Lisa McLeod, author of five best-selling books including Selling with a Noble Purpose, says the sales industry is focusing on the wrong targets. Sales quota attainment is a lagging indicator, and over-focusing on it can actually damage your team’s ability to perform.
Instead, she says, empathy is the leading indicator sales leaders should be focused on to improve performance.
I spoke with her in a recent episode of Stop Killing Deals to better understand what she means, and how sales leaders can use this insight to improve team performance.
We’ve been talking about empathy quite a bit on this blog lately, and you may have noticed that there are as many definitions as there are experts on the topic.
McLeod defines empathy in sales and sales leadership not from the perspective of what salespeople and their leaders are doing and thinking - but from the perspective of how their behavior is received by the buyer.
“Empathy is when the customer sees that the seller truly understands them,” she says. “Truly understands them at a deep level, and is all in for them.”
In McLeod’s definition, it doesn’t matter how much the seller is actually feeling - it only matters how much the buyer experiences their empathy. Empathy occurs when a customer feels seen, heard, and understood by the seller.
And the good news is that this is a skill that anyone can learn, no matter how naturally empathetic they are or not.
“A lot of times, people think that if a seller is empathetic to a customer, that means they’ll give away the store,” says McLeod. “But that’s not true. That is only the lowest level, baseline, reactive empathy.”
This belief stands in the way of many salespeople expressing empathy, because they’re afraid that if they show that they understand the buyer’s point of view, they’ll have to compromise and give the customer everything they want, even at their own expense.
“The number one thing that stands in the seller’s way is what’s in the seller’s own brain,” says McLeod. “It’s the drumbeat of ‘I have to close this deal, I have to close this deal, I have to close this deal.”
That fear is driven by the way that most sales leaders lead. By over-focusing on numbers (a lagging indicator anyway), managers and sales executives put the fear of loss into the minds of salespeople, driving short-term thinking and placing obstacles in the way of empathetic selling.
“If we want our sellers to be empathetic,” says McLeod, “we have to quiet the fear.”
The way to that, she says, is through what you focus on and how you have conversations with your team. Instead of leading with “How can we meet our numbers this quarter?” Lead with “How can we improve our customers’ lives? How can we make a difference for them? How can we find the best way to help our customers?”
Additionally, she shares some of the techniques discovered and proven through her research for reinforcing the emphasis on empathy.
“Bring customers in to your team meetings and say, ‘This is how we made their life better,’” she says. “And tell everyone - we have 100 more of these people.”
This practice humanizes the customer and reinforces empathy for them. In McLeod’s research, it was found that top performing sellers who sold the most deals at the highest margins, were the sellers who saw their customers as real human beings and cared about making their lives better.
“In most cases, you don’t have to change compensation structure in order to improve empathy,” says McLeod.
There’s no question that sellers are motivated by compensation. But hyper-focusing on compensation above all else is counterproductive to performance. Her research shows that top salespeople care about compensation, but also care about purpose - that is, they want to know that they’re making a difference in the lives of their customers.
McLeod says the goal isn’t necessarily to change how you compensate, but rather to change what you focus on. When you focus exclusively on how salespeople can make more money, you erode empathy and foster a short-term approach to closing deals.
Instead, when you focus on how you help customers and the difference you make in their lives, you fuel empathy and, in turn, better results.
Obviously, efforts that have buy-in from the executive suite have the potential to have a big impact. But McLeod is quick to say that you don’t have to wait for your CEO to buy in before you start implementing empathy-focused leadership.
“You can do this as an individual manager,” she says. “All you have to do is tell your people about the noble purpose. Humanize your customers. Tell stories about how your team helps people.”
She cites a study her team performed where people were brought in to make phone calls to raise money for a charity. One group was given a goal and set loose to make calls. The other group was told stories about people who had benefited from the charity’s actions. No other training was provided to either group.
The group that heard the stories made more phone calls and raised more money than the group that hadn’t heard the stories.
“Sometimes people don’t engage in empathy because it feels like they don’t have time,” says McLeod. “But when people feel seen and heard, you connect faster and the rest of your work is more efficient.”
She recommends that sales teams do check-ins at the beginning of each meeting, and that leaders model transparency about successes and failures, both professional and personal. Teams that do this are then better able to focus on the work at hand.
Another reason salespeople don’t engage in empathy is because they fear the will have to “give the store away” if they see things from the customer’s point of view. But McLeod says that’s not what happens with true empathy. Instead, when the salesperson shows the customer that they truly understand and care about the customer’s needs, the customer is more willing to also understand where the salesperson is coming from, and it’s easier to find solutions that work for both sides.
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