by Randy Sabourin
A sales conversation can be a beautiful thing; it can flow, it can be fun, and it can pay the bills. It can also establish creditability, build trust and become the catalyst for a relationship of mutual respect. But it can also be heavy lifting, it can feel like a battle, it can be full of frustration, and you can walk away feeling further behind. And though both parties are responsible for the outcome, the salesperson is accountable for its success.
I’ve personally conducted, observed and coached thousands of sales conversations: successful and otherwise. For over 17 years, our organization has helped salespeople practice hundreds of thousands of sales conversations. We’ve tracked the performance of every salesperson in every one of these conversations. Through this process, we have also coached on every conceivable sales model and process in every market in North America and around the world.
With all this qualitative and quantitative data I can say that the two most important skills (and the two that are often performed worst) are curiosity and empathy.
Almost every sales conversation process is built on questioning. Salespeople are trained to ask open-ended questions, understand the current state, uncover problems, expose ramifications, and move to a solution. Even newer, insight-based models that suggest you challenge your clients are based on your expertise to master a questioning conversation model. But questions, in the absence of curiosity, simply aren’t enough. Any salesperson will acknowledge, it’s not product, price, or logo that wins, it’s the conversation that builds trust and relationship that wins the day.
Curiosity is the catalyst that allows any questioning model to flow naturally. Following a line of questions that lead to a solution makes perfect sense if it’s done with honest curiosity. The value of wanting to know more about someone’s business, or their life, can also be fascinating. The process of asking honest, curious questions can make the other person feel important. It raises their status at a deep psychological level because you are taking the time to understand their situation. They feel important, and you change from being a stranger to being someone who cares. Being curious also helps to move a conversation forward and is as natural as getting to know someone at a social gathering. You can direct the questions toward a business outcome, how their business runs, what their challenges are, and the ramifications of those challenges is a valuable exchange for both parties. I have found that engaging a client in a conversation when I’m truly curious has good business results and I usually learn something or hear a story I’m better off for having experienced.
Empathy is a natural by-product of being curious. The point of being curious is to understand your customer’s world; empathy is understanding a situation from the other person’s perspective, they go hand in hand. Empathy is also the secret weapon to absorb tension and overcome objections. You can effectively defuse an emotionally charged situation through empathy combined with curious questions. This strategy can help you identify the emotion and the underlining issue. Let’s look at an example. Imagine your client has just tried to end your sales meeting early by saying, “Look. I just don’t have time today to answer all your questions.”
Here’s how to use empathy and curiosity to respond. First, start by acknowledging their concern with empathy, by reflecting their own words: “Your time is precious, and I want to respect that so I would not waste your time.” Second, ask an open-ended, curious question to find out more: “Can you help me understand what’s got you so busy, maybe I can help?” The more information, the better. Remember, people want to be heard, and if you can be the one that genuinely hears them, you could be the one they open up to.
In addition, being empathetic helps to remove the ego from exerting control. The less ego you bring to your sales conversations, the better. For salespeople especially, the need for control helps to drive competition, but it can also block curiosity and empathy. The ability to manipulate your status, decreasing it when listening/increasing it when you become a ‘trusted adviser’ – can help open up the conversation (more on status as a communication tool). Being empathetic helps you check your ego and opens you to accept objections more willingly and therefore improvise more effectively (more on sales improvisation).
Curiosity and empathy can be hard to measure and listen for without practice. Before your next sales conversation, make a note during your preparation to be curious and empathetic. I guarantee that your conversation will flow more smoothly and that you’ll manage any objections with greater ease.