As the Covid-19 pandemic sent people into lockdown and closed businesses, salespeople were called out for callous, tone-deaf messaging. Some were even critical of any kind of sales outreach: “Now is not the time for selling!”
The one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that we all needed to show a little more empathy. As a result, empathy quickly became one of the most popular buzzwords in sales.
Still, like many buzzwords, it seems that not everyone is clear on what empathy actually looks like. This post will explore what empathy means, why it's so important, and how you can use it to improve your sales message.
What Exactly is Empathy Anyway?
The dictionary defines empathy as the ‘ability to understand and share the feelings of another.’ It's commonly explained as the act of walking a mile in someone else's shoes. In other words, you’re not just aware of the situation they’re in, but you know how it feels to be in their position.
That doesn't mean telling people you know 'exactly' how they're feeling. You don't. We're all unique, with our own history and baggage, so pretending you know exactly how someone feels is likely to only annoy them.
The good news is you don't need to have experienced their exact situation to be empathetic. In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown explains it this way: “Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.”
Empathy is different from sympathy, where you feel sorry for someone. There's a time for sympathy, but it isn't in your sales message. In sales, sympathy can put distance between you and a prospect or, even worse, make it seem as though you're looking down on them condescendingly. Empathy, on the other hand, can draw you closer to your prospect. Rather than expressing sympathy for what they're going through, empathy puts you both on the same side, letting them know they're not alone.
Why is Empathy Important in Sales?
According to Mark Roberge, former CRO of Hubspot's sales division, empathy doesn't just help with sales—it's essential to the process. “Selling is about understanding the perspective of the buyer and then tailoring your sales process according to that.”
By displaying empathy, you'll have a greater understanding of the prospect. Whether you're on a call or crafting an email, that understanding means you can modify your approach to appeal to them, rather than sticking to the same script or template.
Empathy also contributes to trust. When it's clear to a prospect that we genuinely empathize with their situation, that we know how they're feeling, they're more likely to trust that we'll act in their best interest.
Additionally, empathy leads us to deliver more value. With that deep understanding, we're able to highlight and explain with clarity how our solution is right for them. The sale becomes a win-win result.
“Empathy creates an emotional connection, which elevates the sales conversation.” Colleen Stanley, President and Chief Selling Officer at SalesLeadership, Inc (source)
How to Sell With Empathy
While many would readily agree that empathy is a valuable quality in sales, actually developing and using empathy is easier said than done. Empathy means, not just acknowledging, but prioritizing other people’s needs and emotions. It means widening your view and deepening your understanding of your prospect's situation, their emotions, and their experiences.
In other words, it takes real effort. Here are some ways to start developing your empathy:
When you're talking with a prospect, actually listen to what they have to say, rather than just waiting for an opportunity to jump in and dominate the conversation. Just listen, without judging or rushing to provide a solution. If you're spending most of the call talking, you're doing it wrong. There's no way you can understand and empathize with their situation if you don't give them a chance to tell you what it is. You can't overcome their objections if you don't know what they are.
Beyond what they say, pay attention to how they say it. If you're on video or in-person (remember those days before Covid-19, when outside sales was actually a thing? Good times), take note of their body language. Does it match up with what they're saying? Or is there something else going on beneath the surface? Picking up on these cues means really paying attention. Turn off any alerts/notification, get rid of any distractions, and listen to what they're actually saying.
Slow down. If you're burning through your list and trying to send out as many emails or make as many calls as possible, the prospect will pick up on it. Even if it's subconsciously, you'll be treating them like numbers rather than people, and it'll come across in your delivery. If you're rushing through your script, you'll have no time to listen, and no time to build empathy.
At the core of empathy, you need to change your perspective and imagine yourself in the customer’s position. Go deep, past the surface-level persona details, and get to their emotions. Rather than simply acknowledging an objection on cost, for example, imagine what emotions go along with that objection. Maybe they're dealing with a tightened budget and they're having to make tough decisions. Maybe they've been burnt before, and they're worried about looking foolish in front of their boss. Whatever their situation, think back to similar experiences you've had and remember how it felt.
Displaying Empathy Throughout Your Process
It’s important to show empathy at every step, in both your messaging and your overall process. That means your prospecting, presentation, follow-ups—everything up to and including the close—needs to be carried out with a genuine understanding and empathy for the prospect's situation.
For your messaging, empathy has to be more than just a throwaway line at the start of your outreach. It should be part of the start, middle, and end of your message. That means avoiding the hard-sell mentality.
Especially when it comes to your first call or email, you need to have the right goal in mind. You shouldn't be trying to close the sale on your first contact. Even booking a meeting might be too much. First, you need to get them interested. How? By displaying empathy. Show them how your product/service solves their most pressing problem and alleviates their pain points.
Sarah Brazier, SDR at Gong recommends asking for permission throughout a sales call. Rather than launching into your pitch, ask them if they’re okay with you explaining why you’ve called. Then, after your intro, ask them if they mind you going ahead and explaining a bit more.
But what if people say no? Well, some of them will say no, and that’s fine. They’ll likely appreciate that you’ve asked, and may be willing to give you time another day. Even if they don’t, those who do give their permission will appreciate being asked and be more likely to listen to what you have to say.
Empathy may be the big buzzword in sales at the moment, but the best salespeople have appreciated how important it is for a long time. Your messaging should always be based on empathy, not just during world-changing events. By developing an understanding of your prospect and their situation, along with the emotions that go along with it, you'll be able to build trust and provide the most value.
Ready to start sending more empathetic sales messages? Airborne is a sales engagement platform designed specifically to help agencies reach out to leads with relevant messaging. Talk to an Airborne Specialist today to get access!