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Empathy in Sales - Not to be confused with Sympathy

· behavioral science,Transparency

People llllooooovvvveee to talk about empathy in sales. Especially now!

The topic of countless articles and podcast mentions.

Empathy is the undisputed champion ability of top performers, right?

But what is "empathy" really? If it's so important, why does it appear that we so often confuse it for sympathy, compassion, or just caring & being nice? I mean, the articles often have the dictionary definition of "empathy" in them, but the advice and recommendations technically aren't empathy!

I couldn't turn off my curiosity, and decided to dig into the history, research, and true definition.

I found discussions on this topic dating all the way back to the 1700’s. The concept of sympathy was brought into behavioral sciences back as far as the year 1739, in connection with moral motivation and moral development. In Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments from 1759, he wrote,

"How selfish soever man may be supposed there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, although he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeking it."

Sympathy: Feeling for someone - their struggles, challenges, or when something bad has happened. “I feel for them”. “I hope they’re doing ok.” “Please give them my sympathy.” "I hope you're doing well during these trying, pandemic times!" - A hope that another may be happy, healthy and successful.

Or as Lauren Wispé wrote in 1986 - sympathy is “the heightened awareness of the suffering of another person as something to be alleviated”.1

Sympathy would be feeling bad for an individual on a boat experiencing sea the point of trying to help them. There’s nothing wrong with’s quite an admirable trait. But it’s not “empathy”.

In sales, sympathy is not only diagnosing the "pain" through discovery, but hoping that the prospect is able to alleviate the problem - as you then prescribing the solution - your product. Again, a great trait to care about the prospect or customer's well-being - but that's not actually empathy.

Empathy, at it's most accurate level, would be if you were hanging off the boat throwing up alongside the sick person.

In other words, empathy is unique.

So, I wanted to create a definition of “Sales Empathy”. Here’s my take:

Sales Empathy: The ability to connect with a prospect, able to gather evidence on the way the prospect views the situation confronting them, visualize what is happening inside the prospect’s world, and experience the highs and lows of the outcomes alongside them.

It’s a definition that is comprised of the two elements that make up "empathy":2

1 - Cognitive Empathy, which is the process of taking another’s perspective, and,

2- Emotional Empathy: Experiencing emotions as a result of being exposed to another’s situation, such as concern and distress.

That’s taking it to another level, eh?

If done well, there can be no doubt that the ability of a sales professional to develop truly empathetic relationships with prospects and customers is vital to their effectiveness. Pulling from research, when the salesperson can understand the prospect’s perspective and the “meaning of the prospect’s experience”, they are able to “function as an educative, therapeutic, maturing force”3

How do we get there?

It starts by understanding the issues with our current setup. If we truly believe “empathy” to be so important to the sales profession, we must start by realizing that common, traditional sales structures and measures are designed to prevent empathy from being created inside sales organizations:

A focus on “scale”

A focus on sales “processes” and even pipeline “stages” that are focused on where the seller is in the process, versus where the buyer is in their journey

A focus on sales numbers instead of customer outcomes

A process that transitions a deal from the seller the minute the deal is “closed” - a systematized and incentivized detachment from the outcome

While we may never fix those things, we can look to Mark Davis’ work in a 1983 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article4 to his "multi-dimensional approach" to build empathy, which I then apply to sales:

1) What Davis calls, "Preparing to be empathetic"

Applying it to sales, I believe you can build an empathetic environment by looking inward to the individuals in your own organization who most accurately represent your prospect.

For example, if you’re selling to marketing? Spend more time with your own marketers & CMO.

Selling to finance? Spend more time with your finance department & CFO.

Selling to sales? I hope your SVP is sharing what her day-to-day looks like, what her email inbox looks like, what stands out, what she cares about, how she's measured...even how she's bonused!

With all them - find out what they are working on? What struggles do they have? How many times does their phone ring? What does their inbox look like? What do they read? What is it like for them to buy something within the company? How are they deemed to be successful in the eyes of their boss and those above that boss?

2) Then, begin to "Create empathetic processes"

Can you imagine yourself in their role? In their position? Can you create experiences that are similar to the person you’re selling to?

Look at your organizational enablement processes. Are there ways you can experience what it's like to be a customer? Can you experience what it's really like?

In my career, I've had two such experiences - and in both cases, my ability to be confident, but also empathetic, did my results.

At ExactTarget, during onboarding, all new hires had to create what was called a "bio email"...but the catch was, we had to use ETs email marketing functionality to do it - and it would be sent to the entire employee base.

In the process, we learned what it was like to be a digital marketer. Every new hire did this...and every week or two we, as employees, would receive these emails. It was amazing - and most employees read every single one of them.

Way back in 1994 when I was selling overnight shipping for Airborne Express, during onboarding, I had to follow a package.

One evening while I lived in Southern California, I did a drive-along with a driver doing pickups. Then, I followed a package through the initial sort at Ontario, California airport, I followed it onto the DC-9 aircraft. I got into the jump-seat in the cockpit and flew with the pilot and co-pilot all the way to Wilmington, Ohio. I followed the package off the plane, and into the massive sorting facility, watching it go all the way to the airplane that would take it to its destination. I then followed another package all the way back to Ontario, California.

In both cases, my comprehension of everything associated with what it was like to be a digital marketer, a shipper, a delivery driver, and even our pilots was so precise, I immediately could relate to every situation.

3) Davis calls this one, "Developing intrapersonal outcomes"

I view this as sharing the goal of the customer's outcome in sales. In other words, can sales organizations help themselves create emotional empathy by creating the same sorts of pressures towards the customer’s needed outcome?

At the very least, the existing environments of selling-and-moving-on are a detriment to sales empathy. In the medical profession, effective doctors don’t just “move on” patient after they pay the bill. Nurses don’t just “move on” to the next patient.

Do incentive structures for sellers include enough tied to the success of the customer? Some companies, at the very least, tie parts of compensation to NPS (net promoter scores) and/or renewals. That's a great start! While I was the SVP of Sales for a tech company in 2008, we structured a "shared risk" contract with a sales training firm, where their pay was tied to our KPI outcomes. That sales training company still today...11 years later...uses me and that experience as a reference. The outcomes were incredible, but I'd argue the agreement structure made sure of it!

The piles & piles of articles are right - there's no questioning the tie between true seller empathy and the success of those sellers who practice it properly. We can focus on being transparent in our efforts, but when we get ourselves into a true clinically empathetic mindset, transparency becomes the norm. We begin to realize what a bad decision looks like, and we help buyers avoid the pitfalls - even if it means not partnering with us.

The problem is, most of those articles haven't quite nailed the true definition of empathy - they've stopped at sympathy and compassion...which, in their own right, are valuable, too!

Push yourself to these clinical levels of empathy...and watch what happens.

1Wispé, L. (1986). The Distinction Between Sympathy and Empathy: To Call Forth a Concept, A Word Is Needed. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(2), 314-321.

2David, M.H. (2018). Empathy: A Social Psychological Approach. New York: Routledge. (Original work published 1994)

3Peplau, Hildegard E.. Interpersonal Relations in Nursing: A Conceptual Frame of Reference for Psychodynamic Nursing. Ukraine, Springer Publishing Company, 1991.

4Davis, M. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(1), 113-126.

By the way...I have a newsletter now. It's a little bit nerdy, a little bit of sales history, and maybe a random brain science article or two. Sign up...and if it sucks, just unsubscribe. I won't judge...

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