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Empathy and Sympathy in Sales Pros - Don't Confuse the Two....

I'm part of a team that hires sales professionals at DAXKO.  That means I've spent a lot of time thinking and talking to others about what makes a successful sales professional.  I've always thought I had a good line on it, but from the school of "get better or die trying", I'm open to all thoughts on the topics.

My focus has generally been on a demonstrated ability to close, and a level of polish on communication skills that allows someone to represent the company and also be effective when it comes to needs analysis with a wide variety of target prospects.

But you can always learn more, no?  In that spirit, I got exposure to a great Harvard Business ReviewSwingers2 Article from my new VP of Sales that clarifies the target candidate with even greater clarity.  Here's the abstract from the article, then I'll break down the two big theories from the study, which is 30+ years old, but still stands tall today:

'More than 35 years ago, the insurance industry embarked on an intensive program to solve the problem of costly, wasteful turnover among its agents. Estimates at that time indicated that there was a turnover of better than 50% within the first year and almost 80% within the first three years. After the expenditure of millions of dollars and 35 years of research, the turnover in the insurance industry remains approximately 50% within the first year and 80% within the first three years.

What accounts for this expensive inefficiency? Basically this: Companies have simply not known what makes one man able to sell and another not. As Robert N. McMurry has observed:

A very high proportion of those engaged in selling cannot sell….If American sales efficiency is to be maximized and the appalling waste of money and manpower which exists today is to be minimized, a constructive analysis must be made of what selling really is and how its effectiveness can be enhanced….We must look a good deal further—into the mysteries of personality and psychology—if we want real answers.1

It was the obvious need for a better method of sales selection that led us to embark on seven years of field research in this area. The article that follows is based on the insights we gained as to the basic characteristics necessary for a salesman to be able to sell successfully. Confirming the fact that we are on the right track is the predictive power of the selection instrument (battery of tests) that we developed out of the same research; see the exhibit “How Well an Instrument Measuring Empathy and Ego Drive Predicted Sales Success.”

So here's what the research says, which applied to the real world totally makes sense:

-Two primary factors drive the profiles of all salespeople - empathy and ego drive.

-Empathy means that the salesperson can feel the customer's pain.  Where many sales pros get into trouble is when empathy turns to sympathy, which means (my words) that the sales person is too close to the customer and problem, and sympathy means they won't drive to make the sale.  The customer will love the rep that give them sympathy, but they'll buy from someone else because the rep has ceased to be a sales person.

-Ego/Drive is the indicator that the rep has to make a sale to feel good about themselves.  It's this drive that allows the successful rep to deal with the rejection any natural sales funnel causes.

-Too much empathy (turning to sympathy), and the rep won't be effective.  To much ego/drive without a level of empathy, and they'll come across as caring about nothing but the sale. 

The big takeaway from me is the concept of empathy turning to sympathy, and thus, a likable rep who seems viable in every other way not hitting their number on a consistent basis.  Go read the article, it's worth 10 minutes of your time to reset your view of the profile of a successful rep.

Bonus thought - As I think about empathy vs. sympathy in a sales pro and how I would coach to that, I'm immediately thinking of a money scene with Vince Vaughn coaching John Farueu in Swingers.  The text and audio to that is below, and I'm thinking the video clip should be part of any sales training program.

"Trent I don't want you to be the guy in the PG-13 movie everyone's *really* hoping makes it happen. I want you to be like the guy in the rated R movie, you know, the guy you're not sure whether or not you like yet. You're not sure where he's coming from. Okay You're a bad man. You're a bad man. You're a bad man, bad man."



Jason Lauritsen

I think that this sales profile is right on. Having been a "sales guy" before making the transition to HR by way of headhunting, this feels right and supports my experience of sales and of recruiting sales.

One caveat though, compensation design plays a huge role in the retention of sales people. You can have a great sales recruiting profile and hire to that profile, but if the compensation isn't designed right, you will still see the turnover.


Thanks for such an beautiful article....I work in BPO where we face many queries of the customers....So this post is very helpful in making me know my kind of customer and some ways are gather into mind on how to handle such customers.I have faced many issues while answering back to the clients when he/she is complaining....Sometimes We loose patients when they are complaining about small little things.

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