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Empathy in Sales: What it Means and Why You Need It

Camille Trent

Jan 05, 2022


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

What does empathy in sales mean though? And why is it important?
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.

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.

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.

In other words, expect great insights below.

Why is Empathy Important in Sales?

When a salesperson comes on as a new hire, they get trained on how to do role-specific functions.

For a while, they’ll have a lot of product knowledge thrown at them, but a lot of it’s myopic.

Sorey used sales reps in cloud-based storage tools as an 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.”

This gets into the heart of what empathy in sales really means.

It’s not the fact that you have this great solution, and know that it’s a solution. It’s about the user.

What is the full benefit to them? How will they use it?

Empathy in sales leads to better relationships

Gone are the days of strong-arm sales. The best salespeople know to establish a rapport with their customers. A smile and some small talk does not a relationship make.

As corporate sales trainer and lecturer Dale Carnegie once said, “you can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years trying to get other people interested in you.”

Understanding how rapport plays a role in developing connections with customers is critical to succeeding in sales.

But there’s a few more steps.

Empathy, Not Sympathy

These two terms are often confused with each other. Largely because they are tied to our emotions, which are intrinsically hard to define, even as we feel them.

Knowing the difference between these two feelings is essential to understanding your prospects and how to position your services/ products.

  • Sympathy: a common feeling between two people, usually one of pity and sorrow for the others’ misfortune
  • Empathy: the ability to understand, and even share, the feelings of another person

It’s subtle, but sympathy doesn’t typically play a role in sales (unless you’re there to solve a severe issue for your client, and that issue invokes sorrow).

Empathy, on the other hand, encapsulates all emotions and situations your customer or prospective customer could be experiencing. 

If a sales rep can’t identify with the prospect, it’s incredibly challenging to build that trust and connection needed to make a sale. 

sales happiness index banner

Why Empathy is Critical to Sales Performance

There’s always a push in sales towards better selling practices, better playbooks, better incentives — anything to drive sales. So, it’s only natural that companies would put money into researching the connection between empathy and sales. 

What these studies have found is that purposeful questions (rooted in empathizing with a customer’s experiences) spark an emotional connection that leads to a positive buying association. 

But Hilman Sorey doesn’t need a study to tell him that.

“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.”

The typical process for any sales team is to lay out the buyer journey and use it to build a sales playbook detailing how to speak to customers. 

That same playbook will outline how to overcome resistance and objections, essentially stripping the conversation of any real humanity. 

It’s not the fault of sales reps. They’re programmed to ask specific questions and stick to the script. 

Storey mentions that this robotic approach is one of the largest motivations of his clients to work with him. 

“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.”

As sales managers and company executives, you’re trying to improve the sales process, but leaving out empathy crucially impacts a sales rep’s ability to connect with your customers.

Empathy Improves Questioning

Storey describes a situation in which a new sales rep comes on board with 30 years of true life experience, but is set in front of a computer to learn the company’s products for a few weeks. 

“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.” 

Empathy in a conversation is normal. It’s human. But somehow sales calls sway from this because of formulas and sales playbooks. In other words, empathy tends to take a back seat to tactics. 

To use empathy to improve sales questions, you have to change that. 

Storey recommends taking the time to understand how your salespeople ask questions, and whether or not they have the skill to ask follow-up questions that are specific to the conversational environment. 

This includes phrases like, “so, tell me a little bit about what’s going on in your world, tell me about your initiatives…”

And, “Hey, I’m working with some people that are experiencing (these types of problems), are you experiencing anything like that?”

It’s all about building that connection and trust between the customer and the sales rep. 

But it goes beyond that. Empathy can help you identify your potential customers’ problem, and how to solve it.

Empathy Helps Define the Problem

When you improve your questioning through empathy, you’re going to listen more to the real problems of your customers.

It’s common, and easy, to become blinded by your own products, and forget the reasons you believe someone needs your product isn’t always why they actually need it. 

“… 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.”

Storey uses an example from early in his own career, in which he was working at a web security startup.

There was often a massive disconnect because he was too feature and benefit oriented, without seeing that it wasn’t what the security startup was after. 

“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. Because he didn’t invest time in learning the actual business of the company, he didn’t understand how to sell to them. 

“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. They’re not going to say, ‘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.”

It took a shift in his business competence to understand that the better mousetrap was 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?

In the case of the web security startup he worked in “The challenge was, they were getting calls in the middle of the night or couldn’t sleep because they knew they were exposed… I was just spraying features all over the place. We’re swifter, faster, stronger, better… you want it?”

Had he added empathy and curiosity to his sales approach, he believes the experience would have been far better.

Empathy Aids in Defining the Solution

When empathy and curiosity are the building blocks of a sales approach, you start to improve your understanding of why a customer approaches you, and how you can help them.

During calls, paying attention to those natural cues that indicate a pain point can lead to more closed deals, because you better understand how your solution applies. 

As Chris Voss puts it, you’re essentially using tactical empathy to reach a win-win outcome. 

Empathy in Sales: What Does it Mean? (Key Takeaways)

In summary, empathy in sales is the ability to manage interpersonal communication in a natural way.

It’s a way of making real relationships a sales habit, and take an unassuming approach when it comes to the reasons a lead may need your solution. 

You’re not trying to influence the lead. You’re using empathy to identify a solution for them. 

It’s “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.”

Worried you’ll say the wrong thing on a sales call? Dooly templates and playbooks guide you through every sales meeting. See Dooly in action.

Join the thousands of top-performing AEs who use Dooly every day to stay more organized, instantly update their pipeline, and spend more time selling instead of mindless admin work. Try Dooly free, no credit card required. Or, Request a demo to speak with a Dooly product expert right now.

Camille Trent

Camille Trent is the Head of Content at Dooly. When she's not planning content, she's repurposing it. When she's not repurposing content, she's hanging out with her pup and two favorite redheads. Or she's trying to coach the Portland Trail Blazers to victory from her couch.