, they can feel when the customer is drifting away, and can adjust their own response to help them reconnect and stay connected.
Empathy helps to close the sale
A truly empathetic salesperson will usually find it easy to close sales. By exercising empathy, the salesperson gets an accurate gauge on the customer’s emotional state and readiness for the close. This allows them to take each step toward the close at exactly the right time, and in a manner that feels good to the customer.
How to develop empathy on your sales teams
Empathy is not something that can be effectively trained in a two-day seminar or a series of videos. But it is something your sales teams can develop with a little focused attention and practice. Here are the key factors necessary to developing empathy with prospects.
One: Slow down
Salespeople who rush into a conversation, eager to say everything they came to say, are not exercising or building empathy. Empathy can only develop when salespeople slow down and pay attention to not only what the prospect says, but also what they do and how they use their body language to communicate their emotional state.
Listening deeply and actively is critical to empathy. If your salespeople are spending most of each sales call talking, they can’t possibly begin to understand the customer’s viewpoint. Instead, teach them to let the customer do most of the talking, while focusing carefully on what the customer is actually saying.
It’s possible this is the first time you’ve encountered the word “imagine” in a how-to article about sales effectiveness. It’s not a word we often associate with sales skills. But empathy requires it, so it’s time for you to get comfortable with it. While slowing down and listening, teach your salespeople to imagine themselves in the customer’s position. Have them ask themselves what it would feel like to experience what the customer is experiencing.
In some cases, it may be hard for them to do this, especially if they’ve never experienced what the customer experiences. To make it easier, suggest that your salespeople imagine a similar situation they’ve experienced themselves, and then apply that feeling to the customer’s situation. This exercise will help the salesperson to not only think about the customer’s position, but to really feel it.
Really feeling what the customer feels is the key to empathy and to all of the benefits that empathy unlocks.
Obviously, empathy is not something your sales team can or will develop overnight. It requires focused attention from the sales leadership team, training, and daily reinforcement and coaching. It’s not easy, but it is powerful and will transform your sales team.
Want to know how Membrain can help you build a repeatable training and reinforcement program for your sales team? Contact me for a demo.