Empathy in Selling

Article published on techUK Insights and due for publication in "Winning Edge" in April 2017.

In the second of this three-part series, we'll explore how the Six Habits of Highly Empathic People, identified by Roman Krznaric in his book “Empathy”, can help us to become better salespeople.


In Part 1, we cantered through Krznaric’s book introducing “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that to guide your actions.” We learned that we are all wired for empathy and that we must simply develop our empathic brains and skills to make it natural behaviour. If you had a go at each of the six challenges I set, you should be getting the idea. Now let’s bring the subject back from the personal perspective and give it a business angle.

Krznaric confirms that empathy helps with three aspects of selling:

  • building relationships > buying and selling are people-based activities.
  • inspiring creativity > a sure way to differentiate.
  • underpinning culture and codes > creating shared values on which to build trust and loyalty.

With this in mind, let’s consider how each of the six habits can increase sales potential.


Switch on 

Selling is not about you, it’s about your customer. It’s not about your products and services, it’s about what benefits they can bring to your customer’s business. Shifting your mindset so that your customer comes first is crucial and there are some simple steps you can take to support this change.

Being sensitive to your customer’s buying cycle is a great start. Rather than designing a sales process based on the stages, you intend to go through to make a sale, create one based on your customer’s buying stages. Focus on identifying what stage your customer is in and align your actions as shown in Figure 1.

Your actions at each stage must focus on helping your customer move their business forward. Modern selling (both online and traditional) is far more about helping your customer to envision a better place through insightful and helpful interaction. No more product-pushing for a quick sale.


Throughout, it’s important to be genuine. Faking it will show sooner or later. You need to share your customer’s pain and show that you care about taking it away, not just show polite interest. They will notice and respect you for your authenticity.

Tune in


Previously, we learned that prejudice, authority, distance and denial are four barriers that prevent us tuning in to other people. Highly empathic people tend to be more open-minded and prepared to defy authority. They see everyone as individuals, even those they regard as enemies, and seek to appreciate them.


As salespeople, we need to get to know our buyer. Is it one person or a team? What is the composition of the team? Teams may cover many parts of the business; the user community, technical, quality, delivery, finance and procurement.


Once we know who they are, we must put ourselves in their shoes, whether sandals, brogues or army boots. In the ideal world, we will get to understand each person’s role, objectives, incentives, likes and dislikes, fears and hopes. No more treating the procurement department as a necessary evil only to be engaged at the last minute in a price war. No more worrying that the business sponsor is a superior being. Everyone is equal. Everyone is human. Everyone, including you, is simply doing their job.


Tuning in early and engaging sincerely will bring insight into the buyers and the buying dynamics. You will be able to hone your communications to build stronger trust and credibility.

Dig deep


When I was a rookie salesperson back in the 1980s, our boot camp training introduced us to the idea of a DILO – a Day in the Life Of. We were encouraged to go out into our customers’ worlds and experience their lives. In my first sales job in computing, I spent wonderful days at the BBC script unit and special effects department pondering how technology could benefit them.


In those days, we knew way more than our customers about computers, so this wasn’t difficult. Now, with the internet and social forums, our customers often know as much about our products as we do, and if they don’t they “know a man who does”, so we must work hard to stay at least one step ahead. If we wish to become a trusted partner and advisor to our customers, we must be savvier than them.


So, spend time with your customer and with your customer’s customer – overtly or incognito like many of Krznaric’s examples. Try a job swap, or a mystery shop. Convert what you learn into stunning business ideas that will transform your customer’s business and allow them to see you as a someone who made a difference. 

Listen up


Greek philosopher Epictetus is famous for his wisdom: “You were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”


This saying is often quoted in relation to the tendency (perceived or real) of salespeople to talk too much and listen too little. The most basic of sales skills are about listening to your customer’s needs and wants before offering a solution.


Even so, it’s amazing how many salespeople still fall into the trap of launching into the superlative features of their products and services without the faintest idea of their customer’s motivation.


Krznaric encourages us to be radical in our listening – to completely put aside our own thoughts and desires in favour of taking in every tiny emotional and logical detail and nuance we are hearing. He encourages us to be truly interested in our conversation partners and to bare our own souls in our responses.

Sit down


Habit Five is sometimes known as “armchair empathy”. It’s about getting to know the world through theatre, films, photos, books and songs.

To get to know our customers better, we must continually develop our understanding. Today, we have access to an infinite source of written and visual material via the internet, as well as traditional media.


There is no excuse not to include desk research in your daily sales life. Make time in your diary to step back, sit down and be creative about how you can help your customers.

Get radical


Applying Habit Six to selling in its purest sense is perhaps beyond the call of duty. Instead, think of it as really pushing the boundaries to find innovation that could make a step change.


Can you turn a problem upside down? Propose a new operating model? Make a compelling return on investment case?



Inside your own company, can you change how resources are deployed to support the sales cause better?


To be truly different these days, we must be consistently more thoughtful and more insightful than both our customer and our competitors.


It’s a wrap


So, we’ve switched on, tuned in, dug deep, listened up, sat down and got radical. Along the way, we should have built better relationships based on genuine interest and understanding in our customers’ businesses and the individuals involved. This knowledge and rapport should have inspired ideas and trust. Altogether, this should have made us different enough to win.   


Next time, we’ll delve into how to apply the six habits to writing a winning proposal. Until then, happy empathising.  

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