competitive sales edge

Automated sales and customer service tools are becoming a bigger part of customer relationships. This is good news for you if you have more empathy for your customers.


The robots are coming.

And they’re here to take your sales job.

At least, that’s what we’re afraid of.  It might be true that technology can be integrated into many steps of the sales process.  But it can’t do everything.  For now, there are a number of skills that computers can’t learn.  One of those is our human ability to create empathetic connections with prospects and customers.

This is a key ability for the modern seller.  By developing your empathy skills, you’ll find your sales conversations much more effective.  And more importantly, you’ll create a skill set that is in demand and hard to replace with technology.

What is Customer Empathy?

Quite simply, empathy is the ability to understand the emotional state of another person and how to respond appropriately.  It doesn’t mean that you have to feel the same thing (that’s sympathy).  But it’s our capacity to sense what is going on in someone’s else mind, and to guess at the best way to engage based on our understanding of that perspective.

How empathy drives sales conversations

At its heart, sales has always been about the inter-personal engagement between two people.  We always hear about sales professionals being “people people”.  That’s simply another way of saying that they are empathetic.

Indeed, when we talk about emotional intelligence, one of the most important things we’re referring to is the ability to recognize, understand, and respond to the emotional state of others in an appropriate way.

Think about your sales interactions.  Key steps include building trust, uncovering needs, and creating confidence.   If you can’t do those well you’re not going to find a lot of success.  All of them are driven by sales professionals’ ability to create a bridge with their prospects.

By picking up on the subtle and not-so-subtle clues that our conversational partners apply, salespeople with high emotional intelligence can create stronger connections and more easily influence others.

Building your sales empathy allows you to pick up on hidden buying signals and unsaid objections

This is especially important as sales processes get more complex and involve more people.  It’s critical to be able to understand the motivations and thoughts of everyone involved in the process.  In a world where information is a commodity, you need to be more than a source of facts and figures.  You need to possess the ability to engage on an emotional level and become a resource for potential customers.  If you want to guide them through their buying journey, it’s imperative you connect on the human level.

Learning and Building Empathy for your Customers

Luckily, your emotional intelligence isn’t a fixed trait.  Much of your empathy is developed as you mature, but it’s a muscle that can be exercised and improved.  There are actually pathways in our brains called mirror neurons.  They have evolved to recognize and respond to the hundreds of small, usually unnoticed, signals that someone gives off when we interact together.

Taking it a step further, as we grow up we develop what neuro-scientists call the Theory of Mind.  It describes our ability to put ourselves in the place of someone else and see things from their perspective.

It allows us to understand that they might have thoughts, feelings, and motivations that are causing them to do what they do.  It’s why you can pick up on the unspoken signals of your friend and ask, “What’s wrong?” before they even have to tell you that they just had a bad day at work.

Deliberately focusing on building your ability to pick up on the signals that people share, and learning how to interpret them, can have huge dividends.  And it’s not complicated.  You don’t have to take special classes or training seminars.  In fact, your daily sales activities provide constant opportunities to build your capacity.  Here are 5 exercises you can use to cultivate your empathetic skills.

1. Pay massive attention (to how they answer)

It seems obvious, but the first step is to pay attention to the signals that your prospects and customers are already sending to you.  Unfortunately, in sales conversations it is way too easy to get wrapped up in what you want to say.

When your mind is filled with your agenda (and the nervous energy that often accompanies conversations with potential customers), you aren’t picking up any of the signals that they are sharing.

Before your sales conversations, focus yourself on engaging with the other person.  Write a note to remind yourself of what you want to cover so you don’t have to keep it in your head.  When you ask questions, look at them and listen to their answer.  And for the love of all that is good, put away your phone.

2. See and hear who you’re talking to

Digital communication has made it easy for us to connect.  Email, social media posts, and texting are a part of our daily engagement.  But when we engage with people on those platforms, we lose two of the main vehicles for conveying information in a conversation: vocal tone and facial expressions.

Research shows that the power of “face-to-face” communication really is in it being face-to-face.  When people are in the same room, but back to back, their ability to create a connection diminishes.  That’s how important it can be to see and hear each other.

There’s a place for digital communication, but challenge yourself to set up meetings by phone, video call, or in-person whenever possible.  Face-to-face conversations allow for the fullest interaction, and the closer you can get to one, the more effective you will be.  You might have gotten lazy, or maybe you hide behind your texts and emails.  Stop it!

3. Share small talk

Small talk often gets maligned as talking just talking about the weather.  But if you don’t know someone well, talking about the weather can be a great place to start.  In communication studies, there’s something called “phatic communication” which is designed for a social function versus an information function.  In other words, it lubricates the conversation at the beginning so it will go smoothly.

Too often salespeople want to “jump right in” and get “down to business”.

You don’t want to make mistakes early on that damage your chances for success.

In doing so, you miss out on a critical step in building that initial empathetic bridge.  You end up spending the rest of the conversation trying to catch up and create trust and connection on the fly, which can be challenging.

On your next sales calls, slow the tempo down right in the beginning.  Look to create rapport, the emotional connection, and then move forward.  Of course, you don’t want to waste time, but 2-3 minutes of conversation at the beginning of a presentation or demo goes a long way.

4. Get curious about your prospect’s worldview

Even though our minds are great at picking up subtle cues about our conversational partners emotional state, we can make it easier on ourselves.  Asking questions is the hallmark of any great salesperson.  But you can take it a step further than simply sussing out their budget for the year or identifying other decision-makers that need to be involved.

Your sales presentation probably has questions baked in already to gather information.  Beyond the facts that the prospects share, pay attention to “how” they answer you.  Are they confident, guarded, excited, upset, or defeated?  You can figure out a lot of what’s going on in the organization by the way the answer is framed.

Selling is a person-to-person activity. Don’t hesitate to ask your prospects about how they feel about the process.

Or to be more direct, get in the habit of asking “How do you feel about that?”  You could be referencing a challenge they are having, an organizational roadblock, or even the solution you’re presenting.  You’re not looking for a quantitative answer.  Instead you are looking to gauge where they are emotionally, which will give you a lot of information on how to proceed.

5. Debrief after your failed interactions

One of the best ways to learn empathy is to examine your empathetic failures.  Those come in two forms: Sometimes you will lose a sale and you’ll have no idea why.  In that situation, you’ve failed to pick up on what is motivating your prospect.  In other situations, you’ll ignore the clues and push your own agenda.  For example, their signals might have indicated that they weren’t ready to move forward, but you pushed them because you needed to hit quota.  And then they ghosted you.

It’s important to debrief after these interactions, even if it’s just you and a notepad.  Can you accurately assess their emotional state?  What was motivating them in the conversation?  Ask yourself if there were things that your conversational partner shared that you didn’t engage with in the moment, but in hindsight were really important.  Were there clues that foreshadowed the eventual decision that they made?

By replaying these conversations in your mind, you’ll develop a finer instinct for developing empathy.  You’ll be clearer about tuning in to the conscious and unconscious signals that your prospects and customers are sharing with you.  With that information, you’ll be much more skillful at homing in on their true concerns and hopes.  That is a core part of emotional intelligence.  And once you can understand those emotional motivations, you’ll be able to sell more effectively and efficiently