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Sympathy costs when selling; Try empathy instead

A CEO named Aaron called to discuss having me do a training session for his sales team.  He wanted his charges, especially the young sellers, to learn how to better relate to customers and prospects.

Aaron told me that his sellers tended to cave on price whenever prospects complained about a lack of financial resources. He said that if his salespeople were in a slump or wanting to prop up their numbers, they would often bend rules and relax on terms designed to protect the integrity of the company. His point was that feeling sorry for a customer might seem like the right thing to do under certain conditions, but more often than not, sympathy didn't work out for anyone. “When it comes to running a business,” Aaron said, “Sympathy costs money.” We talked a bit more and Aaron decided to hire me. As I prepped the program content, I began to consider alternatives to sympathy. If feeling sorry for a prospect "didn't work out," what emotion would serve everyone better in a salesperson-customer relationship?

What could be better than sympathy?

Hallmark and other greeting card companies have been marketing "sympathy cards" forever. Sympathy is a common courtesy in our culture. It's rather easy to deliver sympathetic sentiments in phrases such as "I'm sorry for your loss" and "You must feel terrible right now." And because sympathy is easy, it's often a default emotion even when the situation calls for something more sophisticated--such as empathy.

When you sympathize with someone, you have feelings of pity and sorrow. When you have empathy, you have the bandwidth for those feelings and so much more. Put another way, sympathy is feeling for someone else. Empathy allows you to feel with someone else.

While reflexive sympathetic exchanges dissipate fairly quickly, empathy is deeply rooted in affinity and trust. More importantly, empathy has "room to grow" through valuable introspective dialog, meaningful exchanges and better understanding.

Empathy is a neurological function. It processes what the other person is going through and then activates similar neural responses in your own brain. This mutual involvement allows for a more vivid and beneficial experience for both parties.

Why isn't empathy more common?

Most humans don't default to empathy because it doesn't always feel good. Deep, sophisticated emotions can be difficult to navigate. Also, research shows that it's easier to empathize with people you identify with emotionally or physically. This makes it hard to be empathic with strangers or new business connections. And empathy is time-consuming. The best relationships feature lots of quality time. Make no mistake, it takes time to cultivate empathy. Here are a few tips to level up your empathy skills: 1. Go slow. Empathy doesn't occur as much as it evolves. 2. Ask open-ended questions, then shut up and listen. 3. Recognize empathy's limits.

This deeper emotional commitment is more about "being there" for the person than actively solving a problem. Empathy doesn't have to involve taking sides or even making a commitment. So this is why Hallmark markets "sympathy" cards and not "empathy" cards. The former is easy etiquette and the latter is a psychological investment in experiential learning. It's hard to get the latter into an envelope.

Empathy on the job

So how can salespeople shift from the sympathy frame to an empathic script? It's important to remember that empathy is a non-transactional process that should precede business strategies. In other words, first be a real person and then be a salesperson. In the sympathy frame, for example, you might feel sorry for a prospect who's having a cash flow problem. If you believe price to be the only thing keeping you from closing the sale, you might offer a discount. Do this often enough and you will have cash flow problems.  Price concessions, of course, reduce commissions for the seller and profit margins for the company. There are dozens of ways to handle price objections that don’t involve a price discount.  Only agree to a price concession as an infrequent and last resort. Before exercising your final strategy, make time for empathy to play out.

Pro tip: Don't just feel someone's pain; try to better understand it. Understanding is the basis of communication, which can lead to actual problem-solving and higher ground for both parties. Listen for a few minutes, then say things like, “I hear what you’re saying” and “It sounds like you’ve given this some thought.” Ask questions that help you gain a better understanding of what the prospect is going through. Begin with binary questions so you can gauge the comfort level of a deeper inquiry:

  • Are you okay? Is your business okay? Is your team okay?

  • What do you think is going on?

  • How are you feeling about this?

  • What will it take to resolve things?

  • What can I do to help?

Offering help is not the same as a promise to help. Remember: Empathy first, problem-solving second. Empathy will help you develop stronger relationships with prospects, customers and team members, as well. And when others begin to benefit from sharing feelings with you, they are likely to be more empathic -- even with you.

Remember that on-the-job empathy has its boundaries. Consult with your Human Resources department to avoid crossing the line between professional and personal exchanges.

Empathy, then, brings about better relationships, which can lead to more sales. But always exercise your empathy muscles for the people, not the profit.

Indeed, when it comes to selling, sympathy costs you sales, but empathy can help you make quota and beyond.

Want to help your sales team get better with empathy?

Michael does sales coaching to help salespeople be their best. Contact Michael to arrange a complimentary consult to discuss what's possible. Meanwhile, you're welcome to re-purpose this article in your newsletter, blog or website. Simply send Michael a message stating your intent and be sure to provide attribution. Share your link and Michael's team will even drive traffic for you.

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