Selling with Empathy During the Pandemic: Building Your Personal Arsenal of Skills


By Jim Preston, Vice President of EMEA Sales at Showpad.

Most organisations experienced significant change during the pandemic, with many staff learning to work in a different way, master remote working disciplines or put new health and safety measures into practice. And for salespeople, Covid came with a very significant challenge: digital-only selling. Connecting with a potential buyer and more importantly, building rapport without being in the same room is tough. When you combine this with an increased pressure to sell, as company revenues around the world drop and many countries fall into recession, everything adds up to a very challenging time for salespeople.


A challenging time

There’s little doubt that sales cycles today are longer and are more carefully scrutinised by increased numbers of people. Many businesses are still struggling – and many are battling to understand their own futures, having pivoted to new disciplines during Covid, and are trying to predict how long this new state of affairs will last.

Deals, conversions and new developments may slowly be becoming more prevalent and pipelines slowly filling up for Q3 and Q4, but it’s fair to say that for most companies, business is still fragile – and the effectiveness of their sales and marketing teams are often the make-or-break factor in this equation.

As well as top-notch content and a truly compelling business proposition for the right customer, sales teams need to build a strong connection with their prospects, really taking the time to understand what’s important to them, their challenges and the constraints that they face, building a solution with them, rather than for them. To put this another way: the days of ‘hit and hope’ sales are over. There might have been a time when you could put out ten, twenty, thirty identical feelers for a sale and one of them would land, but no more.

So how do you build this emotional connection? I’ve talked about how to develop it from a management perspective in my previous piece, but in this article, we’ll look more about how to build personal empathy.


A matter of empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and be sensitive to another person’s feelings and experiences, reacting accordingly. Smart sellers know whether their customers are just having a bad day, dealing with a heavy workload or internal pressure, are struggling with other life-admin and stresses, or genuinely aren’t interested in the product or service being sold. Being able to recognise that all boils down to applying empathy to the sale. So, what are the best ways of building up your empathy skills?

Firstly, put yourself in their shoes. Before you log into a Zoom or Teams call, ensure you are educated on their company and their sector. See if they have any recent activity on LinkedIn, for example. Think about what they might have been through, how their company has been doing financially, and what all of this means for the kinds of questions they might ask you. If you can answer them before they ask them, it’ll show that you’ve really taken the time to think about them, which builds trust and understanding. 

Secondly, it may sound daft, but asking questions has never been more important. Alongside regular qualifying questions about whether a prospect’s business is the right size, type and fits within your ideal customer profile, remember to ask questions outside of the norm. You don’t have to ask a prospect for their life story, but do ask how their business is doing, what new pressures they face, how they adapted during lockdown – and remember to use open questions rather than closed ones that could be answered with a single word. This is just as important during a ten-year customer review meeting as in a ‘first contact’ situation with a brand-new prospect, so it’s not just for sales folk! Finally, when they answer, make sure you really listen.

Similarly, share your experiences internally; when you catch up with your colleagues, mention the process, the questions you asked and how you asked them – this will help more junior salespeople understand where to pepper in ‘softer’ questions. You should also think about making this ‘reflection’ time a part of recurring sales meetings, sharing important learnings across the organisation.


Keep at it

Empathy doesn’t come naturally to everyone, so if you’re in this bucket, it’s important to train yourself and make sure that you’re putting what you’ve learnt into practise, seeking out more coaching where appropriate. It’s really easy to relegate this to the bottom of your list – after all, most of us think that getting the deal and supporting the business is the number one priority, not internal training sessions. However, building your empathy skills will help you to evolve into a more consultative seller and reap far better rewards in the long-term. Similarly, if you’re a manager, make it clear to your team that this kind of training is important – and look for ways to automate their administrative tasks, freeing up valuable time.

This training content needs to be easy to digest and easy to ingrain into a salesperson’s daily habits. Remember that both repetition and expression deepen impression, so making sure that training is part of a series and discussing what you’ve learned with your team will help you to put these crucial skills into practice. It’s also very important to share how you put these skills into practice when you do deploy them – this will also give you feedback from your peers and continuously help you to fine-tune your approach.


Using empathy to build the business

Although the mechanics of selling have changed during the pandemic, the ingredients of a great sale remain the same. A salesperson with a great proposition that fits the prospect and their challenge, coupled with a level of empathy, responsiveness and tenacity, will excel in all environments. However, with commercial opportunities shrinking during Covid-19, the need for strong salespeople has certainly accelerated.

There’s little doubt that the days of pushy, aggressive salespeople are over, and they won’t be coming back. Empathy and emotional intelligence have become – and will remain – key skills for salespeople for the foreseeable future, and although they might not be the easiest skills to master, those developing them will enjoy a longer, deeper, more loyal relationship with customers and a better, stronger company reputation built for the long-term – and that’s something every salesperson should be striving for.