Empathy in Sales: How to Become A Better Leader

Ananya Mallya
September 1, 2021
5 min read


Research shows that almost 3 in 5 salespeople (58%) struggle with their mental health. Our own experience also shows that developing empathy towards your reps and customers is a powerful way to sell better and live better. Here’s how.


When it comes to pitching to prospects, coming up with the perfect sales pitch, or managing a sales team, one of the most important ingredients is undoubtedly empathy.


What is empathy? 


Simply put, empathy is the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Why should you care about empathy?


“Why do I need to be empathetic? I don’t care about all that jazz.” You may say.


Well, for salespeople, who talk to their customers on a daily basis, understanding their prospect’s emotions helps build better relationships. You can create a meaningful connection or deepen your bond with a customer when you empathize with them.


Just think back to the last engaging pitch (or lack of) you got from a salesperson.

Did they ask about:


  • How you’re feeling
  • Your kids (or theirs) yelling in the back
  • Your day, filled with back-to-back meetings


But most importantly, did they make you feel heard? 



Most of us have had the experience of having a salesperson go on and on about their pitch without letting you explain your problem. 

But there’s always this one salesperson who just does it right. It’s not because they offered you a discount two seconds into the call. Okay, maybe that helps. But it’s because they listened. 


We know from our own experiences that empathy will make a salesperson memorable.


SalesHacker notes, “The best salespeople will put themselves in other people’s shoes — with no judgment or ulterior motives — to truly understand the other person. This tells them how best to help their clients.”


And as the Harvard Business Review puts it, “Empathy, the important central ability to feel as the other fellow does in order to be able to sell him a product or service, must be possessed in large measure. Having empathy does not necessarily mean being sympathetic. One can know what the other fellow feels without agreeing with that feeling. But a salesman simply cannot sell well without the invaluable and irreplaceable ability to get powerful feedback from the client through empathy.”


You need to know what the other person is feeling before you can push to change their minds about something. But more on this later.

Types of empathy


Broadly speaking, there are three types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy
  • Affective or compassionate empathy
  • Emotional empathy

 

According to Jeff Riseley, the first two types of empathy are important for salespeople to understand and develop. Here’s what he has to say about both types:

Cognitive empathy

It refers to the ability to think about someone that you're speaking to and being able to think about the potential challenges that they're facing. Salespeople are really good at this because they can understand those challenges and uncover those pain points. 

Some say it’s manipulative, which is why moving to the next level of empathy is important. 

By the way, you’ll have to remember this term for later. Just saying.

Affective empathy

It is also known as compassionate empathy. As Scott Barry Kaufman writes in his book “Transcend”, affective empathy is when you actually connect with the emotions the other person is facing and feel what they are feeling.

For obvious reasons, unlocking this level of empathy will help you connect with the other person and build a better relationship with them.

Emotional empathy

There is a third type of empathy called emotional empathy, but it faces a major pitfall in sales: you end up feeling too much to the point where you are overwhelmed. This is clearly not what you want as a salesperson when you’re trying to deliver a sales pitch. You can read more about this here.

How can you improve your empathy in sales?

We’ll have to split this section a bit, just to help you understand how important it is to have a high level of empathy towards everyone. 


Now, to the point!

Empathy towards the prospect

Empathy is how you win deals. In a time where people can’t meet face to face, every little thing you do for them makes a difference. No matter which side of the globe you’re from, if you can be empathetic while you’re on a call, that will set you apart from the rest. 

It is easier said than done, so here are a few tips on how to be more empathetic towards your customers.

Pay attention to what they’re saying

One-sided conversations aren’t fun, especially for the person who doesn’t get to talk. Sometimes that’s you, but a lot of the time, it could be your prospect. 


We all want to feel heard, but if your prospect is facing an issue that you could potentially solve, then you need to listen and make them feel heard. Plug alert: Tools like Wingman can help you with this. Eg: Wingman will alert you if you’ve been talking for too long on calls vs listening. We call it the talk-to-listen ratio. 


But listening more doesn’t mean that you stay quiet for most of the time. Taking the lead also means taking the time to listen.

Pay attention to what they’re not saying

We know that verbal communication and body language are important because they help your prospect feel comfortable. 

In the same way, you can better understand your prospect’s emotional state by paying attention to their verbal cues and how they are behaving. The words they use to describe their pain points can especially help you prioritize what to say next.

Understand their needs

Do you really understand what your prospects need? If a prospect speaks of their hardship due to a loss in the family, do not try to make them feel better with a discount. That is not what they asked for, and you may lose the deal. 

And here’s the thing—as a salesperson, you are probably focused on making the deal today and not in the future. But sometimes, understanding your prospect’s needs means saying no to working with them. You or your solution might simply not be the right fit at the moment, or ever. So while sales is making the sale, it’s also building long-term connections.

At a time where every tool is getting bigger, shinier features, empathy is what will set you apart. 

Why? 

Because empathy is important for building trust. And trust is everything in sales. 

Empathy towards your reps

When you work as a team, there are bound to be conflicts and misunderstandings. Missed deadlines or minor issues. Being empathetic towards your reps is a way to make sure they feel like they belong in the team.


If you ever had a supportive manager, think back to what they did right. This might include the following:

Not just numbers

As a salesperson, both you and your reps represent the organization you work for. That is a lot of responsibility, and to new reps, it might get overwhelming and they may feel like they’re losing themselves to a pipeline. 

Kevin ‘KD’ Dorsey mentioned in On The Flip Side podcast that reps aren’t just gumball machines. A sales rep is more than the number of deals they close or lose. It’s important to extend your empathy both ways, towards your prospect and towards your reps. 

Manage your expectations

As Scott Leese writes for Wingman, “When you hire people, your product or service goes beyond just being yours. You hire teams to get new perspectives and often, better ways of handling things. You have to consider that your vision of success should be realistic, and that can only be achieved when you have considered the capabilities of your employees.”

This doesn’t mean handholding, but setting appropriate targets for your reps could keep them from burning out. If you’re worried about your reps burning out, this article lists ways you can help them.

Invest in your reps

Identifying what areas your sales reps need help with, and getting them the resources they need will make the job easier for them. 

Making your reps feel like their work is important and that you are invested in them is a sure shot way to boost their morale.

Understand your own thoughts and emotions

Taking care of your own mental health is just as important, if not more, than taking care of your team. 


Research by the Sales Health Alliance and UNCrushed shows that almost 3 in 5 salespeople (58%) struggle with their mental health. 

Surprise! You could be one of them. 

And guess what. 

The research also says that frontline sales managers and individual contributors like account executives and managers are the most likely to struggle with their mental health. “Between these three roles, approximately 2 in 3 individuals reported they have poor or fair mental health.”

Taking time off if required or just taking small breaks in the day aren’t bad strategies to combat burnout. It could also take the load off your shoulders if you trust your team to handle situations so you might not have to butt in every time.


Hiring reps who are empathetic towards you is equally important as you being empathetic towards them.

Here’s a little tip from our CEO to help you hire better reps every time. 

Source: Shruti Kapoor's LinkedIn


Cultivating empathy in your sales team and within yourself are major ways to build strong connections, possibly for life. And sales is nothing but making long-term connections.


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