I thought I would write this post after a recent conversation on empathy with a sales coaching client, and whether you could have an effective sales process without empathy?
The pandemic and certainly the last century has seen self help and therapy become main stream; where we are encouraged that introspection and navel gazing are good things. Where contemplation and meditation are perhaps a way to sidestep action. I of course, accept that self-reflection in sales is an important part of personal development; yet it is our ability to understand others which is the cornerstone of our role. Our empathetic approach, our connection to others, the willingness and curiosity in wanting to build meaningful human relationships is perhaps what makes great sales people. If our encouragement for introspection continues, we run the risk as Simon Baron-Cohen's suggests, that we will perhaps see empathy erosion, where people are “turned into objects” within a sales process, becoming a data file and revenue line.
There is of course lots of discussion on empathy and the various defined categories of it. My specific frame of reference and a context for this post is empathy within an effective sales process.
When you have been doing something for a while, we build up a general experience where our self-reflection can create a whole series of biases; we catch ourselves listening to our internal thoughts and we begin to race ahead of the customer in the meeting. Little interest in understanding outside of the process. We are on our own little fast track to personal need, of course we know what is going to happen, we know what the client will say and we are already trying to get three steps ahead of them. Fortunately, that same experience can help us adapt when the client or prospect does something completely different. It is in this moment, we should expand our thinking, and recognise that our reality is not the clients. Our perceptual position needs to switch to the client’s position, in that moment. Tough as it may seem, empathy cannot stem from wanting to control the client, only in understanding them.
Our new perceptual position should be one of curiosity, we should want to make curiosity part of our mindset and our make-up. Without Curiosity in others, how do you develop your networking skills? How do you get new clients, not just from a lead perspective? Would you buy from someone who wasn’t curious in understanding you? Would you refer them to your friends? In our individual sales roles, expanding our thinking and learning to grow happens from our interaction with others, in building empathy and understanding of others. From a sales perspective, it is far more important than the curiosity of understanding yourself.
It is through this authentic connection to others, that a genuine urge to really understand our prospects and clients as people, rather than just objects of revenue, stems from. This is where we move closer to building empathy and establishing a base line harmonious state, that starts us on our road to a long term relationship.
It is in our own long-term relationships that our own self-awareness, our empathy, our self-regulation of our own emotions, where sales people find their EI is tested. It is in our ability to adapt our interpersonal skills and build flexibility into our communication that brings professionalism to our roles. This is where we are able to demonstrate our emotions in a positive way towards other people, to our clients. It is within the sales process we can often find ourselves learning to manage our stress, perhaps defusing client conflict, overcoming our client’s challenges whilst developing meaningful solutions. It is for us a sales professionals to recognise when we need to add or subtract the emotional input to bring about the best outcome and maintain our relationship.
Defining solutions for our clients ultimately, implies we have done the homework to understanding the clients challenge(s), often their own frame of reference, their own perceptual position in that moment that is emotional; do we want to know their journey that got them here. This is the opportunity for a sales person to demonstrate empathy and build on the relationship with the client. Perhaps we start through active listening, not passive listening, where we begin thinking about the possible sales opportunity we are going to position in the new solution. This means being sensory aware of the client when listening, using both linguistic and non linguistic cues. (without imposing my own lifting belief, the kinaesthetic cues will require more focus, or perhaps shift the focus to the other sensory cues in the new pandemic world of Zoom). Of course smiling, good eye contact and good posture always help.
Language of influence
The language and the words we use, are often a sales persons greatest tools in building empathy and establishing a base level of understanding. Perhaps the question becomes, outside of the nuances of language, what other tools do you actually have that allows you to project your personality into a sales meeting? How would you identify yourself with the object, with which your client has framed as their challenge? How do you demonstrate your appreciation of understanding them? In the sales process our ability to ask questions, perhaps reframe the clients perception, whilst guiding our clients using persuasive language to appropriately influence them to take specific action outside or linguistic dexterity.
Guiding client action
It is in our guiding action that we can often find ourselves trapped; where perhaps the best solution is a win- lose in your clients favour. It is perhaps in these moments that we recognise that empathy stems from our openness with the client which has established the important cornerstone of trust. Being their trusted advisor has been built on our ability to tell the truth, to be open with the client and to maintain this connection with them. It is in this connection, our willingness to share information, our feelings, and communicating in a way that is not prejudicial, that our authenticity and empathy will flourish.
Moral code and ethics
The final element and perhaps to some the most controversial element is creating your own moral code and ethical standards that you can apply to the sales process. Sales has historically, within certain sectors, had a perceived reputational issue, where clients generalise that the whole sector is poor and has a very low base of empathy and trust. With this in mind, our ability to build empathy and trust and follow our own systematic process of building both, have never been more important. Most people recognize, right from wrong, and there is universal understanding beyond our own biases of what it is. I will take the liberty and deliberately, misquote Edmond Burke ‘The only thing necessary for empathy to erode and trust to fail, is for good sales people to do nothing”.
Sales effectiveness through empathy
It is sales, so let me build a controversial conclusion to the question that was poised.
Do I think you can have an effective sales process without empathy? No and Yes. The reason? Empathy is a series of emotional states pulled together under the one category we call empathy.
To experience the various states and therefore empathy, we would have to access them. So let me use rapport as the start of my example, as most of us are aware of it conceptually, as well as experientially; Rapport, is a harmonious state of connection which we have, or we don’t with the client. So in a sales meeting, creating rapport becomes a series of techniques such as matching and mirroring, pacing and leading etc. Using these techniques doesn’t actually change the state of rapport, the technique, is our conscious effort to create it. So the deeper question becomes are we building rapport just for, and to influence the sale? Or are we building rapport because we actually want to build an authentic relationship with the client? I suggest, that in my experience most sales people would say both.
So the list above remains a high level list of techniques that will help in building empathy. However, I fundamentally believe Empathy is similar to rapport, hence my example; we are either empathetic and really do want to understand our client and want to consider what it is like to “ walk in their shoes” or we don’t.
In the sales process especially with new clients and prospects, empathy is unlikely to be spontaneous, it needs to be built; so we need to decide to be the impressionist of empathy. Your self-awareness, your authenticity and genuine pursuit to understand the client is what will drive it or not, or you may merely decide it’s a means to an end, just another sales technique within the sales process where the client is merely the object of the sale.
Stay safe and maximise your potential.
International Coach and Mentor
Founder of Beyond thinking
A boutique Financial services search business.