Why Sales Decisions Rooted in Real Empathy Are Key

“Hope you are well during these challenging times.” 

“I trust all is well with your family amidst these trying times.” 

“These are unprecedented times, but …”

Despite recent data showing the brimming optimism of sales and marketing leaders, my inbox is flooded with prospecting messages that start just like this. The sentiment might have meant something mid-March, but now these thoughts are just noise. I can speak from experience: Business leaders are drowning in fake empathy right now. 

Empathy is defined as “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions.” It is a fundamental skill of selling. The problem is, fake empathy is common. Everyone agrees that salespeople should have empathy right now, but many think adding some vague platitudes about “difficult times” to a templated prospecting email is the answer.

Empathy is not only great for a salesperson, it’s also great for human connection. Real empathy seems harder to find than ever. Research is uncovering drastic drop-offs in empathy between generations. Whether it is fake empathy or a lack of empathy altogether, society and the sales profession face big challenges with this basic human discipline. 


The Danger of Fake Empathy

I recently heard a well-known business leader enthusiastically tell his audience to “deploy their empathy” as if it were a weapon of warfare. Empathy isn’t a disposable tool or strategic weapon–no matter what role you are in. It is a discipline of authenticity, and even a mindset that is part of our character.

Empathy comes from being authentic and real, and is something we do constantly in hopes of becoming better humans. Beware of any advice that suggests sellers “use” empathy or “make empathic statements.” This kind of thinking is dangerous because it leads us to be artificial–to fake it.  

People don’t forget fake empathy, which is why the Pepsi brand and Kendall Jenner are now the punchline to viral images of protestors handing sodas to riot police. Consider the irony: In May 2020 Pepsi released a study on consumer perceptions of brand empathy, but very few consider Pepsi to be an empathic brand right now because of poor decisions it made in 2017.

My friend Andy Paul challenges companies that claim they are going to “lead with empathy.” Leading with empathy is fake empathy by definition, because real empathy only results from leading with questions, listening and understanding. 


How Can You Develop Real Empathy?

You can’t really have empathy without understanding. You cannot simply gain understanding from assumptions of what someone else’s experiences are. You have to ask and follow up with clarifying questions. Without questions and listening, our biases creep in and we are no longer trying to understand the other person.

Open-ended questions may feel risky at first because you don’t know what the other person will say, but there are multiple ways to have a conversation. Some use conversations as an opportunity to talk about themselves as much as possible. In that case, open-ended questions risk derailing your goal. Like a journalist, those who have genuine curiosity to dig deeper and understand will find themselves having more stimulating exchanges of information and ultimately better success in sales.

As the habits of open-ended questions and listening develop, you will strengthen your ability to build rapport. Strong rapport-building leads to better conversations, which ultimately leads to better sales outcomes. The best sales reps just keep improving because they have unlocked the keys to more meaningful connections.


Making A Career Out Of Empathy

Before my transition to a tech CEO, I was a practicing marriage and family therapist. I learned firsthand that empathy is one of the underpinnings of good relationship-building and human connection. It is a mindset that can translate into any career. While empathy is not typically part of a professional training curriculum, it is easy to see how companies would gain amazing ROI on empathy training.

Historically, people described as empathic were pushed into specific career paths, however everyone can benefit from being empathic. We should never discount the value of empathy, but rather should encourage everyone in all careers to learn real empathy. 

Take doctors, for example. The best doctors are described as those who are not just great practitioners but also those who have great bedside manner. This can be translated into doctors who exhibit great empathy for their patients. No matter if you are in sales, customer service, or medicine, recognizing the experiences of the other can benefit your career, and the world will be a better place as a result.


Putting Theory Into Practice

The difference in goals between the empathic seller and those who sell without true empathy is clear. While both sides are economically incentivized to sell their product or service, the empathic seller is trying to help understand the prospect’s situation and ascertain whether or not the product fits the buyer’s needs. 

This is a time where everybody desperately wants to connect with other people because we all feel so distant and isolated. This is an opportunity to connect with other human beings on a different level.

Howard Brown is the founder and CEO of ringDNA, where he fosters an innovative, fast-growing and collaborative culture. A three-time entrepreneur and former clinical psychologist, Howard’s thought leadership on sales, entrepreneurship and artificial intelligence has appeared on Bloomberg TV, FOX Businesses, Forbes, and Entrepreneur Magazine, and he is a frequent speaker at industry conferences such as Dreamforce and AWS Reinvent. Howard has been listed as one of the 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs of 2019 by Goldman Sachs, and a top CEO according to Comparably.

  • Originally published August 11, 2020, updated October 23, 2020