- Today, 70% of B2B buyers do most, if not all, of their buying process before they talk to you, and
- 43% of B2B buyers don’t ever want to talk to you
- That number rises to 54% for millennials and younger
Data from Gartner 2021
Over the last few decades, the world of sales has moved through: the solution sale, the consultative sale, the challenger sale, and the relationship sale. The secret superpower for 2022 growth is empathetic selling. Want to learn more? Let’s talk.
These shifts force everyone in sales and marketing to adapt to a different way of thinking about sales and marketing: the empathetic sale. Sales today isn’t about acquiring pipeline or moving people through stages: it’s about maximizing your empathy and helpfulness to the buyer on their journey.
The Evolution of Sales
Before the internet and increases in venture capital investment proliferated new SaaS solutions, sellers had the power in the information exchange. Buyers had to physically meet with or call up dozens of vendors to compare options on their own. Sellers could focus on their proof points to close sales for one-off implementations. Now, buyers have the power. They have unlimited, high-quality information from reviews, peer networks, and aggregation sites they can seamlessly move between. Often buyers expect and prefer to explore the product itself without a seller through free trials, freemium offers or video demos. Historical sales techniques are far less compelling because buyers divide their attention and (appropriately) discount the information that a seller provides to them.
The COVID-19 pandemic expanded the importance of empathy even further. After a year of limited human contact, social fear, and worldwide distrust, people are especially hungry for community and connection. Even when buying software, the need to be seen and respected as people is at the forefront. Truthfully, one wonders how we succeeded any other way!
Unleash the Empathetic Sale
Customers buy from sellers and companies they trust, and humans trust people we believe to be competent, honest and aligned with us. Buyers appreciate assistance in synthesizing and organizing information as they are often overwhelmed with the high quality content they receive or find – content that often disagrees with each other. One of the fastest ways to undermine trust is to tell buyers something that is incompatible with something they find on your website. Sales and marketing message alignment is crucial in this new world so that you don’t confuse your buyer. A confused buyer likely is one moving on to another problem and solution.
Many sellers confuse relationship selling with empathetic selling. Relationship sellers invest in building a personal connection with the buyer and through that connection, drive forward their sale. Relationship selling is a precursor to the empathetic sale – necessary and insufficient. In addition to genuinely committing to know another person, empathetic sellers are confident experts in their solutions as well as their customers’ challenges and success stories. With that expert knowledge, empathetic sellers can confidently explore what their prospect is experiencing and help their prospect build confidence in the prospect’s own knowledge and decision.
If a customer believes that you have their interests at heart and you are helping them confidently solve their problem, they will be increasingly open to your ideas and suggestions. They will consider your disagreements as suggestions from an ally, not manipulation from an adversary. In short, they will be more inclined to consider your suggestions as they move their position. This consideration is at the core of arriving at an agreement that includes them incorporating your offering as long as your offering genuinely can help them. An early assessment of lack of fit is welcomed by buyers as well as sales managers: If you start your conversations by seeking to understand the prospect’s needs and follow up with an honest account of what you can’t do, the prospect will trust and implement your advice. This strategy requires authenticity and vulnerability, so it’s no wonder those traits are increasingly prized.
On the other hand, historical sales strategies like combatively emphasizing proof points and aggressively driving to your next step are plummeting in value. Pushing people usually hardens their position just as debates mainly cause people to dig in their heels.
Going forward, instead of hammering home proof points, successful sellers will listen & clarify, empathize, and assist.
Listen & Clarify
A few years ago, a seller asked me to reach out to a 2nd level connection in my network who was an executive at a strategic prospect account. The executive agreed to take an exploratory call with me. With the seller in the room we did a telephone call (not Zoom), following introductions, I asked my favorite question: “Why did you take this call?”. The executive spoke for 15 minutes, filling me in on the entirety of their problem, their aspiration for their company and giving us invaluable insight into how important this might be to her. Only by understanding their problem can I offer a helpful solution – my own or otherwise. A customer will ultimately choose the solution they believe fits them best so learn what the customer is trying to do! About 9 months after that telephone call, the executive’s company became the largest new customer for the quarter.
While customer personas and modeling are helpful guidelines, the most effective way to learn someone’s desires is to ask them one open ended question, listen, summarize and confirm (Ask, Listen, and Confirm — ALC):
- Why did you take this call?
- Here’s what I heard (summarize – here’s what I heard)
- Why the buyer has this problem
- The urgency to solve this problem seems to be … (is this right?)
- The other stakeholders you’ll need to align likely are (confirm or inform depending on what they know)
- Where are you right now in solving this problem (ask and confirm)
- The next steps seem to be (confirm or suggest)
Comprehending the customer’s need isn’t merely about articulating why your offering is great: it’s about understanding why the buyer has the problem in the first place. Notice that the conversation flow doesn’t include a discussion of the product features or competitive advantage. If you empathize with your buyer, you can quickly qualify and help them shape the requirements of the solution they need leveraging your expert understanding of your strengths and your customers.
Ultimately, your sales process requires fitting the customer’s flow — both in purchasing and implementation. The most important seller doesn’t work for the sales organization: they work at the buyer’s org. The meetings that will determine if you have a sale happen without any vendors in the room.
If you can understand a person’s precise needs, you can later equip them with the power to advocate in their internal meetings, where the actual decisions are made.
The optimal process is one of active listening without pressure — it requires confirming understanding and interest, not trying to funnel the prospect to your next stage. This process can be tricky because you want to manage the journey, but a buyer has their own internal needs. You’ll have to send more follow-up notes confirming understanding and check-in more when the prospect’s journey slows, but they’ll reward this hand-holding with greater trust. These truths might always have been true, but are even more profound today as buying committees have expanded, spread out, and now access more information. Sales and marketing must therefore work together to equip the customer. The foundation of this equipment is empathy.