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  • Writer's pictureLance Tyson

Empathy vs Sympathy: Are You a Part of Your Prospect’s Problem?

Updated: May 30, 2023

sympathy and being sympathetic in your sales diagnosis

The Role of Sympathy and Empathy in the Sales Process Here’s something I learned in my past about the roles sympathy and empathy play in the sales process. Keep in mind, you are sitting across from your prospective buyer because you want to help them solve their problem, not become a part of the problem. When I went to college, the only way I could get a scholarship was by becoming a resident assistant, or an RA.  I learned if I became an RA, the system picked up my room and board. At the time, I thought it was a great gig. However, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. They taught a program called Counseling 302, where we had to understand that we might have people on our floor who could be dealing with some major issues. At the start, I didn’t take it seriously. My attitude was more like Mel Gibson’s from the first Lethal Weapon movie. Remember in the movie when Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) had a jumper on top of a building? The dude was going to commit suicide and Riggs went up there and was like, “just jump.” The guy was taken aback. After a lengthy conversation, Riggs handcuffed himself to the guy and called his bluff by saying, “You wanna jump? We’re going to jump.” I was Riggs before I went to Counseling 302. I didn’t quite grasp the concept that there were people who had some real mental challenges. At that time, I based everything on my own experiences. I would have told the poor guy to jump. Or said something like, “Just stop eating, man. You’ll die. Mission accomplished.”

The Challenge with Empathy in Sales After going through Counseling 302 though, I realized that people have real issues they have to deal with, and some of those issues can be overwhelming. Through this program, I gained a healthy respect for the counseling process. In one project, we had to do counseling which involved asking all the right questions. That’s when I learned the importance of empathy. Here’s the challenge. Empathy requires a deep connection, and it’s hard. You and I would need to jump off the side of the building together, hold hands, live, and ask each other how we felt afterward. It’s hard to do. In many sales situations that I’ve seen over the years, empathy is not something you want to do, and here’s why. If a salesperson is being truly empathetic, they won’t challenge the buyer when an objection stalls the process, or the sales process enters the negotiation phase. When you empathize with your prospect, you take on their mindset and their emotional state. You start identifying with their challenges and you start to buy into the reasons why they haven’t reached their desired situation. One training insight from the sales profession is that somebody is gonna get sold. Either you’re gonna sell the prospect on why they need what you are selling, or they’re gonna sell you on why they can’t buy it. And if you empathize with your prospect, you’ve just been sold. Leave the empathy for the practicing clinicians and counselors. There’s just no room for empathy in sales.

In Sales, Being Sympathetic to Your Prospect’s Ideas Pays Dividends Instead, be sympathetic to their ideas, thoughts, and situation. When you are sympathetic to their situation, you can understand their problem without becoming a part of their problem. I live from the Dale Carnegie side of things, having read the books several times. One of his principles states that you should try honestly to see things from your prospect’s perspective. And in sales, we live by that principle. If you can see the world through your prospect’s eyes, you can sell your prospect what they want to buy. However, immediately following that, he states that you should be sympathetic to your prospect’s ideas and desires. I think you should be sympathetic to people’s ideas and desires, because, after all, they gave birth to them. You wouldn’t tell someone who just had a newborn baby that their kid was ugly. I’ve seen some ugly kids, but I would never tell a new mother that her kid was ugly. Why? Because she gave birth to that baby. When selling, managing, and leading our teams, we spend a lot of time callously telling our people that their ideas are wrong. But we never stop to consider that they actually gave birth to them. I think the concept that we can always revisit as salespeople is to try to honestly see things from the other person’s point of view. For me, that’s the most important rule out of the thirty rules in the book How to Win Friends and Influence People. And once we have that perspective, we should always be sympathetic to their ideas and desires. It’s one of the best ways to win their trust and support.

Sales Process Debrief So, to review, in sales and in sales management, try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view, but be sympathetic to their ideas, thoughts, and situations. You want to be able to help them through their challenges, not become a part of their problem. You’ll find additional ideas and methods for achieving rapport with your clients in Lance Tyson's book, Selling Is An Away Game: Close Business and Compete in a Complex World available on Amazon. Get your copy today!

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