'Fake it til you make it' is a mantra most people in business understand and one many of us have used as the cornerstone of our professional lives. Without occasionally ‘faking it’ along the way, we would never move up the corporate ladder or overcome the crippling Impostor Syndrome that afflicts so many people (myself included) in our daily lives.
The problem with faking it however, is knowing where to draw the line ... for example when asked: “Are you proficient in the use of Excel?"
The natural response would be ... “Yes, I know my way around a spreadsheet or two” … followed by a quick Google search and 2 hours of rapid, self-taught Excel skills.
This strategy tends to unravel however when you try to fake your knowledge, credibility or authority in more important areas of business or life. Running my company Trinity, I’m incredibly fortunate to spend a lot of time interviewing senior decision makers shortly after they have made significant (often multi-million dollar) purchasing decisions. It never ceases to amaze me how frequently these individuals cite issues such as lack of professionalism, poor cultural fit or lack of emotional connection, as key factors for their decision not to pursue business with a particular vendor.
What they are effectively telling me is that these salespeople were still faking it. They lacked the interest, the aptitude or worst of all the empathy to be create cut-through and connection with the stakeholders in these businesses.
What I’ve come to realise across these thousands of hours of interviews and countless Win Loss Reviews is that customers aren’t just buying the product or service that you are pitching, they are actually buying you. More than that, they actually see you as the personification of the product or service you represent. If you are professional, knowledgeable and responsive, by definition your company is seen in a positive light. Equally if you are sloppy, slow to follow-up or lack basic knowledge, by association the business you represent gets marked down immediately.
The harsh reality of business is that your product and price-point are simply your ticket to the dance, they get you in the door, but that’s all. At that stage the customer is wondering:
For maximum effectiveness in B2B sales, you’ve got to be able to get past the feature/function conversation, to break through the walls of professional courtesy and form a real relationship. The power of a smile with intent, as Tony Hughes so aptly describes it.
For this reason, empathy is arguably one of the most important, though often neglected, sales skills. Neglected because in a formal sales training program, it’s easier for trainers to focus on more tangible IQ-related skills and behaviours, than the softer, more esoteric character traits.
My own sales enablement activities tend to be a little different. When working with sales teams, I prefer to focus on attributes like strong discovery and active listening skills, understanding and harnessing the power of storytelling and recognising the need to create an empathetic and authentic human connection. It sounds very warm and fuzzy doesn't it ... far away from the important, serious work of closing big deals and hitting quarterly quotas ... but believe me when I tell you, as humans we invariably decide with our hearts and then justify with our heads.
“People prefer to do business with those they know, like and trust”
This sales truism has been handed down from generation to generation. Some sales experts will tell you that times have changed, that salespeople are far less integral to the process than they used to be, however my own extensive research simply doesn’t support this new reality. The vast majority of times I interview a senior decision maker about how they reached their purchasing decision, the quality of the vendor’s team and the cultural fit of their people are among their key decision criteria.
Typically, when you think of sales skills, your mind goes to meeting sales goals, lead generation and handling objections. But too often we neglect the most fundamental aspect of relating to another human. At the core of any relationship is the ability to understand another person and to find common ground. This is just as true for business as personal relationships, which is why empathy remains so important.
Empathy is the ability to perceive and understand how another person is feeling, to put yourself in their shoes for a time and feel what it feels like to be them. It’s the basis of many social interactions and explains how we create bonds with other individuals. Without it, business deals and most human interactions for that matter, would be devoid of humanity and become robotic, emotionless transactions.
Developing empathy is crucial for establishing rapport and increasing the trust factor. It sends the message that you have the prospect’s best interest in mind. Salespeople who harness their own empathy tend to be more successful, because they intrinsically understand their buyers at a deeper level and form more meaningful relationships. It’s human nature to naturally open up to someone whom you trust and you believe has your best interests in mind.
Empathetic individuals also recognise that every prospect has different motivators and objections and are adept at using empathy to unearth what their prospects are really feeling, making it far easier to find the best solution to their problems. In contrast, failing to display empathy or focusing solely on our own needs triggers a silent alarm in most people, causing us to very subtly disengage from the individual displaying those traits.
With empathy being at the core of sales success, it begs the question, “Does everyone have empathy?”
It’s true some people are naturally gifted at displaying empathy, while others may struggle to tap into this emotion. No matter where you find yourself along this empathy continuum, virtually anyone can learn to become more aware of and empathetic towards those around them, with the right support and coaching.
A well-balanced sales team is one that can see beyond the basics of sales: cold calling, performance metrics, handling objections, closing the sale, and actively infuse empathy-based behaviours into their sales process. Teams embracing this approach have a much easier time establishing rapport, progressing deals and ultimately converting sales.
Listen intently. You need to hone your listening skills in order to identify and accurately pinpoint your prospect’s point of view. This is the core of empathy-based selling. It’s quite simple: the better you listen, the more clearly you can replay what you have heard back to your customer and the more comfortable and trusting they will feel towards you. This won’t necessarily increase the likelihood of you closing a deal, but it will undoubtedly ensure your calls get returned and you get an accurate and honest picture of what’s happening on your deal. It may sound trivial, but creating a genuine connection with your prospective customer is the best way to avoid being blindsided in a sale.
Pay attention to nonverbal cues. Closely tied to listening carefully is tuning into subtle nuances, tone, pauses, and nonverbal cues that can paint a more vivid picture of what your prospect needs or wants. There is plenty of valuable intel revealed when you slow down and pay attention to details. A simple way to understand this topic is to split the feedback you receive from your customer into above-the-line and below-the-line information. Above-the-line is the kind of information that might be contained in an RFP document or vendor briefing - its factual, its specific and it speaks to the business reasons this customer has gone out to market. Below-the-line information is harder to garner, but often much more valuable in terms of understanding how a specific decision will be reached. Below-the-line includes the political and career motivations of your customers, any major frustrations or aspirations they may be experiencing. People are less likely to tell you this information outright, but over time, with the right relationships and intelligent questions, you can often get to the heart of these issues, which can often be the key to unlocking the entire sale.
Clarify and ask questions. After listening and gathering the facts, it’s time to clarify any uncertainty and confirm what you have just heard before strategising. Try to step into their shoes for a moment and observe how they might see your product or service. It’s also the time to look for opportunities to demonstrate to your prospect that you are their ally not their enemy, by demonstrating you understand where they are coming from.
Empathy is an incredibly valuable trait not only to close more sales, but to bring a greater degree of human connection into business and elevate the perception of the sales profession. If empathetic-selling does become more pervasive in business dealings, perhaps we can begin to change people’s long-standing perceptions of salespeople. Maybe one day the word ‘empathy’ will be synonymous with salespeople and the negative stereotypes can finally be put to rest.
Cian is the founder and CEO of Trinity Perspectives, a 20-year veteran of the B2B sales industry, including senior roles in some of the world's largest software companies.