Fostering Empathy in Sales

How building empathy with your clients (and your clients’ clients) can help you build deeper relationships, uncover new opportunities to add value, and close more deals

One of my first jobs out of college was selling digital ads for a local website. And it was a struggle. I hated cold-calling, I had no idea which prospects to focus on, and I certainly didn’t spend much time thinking about my potential customers (or their customers, for that matter). So, when I had the opportunity to design the ads instead of selling them, I abandoned ship and didn’t look back—that is, until recently when one of our clients asked us to help them rethink their sales approach.

As it turns out, I might have had more success selling those ads if I had enlisted some of the same empathy and customer-centric skills I applied when it came to designing them.

Building empathy with your customers (and your customers’ customers) can help you forge deeper relationships and discover new opportunities to add value. Whether you’re selling business-to-business, direct-to-consumer, or just trying to sell your skills at that next interview, here are five strategies for building empathy in sales scenarios:

1. Put your expert opinion on the shelf.

Asking your clients open-ended questions (ones that start with why or how) can help you uncover their needs, values and behaviors. However, equally important is actively listening to their responses and acknowledging their perspectives. This means setting aside your “expert” opinion and adopting a curious mindset. Your potential client is the expert on their business, and you are there to learn without judgement. Keep your ears tuned for pain points and strong emotions, and pay attention to body language and other nonverbal signals. This is where you’ll want to dig deeper to unearth less obvious and more exciting opportunities. (For more tips on how to do that, check out 4 ways to listen to your stakeholders.)

2. Do your homework.

Doing some background research on your client and their industry, consumers and competitors helps you better understand their environment and empathize with their situation. If you are able, go undercover and purchase the product, engage in the service, or participate in the experience yourself. If that’s not an option, try interviewing some end users or observing them as they interact with your client’s offering. For additional secondary research, check out industry reports and trends, customer segments, existing reviews or articles, and any other relevant literature you can get your hands on.

A great way to provide additional value while also building empathy and trust is to share the insights you find in your own research with your client. For example, one sales team that I worked with conducted a survey of the client’s target consumers to learn more about their perceptions of the brand. In designing the survey, they partnered with the client to make sure they were asking the most valuable questions. Not only was the client extremely grateful to have these new insights, but the new information also opened the door to a previously unexplored line of business.

3. Be a patient partner.

Treating a relationship with a customer as a partnership, rather than a transactional encounter, can help build empathy by thinking beyond the obvious and immediate situation. When we better understand the story behind our customer’s needs, we are more likely to uncover exciting and mutually beneficial opportunities, both now and in the future.

For instance, years ago, shortly after my brief stint in sales, I needed a new laptop, so I emailed an friend who sold tech supplies. He asked me a few questions to learn more about what I would be using the laptop for, and in doing so, unlocked a host of ways to provide value beyond selling me a laptop: he suggested a docking station for my home office, recommended his favorite antivirus software for my new machine, and connected me with other customers of his that were in need of design work. In return, I continue to go to him for all my tech needs and questions.

The key to being an empathetic partner is patience. Sometimes, partnerships yields results right away; other times, they take time and investment before they come to fruition.

4. Adapt to your audience.

One size rarely fits all. Tailoring stories, selling points and pitches to better reflect the customer’s specific needs and interests helps to further build empathy and trust by demonstrating that the customer was accurately heard and understood. Even if you’re selling a standardized product, you can still share relevant examples that resonate with the audience. Beyond adapting the what, you can also build empathy by tailoring how you communicate. Often in my work, we adopt the communications platforms that our clients are already using: video conferences, Quip, Spark, WhatsApp, etc. No matter the situation, however, effectively adapting to the audience starts with actively listening to the needs of the customer.

5. Engage your customer in the process.

Despite the common fear of showing incomplete or imperfect work, sharing drafts with a client can actually be a great way to test whether an idea or pitch is on the right track while also engaging the client as a valuable contributor. My colleague Andy has been known to sketch out ideas in his notebook during a meeting to share with the client for feedback then and there. When sharing works-in-progress, make sure the customer understands that you are sharing a draft for the purpose of getting their feedback, and that the idea or proposal will continue to evolve based on their input.

Beyond asking for feedback, another way to bring your clients into the process is to invite them to participate in the generative process of co-creating solutions, potentially in collaboration with additional relevant stakeholders. As with participatory design, this reframes sales from a series of one-way negotiations to ongoing collaborative co-creation. In addition to expanding the number of ideas you have to choose from, engaging diverse collaborators on solutions helps to foster empathy across stakeholders—something my colleague Tim calls an “empathy flip.”

Regardless of the extent you bring your client into the process, doing so not only inspires more empathetic ideas, but it also facilitates greater buy-in of the eventual proposal or solution when the customer’s voice is heard.

Want to bring more customer-centricity to your sales processes and teams?

Learn more about our Strategy and Innovation Consulting services that help you align the needs of your most important stakeholders.

Kelsye Gould
[email protected]

Kelsye is a Manager at The Design Gym, a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot us a note at [email protected].

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