The Sales Empathy Gap

Ask any executive, consultant, or recruiter what it takes to be successful in sales, you’ll likely receive an answer with strong conviction backed up with plenty of examples, war stories, and perhaps even data. Adjectives such as challenging, curious, strategic, ambitious, confident, tenacious, and coachable tend to come up often. We debate issues such as whether sales ability is an inherent talent or a learned skill, how much emphasis we place on domain expertise and industry experience vs natural aptitude, and the role of existing networks, relationships, and connections. All worthy topics, yet on this I’m sure we all agree:

People buy from those they trust and like.

For at least the past eighty years since Dale Carnegie encouraged us to win friends and influence people (with reminders such as “You can make more friends in two months by being interested in them, than in two years by making them interested in you”) we’ve known that empathy is key to building trust and likeability. Abundant research, such as from, Harvard Business Review and Gartner, verify this absolutely applies to sales. In other words,

Sales success is built upon understanding the emotional wants and needs of the sales prospect.

We develop that understanding through empathy – the ability to recognize and understand the emotion of others.

Yet at least once a week I’ll see a buyer’s or seller’s perspective about what’s not working, and it invariably centers on empathy. And I’m not alone or looking through a consultant’s bias. Psychologists have observed that over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a 40 percent decline in the markers for empathy among college students, most of it within the past ten years.


So if empathy is so important, so understood, and so valuable to sales, why are we so bad at it? And what impact does it have on sales?

Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, makes a very convincing argument that our addiction to our digital devices is destroying our ability to have meaningful conversations with each other. Spontaneous, open-ended conversations in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and fully vulnerable. These are exactly the conversations in which empathy flourishes – the foundation for trust, rapport, and true connection.

Think this is too far-fetched? These days, average American adults check their phones every six and a half minutes. We start early: There are now baby bouncers (and potty seats) that are manufactured with a slot to hold a digital device. A quarter of American teenagers are connected to a device within five minutes of waking up. Most teenagers send one hundred texts a day. Eighty percent sleep with their phones. Forty-four percent do not “unplug,” ever, not even in religious services or when playing a sport or exercising.

We live in a world of unintended consequences. Hyperconnected, we imagine ourselves more efficient, but we are deceived. Multitasking degrades our performance at everything we do, all the while giving us the feeling that we are doing better at everything. So it makes us less productive no matter how good it makes us feel. And recall technology’s deficiencies as a “sentimental education”: Frequent multitasking is associated with depression, social anxiety, and trouble reading human emotions.

Simon Sinek applies this framework in describing Millennials in the workplace and his conclusions are chilling to any sales executives employing anyone under 30 years old:

Millennials grew up in a completely digital age and most likely to have developed an addiction to devices and social media to deal with adolescent stress. As they got older, they never learned how to form deep, meaningful relationships and so they only way they know how to deal with stress is to turn to their phones and social media. Combine this with only knowing a world in which there’s an app for everything and you’re destined to be impatient with anything less than instant gratification.

Stress is obviously extremely prevalent in sales. Have you ever dealt with the challenge of getting millennials to make outbound phone calls as opposed to outbound emails? What about complex B2B sales cycles that are anything but instantly gratifying? Building meaningful relationships can be messy, arduous, and takes time. As sales leaders, we owe it to our newest employees to teach them the social skills they’re no longer naturally developing on their own. This might even be at odds within company cultures that value technology innovation above all else.


Step #1: Tell salespeople to be more empathetic and walk the talk yourself

It would be quite the irony if getting salespeople to be more empathetic were as simple as telling them to be more empathetic. You must demonstrate it yourself, starting with an understanding of its importance. I recently met a Sales VP that configured his office such that when he’s talking with an employee, has his back to the sales floor, blanks his computer screen, and turns off his phone to eliminate all distractions and gives his complete attention to the conversation. Naturally, team meetings occur without a phone in sight.

Step #2: Leverage technology to listen for empathy at scale

Technology is double-edged; in addition to its addictive influence, technology – when used with intent and purpose – can accelerate and reinforce positive behavior change. The good news for our empathy gap is that the cure couldn’t be simpler: more effective conversations. Using technology to record and analyze these calls brings awareness and visibility into previously unseen corners of sales. ExecVision pioneered this new category of conversation intelligence platforms that shines a spotlight on our ability to lead meaningful conversations. For the first time, automated and at scale, we can know if we’re listening more than talking, asking the right questions, and truly building a deeper connection with our prospects. We can now learn faster by easily sharing our experiences, coaching each other, and building libraries of success.

I believe now is the most exciting time to be a salesperson. For those who believe that sales is all about connection and persuasion, we have more resources and technology available than any time in history. As we continue to hear more about Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and other trends remember that they only help us sell when they help us be more human. When they help us have more conversations that count.

Kevin Ascher is the founder of AcousticSelling, a consulting firm dedicated to salespeople reaching their full potential through the application of social science, data, and technology.