The Power of Buyer Empathy in B2B Sales

In Celeste Headlee’s now famous TED talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation” she says, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.”

Doesn’t this epitomize an ineffective salesperson or sales engineer? How many demos have you attended (as a buyer) where the “solutions consultant” wasn’t consulting at all, but rather going through the same demo they do over and over, almost entirely disregarding your specific interests or needs? How many sales conversations have you had (as a buyer) where you didn’t feel listened to?

For that matter, how often have each of us been the ineffective salesperson? As sales professionals I think we’ve all fallen into this trap ourselves from time to time.

It’s Not About You

If we were to peel back the layers of ineffectiveness in B2B sales, we’ll almost always see at the root this one problem and principle: as sellers we are too self-centered.

We are as Ms. Headlee describes, “listening with the intent to reply” rather than to understand. What are we thinking about while we’re supposed to be listening? We are thinking about how we’re behind on our numbers, about the next conversation two hours from now with a higher profile prospect, about what our next move is, about how we can handle that objection the client is bringing up (rather than fully understanding it first), about any number of things that are important to us and winning the deal. What we aren’t thinking about is them! The buyer and what they are thinking and feeling. About their journey. About what they are risking to even consider our solution. We unwittingly think that selling is about what we do rather than what the buyer does. And the irony is, selling isn’t about us, it’s about them.

What I’m advocating for here isn’t just about listening, it is about deeply understanding your buyers. Because when you understand how they think, what they want, and how they behave, you are equipped to help them. Selling isn’t about convincing, it’s about helping and enabling the buyer. But to help them, you first have to stop thinking about yourself and put yourselves in their shoes. This is what I call Business Empathy.

Business Empathy

One way to describe empathy is the ability to step outside our own experience and imagine the experience of someone else, from their point of view. I call doing this at work “Business Empathy”. Great business leaders have this ability to intuitively imagine the thoughts and feelings of their employees. It helps them make better decisions and take actions that engender loyalty. Great employees have the ability to imagine the thoughts and feelings of their leaders, helping them to deliver better collaboration and results.

We might call applying Business Empathy in the sales process Buyer Empathy.

In Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ novel Killer Instinct a law enforcement profiler remarks, “Maybe, to do what you and I do, we have to have a little bit of the monster in us.” In the case of a law enforcement profiler, they want to anticipate the next move of the criminal by understanding how they think.

Buyers aren’t criminals, of course (except when they talk you down to a 40% discount!), but what I’m suggesting is that as sellers, we tap into “the buyer in us”. Doing so can help us anticipate what they need, what they’re next move will be.

You’ll also know intuitively how to enable them and close more sales.

So here’s my challenge: the next buyer you encounter, forget about yourself, put yourself in their shoes, and imagine what it’s like to be them. Building this habit will completely change the way you think about sales, because you’ll stop selling and starting enabling the buyer, and that will make all the difference.