Applying empathy to sell on purpose instead of by accident

Part 1 – Pre-call research

In 1977, I applied for a job as a salesperson with a company supplying equipment and chemicals to researchers in the health sciences field. I had some trepidation about being in sales, but in one of my interviews with my prospective manager, I’d asked him what kind of training I would receive. “Oh – don’t worry, you’ll get full training,” he told me. So I accepted the job.

On the first day my manager sat me down at a desk in the warehouse, gave me a copy of the company catalogue, and told me to read it from cover to cover. Two days later, I told him that I’d finished reading it, and he said, “Read it again.” This scenario repeated itself a number of times over the next two weeks. Finally, I asked when the next phase of my training would start. “How about now?” came the cheerful reply, and with that he grabbed his car keys, and enthusiastically told me to get in his car. We spent the next two hours cruising around with him pointing out the locations of our major customers in the city. Back at the office, I thanked him for the tour, and enquired as to when the rest of my training would begin. “That was it – that was your training. You’ve studied the catalogue, you know where the customers are, now go sell something!”

Needless to say, without any guidance as to what to do, my first sales calls did not go well. In fact, as a defence mechanism against my embarrassment for not knowing what the heck I was doing, I started telling customers I was the new technical support person for the company, and I would ask if there were any problems I could solve for them. That was my whole sales approach for the first few months. It did help in starting some dialogues, and actually led to some sales (though I have to admit I wasn’t setting the world on fire with my spectacular sales numbers!). I was merely “lucking” into sales simply by virtue of being in the right place, at the right time. In other words, I was selling by accident, and not with any plan or purpose.

How do you ensure you’re selling on purpose instead of by accident? I’ve identified a number of ways to do that, and empathy plays a major role in all of them.

They say that if you want to know a person, walk a mile in their shoes. That’s what empathy is all about – understanding why and how other people do the things they do. The dictionary definition is: To mentally identify with another person, thereby understanding their side of a situation. So put yourself in your prospect’s or customer’s shoes for a few minutes, and imagine how it feels to be them. What’s going through their minds when you try to interact with them.

Picture this: you’re the customer, and you’re in your office, fifteen things to do in the next ten minutes, a deadline looming for a meeting with the boss, seven things you’re thinking about all at once, and you’re expecting a call from your spouse. Just then your phone rings. Thinking it’s your spouse, you reach out and take the call without thinking to check the caller I.D.

So – you pick up the phone, and lo and behold, it’s a salesperson on the other end. Here’s what the salesperson actually says: “Hi there – this is Derrick Pick calling from Solutions R’ Us. I’m the new Account Executive for your territory, so I’m just calling to introduce myself and let you know all the great things that Solutions R’ Us has to offer, and to see if there’s anything I can help you with today…”

As the harried prospect, here’s what your brain actually hears:  “Hi there, I’m Blankety-blank from some company or other, and I’m just calling to waste some of your time and make you late for your meeting, and blah, blah, blah……”

How can you avoid this scenario?  Well, one of the rules of selling on purpose instead of by accident is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Use empathy to gain an understanding of what would be of value to them in their situation, and give them a reason to engage with you.

Prior to contacting the customer:

Research the customer’s organization. Visit their website to develop an understanding of their situation, and identify some of the challenges the organization may be facing, and how you might be able help them meet and overcome those challenges.

Research the individual. Gain some insight into their background and current role – LinkedIn and Google are excellent for this. Anticipate what issues that would be uppermost in this customer’s mind. Talk with other people in your company or industry about dealing with people in similar circumstances. Conduct a quick search of the internet for blogs, articles, tweets, etc. for tips on possible ways you could help.

Use this knowledge to gain a preliminary understanding of the customer, and to anticipate how your product or service could help them.  Then you can develop a customized strategy for your approach. What will you say to gain their attention and interest? What questions will you ask to gain a deeper understanding of their issues, goals, and challenges? What benefits of your solution will you present to help them understand the value you bring to the table, and what would motivate them to take action?

Using empathy to put yourself in the customer’s shoes will better prepare you for your interactions with them, and position you for more successful outcome to your sales calls.

Look for more ways that you can use empathy to help you sell on purpose instead of by accident in future blogs.


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