Empathy: The Most Underrated Sales Skill & How To Build It Fast

Empathy — that underrated ability to understand the feelings and experiences of others — is finally getting the attention it deserves from sales leaders.

You’ve probably noticed sales leaders plastering the idea that we need to embrace empathy all over every LinkedIn feed and in every inbox.

In our new uncertain normal, there’s one constant that everyone can agree on…

Empathy Is Good

Of course, empathy has never been a bad thing. Over a decade ago, Harvard Business Review wrote that empathy was one of the most critical ingredients for a successful salesman.

Right now, though, it’s more important than ever.

We’re all dealing with a big dose of uncertainty. Plans seem to have a shelf-life of about a week. Forecasts are often guesswork. Messaging is refreshed every other day. And for many people, personal worries — such as family, health, loneliness, etc. — are also looming large.

In this climate, empathy is essential for building meaningful connections.

So here are some actionable steps you can take to be more empathetic. If you want to use these to try and better connect with your prospects, that’s great.

But if you want to use them to be a better spouse, sibling, friend, neighbour, or stranger, that’s good too.

Either way, a bit more social closeness (emotionally, anyway) is very much in demand.

Related: Embrace Rejection in Sales: 5 Ways to Use “No” to Grow

Why Empathy?

Let’s get granular and understand what we’re talking about when we say empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is experiencing and feeling. It’s being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Empathy can be hard. It requires vulnerability and emotional intelligence. Not only do you have to understand someone else’s reality, but you have to be able to transpose yourself into it, leaving behind your own attitudes and biases to see the world from their perspective.

However, while it’s sometimes difficult to be empathetic, it’s also critical to building long-term relationships.

For sales professionals (but also for everyone else), empathy is essential because without a relationship, there’s no trust. And trust is the bedrock of how people make decisions together.

Empathy, Not Sympathy

This is a source of constant confusion in COVID-related cold emails.

When I get an email that opens with, “COVID is a difficult time for most businesses,” that feels like sympathy to me. The sender recognizes there’s a problem, and I can infer that they feel bad for me about that (after all, they’re offering some solution).

But I don’t feel that they truly understand me and my problems.

Empathy is about putting yourself in the place of someone else, whereas sympathy is about feeling bad that someone else is experiencing something.

Sympathy is usually a lot easier to muster. It’s easy to recognize that something is bad and to feel sorry for the person experiencing it. But to truly empathize, you need to do more than recognize that something might be wrong. You need to actually understand what that person’s reality is.

Sympathy is nice, but as Brené Brown points out, it’s not especially helpful for building connections.

So, here’s your tip: If you find yourself jumping to interject or find the silver lining, take a breath. Ask yourself, “Am I being empathetic and truly understanding their situation? Or am I just being sympathetic, because that’s easier for me?”

Share (a Lot More) of Yourself

Sharing more about yourself is an easy way for you to build empathy with the people around you. Not because talking about yourself is going to connect you more to others, but because when you share, other people are more likely to share back.

For example, virtually every interaction starts with some version of:

“Hey, how are you?”

“I’m good. How are you?”

We’re all experiencing some uncertainty and change right now in our lives. So, why not share that?

Instead of saying, “I’m good, how are you?” why not share,

“I’m doing ok. I’m worried about balancing my work with my kids, so I’m trying to make more time, but I feel pulled in a lot of different directions.”

By sharing your own experiences, you do 3 things.

  1. You create space for them to share, which will help you understand their reality.
  2. You develop a norm of reciprocity between you, which makes it easier for them to open up and talk.
  3. Lastly, you potentially trigger their own empathetic response, making it easier for you to build trust and understanding.

Right now, people are craving spaces to share like never before. There’s even a new app to facilitate that sort of connection. The more you can create that space — the space to be vulnerable and share — the more chance you’ll have to be genuinely empathetic.

Be Helpful (Without Being Asked)

Everyone wants to be helpful. But when we’re helpful, we tend to do two things.

First, we ask, “What do you need? What can I do?” But people don’t know what you can do to help.

They have no idea what you can offer or even what they would ask for if they did. Asking what people need is (counterintuitively) not always the best way forward.

Second, as salespeople, our instinct is often to offer help in a form that helps us. But in our current climate, reps are better served by genuinely being as helpful as possible to the people they talk to, regardless of what they get out of it.

In other areas, we’re all great at this. Lots of us give directions to strangers, recommend restaurants to friends, offer spare rooms and couches for people passing through. We do all of this without a second thought.

So, if you want to be more empathetic in sales, channel your inner helpfulness. Take time to understand what people are struggling with, and think of the best form of help that you can.

Then, make it happen.

For example, you might connect them to an expert you know who can help them with their current challenge. Or maybe if you know a customer’s business is slowing, you offer payment terms on renewals before they ask.

Alternatively, you can just listen. Listen to what your prospect has to say.

Right now, unless you’re an essential services worker, there’s not a lot that we can all do other than wait.

Just listening can go a long way. For example, my Senior SDR Manager spent half an hour on a cold call the other day just chatting with someone.

You Can’t Phone in Empathy

Finally, empathy is something you can’t fake.

To truly identify with someone, you have to genuinely find some common ground — even if it’s unpleasant to put yourself in that position.

For example, if you’re speaking to someone who’s struggling with loneliness — like a prospect who has been self-isolating for weeks — chances are you’ll have to think back to a time in your own life when you were feeling lonely and overwhelmed to empathize with that person.

It’s a vulnerable spot to put yourself in, and it can be tempting to dodge that and go for a quick brush-off like, “Yeah, loneliness sucks.” But there’s not a lot of empathy there, and your prospect will feel it.

So here’s my final tip: If you’re going to be empathetic to your prospects, be empathetic.

Don’t fake it.

Don’t pretend.

Be ready to share more of yourself than you usually would, and be ready and willing to listen when people share in return.

Do you have a good empathy story to share? Let us know in the comments.

David is the founder and CEO of LevelJump. He’s built and sold businesses in both real estate and corporate learning, and successfully held senior sales and marketing roles at Fortune 500 companies, including Pfizer, GSK, and Salesforce. In addition to leading sales and marketing teams, David is an avid supporter of the Toronto tech and sales communities. He co-founded and is the current president of the Toronto chapter of the Sales Enablement Society and has spoken alongside other industry leaders at Dreamforce, the Sales Enablement Soiree, and SalesTO. In 2019, he was named a Salesforce Trailblazing Partner, and has featured in a number of industry publications. David is also an avid philanthropist, and has pledged 1% of LevelJump’s equity to SickKids as part of his work with the Upside Foundation.

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