When a high-powered salesman friend outlined his philosophy of successful selling for me more than 30 years ago, I wasn’t entirely convinced. “You need two things,” he said. “First, you need persistence, and that’s easy. Second, and most important, you need empathy, and that’s really difficult. You’ve got to be out there in people’s faces, telling your story, but you must also understand what your customer wants and speak to that need. If either persistence or empathy is lacking, you won’t make the sale.”
I agreed immediately with his first requirement, persistence. And I surely saw my friend himself as tenacious–almost to a fault. However, I was surprised at his mention of empathy. I had never realized that he worked so hard to listen and to hear what his customers were feeling and saying, and then to tailor his comments to their desires. When I asked him about it, he claimed that this was the primary key to his success.
No Place for the Sacred in Sales!
I was appalled. My wife, Nancy, and I were professors of counselor education at that time. We had just written and published an eight-session empathy training program called Tune In. Empathy, we felt, was akin to a sacred skill for caring, connecting with others, and helping people heal. Using this skill as a manipulative sales tool seemed an abomination. We called his principle “Empathy on the Offense.” And we truly thought the idea offensive.
Today, I am less opinionated and volatile. (Sorry, I have no corroborating evidence for this statement.) And I have now come to agree completely with my friend. Successful sales efforts always combine persistence and empathy.
In the midst of mouthing your sales pitch, you must also use your eyes and ears and pay careful attention to what the other person is saying. From what they say, and from how they look, you can guess what they might be feeling. Then it’s your job to verbalize a summary back to them so they know you are understanding them–yes, even if they are communicating resistance and telling you that they disagree with your pitch and aren’t about to buy! If you don’t understand the resistance, you won’t know how to tailor your comments. If they don’t think you understand, they will keep repeating their resistance, until they finally break away from you in frustration.
About 15 years ago we went shopping to purchase a new Mac that was supposed to be the latest in publishing technology. We kept asking the sales rep about it, and he kept telling us about other models while downgrading the one we were seeking. In frustration, we finally insisted that he talk to us about the model we wanted. He threw up his hands and said, “That’s overkill. You wouldn’t want something like that unless you were writing a book or something!”
He was persistent, but his total neglect of empathy skills drove us down the street. As a result we went on to purchase PCs–at least 50 of them–for our growing publishing company before I finally relented 10 years later and responded to our design staff’s begging by buying them a Mac.
The Rewarding Elements of Empathy
In my experience, most small publishers do have persistence. They believe in their books and are willing to keep working to attract readers. But I’ve often seen them omit the empathy part of their sales talks. In fact, I’ve heard way too many publishers stubbornly deliver long-winded sales pitches to the wrong person, in the wrong way, at the wrong time–when, for instance, the prospective buyer is having dinner at a small table doing business with a friend. Persistence in that sort of situation is rude, and embarrassing.
Ask your prospect whether the time is right, or whether another time would be better. Then, when you do get an audience, practice and display empathy. Listen to the questions and to your prospective buyer’s reasons for caution. Note them and respond to them as you would in any polite conversation. Anything less is both obnoxious and, alas, guaranteed to fail.
It does take practice for you to pay attention, perhaps at the cost of toning down your own pitch. But when you are empathetic, you will gain the respect of the would-be buyer, even if you don’t make a sale at the moment; and you will probably get the ear of that person again later for another idea. What’s more, careful listening will help you understand how you need to tailor your presentation for the next potential buyer, whether or not you succeed with this one. By contrast, when you are in all-talk mode, you can’t make any real contact with others, and you can’t learn anything new at all.
Both Honesty and Humor Help
As you increase your empathy skills, practice a bit of empathetic humor in your presentations as well. Push hard and then back off and laugh at yourself, giving your buyer a chance to breathe. I refer to this in football terms as “Give ’em a hard leg and then pull it back and spin away.”
For example, we wrote and published books filled with designs for workshops about stress management. I used to say to people, “If you teach about stress and wellness, you are absolutely crazy if you don’t own every one of these books. But if you don’t teach workshops, these books will be of absolutely no use to you, and I won’t sell them to you.” Lay it on hard; then back off softly with a joke.
Our company also published 20 different relaxation tapes. One day our oldest son, who was working for us during the summer, spent half an hour on the phone describing these tapes to a potential buyer who was hesitant. Finally, the caller asked, “Do you use these yourself?” “Oh, no, ma’am,” he said. “It’s my parents’ voices on the tapes, and I’m sure you’ll understand, that’s just not relaxing for me. But my friends at school love them!” She bought them all.
Sure, keep being persistent. But, if you want to be successful over the long haul, blend a large measure of empathy into your style as well. The first is natural and easy. The second takes a lot of attention and practice, but it helps you become a true professional and a respected colleague.