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Do Sales Listening Skills Matter Without Empathy?

4 min readSeptember 24, 2018

In sales, the discovery phase involves smart questions and active listening skills. Any sales training will mention both. However, it is possible to ask questions and use sales listening skills without real empathy.

Consider the data from a HubSpot Research study of B2B buyers and sellers:

    • The #1 buyer expectation (69%) is a sales rep that listens
    • The #1 buyer pain point (62%) is a sales rep that does not listen
    • 83% of sales professionals think they effectively listen to buyer needs.

A disconnect like this makes it no surprise only 18% of buyers trust and respect salespeople.

Customers are savvy. They have been sold to before. They know when a question has ulterior motives. They can tell when you are listening for BANT, ANUM, or other qualification strategies. Revenue.io CEO Howard Brown put it this way on a recent Quotable Salesforce podcast: “If you are just trying to get to a desired outcome…people sense that.”

People don’t like to be sold to because they have been burned before. Their natural position when they sense a sales pitch is defensive.

That leads me to suggest a very non-scientific formula of empathy in sales:

Empathy in sales = thoughtful questioning + listening x authenticity of care

“Authenticity of care” is not measurable. It happens within, and you know it when you feel it. It serves as a multiplier effect for questioning and listening skills. Empathy does not happen without authenticity.

If this idea is so simple, why is execution so hard? The answer lies in a mix of culture and training. On one hand, culture does not prioritize listening as a skill, and on the other, we naturally only think of ourselves, our quota, and the promise of “the close” which makes it easy to ditch empathy.

A Culture That Values Speaking over Listening Skills

Our attention spans are dwindling. Distraction is common, and we filter and prioritize information to prevent overload. As a result, we tune out constantly. Who hasn’t nodded along to something a customer said only to forget it immediately?

Despite the challenges, research suggests between 45-70% of our days are spent listening to something or someone. There are techniques to listening well, but our culture prioritizes great speakers over great listeners. Social media has only added to this, encouraging us to share and shout our perspectives into echo chambers.

Sales Training Neglects Empathy

Revenue.io Sales EmpathyEven today, a lack of empathy is obvious in most sales training. Perhaps we have moved on from the turn & burn, always-be-closing boiler room days of yesteryear. However, training that prescribes exact words and sentences to close, or hypes massive revenue as a priority forgets that a sales meeting, at its core, is just humans connecting.

Questioning and listening in sales is a nuanced process that involves bringing thoughtful, intelligent questions to the conversation based on customer feelings.

Empathic failures & Sales Listening Skills

Let’s quickly return to our formula of empathy:

Empathy in sales = thoughtful questioning + listening x authenticity of care

Say we successfully apply the formula with a customer, they share some real pain points, we share our solution, and they purchase.

Now what?

If we do not stay available to them, or fail to help them fully implement the solution, we are committing what psychology calls an “empathic failure.”

This term is important because it describes times that someone to opens up to us, or we see someone in need, and fail to exercise any empathy. We miss the chance, or leave them hanging.

This can happen any time in sales – perhaps we are asking good questions, getting some good answers, and then we abruptly shift into a closing conversation. Or, we never bother to ask our customer about their aspirations and goals, even though a personal meeting is an opportunity for a quality human connection.

Why we need complete empathy in sales

There are many good reasons why we need the complete empathy formula in sales, I’ll list a few here:

It feels better:

Being empathetic just feels good! Sometimes we have barriers up because we don’t want to be vulnerable, and we need to grow in emotional intelligence to get there. It is a rewarding place to be: hear someone’s pain point and offer solutions or just provide value by hearing them out. Empathy is one of those things in life where you get out of it what you put in – often showing care and genuine interest in others means they show care and genuine interest in you.

It is the ethical choice:

Michael J. Hyde, a renowned ethicist and philosopher whose most famous work “The Life Giving Gift of Acknowledgement” is taught in communication ethics courses, poses the hypothetical question: “what would life feel like if no one acknowledged your existence?” He believes we should consider that any time we interact with others, operating with more empathy at all times is the right thing to do.

Sales success

One can imagine the value that lasting, empathy-based relationships can have on sales. Salesforce found that 79% of business buyers say it is absolutely critical that a sales rep achieve “trusted advisor” status. The empathy formula is a path to that status. Shifting focus from selling to caring has the surprising effect of higher sales.

My father once told me “empathy is the greatest human emotion.” The use of empathy is not just about closing the next deal. The use of empathy has more implications than just our sales career – if we use empathy in our sales conversations, it might just make us better, happier, and more successful humans.

What to read next:

Learn more about how the future belongs to the empathetic seller

Ditch empathy-free sales training in favor of sales coaching

Hone your questioning strategy with this ebook