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Training Tips for Sales Leaders: Teaching Empathy to Salespeople

Executive Summary

Colleen Stanley, president of SalesLeadership, believes we are closer to our devices than we are to people and it's impacting the success of salespeople. She has some training tips for sales leaders...

  • She argues that sales leaders need to be responsible for teaching empathy as a crucial sales skill because it leads to a better understanding of the customer and their pain points.
  • Potential customers don't merely want to be validated. They want innovative solutions to their problems, which usually run deeper than the physical and enter the psychological.
  • Presence is today's sales challenge and empathy is the result of overcoming it.

Each generation of sales leaders is presented with different challenges in achieving revenue. Empathy is first and foremost a paying attention skill and today’s challenge is many salespeople and sales managers are losing their ability to pay attention. As a result, they lack the ability to demonstrate empathy.

Empathy is a paying attention skill and is developed only by carefully observing how your words and actions land on another human being. This requires looking up and around instead of down, staring at a computer, tablet, or cell phone. Empathetic salespeople are tuned into both verbal and nonverbal communication. Simply put, your salespeople must be present to win in order to create an emotional connection with prospects and customers.

The Tuned-in Sales Team

How can a salesperson possibly influence another human being if she doesn’t know, care, or demonstrate what her prospects and customers are thinking or feeling?

The short answer is, she can’t.

We’ve all heard the buying principle, “People buy emotionally, not logically.” It’s important to take this phrase beyond the cliché it’s become and really teach your sales team how the best salespeople and influencers make an emotional connection with prospects and customers.

Encourage your sales team to take a deeper dive into their emotions, because it’s easy for all of us to default to easy, generic labeling of emotions.

For example, I might say that I am angry—but with reflection and introspection, I recognize that I’m actually feeling disappointment. Salespeople say they are nervous but the reality is they are feeling intimidated, a very different emotion. A salesperson screws up a sales call and shares that she’s upset. Dig a little deeper and you will find she’s not upset; she’s embarrassed by the face-plant she just experienced in front of a prospect.

When a salesperson is tuned into her emotions, she moves beyond generic labeling of her own emotions. As a result, she’s better at tuning into the real emotional temperature of prospects and clients. She’s better at stating what a prospect or customer is really thinking or feeling.

Empathy is Not Validation or Paraphrasing

Sales managers often miss the mark in teaching empathy. They confuse it with validation or paraphrasing skills.

These listening skills are important throughout the sales conversation, but these skills are not empathy skills.

Validation or paraphrasing skills involve repeating what a prospect or customer says to ensure alignment. Empathy is saying what a person is thinking or feeling—and here’s the challenge: prospects and customers often don’t say what they are thinking or feeling!

Dr. Peter Drucker sums it up quite nicely: “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

Here’s an example of a salesperson applying validation skills instead of empathy skills. A salesperson meets with a prospect and the prospect shares her business problem, her pain.

“We’re really frustrated with slow response time from our current vendor. We aren’t getting our phone calls or any email questions returned in a timely manner.” The salesperson responds with validation skills and a hint of empathy. “I can understand why that is frustrating. So, if I’m hearing you correctly, you’re tired of your current supplier not returning calls and emails quickly enough.”

Ouch. This salesperson missed the opportunity to emotionally connect with the prospect. He simply repeated what the prospect said. He didn’t say what the prospect was really thinking or feeling.

Empathetic salespeople are able to describe the underlying emotion a prospect is feeling and why they are feeling the emotion.

  • Perhaps this prospect’s frustration comes from feeling stupid because she allowed herself to be sold a bill of goods, and now she’s stuck dealing with problems from choosing a lousy vendor.
  • Maybe the prospect’s frustration is pressure. “I’m spending all my time dealing with upset customers because this supplier keeps missing deadlines.”
  • The prospect’s frustration is really self-doubt. “I thought I did a good job of vetting this company. Jeez, I don’t even know what questions to ask in order to make a better buying decision the next time.”

A salesperson who is emotionally fluent tunes into the spoken and unspoken conversation. He tunes into his own emotions, recognizing times where he experienced similar thoughts and feelings. As a result, he’s better able to demonstrate empathy when responding to a prospect’s concern.

A better, more empathetic response might be, “Ms. Prospect, if I were sitting in your seat, I might be feeling like a victim of a classic sales bait and switch. You received a lot of promises from your current vendor, with few deliverables. And you also might be wondering if I’m going to tell you whatever you want to hear in order to earn your business. Am I reading this situation correctly?”

The Key to Having Better Sales Conversations

The empathetic salesperson waits to hear a yes or no. Even if the answer is a no, my experience is that a prospect will open up, provide a correction to my statement, and share their true feelings.

Real-world empathy is saying what a prospect is really thinking or feeling. Empathy creates deeper sales conversations, ones that prospects and customers crave. They are tired of BS sales conversations, superficial conversations. They want to engage in real-world conversations.

Empathy creates an emotional connection with another human being. When a salesperson creates an emotional connection, she elevates the conversation. And when the conversation is elevated, the conversation changes—as does the business relationship.

Empathy changes the sales conversation.

Colleen Stanley

Colleen Stanley is president of SalesLeadership Inc., a business development consulting firm specializing in sales and sales management training. The company provides programs in prospecting, referral strategies, consultative sales training, sales management training, emotional intelligence and hiring/selection. She is the author of 'Emotional Intelligence For Sales Success' and 'Growing Great Sales Teams.'

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