empathy-led selling
empathy-led selling

empathy-led selling

September 13, 2023

I worked in higher education for almost a decade. And when someone asked me the infamous question “What do you do?” at a dinner or cocktail party, I could answer one of two ways. I could say: I work in marketing where it’s my job to sell the University to help boost enrollment. Or I could say: I work in marketing where it is my job to help families make one of the most important decisions and investments of their lives

These are two fundamentally different jobs. And that fundamental difference is also what separates great marketers from the rest. They sell with empathy. 


I could feel the difference in my interactions with prospective families depending on whether I was in helping or selling mode.

In selling mode, I tended to speak more, listen less, and ask less questions. I wanted to make sure I could squeeze in all of the school’s merits and accolades regardless of how the interaction with the family was going– barely catching my breath and my heart pounding inside my chest. I desperately tried to convince every family that we were the best choice for them. Any rejection or criticism about the school— I took it personally, as if it were evidence of my poor salesmanship. 

In helping mode, I always started with questions. I took the time to understand what the family– the student especially– was looking for in a university. It’s only once I fully understood their needs, fears and aspirations, that I told them about the university in proper context. I tried to act in the best interest of the family, even when their interests didn’t align with the University's, which meant that I was ok with letting the university “lose” in the short term.

Convincing people is hard. I am not even sure that we have the power to convince people to do anything they don’t want to do. I know I certainly don’t have that power. 

Most people are scared of sales because we associate it with the impossible task of convincing people to buy something they don’t want, need or can’t afford. But that’s not at all the job description. Selling is about educating, helping, and reassuring. It’s about making it easy for people to get exactly what they want. And that requires a great deal of empathy, humility and compassion. 


1. Empathize

Our job isn’t to sell but to help. Empathy-led selling starts with diagnosis and gathering of intel. It starts with understanding the needs, aspirations and challenges of the customer. So before we can sell anyone anything, we must ask a lot of questions to truly understand what they want. 

2. Educate 

Many times, we have to educate customers on the real problems they have because most of them come with symptoms to a problem they don’t understand, hence why they can’t solve it. Our job is to not only educate them on the root cause of their challenges, but on how our products or services could help them solve that real problem.

3. close the empathy gap

There’s an empathy gap between our customer’s present, dissatisfied, selves and their future, happy, selves. Our job is to paint a picture of a better future so vivid that it not only instills hope in them but also confidence. The focus here is to address your customers’ fears and aspirations.

4. Boost confidence

More than their longing to solve their problems, customers are often driven by fear of uncertainty. In most cases, they care more about not getting it wrong than they do about getting it right. So we have to reassure them, by boosting their confidence on the purchase they are about to make– free trials, guarantees, case studies, and testimonials, for example, are quite effective. 

5. Reassure

Empathy-led selling also means self-awareness and self-regulation, which both enable us to see objections for exactly what they are— a customer’s cry for help and not a personal rejection. Most NOs, at least initially, don’t mean NO. NO often means that the customer’s fear and uncertainty have not been appeased and that we still have work to do to close the empathy gap. Reassurance is also needed after we close the sale— when buyer’s remorse kicks in. 

One thing every great archer understands is that in order to hit the bullseye you shouldn’t focus on the target but on the process. Similarly, great marketers know that they only get what they want if they help customers get what they need. So they focus on the latter. They lead with empathy.

written by Junior Nyemb, chief empathy officer

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