Sales Primer: Empathy Is Key to Success
With the challenges of a slowly growing economy, salespeople in the printing industry are under increased pressure to sell more work — and at better margins. Increased sales performance pressures can, and often do, rush salespeople through the sales process, causing mistakes to be made. In haste, they fail to fully plan for the sales call and how best to approach their prospect or customer visit.
One area that is often overlooked by sales reps is considering how the purchaser will perceive or feel about the sales visit: feeling empathy. But is it even possible for salespeople to feel empathy for their customers when their own burden is so great? Yes, it is, and it’s essential to sales success.
But what does empathy mean? Webster’s definition is “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.”
Sales trainers touch on the idea of empathy, but somewhat miss the mark. Their message for sales success is to be a good listener, to find client issues and to offer solutions ... in other words, consultative selling. I agree that these stills are very important, but they are not at the core of long-term sales success. Empathy is.
To achieve lasting success, sales professionals must understand and feel what their client is experiencing. They must adapt quickly to their customer’s changing frame of reference. And, since no buyer or sales situation is ever the same, salespeople need to focus on the skill of feeling empathy.
Empathy comes naturally to some people, but for others it requires more attention and thought. This doesn’t mean that one person is more genuine or better than the other, as long as the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference is achieved.
While researching and preparing for a sales call, think about how your customer or prospect may view your findings. Make a list of questions to ask the buyer that will give you insight on how they feel, and listen for their answers that will give you a better understanding of their world. Also, keep in mind, people within the same organization don’t feel the same or have the same objectives and motivations — or even view problems the same. Your goal is to better understand how each person who you are interacting with feels.
Here is just a short list of thoughts that may help you better understand your customer, but there are many more that may fit better for you.
- How is their day going? Not just your standard meet and greet question: “How ya doing?” But, rather, are they actually focusing on your sales visit or is their mind elsewhere?
- Are they feeling appreciated, burdened and overworked?
- What is expected of them? Not just their job description, but from their company and for themselves.
- How are they evaluated?
- What are their goals?
- What do they need to deliver to get recognition, a promotion or financial reward?
- What is their company culture?
- How do they view vendors?
- Does their personality and business style match their company’s culture and position?
By not displaying empathy for your buyer, they won’t trust you enough to share their real problems with you. By not understanding what challenges face your customers and prospects, your solutions will most likely be wrong. You can’t just ask them what their problems are unless you have first developed a trusting relationship built on empathy.
So, understanding the buyer’s frame of reference is key to becoming a trusted advisor and, as a result, achieving long-term success. Pre-sales call preparation is key, even for existing customers. Changes happen quickly today, so never assume. Researching companies and individuals is a lot easier now through social media and corporate websites, but don’t let those be your only sources.
Company websites can tell a lot about an organization just by how the site looks and what information is provided. When researching individuals, drill down on their LinkedIn page to see what organizations they follow and/or what groups they belong to. How many 1st connections does the buyer have? Remember: you’re trying to get a better sense of who they are as people and the corporate culture in which they work.
Talk to other people who may have had past experiences interacting with them. Perhaps your company has even done business with the buyer in the past, maybe when he or she was with a different organization. Seek out any information that helps prepare you to see the world through your customer’s eyes.
With that said, don’t try to solve problems unless you know for sure that’s what the buyer wants. People don’t always want you to solve their problems. Their continued employment may exist because of their employer’s problems, so they would feel threatened when a vendor offers to fix them. You are there to sell; if fixing a problem helps in that achieving goal, great — consult a solution.
Also don’t assume that your technology or efficiencies are important to buyers. Technologies, efficiencies and equipment may be important to some but not to others, even within the same organization. Remember that each person in a purchasing role or a purchasing influencing position sees the vendor/buyer relationship differently.
Also, don’t make the false assumption that how you feel about purchasing is how others do as well. Buyers lean to their comfortable buying style, but can and do change according to their internal situations. What worked with them in the past, may not work now, so keep current with the needs of your clients and their companies.
Being a sales professional is a great and rewarding career, but a commitment to constant improvement and empathy is needed for long-term success. If the commitment to these are lost, so too will be your customer base.
With experience, training and continuing education, you will achieve great success. But always remember, just as a strong building starts with a strong foundation, so too must a salesperson start with the feeling of empathy.
John Raithel is president of Colorbar Inc., a company he founded in 2010 that specializes in equipment acquisitions, shop floor management, cost calculations, sales training and plant appraisal services. Before Colorbar, he was president of KBA Canada and senior VP of KBA North America. But many know him from his 16 years at Heidelberg USA, where he served as a field sales representative and used equipment director in Southeast Michigan and Northwest Ohio.