How to Develop Empathy

By Abner Littel

Before he decided to give selling a whirl, Martin Novich spent many years as a blue collar worker. After a brief stint in direct sales, he spent the next 12 years in the brokerage trenches of Wall Street selling on the phone. Now a seasoned veteran who knows his way around a dial tone, Novich shares his expertise in a new book, Success On The Line (AMACOM), and tells PSP readers how to develop the most important quality for success in selling on the telephone.

“In telephone selling,” says Novich, “you have to rely almost totally on empathy. I first discovered the power of empathy by reading poetry and novels. The writers really helped me to understand depth of feeling and I learned a lot about my own feelings from the vicarious experience of reading about others’ feelings.” That’s a good starting point. Understand your own feelings first. Then move out to trying to relate to someone else’s.

“After I found that understanding people was actually pleasant, I also found it to be lucrative,” Novich explains. “I caught myself enjoying people and they must have felt that because suddenly my world opened up and became quite a good place.” According to Novich, too many salespeople chase money when they should be looking for the motivation that comes from finding meaning in what you do. When you look for meaning, you naturally approach prospects with more empathy. You try to understand their problems and help if you can.

If help takes the form of a sale – well, who’s to argue with that?

How does Novich define empathy? In his book he says it’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s position. When you’re on the phone with a prospect or customer, and if you’ve done your homework, you should have established empathy from the start by asking questions, getting feedback, feeling that person out, discovering who that person is. Once you know whom you’re selling to, you can begin to feel what he or she will feel about specific business problems or about your product and whether it can solve those problems. “Know your prospect and use your empathy to anticipate the thoughts and reactions to your proposition. Empathy allows you to perceive the amount of influence your proposal has given you. It helps you sense the room, feel the audience and respond appropriately,” says Novich. “By refining your listening skills, your probing skills and your responsiveness to feedback from the customer, your closing ratio will rise along with your selling comfort level.”

According to Novich, empathy begins at home. “If they expect to have empathy for the customer, salespeople have to develop themselves into feeling people,” he states. “If a salesperson can learn how to have some compassion for himself and not get steeped in self-hate, then it’s no problem to face rejection or to feel how the customer feels. Everybody has a different capacity and I’m talking about mental and emotional. And if they have different capacities, how can you be 100 percent successful all the time? You can’t. All the motivational pieces that you read with such titles as, `How I made a million dollars…,’ ten times out of ten they aren’t telling you the truth. They’re hiding the rejections. Nobody talks about rejection. You’ve got to realize that it’s going to happen. You have to go in there with a positive basis anyway. But that’s only going to come as a result of your emotional capacity to understand the other guy.”

“To do that,” explains Novich “the first thing is how does this prospect make you feel? And that’s gonna come from two things: the power language that the prospect uses and the words themselves. Those are always two messages that you have to take and assimilate into one. If they’re contradictory, that’s not a bad sign. What that means is that your prospect is confused.

“The most important thing is, by words and tone of voice, how does this prospect make you feel? Rather than concentrating on the words, concentrate on how the words that the prospect is saying make you feel. Let the words sink in and then concentrate on your reactions.

Listen to your feelings by down playing (but not repressing) the intellectual process. By doing so, you’ll add supplementary confidence to the confidence you should have had when you went in. In other words, the feedback should add to your already confident feeling. This all takes milliseconds but it takes experience and skill. People have to develop that by themselves through trial and error, through talking to lots and lots of prospects, and through growing into the job.”