Microsoft’s chief executive officer, Satya Nadella, often speaks of how his career — and his company — have been shaped by empathy. Nadella views empathy as a quality to be consciously cultivated, practiced and applied — “not just as something nice to have but (it) is core to (the) innovation agenda in the company,” according to a Quartz India article. In addition, he believes empathy can be a differentiator when working with clients.

Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s position and understand their situation. It’s the capacity to feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference.

Having empathy for others is not always easy.

Empathy is the Foundation of Consultative Selling

Empathy is essential in many aspects of business, but why is it important in sales?

First, you have to acknowledge some negative stereotypes. For example, there is a perception that salespeople lack empathy, and some of this stereotype is warranted. This perception may be a stereotype because salespeople are too busy pitching, (and not listening), and think they already know the answer — treating the customer as a potential sale instead of a human being with a business need. In addition, they are often so busy selling that they don’t take time to understand the customer or the background behind their business problems.

Sales professionals generally know that relationships are foundational t effective selling but may not know how to take them to the next level. By framing empathy as a key to developing rapport, leaders can encourage sales reps to do as Nadella suggests: Cultivate, practice and apply empathy in their daily interactions.

At Sales Readiness Group (SRG), we work with sales teams every day across various industries and geographies to improve the performance of their sales teams. Every year, the interactions with thousands of sellers have given us a unique perspective to answer the question, “Why is empathy important in selling?” In addition, we hear what techniques and skills are working with their clients and prospects.

Selling has become complex across the board. More people are involved, and buyers are further along in the buyer process — so the opportunity to simply sell based on a relationship has diminished. The trend toward virtual meetings that spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic compounded this challenge.

When selling in a virtual world, people may feel more isolated, and their personal and professional lives may overlap in the same space and time. As a result, there is less room for humanizing interactions — unless salespeople intentionally create them.

Empathy helps individuals become better consultative sales professionals who can solve customers’ problems in creative ways — ones that add more value than the competition. It also allows us to recognize how their unique needs may be changing in a fast-paced marketplace that is still recovering from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

How Can You Build Empathy?

Many techniques contribute to building empathy in a sales conversation. First, before even meeting with a prospect, sales reps need to invest time researching both the company and the individual. This will help them understand the customer’s business and personal objectives. To the greatest extent possible, salespeople need to understand personally and professionally what’s going on in their client’s world.

During sales conversations, a sales rep’s role is to ask thoughtful questions and to take the time to actively listen to their responses, showing genuine concern for the customer’s situation. They should avoid talking about their solutions until the customer has had the opportunity to discuss their problems thoroughly. The key is to consider the business problem from the customer’s perspective and contemplate what it means to them personally and professionally.

Throw away your pitch deck for the first sales call. Instead, ask questions. Summarize what you’re hearing. Talk less than the buyer — seriously.

Active listening is foundational to bringing empathy into your practice. To understand the buyer, you need as much information about them as possible, and you need to listen to what they tell you. Listening to the buyer allows you to build a more relevant sales proposal and, ultimately, have a better chance of closing the deal.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Building empathy among salespeople isn’t a one-and-done proposition. It may take intentional sales training and follow-up coaching to make every team member proficient at applying the techniques mentioned. Empathy is a proactive investment, and returns don’t always happen immediately. Being the “go-giver” and doing things without the immediate promise of a sale can differentiate you from the rest of the pack.

In the second quarter of 2020, many businesses — SRG included — suffered from the dramatic effects of the pandemic. New business opportunities seemed to disappear overnight. But that didn’t mean we stopped working. The team invested more time than ever to build relationships through empathy, leading to increased business results.

Just as with any other selling skill, continuous improvement in empathy should be a goal for the salesperson, their manager and the organization’s leadership. Demonstrating empathy starts at the top.