empathy in sales

5 steps for practicing empathy in sales

James Patton

Reading time: about 6 min


  • Sales

Who loved economics in college? Thick, dense textbooks filled with fun terms like "econometrics," "infinite frontier," and "Gross Domestic Product"—followed by the distinct sound of someone’s head hitting their book after passing out due to economics’ naturally riveting hue. 

Perhaps you’ll recall one term in particular: "homo economicus." Homo economicus describes the perfectly logical person who makes all decisions to maximize utility and wealth while minimizing risk. This hyperrational being is what many of the most influential economic theories are based upon.

How many people do you know who make decisions that way? I studied economics in undergrad, but I just got an eight-week-old golden retriever puppy… I live by myself and travel for work (well, did), so how rational of a decision was that purchase? 

For a number of sales professionals, we tend to assume that our prospects and clients will make perfectly rational decisions based on maximum utility. However, humans are not entirely rational beings. Dale Carnegie, a reasonably successful businessman, said, “Remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.”

And because we are dealing with creatures of emotion, we as salespeople need to exercise empathy in order to reach customers and make real and lasting connections with them.

5 steps to being more empathetic in sales

With COVID-19 dominating the news cycle, no sports on TV, and families being stuck together in extremely tight quarters, leading with empathy as a sales professional is at peak importance. How can you become more empathetic with your prospects and clients?

Step 1: Assume they’re doing their best

Say you have a call with a VP of Engineering, and she's not particularly interested in you, your presentation, or your company. But it’s on her calendar, so harumph, she's here. You start on your beautifully crafted presentation, all manicured for the particular interests of the VP’s company and her role specifically. The CSM says, “So, here on slide two, you’ll notice...” but he is aggressively interrupted by the VP with a flippant “I don’t care about anything on your slide deck. You’re wasting my time if this is what you’ve prepared.” Cool, cool, cool. 

Far from ideal, but a situation that is probably familiar for reps. What can we do?

Respond appropriately. Don’t react. Respond with an assumption that this VP, as unnecessarily curt as she might be acting, is doing her best. Perhaps she is going through a divorce. Her kid is sick. She is frightened over the idea that she's losing influence in an organization she was part of founding.

To assume the best of another is to allow for a natural flow of kindness and respect for your fellow human. This assumption leads to genuine connection and goodwill, regardless of the outcome of that particular interaction. 

Step 2: Validate their emotions

My mom always told me that “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Kindness will lead to better outcomes than being terse with someone. One of the first steps to extending this kindness: validating another person’s emotions.

I’m sure you’ve never been in an argument with a significant other, but if you have, perhaps you’ve thought to yourself, “This person is being crazy right now. There’s no reason to feel that way!” Except it’s their emotional state of being, not our own, and if we would like to operate on a similar emotional plane, we need to validate their emotions (e.g., saying "Your feelings are valid, and I understand where you’re coming from. Thank you for telling me.") prior to asking some clarifying questions.

Even if a prospect or client comes at you with undue frustration or anger, a dismissive response will only widen the gap between yourself and the other person. As a result, you further reduce the likelihood of deeper, more meaningful conversations, robbing both parties from the potential of realizing a valuable partnership between you and their organization.

Step 3: Put the person, not the paycheck, first

We’re in a situation where both the seller and the buyer are potentially fearful of the market conditions. The seller is concerned about hitting quota and thus feeding their family, saving for retirement, or training this puppy that is currently biting at my ankles. The buyer has been told to freeze all spending, batten down the hatches, and wait for the storm to pass while hoping revenue doesn’t dip.

What is a seller to do when they still have a quota to hit? Don’t worry about the paycheck and take care of the customer first. 

That’s not to say you should give away everything for free and not recognize the value you and your product provide but, first and foremost, care about your customer. They are the lifeblood of your business today and tomorrow. Kindnesses and genuine concern for their wellbeing will be returned to you multiple times over. 

Step 4: Be vulnerable

I grew up in a family full of attorneys—the type that runs Ironmans and paints a football field and puts on cleats for the annual Patton Thanksgiving Football Game. “Vulnerability” wasn’t always top of mind. The conversations tended to drift towards economic or political conditions and societal trends. However, reading Brené Brown’s fantastic book Daring Greatly was the first step on my road to being real with people. 

The prototypical arms-length approach to business won’t work, especially in a time of ambiguity and concern. Being real with your clients and asking them how their lives are going, how their kids are doing, how life has been impacted by the coronavirus and responding in kind are ways to build long-lasting relationships, professionally and personally. The end goal isn’t “Man, I hope when budgets become unstuck, they’ll think of me,” but that is likely a natural byproduct of being vulnerable and connecting.

Step 5: Care before, and after, the sale

You’ve successfully navigated the sales process and added significant value to your client—congratulations! Now what?

Care some more. Even if you hand off an account post-sale to a professional services team or some other function in your organization, part of being truly empathetic is caring even when there’s “nothing” to be gained. Being there as a sounding board and a friend to those who cannot impact your quota or your professional goals enriches both of your lives. Be there.

We’re all going through an unprecedented time in our history which will most likely result in a permanent change in the way we go about our lives. It’s more important now than ever to maintain a constant: humanity. Regardless of the stressors, outlook, or lack of hugs, we can always choose to care for the person on the other side of the virtual call. Virtual kindness still counts. 

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About the author

James Patton profile picture

James Patton is an Enterprise Account Executive at Lucidchart. Prior to moving into the tech space at Lucid, James started his career as a financial analyst. After pursuing an MBA at Missouri State University, James found his true calling after falling into a sales role within the finance industry. An avid outdoorsman, James tries to spend every weekend in the mountains—hiking, camping, rock climbing, mountain biking, or skiing—there’s not much James won’t try.

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