Empathy is a key concept in business today, especially in sales management. Some would say it has become a buzzword, but many experts agree that empathetic leadership enhances sales team motivation and performance in big ways. I suggest there is an element of truth in both views.

The challenge is in the execution. Many sales managers have the wrong idea of what empathy really entails. That translates into situations where they avoid employing it or they misapply it. Both are detrimental to the performance of their teams. Fortunately, learning leaders can help by training sales managers on what empathy is — and what it isn’t — to ensure they’re equipped to lead their sales teams effectively.

Understanding Empathy

First, let us start by clarifying what empathy is not: Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone; empathy is feeling connected to someone.

Empathy doesn’t mean always agreeing with someone. What it does mean is you are continually seeking to understand someone’s perspective, even if it is different than your own.

Empathy doesn’t mean pretending to share someone’s experience when you don’t. What it really means is appreciating their perspective (and the emotions that come with it), not claiming it as your own.

Empathy doesn’t mean letting people off the hook for poor performance. It means recognizing their challenges while finding solutions to help meet their goals.

Empathy is never a sign of weakness. It is an expression of strength and a display of leadership skills. That is because it takes insightful questioning and compassion to gain a deep understanding of others’ experiences.

Empathy is not about being soft or weak, but rather about being able to connect with people on a deeper level. To do this, a sales manager must have the emotional intelligence required of a successful leader.

Developing Empathetic Sales Managers

So, what is empathy as it relates to managing sales professionals?

At a high level, training your sales managers on empathy will help them to:

  1. View things from the seller’s point of view.
  2. Gain an understanding of why they feel a certain way.
  3. Closely identify with their challenges.

Accomplishing those three goals will create more powerful coaching conversations. These are the ones that allow managers to personalize their guidance based on each rep’s unique needs, motivations and growth areas. From a morale perspective, the team will feel respected, supported and understood — all key ingredients for improving motivation.

Leading With Empathy: Best Practices to Teach Sales Managers

Human connection is crucial.

Invest the time for one-on-one meetings to get an understanding of each member of the team individually. Numbers are obviously important, but salespeople must feel connected to be fully committed.

Give feedback from a place of understanding.

Anytime you give feedback, focus on the why. Try to understand the sales rep’s intentions first before devising a plan of action. Hold yourself as well as them accountable for any action items that come from the feedback.

Validate employees’ feelings.

If they express frustration or disappointment, take the time to acknowledge those feelings, letting them know you understand and are here to help turn the experience into a learning opportunity.

Be proactive about intervention.

If you notice a salesperson struggling to meet goals, reach out immediately to see how you can support them rather than waiting for them to come forward. Or worse, waiting until the situation has deteriorated beyond repair and their confidence as well as the client’s confidence in them has evaporated.

Cater your approach to the individual.

Customize your coaching style based on how each person responds and the facts of the specific situation. Sometimes they need more encouragement and patience, other times more direct and frank feedback is required.

Recognize more than just landing the sale.

Offer appreciation to your team members for their efforts, not just their results. Business results like quota attainment derive from effort. Focus on progress, not perfection.

Ask for their input.

Be open to feedback from your team members. This is what will help you understand their needs and concerns and demonstrate you value their input. But, more importantly, you are leading by modeling the same behavior you need from them, which is being open to feedback.

Encourage collaboration and teamwork.

Foster a supportive environment and avoid pitting salespeople against each other. Competition among sales reps is healthy, if the health of the overall team is not adversely affected. The purpose of any competition should be to create stronger bonds among the sales team.

Final Thoughts

If you are responsible for training sales managers, you want improved business results. To accomplish that, you need to empower sales managers to have powerful coaching conversations that will motivate sellers to higher levels of performance. The proper understanding and application of empathy is a way to achieve this.