There are many skills salespeople need to learn to be successful.  In teaching these skills I have found that there are two words in the English language that most salespeople fail to clearly understand in meaning and application: “sympathy” and “empathy.” Not knowing the difference, and not knowing which will help you earn sales success, can cause significant delays in deals or may break them.

Many of my sales coaching clients and group trainees believe the words sympathy and empathy are synonyms.  They are not.  The difference is significant in meaning and can have a dramatic affect on sales performance.  Sympathy means that someone “shares” the feelings of another person or group of people.  Empathy means a person “understands” the feelings of another but leaves themselves in a position of objectivity. In other words, as a salesperson, if you share their feelings you are weakened in position, but if you are empathetic you can still help them.

In order to illustrate my point, let’s take a real-life scenario. A salesperson named Mike from ABC Company is given a lead for George, the owner of XYZ Company that wants his services.  Mike meets with George to discuss the company’s needs.  After 2 hours of fact-finding they are able to mutually agree on company goals and the assistance Mike’s firm can provide.  However, what George contacted Mike for was only a small part of ABC’s services and would not help them fully achieve their goals.  To really achieve the outcome XYZ wanted, it would take $80K. George explains to Mike, “I like what you have told me, but I have never bought this type of product and service before. This is a lot of money.  Give me some references. I probably will not do anything until next month anyway, so let me think about it.”  If Mike is sympathetic, he would say, “Sure, I would feel the same way if I were you. I will get those references and call you next month.”  By being sympathetic, research tells us Mike probably lost his deal.  George, who was probably very close to signing a deal, will find many reasons never to meet with Mike again. For example, George will talk to friends or other nonexperts who were not in the meeting, have never purchased such services, will hear the price tag, and will tell George it is unreasonable.

An empathetic salesperson would have responded, “I understand, but let’s be honest here, what will be different between now and next month?  If my references were to tell you that this is going to work, then can we move forward?”

Sympathy rarely has a place in sales. Certainly, sympathy is appropriate in dealing with matters involving the death of a client or family member.  However, you need to be very careful when you want to share someone’s feeling. In most cases, however, there is no place for sympathy in sales.  It is usually death for the salesman.

Buying is an emotional experience. If you do not understand how your prospect feels, you cannot help them buy.  It has been said over and over again, “people like to buy, not to be sold.”  You can only do this if you master the skill of empathy. So next time you look at your prospect closing ratio and think it should be better, ask yourself how well have you mastered the skill of empathy!

Contact me today to learn how Activate Group helps individuals to increase their success and works with organizations to attain consistent revenue and profit growth rates of at least 20% annually by calling (305) 722-7213 or e-mail me at [email protected].

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About Howard M. Shore

Howard M. Shore is a Certified Gazelles Coach, Certified Public Accountant Certified Executive Coach, Certified Behavioral Analyst, Certified Values Analyst, and Certified Attributes Index Analyst. He has earned Bachelor and MBA degrees from Florida International University, and completed advanced executive programs at Harvard Law School and the University of Chicago.