Empathy - the key to successful sales during COVID-19

It is business as Unusual for many people right now. I started my sales career back in 1987 and have seen my fair share of painful economic periods, such as the early 90's, and more recently when the financial crisis took hold in 2008, but we are genuinely living in unprecedented times, right now. 

As an optimistic profession, we can see opportunities in the face of adversity. We can take lessons from the last financial crisis and learn what people were doing then to continue to drive sales when others were struggling to raise anything. Ok, now is different with people being isolated, socially distancing or forced to work from home but we can take lessons none the less. 

While we realise some things are similar, and others are different in 2020, the biggest lesson that we can take away from selling during crisis and recessions is the importance of emotional intelligence, with an emphasis on empathy. 

Many of us believe, much like our eye colour or our hair's hue, empathy is an inherent trait that's determined by our genes and fixed for life.

However, neuroscientists have proven that empathy is not merely inborn, but can be taught. For example, it appears that medical training can actually diminish empathy, but on the other hand, physicians can be taught to be more empathic to their patients.

As emotionally intelligent sellers, we need to focus on three key aspects to drive sales revenues.

  1. Adding empathy into our sales approach – collaboration
  2. How to build relationships when isolated at home
  3. How to maintain motivation and drive to perform

Empathetic Sales Approach

It unprecedented times like these, we need to change our approach; we need to be empathetic in our approach. We need to help our  sales teams demonstrate empathy with our prospects and customers. However, there is a thin line between being hard sell and so empathetic that we simply don't close. 

What we are finding is a lot of sales people are confusing empathy and sympathy. Sympathy keeps its distance. Empathy is a powerful connection to someone else. As a species, we've evolved to feel empathy because it's useful in understanding other people. Research shows being able to feel what others feel allows us to build more powerful relationships. It's an essential part of how we communicate.

There is a part of the brain called the Amygdala, which is continually scanning for danger and when triggered launches the Fight, Flight or Freeze response. The constant news and information about COVID-19, with the number of cases, deaths, businesses closing and so on keeps triggering this part of the brain in our prospects and cusotmers, which are adopting one of the three responses:

  1. Fight Mode: The customers in the fighting mindset have decided to soldier on; these will be easier to deal with as their mind is future-orientated. They are trying to maintain business as usual where possible. Hence they are continuing to honour their existing commitments and are looking for solutions for the future.  

  2. Flight mode: Some customers have gone into a shutdown mode, let's get away from this, put orders on hold, cancel subscriptions, batten down all hatches! 

  3. Freeze mode: These customers are lost and are following a herd mentality and are uncertain of the best thing to do,  will be making some arbitrary decisions, and if they make any purchases they will most likely be to COVID-19 specific causes only.

To make sales during the current pandemic,  sales professionals need to work harder at building rapport, more than ever. If you are an existing Salecology practitioner, you will know that changing your Salecology Personality colour to match the customer doesn't need to be dishonest or disingenuous to make a successful sale. Taking this one step further, we can also build rapport by understanding three key types of empathy:

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy, sometimes known as 'perspective taking', is where we look at the world from the prospect's point of view. Not on how they are feeling, but more about their motivations and what they are trying to accomplish. When the prospects are speaking with you about your need for support, they often try to detach or mask their emotions and operate from a place of little to no emotion. That does not mean they are going to be a pushover, but it does mean they are receptive to being guided towards a donating decision. This requires tact and understanding, and oftentimes reading between the lines of responses in conversations. 

Emotional Empathy

Animals and people have neurons in their brains that activate when they see another member of their species acting in a certain way. The neuron activation causes them to relate that action in their own bodies or brains. Emotional empathy is an extension of this process where we experience the same emotions - sometimes for a fraction of a second, sometimes for much longer - than we see them experiencing. Prospects will be feeling the stress on your organisation right now, and they'll want to work with you, and try and find a way to support the cause. 

Compassionate Empathy

Compassionate empathy is the type we all strive for because it not only lets other people know we care but motivates us to help their situation improve if the need exists. It activates stimuli that deal with intellect, emotion, and action, and considers the whole person, not just their motivations (cognitive empathy) or feelings (emotional empathy). In most circumstances, compassionate empathy is what we strive for. It's not only the idea of a shared experience of emotions, but a way to move beyond that and address their problem by some form of action. 

5 Things to be more Empathetic is your Sales Approach

Asking our salespeople to be Empathetic therefore is not so simple. What we need to do is review the sales process, and each stage of a sales call and show them that the usual 'Solution Based asking' approach needs to be modified in the current climate.

1: Pre-amble to the call

Making calls to cusotmers right now usually means either calling them on the phone or using video conferencing whilst they are juggling work, kids, pets, at home. Empathy to this situation means, accept that is the case and don't try to cut to the chase. Be human and embrace their world in a cognitive sense. Chat rather than move to your opening statement.

2: Opening statement

When you want to move the subject to a business-related topic, do it skilfully with an emotionally driven reason for the topic. Utilise a 'Teach' in the topic around what others (similar job roles)  in a similar situation are doing right now to be successful.

Don’t make it about your product or service, but ensure your product or service would facilitate it.

3: Questioning Techniques

Solution Selling techniques have always focused on uncovering pain points and ‘pushing the bruise’ to exacerbate the pain. You don’t need to do this too much – they are feeling the pain plenty right now. However, what you do want to do is to bring in the emotionally driven questions that demonstrates emotional empathy and triggers emotions. Use words like, worried, concerned, nervous, difficult, to get the customer to open up.

4: Future Orientation

We know the pandemic will end, which just don't know when. Use hypothetical situations to move the prospect into a solution mindset – use words like "if you could…" or "if you had…" to move the prospect away from the current pain to the future state. There is a collective feeling that the worst of the infection rates will be over in circa 8-12 weeks time. Talk about future growth and rebuild plans to get the prospect into a strategic mindset. This will get the prospect out of today's Fight, Flight and Freeze mode and into building for the future.

5: Make it both Rational and Emotional 

As you get to the ask, ensure that you are into the Compassionate Empathy state, demonstrate both logical reasons for them to take action now, and back it up with emotional empathy about how it feels like the right thing to do. Remember, it is not about you; it is all about them. 

To learn more about developing an Empathic Selling Approach and to create a plan for your organisation to sell during this pandemic, check out our Selling During COVID-19 Live 'Virtual' Classroom Programme.