Last fall, I attended a session led by Mark Crofton, global vice president of sales coaching at SAP. It was a deep exploration of the proven potential for artificial intelligence (AI) and its insights to empower, influence and even predict the success of sales learning, coaching and productivity.

What I found equally interesting was what technology cannot do. Yes, automation is coming for our careers, even for sales: Forrester warned us of this phenomenon several years ago. But it turns out that there’s a skill at which machines are not so adept, and it happens to be one that is essential to modern selling. When Mark Crofton reached his slide revealing this skill — cognitive empathy — finally, I had words for the skill/behavior/trait that I (and other sales enablement leaders) had been advocating for and designing to in key areas of the selling motion.

Cognitive empathy, or perspective-taking, is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, explore solutions from his or her point of view and even shift perspectives. Though machines may be able to portray cognitive empathy through a tactic such as active listening, because they cannot feel the experience of others, they cannot actually possess empathy.

Building from this idea, we can assume that machines may struggle to envision the customer’s problem as their own problem. They may stumble to adjust their tone and vocabulary in a conversation based not only on a buyer’s responses but where they are in the corporate hierarchy and the buying process, as well as the role they play influencing others in their organization. Without cognitive empathy, machines may not recognize the all-too-important moment of when it is time to lose the battle of the immediate sale in order to win the customer in the long term.

In a time when we are more disconnected than ever, erecting a bridge through perspective-taking is foundational to bringing the parties of a selling conversation together. And these principles are not new: They harmonize well with both online resources on consultative, customer-centric selling and modern sales writing, such as Anita Nielsen’s book, “Beat The Bots.”

Now that I had language to describe this skill, what occurred to me next was powerful: Cognitive empathy is not only an essential skill for modern selling. It’s equally indispensable for sales enablement. The success of one consultative sale can include perspective-taking for many in a ranging network of buyers; similarly, diverse stakeholder communication and management is imperative for sales enablement to not only succeed as a role but function as a strategy.

What’s common to sales enablement practitioners who have successfully elevated their function to exceptional heights is not just the fortune of “right company, right time.” Though that may be a factor, there are two more intentional skills that influence their success:

    • Aligning stakeholder intentions with those that positively impact seller productivity.
    • Communicating and reporting to those stakeholders about sales enablement initiatives in a style and cadence that resonates with their perspectives.

Let’s explore some real-world scenarios:

Scenario 1

Tuning into the experiences of new and veteran salespeople can expose a greater story than what the data may tell you and the executive team about performance gaps. Here’s a short list of discoveries you might make, based on my own experience and the experience of fellow enablement practitioners:

    • Case studies for use in the sales process were stored on a company system behind a firewall, with no mobile access.
    • New hires received over 20 emails from the learning management system (LMS), other systems and other departments on their first day alone.
    • Managers used one-on-one time exclusively to receive a pipeline update.
    • One-pagers made to share with customers were designed in a vacuum, with talking points and questions for numerous, unspecified buyer types across multiple departments.

By taking the perspective of the salesperson, sales enablement can share these discoveries cross-functionally, gain the empathy of well-intentioned departments and help manage the flow of information. By partnering in this way, the organization’s lens will tilt toward reducing obstructions to selling, ultimately providing time back to the salespeople to do what everyone agrees is their primary role.

Scenario 2

You have an upcoming executive meeting where you must report on the impact of sales enablement. How do you decide your narrative — what to report on and what to highlight? Practitioners who are adept at cognitive empathy will consider not only their message and intent but how the people in the room influence what they communicate:

    • A finance executive may want to know that your programs positively influence how the business makes money.
    • A marketing executive may want to know how his or her team’s efforts are bridged by enablement into the selling motion, what’s working and what’s not.
    • The most senior executives want it simple: What’s working, what’s not, what are you going to change and why?

Without considering others in a way that prepares you for this moment, you risk losing your audience and your intention by merely conducting a class on sales enablement. Unless they signed up for your class, stakeholders want to know how “their stuff” is affected by “your stuff” — not just about “your stuff.”

If cognitive empathy can influence sales enablement in such a powerful way, it stands to reason we must recognize its necessity within our practice. Also, considering how essential this skill is to our largest audience of sales professionals, we must recognize its importance in our own hiring and evangelize its cultivation and application within our teams.