Sales training must focus on empathy with the customer

If sales people want to get into a customer’s wallet they first need to get inside his mind. This means that sales training must focus on empathy.

A quiet revolution is taking place in sales, fuelled by the impact of the internet and shorter development cycles. Sales people need to have a fresh set of skills as they try to impress buyers with more knowledge and promote products and services which have fewer differentiators.

“The buzzword is no longer USP (unique selling point),” says sales expert David Oliver.”It is empathy. It is one of the new soft skills.”

Oliver is managing director of Insight Marketing,and claims to have trained 200,000 people in his career, from sole traders to big companies such as Microsoft, B&Q and Mitsubishi. He says that the principles of empathy are the same, no matter what the company size.

“Empathy is about understanding the pain that the customer experiences, so that the aspirin can be tailored to their needs,” he says.

Oliver says that empathy should not just be cultivated in selling relationships. “For other negotiating teams and buyers, the same thing applies,” he says. “Organisations need sustainable relationships with their suppliers.”

But what kinds of empathy do sales staff need? Oliver defines it as:

See like the customer

  • Feel like the customer
  • Think like the customer
  • Use the words that come from the customer’s heart.

“In other words, the kindergarten rule of marketing is never to talk about oneself,” says Oliver.

So, just what is empathy? It is a skill or quality close to emotional intelligence, or EQ, says Gary Hosey, who specialises in it in his work as an executive and behaviour coach, where he conductsone-to-one coaching scenarios with high-performers and those needing new direction.

He says EQcovers: intrapersonal issues (how I am with myself), interpersonal issues (how is my relationship with others),stress management, adaptability and the general mood. The latter he defines as a sense of hope and optimism.

“The stress of a sales environment and the need to hit targets turns off the interpersonal triggers about where other people are coming from,” says Hosey. “This is turn can have an effect on capability.”

He says self-awareness is central to success in all areas of selling,but that pressure means that a person who starts strong in sales can “de-rail themselves” if they interrupt the customer in an eagerness to close the sale and so close down the relationship.

A increase in empathy could be measured as an increase in EQ. This can be calculated through a patented emotional quotient inventory, known as the BarOn EQI inventory – popular with some coaches who offer it as a before and after measurement.

The more obvious measurement of empathy as a sales tool is in increased sales. Sales specialist Malcolm Murray targeted empathy as an essential skill when he was sales director of information services company FI Consulting .

“Putting the emphasis on empathy increased the confidence of the sales team,” he says. “It improved the process of questioning and improved business presentations. We got rid of bad selling, which is telling clients what they need without looking at their needs, and we increased the size of the business from four to 160 people.”

Holistic view

However, in the eagerness to improve sales figures, beware of seeing empathy as a quality in isolation, warns Wendy Brooks, director for learning and development and consultancy at the Hemsley Fraser Group. She urges organisations to take a more holistic view about their values, how they deal with customers, and how these values are communicated to employees.

“If you are going to get this right then you have to be explicit,” she says. “You have to recruit to those values, then train to them,get customer feedback on them and reward to them.”

Brooks says sales people need to think in terms of conversations with the customer and to not be afraid of the customers’ objections. She says that sales people need to think in terms of “crafting an answer” with the customer.

So what are the best ways to train in empathy? Opinions vary. For example, at The Results Consultancy, which specialises in training staff to deal with high-value sales, managing director John Timperley offers “real plays, not role plays”.

Building rapport

These methods,which he says are used in his work with five out of the top 12 legal firms in the UK and two of the top six accountancy firms, are to observe body language and rapport-building skills.

“The feedback comes from the actor,” says Timperley.”The actor says how the person’s approach makes them feel.”

But for Timperley, author of Connective Selling -The Secrets of Winning Big Ticket Sales, real empathy comes from the salesperson understanding the customer and theirneeds.

“Sales is about giving people the results they want,” he says. “People buy drills because they want quarter-inch holes, not because they want a drill,” he says.

At sales training specialist Huth­waite International, which works to improve sales performance through changing behaviour, sector head Steve Thurlow warns that improved empathy and increased sales cannot come from “a session in the classroom”.

“Value creation has to come from more than just the seller’s solution it must come from the relationship between the seller’s and buyer’s organisations,” he says.

Huthwaite is well-known for its training in the Spin Selling method, which Thurlow calls “a customer-centric method of asking questions”. It has just launched a concept called Living Sales, which after diagnostic visits and consultancy takes the idea of selling into every part of the organisation. The idea is that strategy, environment, processes and skills are all aligned.”It is no longer enough that sales is the responsibility of an isolated group of individuals rather, anyone with any level of customer contact – from a receptionist to technical support staff -has a place in the sales cycle,” he says.

But this does not mean every customer interaction is, or should be, an opportunity to ‘push the hard sell’, he warns.”It is about broadening the sales mindset.”

Hemsley Fraser’s Wendy Brooks also believes in a broader view. Success in sales doesn’t just come from that one meeting with the customer but from being equipped to meet the customer’s needs at all times. “Our own research shows that high performers spend 50% of their time with the customer and 50% of their time organising their own teams to serve the customer,” she says.

by Stephanie Sparrow

The three stages of empathy

When a coach is looking to develop empathy and emotional intelligence in a client he will be looking at the following three stages, says executive and behaviour coach Gary Hosey.

  • Stage 1 Develop the client’s listening skills and learning behaviours. These in turn allow the people whom the client deals with to speak and to be heard.
  • Stage 2 Take the client to the next level – this is known as enhancing empathy. The coach will start to build a structure about how the client uses questions effectively. The client learns to draw people into conversations. They will develop relational capability as they learn that people love talking about themselves.
  • Stage 3 Develop enhanced empathy, also known as appreciative listening. “This type of listening is very powerful in a sales environment,” says Hosey.

The bespoke nature of coaching means this approach can be tailored to suit the individual, but Hosey says that today’s society with disjointed communication and fractured families has meant that many people have not had the right environment to develop empathy.

“We’ve lost the way,” he says, speaking generally. “But as organisations realise that empathy can increase productivity and the bottom line their employees are being provoked to get back to it.”

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