Sales organizations invest thousands of dollars each year in sales training, focusing on lead generation, asking effective questions, negotiation, and account management. But most don't teach the trait people really respond to: empathy. Join Colleen Stanley, President and Chief Selling Officer at SalesLeadership, Inc., and creator of the Ei Selling System(R), as she shows why empathy builds long-lasting relationships in business.

Read the article that inspired the conversation: “Are You Missing This Powerful Selling Skill?

 
 
 
 

Tim Clarke: Thank you for joining the Quotable Podcast. Today we’re really excited to welcome Colleen Stanley. Now, Colleen is President and Founder of Sales Leadership Inc. She’s also the author of a great book, Emotional Intelligence for Sales Success.

Now today we’re discussing empathy as a powerful selling skill. So, welcome, Colleen.

 

Colleen Stanley: Tim, happy to be here. Thanks for having me. 

 

Clarke: I’m Tim Clarke, Product Marketing Director at Salesforce, and I’m joined today by our guest host, Tiffani Bova. Tiffani is the former VP and Fellow at Gardner, and she’s now the Global Customer Growth and Innovation Evangelist with Salesforce. Welcome, Tiffani. 

 

Tiffani Bova: Thanks, Tim, for having me. 

 

Clarke: Now, Colleen, if people aren’t familiar with your organization, or your great book, perhaps you could give us a bit more of an introduction to it. 

 

Stanley: Sure. We’re a Salesforce development firm, and our specialization is integrating emotional intelligence skill training along with our consultative selling skills and sales leadership training. So as we’ll talk about today, our big goal is to bridge the knowing and doing gap that we often see happening with sales companies trying to hit their end goals. 

 

Bova: Excellent. Well, thank you, Colleen, for being here. I think it’s great when people talk about emotional intelligence. You know, it’s always tricky, though. Sometimes people view as that as being sort of fluffy, touchy-feely, soft skill, how do you train it, how do you measure it. 

What led you to focus on this area instead of some of the more traditional sales skills that people are so accustomed to when it comes to making sure that performance and productivity is managed from a sales perspective? 

 

Stanley: Good question. And I think you hit it right on the head there, Tiffani. A lot of times I think salespeople, and sales organizations have shied away from emotional intelligence, because it sounds real soft and squishy, and we’re these hard-charging individuals, and we’ve got these quotas to hit. 

And, so, one of the reasons I started exploring this is, frankly, the power of relationships. I have a couple of colleagues that have taught emotional intelligence training in the leadership world for years, and they really pose the question and challenge to me, hey, why aren’t you incorporating this into your sales training, and your sales leadership training? 

So when I really started studying it, there was this epiphany, and I thought, this is the gap. Because I think it’s fair for all of us to say that we’re really running into some of the same selling challenges that we did 20 years ago: priceshopping, can’t gain access to the decision making, selling on price not value, getting into chase mode, being treated like a vendor, not a partner. 

And, so, I think part of that’s happened to me — because, you know, with good intentions, sales managers, VPs of sales, CEOs, are training the hard skills, which are still very, very important. However, when you really start studying sales performance, it’s off of the soft skill, the emotional intelligence skill, that’s impacting the consistent execution of the hard skill. 

So, it’s really bridging the knowing and doing gap. To make this a little bit more tangible, let’s take even pipeline management. 

So if a salesperson isn’t doing the activity, it’s not due to lack of knowledge, because the sales manager lays out the plans, the KPIs leading and lagging. It might be due to delayed gratification. The inability to put in the work that’s necessary to have a full qualified pipeline. 

 

Let’s say they’re doing the activity, but they’re not getting any results. Well, that might be because they’re simply not practicing the skills, the messaging. And then also tie back to, maybe they’re not a self-actualized person. Or, again, it could be that impulse control getting in the way of putting in the work to become very skilled. 

 

Clarke: Colleen, in your Quotable article, “Are You Missing This Powerful Selling Skill,” you talk about the concept of empathy, which is clearly an emotional intelligence skill. And you talk about the two concepts that you could use to help develop empathy. Can you just dive into this in a little bit more detail? 

 

Stanley: Sure. And, you know, it’s really interesting, the competency of empathy. I have a VP of sales once tell me, before he understood the power, he said, “You know what? I think I got too much empathy on my sales force. They’re giving everything away.” 

And, so, I want to assure people, that’s not what empathy is about. But the first thing, in order for you to develop empathy, is you have to make a decision. And you have to make a decision to be present. And, Tim, you mentioned it, you know, we live in this very connected world. In my opinion, in our desire to be connected, we’re getting disconnected. Because as we’re always checking in, we’re actually checking out. 

So the first thing, in order to develop empathy, is, you’ve got to make a decision to be present. And I find it, actually, comical anymore, if you go into a meeting, everyone brings their smart phone, and they place it on the table, and I’m just fascinated. Because I’m sitting there looking around wondering, well, are we here for the meeting, or are we here to have a conversation on the smart phone? 

So that’s one thing, because empathy is a paying attention skill. Now after you’ve made the decision, you’ve got to practice, because one of the things you find with empathetic people is they have a habit of being present.

And, so, when you’re running a consultative call, solution selling call, whatever you want to call it, is you’re going to be sitting with that prospect, or customer, for an hour. And that takes intense focus. That takes concentration. It takes what you call that — active listening. 

And if you have never focused in your life for an hour prior to that appointment, I promise you cannot recall a habit that you have not established. 

So I find that to get the empathy skill, we really got to get comfortable being still, being present, and being focused. So that’s part one. 

Does that help? 

 

Clarke: Yeah, perfect. I think some of you will kind of get distracted in their jobs when you really talk about “pay attention.” It sounds obvious, but I think it’s so useful to take that step back and to really focus. 

 

Stanley: Well, and I think the sales leaders and CEOs and business owners are really responsible for this. So the first place of it, having them starting to teach focus, is simply in their internal meetings. 

You know, I have a lot of clients at this point, and probably part of it is because they’ve gone through our training, is they will actually have people deposit the smart phones in a basket. And that’s not to say you don’t bring them out at some point, but the idea is, if you’re in a meeting, is, you’re paying attention to what your peers are saying. 

You know, how did that remark land on my peer? Because the idea of empathy is, when you really understand empathy, it’s the non-verbal communication where you’re going to pick up a lot of the communication clues. 

So whether it’s a face-to-face meeting, or one over the phone, I might see a shift in somebody’s face, and I’ll think, hmm, that didn’t look right. There might be a question behind the question. On the phone, if you’re paying attention, you’ll hear a shift intonality, or you’ll hear that pause. And sometimes that’s almost what’s not being said. 

So I think this paying attention, as simple as it sounds, as the famous business philosopher Jim Rohn once said, simple is not simple to do. 

I also think it’s important for sales leaders, sales managers, salespeople, to recognize that empathy can really move a prospect through the pipeline quicker. You know, I find in great selling, it’s not just one big thing, and I’m speaking to the choir here, I know. But it’s doing the small things well. And, so, we often teach a philosophy called, “bring up the objections.” But to bring up the objections, you’ve got to have empathy. Because I cannot bring up the objection unless I’m sitting there, and I’m not attached to the outcome of the call, I’m thinking, you know, I wonder what my prospect is thinking or feeling at this point. 

So, for example, I had a young financial planner in training, and we were doing some role playing, and he had just recently had a prospect come into his office. And the prospect had been burned, so to speak, disappointed with the prior financial planner., 

So I asked this young man, I said, well, what do you think that prospect was thinking as he was meeting with you? 

And the young man was so excited, well, I’m the savior. And I said, no, he’s thinking, gosh, I thought I made a good decision the last time. I thought I asked all the right questions, and I still didn’t choose the right advisor. 

 

Now where am I going with this? Well, as a salesperson, that’s what you must state to your prospect. Hey, I know the last time you probably felt you made a good decision, you’re probably a little bit hesitant now, should we talk about that? 

So there’s other examples, but that’s giving the idea of, if I can bring up the objection, because I know what my prospect is thinking or feeling, then I have the truth telling conversation. I have what I call the real world conversations. 

And, boy, those unspoken objections are where people get stuck in the pipeline. And it’s one small area that can make a big difference.

 

Clarke: Perfect. And now I want to make sure we don’t run away too far ahead. I know we really covered that first point. 

People read in the article, you talk about the other second key concept, it’s called, “take your shoes off.” So maybe you could just touch on that one as well, Colleen. 

 

Stanley: Sure. So, taking your shoes off and stepping into the prospect’s shoes, it’s really getting an idea: What is the day in the life for this prospect? 

So let’s suppose your product and service, it’s superior to what they’re using. Let’s just do the hypothetical. But here’s the real world. Your prospect is busy, they’re harried, they have no time. Yeah, the existing vendor’s falling short, but at least they know how they fall short and take care of the problem. 

So, stepping into their shoes and showing empathy would be, hey, Tim, you know, I think there’s some things my company can do to help you out. But let’s talk real world here. 

When we’re going to make a change, it’s going to take some time. And right now, Tim, you don’t have any time. And then you stop. And that prospect, all of a sudden, goes, you get me. Because the issue isn’t making a shift, it’s how do I make the shift? 

So now you start focusing on the right items in the conversation, rather than all the things we can do to improve your life. I know I can improve your life, I just don’t know how to get there. 

So it’s really focusing on the right topics. And when you make the emotional connection, Tim, at that point, it elevates the conversation. And when you elevate the conversation, the conversation changes. 

 

Bova: So, Colleen, those are really great pieces of advice, and I think, you know, many times in sales, especially in high performers, right, they think if they’re performing well that they don’t need to keep learning. And I think continuous development of skills is really important. 

So when you think about this, you have training — a lot of training focuses on helping them listen — and like you said, for an hour, and really pay attention and absorb what they’re saying, and then be able to be sort of empathetic and come back at the customer. 

But when you think about training, and you think about continuous development, what are the things that sales managers, and/or sales reps themselves, can focus on, or that listen [to] clients, and take that empathy, and use it to their advantage, really, sometimes, to differentiate themselves? I think that training is too focused on the action of listening, and not what to do with that listening. 

 

Stanley: Correct. So that’s a great point, because sometimes what they’ll do, Tiffani, is that generic empathy. So they’ve been taught acknowledge and validate. That must be frustrating. I can see why that’s upsetting. 

But you know what? When you don’t finish the sentence, you don’t make the emotional connection. And you don’t demonstrate to the prospect, “I actually get your life.” 

So “That must be frustrating because …” and then you state what it was like. 

Now, I think the other thing that happens with listening is, this is where you have to have high emotional self-awareness. You have have a prospect that’s very open, and they say, we’re having an issue — let’s say, we don’t think we’re innovative. 

Well, right there, that can be a trigger. Because it’s a buying signal, right? And, so, at that point, a salesperson can get really excited, they were taught the nine questions to ask and listen, and then they’re off and running, because they got triggered, instead of being able to manage the impulse and have the discipline to ask all the diagnostic questions. 

And there’s basic diagnostic questions, and then there’s customized ones. 

So I hope that’s tying into your question that you posed there as to why they’re not listening, and really responding to the prospect in the manner that they feel heard. 

 

Clarke: And so we have this whole thing around many sales professionals, or, actually, anyone in any role that is constantly trying to stay constantly connected. What tips do you have for anyone that’s listening to this, in terms of tuning out from the noise but making sure you tune into the right things with their prospects? 

 

Stanley: Well, I think it’s listening to what’s being said, and it’s what’s being not said. And I pick up more on what’s being not said. And as I mentioned earlier, it may be the pause. It may be the slowness in the response. It may be the question that’s being asked, but it’s not the real question. 

So I’m listening to the verbal as well as to the nonverbal. So I am completely tuned in. So if it’s face-to-face meeting, I am looking at the facial expression, I’m looking to see if there’s glances across the table. 

But then, even more importantly, if I do see a glance across the table, I have the self-regard, a soft skill, I have the assertiveness, and I have the empathy to call that. 

And so I might just say, I kind of sense there might be a question here we’re not talking about. Or I’m kind of sensing what I just asked created some discomfort in the room. 

And, so, when I see a behavior that I don’t know which one it is, discomfort, question, need more information, because I’m observing, it’s one thing to observe, but it’s also to have the confidence, the assertiveness, and the empathy, then, to take the conversation further. 

So it’s not enough to hear it. I find a lot of people can observe it, but then they don’t take it a step further. And it’s one of those three skills as to why they’re not executing the hard skill of asking the question, testing the data. 

 

Bova: You know, I think for some sales professionals, it’s a constant struggle, right, to focus on the needs of the customer, or the prospect, and the challenges, rather than focusing on the products and the features that they’re selling. 

And, so, you know, is it, I need to, I think one of the concepts you talk about is kind of stepping into your prospect’s shoes. And is that a way to sort of get them to understand better that balance between the needs and the challenges? And what have you seen some approaches that have helped sales reps actually shift that focus in that, sort of stepping in their shoes and understanding the difference between what the customer’s really asking? 

 

Stanley: Well, this is interesting, because I think everyone’s talking about how the prospect is more educated today, there’s 67% through the buying cycle. Now this is going to sound crazy, I don’t really care, because I still don’t think a lot of them know how to buy your product or service. 

So I think we’re using that as an excuse, and actually, there was another study that came out that said, if you get ahead of this curve, you’re still running the same process. 

So that’s just a statement there, because I think some of us are giving up and thinking, well, if the prospect says this is what they need, they’re more educated. They’re self-educated. So that’s one place to take a look at.

But the other one, Tiffani, this comes right from the psychology world, if you can teach salespeople that the presenting problem is not the real problem. 

So let’s say someone goes to a psychologist and they say they have an anger management problem. Now, an untrained psychologist would immediately put them into anger management classes. 

Well, maybe with more questioning, they find out the reason this person is angry is they’re only getting three hours of sleep. And as a result, they’re grumpy. 

And the reason they’re getting three hours of sleep is that they have a very sick aging parent, and they don’t have any resources. 

So I’m using that outside-of-selling world, but that’s what really happens, is, the presenting problem is never the problem. So we’ve got to do what we call in the EI world some reality testing. 

But reality testing means you must have that high self-awareness to say, this is what they stated, but then it goes into those hard selling skills, asking then, why, what, and how. So it’s a real nice blend there, but the first thing is, you got to sit there and go, “Hmm, I’m hearing this, but I wonder what the real issue is.” 

It goes back to getting very curious, and then having a lot of patience. 

So, yes, stepping into their shoes is important here, but I also think the impulse control, and the reality testing, is even more important. Don’t mistake information for evidence, I always tell clients. 

 

Clarke: Definitely. And I think in general, this overall topic around emotional intelligence is definitely been something that’s been growing over the last ten years, and I think particularly for different roles. 

I know from my experience, it’s been something I’ve really been focusing on from a management perspective. But, clearly, from some of the things you’re sharing, it’s applicable to all, and particularly in sales. Whether you’re an individual contributor, or a sales manager, sales leader. 

So, really, my question for you is, are there any specific areas of emotional intelligence that are more unique to sales professionals a opposed to other roles? 

 

Stanley: Well, you know, what’s interesting is there is a lot of research in this area, however — and I’ll do the big “however” — some companies are reluctant to share their findings, because they know EQ is a competitive weapon. 

But here’s what some of the research is showing. And it will depend upon the industry and the role. But overall, here’s some skills we take a look at. 

Self-actualization. Now this is no surprise to all of us, because this is the reason you’re doing the podcast today. Self-actualization means, when you hire people that are on a constant journey of personal and professional improvement, it’s actually been proven they do better in sales. 

So let’s go back to the complaining about the buyer is more educated. 

Well, guess what? You need to be more educated, and if you have someone that values learning, they’re going to be just fine with this new buyer, because maybe there is a little bit different way to approach. You need to do vertical planning. But they will do that, because they’re on this journey of learning. 

Assertiveness seems to be a staple in good salespeople. But I am going to warn people, assertiveness needs to be combined with empathy, otherwise you’re going to come across telling people, not asking. 

But assertiveness is basically stating what you need nicely in a business engagement. So I think a lot of times we talk in business, let’s get a win, win. But a win, win means, you know what, we talk money, we talk investment, we talk your commitment. You give me access to decision makers. That’s when you’ve got a win-win going on. 

But the salesperson needs to be assertive enough to ask what they need. And it’s really reality testing, because common sense is, after you do a win-loss analysis, it’s pretty evident who you need to meet with, what you need to talk about. 

And then I would say, another one that’s found in both sales leaders, and salespeople, is self-regard. Now, self-regard is interesting, because people of high self-regard, are willing to admit their strengths and weaknesses. 

So here’s the great news about that. If they fail, they’re pretty good at saying, OK, I failed, let’s get my lesson learned, and I’m moving on. So they don’t try to hide the failure. In fact, they’re great at receiving feedback from their managers, because they have a real separation of, well, this is what I do for a living, versus who I am. 

So they’re not eggshell people. And eggshell people tend to have lower self-regard, so people quit giving them feedback, and they live very safe lives, but it’s a very status quo life. 

So I’d say your self-regard, your self-actualization, and assertiveness, those are three I would take a look at. And along with the empathy, that’s been proven over and over again, because if you know what somebody’s thinking or feeling, that’s the number one way you’re going to influence. 

 

Bova: Well, so, Colleen, when you were talking about the win-loss, how do you help sales reps that are listening to this podcast balance between the listening and the empathy, and closing? 

Because at the end of the day, I think soft skills are something that, in many ways, you can’t train. But managers will want to manage, and the way that they manage is pipeline production, and closing, and quota, etc. 

 

How do you balance between the empathy and the focus of closing from management? If a sales rep has listened to this and [goes], “This all sounds great, but my manager’s on me all the time about closing business…” 

 

Stanley: Well, so, assertiveness is a key skill in closing business. But here’s what happens. 

If you take a look at a sales rep’s pipeline, half the time it’s full of unqualified prospects. So they’re managing way too many opportunities, and sometimes neglecting the good ones. 

So assertiveness, as far as getting things to a close, is, I always tell salespeople, it is OK to disqualify a prospect. So you might be running a beautiful call. You’ve asked the questions, you’ve gained access. And guess what? his is just a prospect that I call a whiner, not a winner. I say this respectfully, but they’re just not committed to making a change. 

They are comfortable status quo. It’s OK for that salesperson to tell that prospect, no, and move on to their better opportunities there. 

Now you can do that with empathy, and you can say something like this, ,“You know, we’ve had a great conversation, Tiffani. Can I share with you, though — you’ve been so gracious in all our meetings — I just don’t know if you guys are ready for our services yet. OK?” 

So now I’m going to disqualify that opportunity. But I’m going to move on to the ones that are ready. 

And, so, assertiveness is simply always setting up those good next steps, which every training firm teaches. So everybody knows to set up the next step. They know the verbal language. The reason they’re not doing it is they’re not stating what they need. They need to get the next step on the counter. Here’s what we’re going to do with the next step. Does that make sense to you? 

So is that all connecting the dots a little bit? 

 

Bova: Absolutely. And I think it’s important. I think for salespeople — I guess if we were to wrap that comment up, what could you tell a salesperson who has to reply back to their sales manager when they’re working on some of these soft skills?  

 

Stanley: Well, I think a couple of them [are], you know, a manager is going to want some hard data. So it’s never an either/or proposition, and that’s what I really want to make sure the listeners understand today. 

Sales EQ and sales IQ is kind of like losing weight. You can diet, you can exercise, or you do both. When you do both, that’s when you get the power. 

 

So I think with the sales rep, can know the five questions their manager is going to consistently ask them, and have the answers to it, then that manager’s going to feel comfortable. 

But that prospect at that stage in the pipeline, is truly qualified. We make a joke around here, is that when a new consultant comes in my office, I ask what I call the consistent coaching question —, it’s two: What was their pain? What was it costing them?

Now those are basic questions. Not hard. You’d be amazed, first time they come in, they don’t have it. Second time they come in, they don’t have it. Third time they come in, they have it. Then we can start the bigger coaching call. 

So I would ask the rep to do some reality testing, manage up, and say, what are the five questions your manager is …consistently going to ask you about each stage of the process? And then guess what? Do the work and have the answer ready for him, or her. 

 

Clarke: Perfect. Well, look, we’re nearly out of time here and I’m going to call out the quote of the bottom of your article: “Empathy creates an emotional connection which elevates the sales conversation.” Hopefully [for] all the different listeners here, it’s really been thought-provoking for them to ensure they’re focusing on their soft skills, and the hard skills. 

Are there any final thoughts from your side, Colleen, that you’d like to leave people with? 

 

Stanley: Well, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about the salespeople, but let’s also finish with the sales leader. Because the old saying is, the pace of the leader is the pace of the pack. 

You know, empathy is a terrific skill for a leader, because, remember, empathy is a listening skill. And, so, all of us know that each person on your team needs to be managed a little bit different. So here’s what I would suggest to managers: When you’re meeting and coaching your one-on-one sessions, again, pay attention. 

Turn everything off. Turn away from our computer. Give that salesperson 100 percent attention. I keep seeing a lot of people that are typing on their laptops, looking left and right. And I have to tell you, somebody is just given the message, I’m not the most important thing. 

So empathy, as a leader means, you’ve got to pay attention, you’ll see how your message is landing. The rep might be giving you a presenting problem, but the real problem might be, I’m lacking confidence. I just got burned on the last appointment, so I’m afraid to try these new skills. 

So there’s a variety of reasons people don’t progress. So, I would end with, empathy works at the leadership level, works at the sales rep level. Pay attention. 

 

Clarke: Yeah. Exactly. So, thanks so much, Colleen, for sharing your insights today. And thanks, Tiffani, for being our co-host. 

 

Bova: Thanks for having me, Tim. 

 

Stanley: And, Tim, and Tiffani, thank you very much. I hope your audience today got a glimpse of how soft skills actually do produce hard sales results. 

 
 
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