There’s the age-old adage of “know your customer.” But there’s even more to this phrase and something that is typically forgotten. It’s empathy and, in the world of sales, that means taking the time to take a walk in customers’ shoes.

Empathy cin sales an be a game changer. Too often we don’t slow down enough to think about where it fits in all the stages of the sales cycle and “knowing” your customers. You may technically know who they are, but are you really feeling their pain or acknowledging their challenges?  

Say you are in technology sales and typically focus the pitch and sales to a VP. Are you also thinking about how the organization will make the decision at a holistic level? Take, for instance, the IT department that is going to implement your solution. Do you understand the department’s concerns around adding a new software or a way of working that could directly impact its jobs and systems? Can you extend your conversation to its members and discover where they may have hurdles? This is one way to start spreading your empathy on a broader level and, at the same time, help to alleviate objections and roadblocks down the line.

It’s important to take an empathetic approach through everything — from targeting to messaging, communications, deal strategy, and right through to the close. Think about when you’re going to engage with someone for the first time and take a step back to try and get a picture of where they’re coming from. Look at LinkedIn and on social media. What do they like and enjoy? See if you can get a view as to who they are and how you can empathize.

If we look at the IT team example again, you might notice they have spent a large part of their career using particular technology. You need to find out if they are protective of it or are actually looking to diversify their experience. Go in and try to learn how your technology solution could potentially help to expand their repertoire or portfolio for work down the line — instead of thrusting it upon them. How can you help to understand where they are coming from with their careers, interests, and organizational goals? And, in turn, tailor your approach and product to what they really want and need.

There are also software solutions to help you learn more about your customers — even down to language recommendations of how to communicate best with your target.  Much of what I write tends to be quite bullet-pointed and factual. When I look at the research for a potential customer, if I find that the person actually does like concise information and brief emails, I will use that format. This is an important point of customer empathy from the moment of contact — understanding how someone wants to be communicated with and respecting it.

As the sales cycle moves on, larger meetings begin to take place with several different constituencies in the same room — all with different roles, agendas, questions, and concerns. Here’s where the role of empathy takes a huge turn. If you have four or five different people in a meeting, your objective is to get every single person in the room walking away saying “I get it, I love it, and it’s so relevant for me. I can see how this will work for me and for my peers.” Tall order, right?

You can make this happen by doing the empathy homework I mentioned earlier and including everyone in the dialogue of the meeting. Don’t just focus on who you think will sign the dotted line. Make the meeting an inclusive one where you query and get feedback from each person. Ask questions like, “Does that sound realistic?” or “Where are you at with this right now?” From there you can gauge, understand, and react to help them through it.

One of my personal observations is that those with more senior roles tend to be quieter in these meetings. Quite often you’ll see sales teams walk away from meetings, thinking it went very well because no one said they objected to the pitch. But what you might not realize is that an influential person had already made up her mind and just didn’t voice it. By not empathetically exploring and listening, you have missed that chance to address potential concerns. They will open up if you ask questions. Thinking about the entire meeting room is a crucial part of empathy in the middle of the sales cycle.

It’s important to keep empathizing during the final process, too. Sales reps often forget the risk that a customer is taking on. When potential customers want something approved, they still have to go through a process to convince their boss or the board that your product is a good idea. They are taking that risk on their own head.  Sales must empathize with the pressure of getting it through the board or equivalent, as well as ensure you’re giving the customer as much information and support as possible.

Remember that your sales cycle doesn’t always match to a customer’s internal cycle. Failing to understand this could be detrimental. For example, getting to the point of board approval might be what you see as stage six because you’re negotiating price. But to your customers it might only be stage two because they need approval to make the project “real” and it doesn't necessarily mean they're ready to sign. If you don’t know that, you might make the wrong moves or next steps. If you’re empathizing and involved, you will know this.

Quite often you’ll see sales teams walk away from meetings, thinking it went very well because no one said they objected to the pitch.”

Damilola Erinle | Area Vice President, U.K. and Ireland, Salesforce (Formerly)
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