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In a time of fake news, or what’s been called the “Post-Truth Era,” one thing we can all agree on is that the customer is more suspicious than ever before. According to new research by Gallup, salespeople are the second least trusted of all professionals. The first? Politicians.

With such a climate of skepticism, how can salespeople earn the trust that fuels connection, commitment, and ultimately a sale? Showing competency is a great start, as customers today rely on the competency of the salesperson to guide them through some potentially complex sales processes. However, new research shows that it’s not enough to be competent. In fact, salespeople who lead with empathy, rather than competency, will outperform their peers.

But we all know this, right? We’ve all been taught to make a friend, build rapport and earn trust. Unfortunately, knowing what to do — and actually doing it, are often two different things. We default into showing our smarts, rather than opening our hearts.

Have you ever connected with someone on LinkedIn only to be pitched before your finger leaves the connect button?  How do you feel? If you’re like most people, you feel betrayed, maybe even taken advantage of. I must confess that I’ve been guilty of pitching too hard, too fast a few times. And the results were never good.

Harvard Business Review cites competency (knowing your product) and empathy (knowing your customer) as the two most critical characteristics to achieve influence. But here’s the kicker: the sequence matters.

Empathy gets you in the door. Competency, reliability, and integrity keep you there.

So, before you pick up the phone, connect on social media, or meet face to face with a prospect, do your research. Begin your encounters by making it about them. Demonstrate your knowledge of their company, rather than touting your own credentials. As author Mark Goulston says in his book, Just Listen, “Be interested not interesting.”

Acclaimed screenwriting teacher Robert McKee makes a distinction between the different types of dialogue. In his book, Dialogue, McKee reminds us that communication is complex. Words are only the surface. Great dialogue, he says, contains these three dimensions:

  • The Said: What people choose to say

  • The Unsaid: What people are feeling, but may not tell you in words  

  • The Unsayable: The subconscious urges and desires people can’t express in words because they aren’t even aware of them

When listening to your customers, think of these three dimensions and watch what happens to your ability to pay close attention and empathize. Ask yourself: what’s my customer feeling that she’s not telling me? What are his real needs —  that he may not even know consciously?

When your doctor listens to your heartbeat with her stethoscope, do you think she’s thinking about herself? Not if she’s a true professional. She wants to understand your inner world, so she stays entirely focused on that task. We salespeople don’t use stethoscopes, but we are indeed listening to the heart of our prospects.

As salespeople gain experience and become self-proclaimed experts, they often start anticipating customer objections and offer generic solutions. Eager to show their smarts and get the deal, they jump the gun — and miss unique buying motives and signals.

Last year I met Sandy, a field rep for a growing company in Salt Lake City. For the last five years, she’s maintained the number two Sales position in the company. Lately, however, she can’t seem to make a sale.

Sandy’s confused. Her firm just acquired three smaller companies and now she has even more solutions to sell. As we kept talking, she revealed that her presentation time had decreased by almost 40 percent. Why? It turned out that in her excitement to demonstrate her new solutions, she shortened, and sometimes even eliminated her Discovery step. She showed off her competency, but failed at creating empathy.

Build empathy for your prospects by digging deep and asking thought-provoking questions throughout the sales process. And listen not just to the words but the emotions behind the words. Your empathy grows as you become aware of their unique feelings and needs. Trust will soar, plus everything you uncover will help you tailor your sales presentation to your buyer’s needs — and win more deals.

There’s no question AI technologies help salespeople prospect better, save time, and automate repetitive tasks. But remember this: AI is about competency and efficiency, and will not replace human connection.  

Think of AI like a sous chef. The sous chef in an upscale restaurant makes sure that the kitchen is a well-oiled machine, preparing food, managing the staff, and enforcing food safety standards. He’s competent, professional, and efficient. But it’s the master chef who greets his or her customers. It’s the master chef who asks about your family. The master truly understands his diners, puts the love in the food, and crafts the complete dining experience. Your job, then, is to become the master chef of your profession.

When you “Start with the Heart” and lead with empathy, you’ll close bigger deals faster. It might make sense to perfect this skill for that reason alone. But your ability to connect with others — to discover what you share rather than what divides you — will help you build a more meaningful life in and out of work.

AI is about competency and efficiency, and will not replace human connection. ”

Shari Levitin | Trainer, Speaker and Author of Heart and Sell
How to Craft the Perfect Sales Pitch By Annie Simms,
Account Executive, Salesforce
The Simple Client Meeting Rules Every Salesperson Should Follow By Laura Stack,
President and CEO, Productivity Keynote Speaker and Author, The Productivity Pro, Inc.
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