To An Octopus, “50” Means Nothing: Why Empathy Matters

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What qualities make a salesperson a top performer? Being young and energetic? Money-motivated? Aggressive? Outgoing and gregarious? Or having strong product knowledge, and experience selling big-ticket items?

None of these describes “Denise,” a top-performing salesperson I interviewed recently. In fact, her resume probably wouldn’t reach the inbox of most prospective employers. She’s over 60, friendly but not outgoing and motivated by more than commissions as a measure of success. She has so little product knowledge that she emphasizes that fact when working with prospects (more about that in a moment). But if you met her, you’d be glad you didn’t have to earn your living selling against her. She dominates her competitors.



Wondering what killer attribute she has? It’s empathy. In a sales world in which her competitors are shouting in their own language, Denise learned a long time ago that, “to an octopus, ’50’ means nothing.”

When I saw how empathy creates sales success for Denise, I wondered if other sales professionals had similarly identified this essential competency. So I asked an experienced sales recruiter, Natalie Buford-Young of The Rainfield Group, whether empathy matters. I was surprised by her answer because she told me that she has never worked with an employer that has specified “empathy” as a candidate requirement. Not once. But Buford-Young’s expertise enables her to fill the knowledge gap for her clients because she views empathy, along with ego, as the attributes that every salesperson must possess for success, and she carefully screens her candidates accordingly.

Buford-Young’s straightforward answer belies the complexity of uncovering the empathetic behaviors of a great salesperson. While most sales managers eagerly focus on ego-related interview questions (How did you perform against quota in the last five years? What did you W-2 last year? What was the amount of your latest quota? What was your largest sale?), they are much less adept at uncovering empathy. One question that should be at the top of the list: How does the world look through your customer’s eyes?



Here’s how Denise became a top performer by imbuing that perspective in everything she does.

  • Outside-in viewpoint. According to Denise, “Before my (prospecting) phone call, I envision the person I’m calling in their office, along with what’s in their surroundings. I think about what they are doing when my call comes in. I think about what they did five minutes before, what’s on their calendar that day and what pressure they might be facing at home. From there, I think about what I’m going to ask and say. Then I make my call.”
  • Common concern for the prospect’s objectives and goals. Denise not only knows what motivates her customers, but also, she believes in the same principles. She described it this way: “My clients are cause-driven. I share the same interest in those causes.” Shared values create a bond.
  • Meaningful discovery through asking the right questions. Here’s where Denise’s limited product knowledge serves her well. She eliminates the common trap of “showing but not selling.” And because her ego enables her to know where she wants to lead her prospect, she guides the person there by asking the right questions. In fact, she has sold many software licenses by beginning with this caveat before a demo: “I’ve never run this function before, but let’s step through this together and we can see how easy it is. Now, how would you start out with … ?”
  • Insightful dialog. A conversation with Denise is a far cry from the cliché salesperson portrayed in Dan Ackroyd’s famed Saturday Night Live Bass-o-Matic sales infomercials. Denise is soft-spoken and articulate. While her voice quality is pleasant, she commands attention because she is adept at sharing her insight about what her customer has said. Her conversations follow a self-supporting pattern: Ask a question. Listen. Restate the answer better than how she heard it. After hearing several of her customer calls, I could clearly see that in the course of going from Cold Call Telemarketer to Trusted Advisor, Denise is a Lamborghini.
  • Appropriate humility. Denise always walks a fine line where others fall off. She’s intelligent without being pompous. Articulate but not highfalutin. Knowledgeable but not pedantic. Most important, she knows her customer’s priorities and how the product she sells fits into that schema. She knows the daily pressures her customers face and how her interactions are perceived. These important aspects are often lost as salespeople pursue ever-higher quotas and sales goals. Compare Denise’s approach with the get-around-the-gatekeeper-any-way-you-can mentality, and you’ll recognize why most telemarketing voice mail messages never get heard and most emails hit the spam bucket, forever unread. In a statement that at first seems counter-intuitive, Denise attributes her high-close ratio to the fact that “there is no sales urgency in my voice.”
  • Courtesy. Denise doesn’t deny that some people she must work with can impede her, but she treats everyone with appropriate courtesy and respect. She believes that the same people her competitors may try to avoid can be of critical importance for gaining access to decision makers.
  • Knowledge of the world outside of business domain. Denise brings a broad view of the world to her sales relationships. She’s well-read and very comfortable talking about complex issues that transcend geographic and topical boundaries. Think that’s not important for a person who mainly uses the phone to complete sub-$10,000 sales? I listened intently as she spoke to an Indian-surnamed prospective client three time zones away in Atlanta about literacy issues in India and what those issues mean for that country’s global competitiveness. She booked an appointment to talk with the client again the following week. A Lamborghini going from Cold Call Telemarketer to Trusted Advisor.


As Denise demonstrates, empathy is really an umbrella-term, and the best sales results will be achieved when empathy is viewed as a guideline for salespeople–not as a prescription. Empathy yields patterns of positive sales behaviors that don’t need to be culled into neat checklists, micromanaged at every quarterly sales review. “Be courteous to the front desk receptionist,” is a hollow admonition to a salesperson who doesn’t understand what empathy means for building a valuable business relationship. Uncovering a salesperson’s propensity for empathy will help identify a potential sales star. Nurturing empathetic behavior once it’s found will be the next great management challenge.

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