From sales leaders to social researchers, the concept of “the empathetic salesperson” has been discussed for decades. In fact, the idea of sales reps flexing their EQ (that’s “emotional quotient”) has moved beyond sales conversations and has surfaced in the creation of B2B communication frameworks: if you front-load features and functions, you’re not doing it right. If you first consider customer benefits, then you’re getting it. Respond to what a person needs, not what you have to offer.
My colleague Molly Buccini reviewed some of the traits mentioned most when sales managers consider the “ideal” salesperson – “empathic” is right up there on the list. But if you enter the search terms “empathetic” and “sales” into Google, the next word that appears isn’t “person” – it’s “approach.” Does that mean the act of empathy is considered more of a sales strategy than a way of being?
Actually, it’s both.
Our capacity to empathize with others exists within brain function – but it can also be practiced. Going back six years, the excellent sales leadership writer Anthony Iannarino (@iannarino) gave specific tips to improve empathy in sales engagements – and they’re great not just for sales, but also for life. The Greater Good program at the University of California at Berkeley finds that practicing empathy can be an important moral center against problems like racism and bullying.
But what’s more valuable? Having a salesperson who learns how to convey empathy as part of a tactical conversation, or one who exhibits empathy as part of their daily nature? As a sales manager, do I want the person who instinctively walks in someone else’s shoes, or the person who first has to find the shoes?
Obviously, both are valuable to the sales team. Conducting a conversation that places the buyer’s needs and feelings first is a coachable skill, as important as any aspect of training. But teaching that skill to a naturally empathetic person might be the perfect combination, and could yield faster training and better results.
Data from way back in a 2000 research study in the Marketing Management Journal suggested that salespeople who displayed empathy as part of their ability to self-monitor had a higher probability of sales success. Of course, this isn’t a sure thing, and other findings since then have been inconsistent.
But considering the growing demand to deliver value and insight at every sales conversation, I think bringing empathy to the sales engagement is mandatory. Common sense says it gets the rep interested in the buyer’s world faster, and answering their concerns with greater understanding.
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Including An "Empathy Check" In Your Hiring
So how do you stock your sales team with empathetic salespeople? Just as many HR and talent acquisition groups use surveys to better understand the personalities of their candidates – think Predictive Index and dozens of others – sales teams can try administering an “empathy” test to potential new hires. There’s the 60-question Empathy Quotient exam, a quiz from Greater Good that pulls from three well-known indexes, and an emotional intelligence quiz from the Institute for Health and Human Potential. (I tried the last one and received a result of “slightly above average EQ” – hooray!)
Like all surveys or exams, none of these should be the sole guide for your decision-making. Mike Kunkle, senior director of sales enablement at Brainshark, suggests “using assessments as one-third of the decision process.” Of course, you want to lean on your phone screenings, in-person interviews, and maybe even role plays.
But assessment surveys can provide some comparative insight and open your mind – and the minds of your sales force – to what it takes to hire, and be, an exemplary, thoughtful salesperson.
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