Selling with Empathy as a Small Business

Empathy is one of the most powerful tools we have for connecting with other people. Still, this essential skill is often overlooked and underestimated by businesses and their salespeople. The truth is that selling with empathy is essential both for connecting with customers on a meaningful level and understanding your own emotions.

When you can truly understand the needs and challenges of all your customers, you’ll be able to create experiences and products that exceed their expectations. Here’s how to understand empathy and harness it as a powerful sales tool that leaves everyone feeling fulfilled.

Understand and Cultivate Empathy

Selling with empathy requires a nuanced understanding of what empathy looks and feels like. Unlike sympathy, which can cultivate feelings of sorrow and pity, empathy requires a sense of shared equality. Sympathy tends to create an uneven power dynamic that drives people apart, while empathy unites people through shared experiences.

According to entrepreneur Joey Pomerenke, empathy is defined as, “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; and the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”

So what does this look like in the context of business? Consider guidelines from professor, lecturer, and author Brené Brown, who specializes in vulnerability and its relationship with empathy. She outlines the four following principles of empathy:

  1. Understanding life from someone else’s perspective.
  2. Listening, paying attention, and avoiding judgment or shame.
  3. Identifying a familiar emotion in someone else.
  4. Sharing with someone the fact that you feel, see, and hear that emotion.

Empathy is important as a small business owner because it helps you truly understand what the customer desires. When you really feel what they are feeling — and communicate that connection to them — you’re showing them that you care. What’s equally as important is that empathy enables you to resonate with a certain challenge and its associated emotion — and, ideally, an appropriate solution.

In turn, you can more accurately solve the customer’s problem in a way that feels personalized to them. This makes the customer feel seen and heard while also ensuring that your energy and resources are accurately directed towards efficient problem solving.

Lead with Emotional Intelligence

The first step in selling with empathy is cultivating emotional intelligence. Through emotional intelligence skills, business owners can “recognize, understand and manage their feelings and emotions, as well as those of others,” says Jeff Moss at Forbes.

Emotional intelligence requires first that a person develops self-awareness. When you’re aware of your moods, strengths, weaknesses, and emotions, you can take a step back and respond with clarity and reason, rather than with emotion. Then, you can begin to tune into the feelings and needs of others from a grounded place, rather than an emotionally-charged one.

To cultivate emotional intelligence in the context of selling, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is your buyer?
  • What are their greatest needs and desires?
  • How do these dreams make them feel?
  • What are the challenges preventing them from reaching these desires?
  • What emotions arise when they encounter these challenges?
  • What might this feel like?
  • How can you create greater sensitivity and awareness around their emotions?

Emotional intelligence]( also includes a person’s capacity to separate who they are from what they do. This distinction is important because it enables a person to not take failures or setbacks personally. Rather, they’ll assign any struggles to their role, rather than their personality or skills. As a result, emotional intelligence equips leaders to keep moving through challenges and finding solutions to essential business problems.

Foster Deep Trust

Salespeople often rush to push products and features, hoping to make a sale as quickly as possible. Selling with empathy requires a different approach. In order to truly understand what customers need — and build trust in the process — salespeople must slow down and listen. Deep customer trust and satisfaction aren’t built in a day, and listening to your customers is the most important way to demonstrate your product’s value.

So how can you show that you’re paying attention? Practicing deep listening by asking meaningful, open-ended questions. These inquiries should get to the heart and soul of your customers’ needs, challenges, and goals.

Anyone who sells products or services at your company should consider asking customers the following open-ended question formats:

  • What are the biggest challenges facing you today?
  • Why are these the biggest challenges?
  • Many of our customers are also challenged by [insert common challenge]. How are these issues influencing you and how does it make you feel?
  • If you could change one thing about the way your current product/service/provider at this time, what would it be?
  • What are your goals and aspirations for [area of life your product pertains to]?
  • If you could overcome the challenges mentioned earlier, what would your life/company look like? What would be different for you personally?

Asking such open-ended questions and truly listening to the answer is the best way to forge trusted bonds with your customers, especially when people are struggling or experiencing a crisis.

Plus, recent data shows that 86 percent of customers are willing to pay slightly more for a product or service in order to support small businesses. The most important factor driving this trend is a consistently strong customer experience. This suggests that your customers are already leaning in your favor — all you have to do is show up, listen, and win them over with trust.

Sell with Purpose

Once you’ve cultivated a strong understanding of empathy and have forged trusted bonds with customers, it’s time to sell with purpose. This is your opportunity to drive loyalty, build value, and demonstrate the fact that your company is absolutely indispensable in times of need.

Here’s a look at the core traits and skills that empathetic, emotionally-intelligent small businesses must learn to master:


Your customers will respond well to a positive mindset and environment, no matter what industry you’re in. Staying positive doesn’t mean glossing over your customer’s challenges. It means listening to and understanding their challenges with an open mind, then offering positive and constructive solutions for solving it. When customers see you as an ally that can help them with their challenges, they’ll be much more likely to invest in a product or service you have to offer.


Sometimes, simply being present and available for your customers when they need you is enough to make them choose your business over another. When communicating with current and future customers, make sure they know that you’re available whenever they need them. Create a professional and open line of communication where they know they’re supported by you, whether their challenges relate to your product or not.


Where many small businesses go wrong is focusing solely on the product they’re selling. Empathetic selling requires you to put yourself in the customer’s shoes so that you can relate your passion to theirs. Rather than simply selling a product, think about selling core values and ideas. Invite people to be part of your passion by sharing information about the prospects you can both mutually believe in — then share how your product will make that dream a reality.

Whether you’re selling online products or in-person services, empathy is essential for creating lasting, meaningful connections. Small businesses that harness the power of empathy and emotional intelligence will forge trusted and lasting bonds with customers.

Michelle Polizzi is a freelance writer and editor with over 5 years of experience. When she isn't busy writing or researching, you can find her doing yoga, enjoying the outdoors, or exploring a new corner of the world.


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