Empathy: The Most Difficult and Valuable Sales Skill

One of the sales skills we think deserves more attention and conversation than it currently gets is empathy. It’s a vital trait to develop in work and in life, allowing you to develop your emotional intelligence to a high level. It’s also perhaps the most difficult skill to develop in sales.

After all, sales is about a business transaction at its very heart. We preach the importance of relationship building and Trusted Advisor status in response to a changing marketplace and informed buyer. But sometimes it feels like people aren’t talking enough about the emotional intelligence and empathy that can not only foster the relationship, but lend an important element of humanity to the proceedings.

The Benefits of Empathy

We’ve touched briefly on this above with the mention of a stronger relationship. But there’s other benefits to using empathy in your sales discussions, and we’ve outlined some below.

  1. It naturally repositions your thought process to be more customer-centric. Obviously you have the objective of closing a sale to get that revenue and commission. But as you’ve probably experienced as a customer yourself, that can lead to some sales reps zealously pursuing the sale, solely focused on the transaction, rather than the consultation.It can also be a difficult mindset to break out of, because sales professionals often begin with the objective and have that as a top-line concern. Cultivating and using empathy short-circuits this imperative and has you focusing on what’s best for the customer and their experience.
  2. It improves your ability to uncover hidden needs and read what’s not being said. Active listening is important, allowing you to hear both the spoken words and the subtext of what a customer is saying. But empathy bolsters that even more by recognizing what a prospect isn’t saying. Many times, it’s in the silence that the real needs, issues, and objectives lurk, and so being empathetic allows you to draw out the customer’s deepest concerns and desires.
  3. It creates a judgment-free environment. Thinking and acting in terms of empathy establishes a situation in which the sales rep and prospect are engaged in a mutually respectful back and forth free of judgment. This reduces potential tensions and pressure in the sales discussion, fostering a dialogue that has the best chance of reaching the optimal conclusion for both buyer and seller.

Developing Empathy

What’s certain is that empathy is important in one’s job. The Center for Creative Leadership surveyed over 6,700 business leaders in 38 countries and found that the majority agreed empathy correlates to job performance and having more empathy equates to better performance.

On a neuroscience level, researchers have found mirror neurons communicate with the limbic part of the brain that’s responsible for emotion to enable empathy. The good news is that empathy can be learned.

An important distinction: sympathy and empathy are two separate things. Sympathy is the ability to feel pity and sorrow for others’ misfortunes, whereas empathy refers to the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. As Patricia Watson, an MD at the Texas A&M College of Medicine notes, “Sympathy is much easier to feel because it takes less of a connection” whereas empathy “can lead to feeling things that aren’t present”.

On a basic level, developing empathy involves exposure to others’ experiences. That include something as basic as having a conversation with other people that involves no objectives and where you concentrate on closely listening to what they say. More extroverted individuals can take advantage of the opportunity to chat to strangers.

Another tactic is to concentrate on emotional mindfulness – specifically, taking note of the emotions that you’re feeling in any given movement and being aware of the visceral reactions you have to stimuli. Also have conversations with other people about their own emotions (insofar as it seems natural to do so).

Using Empathy in a Sales Conversation

In terms of specifics of empathy during the sales conversation, there’s some tactics you can use to display it:

  1. Stay silent while the other person is talking. Keeping quiet and taking notes (either mentally, physically, or both) can be a great way to show empathy. Because you’re not preoccupied with talking, you can devote your full attention to what the customer is saying.
  2. Directly ask the person “What are you feeling?” or “What are your thoughts?” Because trying to read body language is often unreliable and conditioned on several layers of cultural cues and signals, it’s often helpful to just ask point blank what the customer thinks and feels. It’s also a pair of questions that have a high chance of drawing out very useful, relevant information.
  3. Consider Your Vocal Presence. When you’re seeking to be empathetic, it’s best to use a calm, neutral tone of voice. Remember, you’re establishing a judgement-free zone where the prospect feels safe. If you or someone you know has ever spoken with a therapist, you’ll recognize that they almost always have these types of vocal tones. Of course you’re not going to psychoanalyze your client, but utilizing the techniques of professionals who excel at extracting what can be sensitive or embarrassing information can be quite useful – especially in the discovery phase, when the prospect might be more guarded.

Empathy is a terrific skill to have in sales. But it can be one that takes time and practice to develop, shifting the focus away from yourself and towards the customer and their needs. Just remember, successfully putting yourself in this mold will have a positive effect on your relationships and can lead to more sales.