Empathy in Sales: What Does it Mean?

Empathy.

We see this word used in job descriptions. We see it listed as a value on company websites. We refer to it when talking about customer interactions.

What does it mean though?

I sat down with Hilmon Sorey—Co-Author of The Sales Enablement Playbook, Sales Development, Triangle Selling, and Sales Playbooks—to dissect this very question. When he’s not writing his next best seller, Hilmon is jetting the globe consulting for some of the fastest-growing companies on the planet. As the Managing Director of ClozeLoop, a revenue strategy firm driving performance for Sales, Customer Success, and Sales Enablement leaders, Hilmon shares what empathy means to him and the way he conducts business.

Neha: I see it on LinkedIn ALL the time—looking for an empathetic leader, hiring someone who can empathize with the team, etc. What does that actually mean to you?

You want the truth? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

First off, there’s something to be said from the origins of the message. You get LinkedIn, you get social, you get all the Interwebz, and it’s this echo chamber of sameness. You and I start talking about empathy, then we go to a meeting and there’s a conversation about empathy, and then someone goes and talks to a VC about the same thing, and then it’s empathy, empathy, empathy.

The same thing happened in the past; the term was context, then there was relevance. Almost like your superfruits. Remember when blueberries were the thing, then pomegranates were the thing, then açaí berries were the thing? What it all boils down to in my mind is:

  1. You have to understand and establish rapport in a way that you can evaluate and measure. It can’t just be that we smiled and talked, now we’re friends! Well, that can fall apart in 30 seconds if I say something offensive or if I don’t have any context around what I’m talking about. Understanding the concept of rapport as it relates to brain science and interpersonal communication is the first piece.
  2. The second piece is being innately curious. That comes down to understanding how a sales person asks questions, and their ability to have follow-up questions that aren’t just general; so, tell me a little bit about what’s going on in your world, tell me about your initiatives. Come on, this is a sales call! Be specific. Say; “Hey, I’m working with some people that are experiencing (these types of problems), are you experiencing anything like that?”
  3. The final piece which is impacting sales teams today is a lack of business competence. When I say that, I’m not saying people are ignorant. There are folks graduating from college who get into very job-specific environments, where if they’re lucky, they get trained on how to do those roles’ specific functions effectively. They get a bunch of product knowledge thrown at them, but a lot of them become myopic. Let’s take someone in storage, for example. They get really good at storage and know how to talk to storage people, but the challenge is, people don’t understand business as well as they may understand the point solution of their product. So this same person may have difficulty understanding the overarching business, process, and economic impact of cloud storage on a specific business. Instead, they focus on the fact that AcmeSpot is a safe place to put your information in the cloud.

Going back to your original question, I believe the context of empathy is the ability to manage interpersonal communication in a way that is natural and both creates and measures rapport, while being innately curious and unassuming. And finally again, this idea of business competency, where I can sit in the conversation with you and say, “I know that this week, she’s probably had conversations about the end of Q2 coming up, had conversations with her sales team about where they’re tracking…” because I understand your job and your business.

I come from this background of being a trainer and a consultant, and we have to have answers. We can’t just throw out generalities. Executives will often say, “I want to hire more impactful people.” Okay, great but how do you evaluate for that in your hiring process? “I’m looking for someone who has demonstrated empathy in the past.” That’s wonderful, now can you define empathy as set of experience or knowledge or activities we can measure and identify? Or are you going to continue to define it by using the word itself? Those are the types of things I think are critical.

Neha: Going off that, do you feel empathy is something people just have naturally or do you think they can learn it over time?

I love that question: yes and yes! What often happens is that there’s this unfair stigma placed on doing business and being in a sales role. I see folks come into an organization who have interviewed and the interview process may have included the fact that they were an athlete, academically competitive, an artist, or something in their spare time, or they vibe with the whole team over some happy hour, and then they come in, and they’re put into this rigor.

“This is how we communicate with the customer. And here’s the buyer’s journey. And here are the things that we have to overcome as it relates to resistance and objections…” and suddenly, you take away the humanity. We strip out what’s natural. A lot of times we go into an organization and one of the first things folks say is, “Can you make people sound like human beings again?” They’re missing cues. Natural cues that would happen in the conversation.

If I was talking to you and I said, “How was your weekend?” And you said, “It was kind of a drag, I wasn’t feeling that great…” I’m not going to say, “Great! Let’s get on with it!” That would be unnatural and trigger your suspicion of my motives. However, you hear the equivalent in sales calls all the time. People say these types of things and they’re programmed to ask specific questions to qualify, or march through a script. It’s not their fault.

I’m not picking on anyone that’s recently out of school—this goes beyond age and experience. If you take me into your organization and I’ve got 30 years of life experience, and you spend 2.5 weeks of putting me in front of a computer so I learn the technology, the implication is that my 30 years of experience isn’t relevant to the role. What am I going to do when I get on the phone? I’m not going to use any of my life experience, because you just told me that wasn’t relevant. Instead, I’m going to talk features and benefits and I’ll just end up sounding robotic.

I do believe most human beings are empathetic. However, I think very few managers are competent and capable enough to coach it out of individuals. It requires an immense amount of effort. When I was managing teams, one of the things that was the most exhausting for me was not coaching in a homogenized way. There are certainly elements of management, like accountability which can be standardized. Technology like the CRM kicks out reports and on balance you can leverage that data across the team. Here’s how we’re tracking, here’s how we’re performing, here are the expectations—there’s a level set there. But now, I’ve got to go in and get the best out of each of the people on the team and that requires a lot of adaptation on my part; from a communication standpoint and from understanding what level of micro or macro oversight is needed for the individual to be successful. You need to be able to augment skills and identify gaps that will help each individual to grow inside of their role both professionally and personally—it’s a lot of work. You know what? These are companies whose investor are expect this to happen.

Neha: How did you go about mentoring or coaching your teams?

You have to have frameworks. As management consultants, we don’t roll out anything to clients that’s just proprietary to that client. If it isn’t a framework that we can teach a manager to utilize to hold someone accountable and coach through and someone who is at the team level to be able to execute and be tactical around, then we can’t roll it out. Without frameworks, you can’t get scale. Otherwise, every time it’s a net new conversation and I’m trying to figure out, “How do I get the most out of Jennifer? Or Jason?”

This is where the best coaches are. They’re running their playbooks. They’re running what they know to be effective. I know a lot of people that resemble this remark; they’ve gotten to a VP level, they’ve hired folks they’ve worked with really effectively Director and below, people travel from company to company together because you don’t have to reinvent all that stuff.

“I understand how Hilmon works, so I’m going to go work with him. I know that Neha knows how to manage, it’s not net new.” The amount of friction that’s taken off the table because of those relationships is significant. That’s why they have repeated success.

Neha: Is there a time in your career where you look back and wish, damn, I could’ve taken a different approach to that?

There were times early on in my career where I was really that feature benefit guy. I had the good fortune of working with a number of organizations that were really top level, but with that, you get the arrogance where you really start believing the hype about your own organization. You think, “Hey, if I can show these folks what I can do, they darn well better get on board with what we’re doing, or otherwise they’re going to miss out.”

For example, there’s a web security firm I was working with at the time. It was a startup, but what we were doing was so innovative that anybody who was doing anything different in my mind or what I had been programmed to do, was just a fool. Why would you do anything that way if your risk of exposure is so significant and this is an available solution that reduces your risk by 10X? There was no empathy. I didn’t care what an individual’s job-to-be-done was, or the actual business of the company. I didn’t use a whole lot of diligence to learn the industry itself. Think about it; you’re selling web security. You’re selling to Directors of IT or Risk Management individuals. These are not folks who switch services, it’s not like “you’ve presented me with a better solution Mr. Startup, even though I’ve been using this legacy solution for years, sure, I’ll jump over to evaluate!” Not how it works.

I didn’t have much business competence to understand that the better mousetrap, was not the means of selling to these individuals, but instead, I needed to first identify what segment of the marketplace was going to make a move sooner than the others. Who are the early adopters? What makes them early adopters?

The challenge was, they were getting calls in the middle of the night or couldn’t sleep because they knew they were exposed. I didn’t have enough business competence around what they did, or curiosity. Instead, I was just spraying features all over the place. We’re swifter, faster, stronger, better… you want it? It would’ve been different if I had greater empathy.

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