When I was young, I would sometimes help my uncle, the carpenter. One time, while trying to drive a nail into a two-by-four, I slammed the hammer down on my thumb.
Man, did that hurt.
It took quite a while for the swelling to subside, the sickening purple bruise to dissipate and my thumbnail to grow back, but all these years later, the sharp rebuke from my uncle that morning still resonates.
I was complaining about how my thumb was throbbing and what a treacherous tool he was making me use and how carpentry was a dumb job when he stopped what he was doing and looked at me.
“If you want sympathy,” he finally said, “you can find it in the dictionary between spit and syphilis.”
My uncle was normally a compassionate man, but that morning his empathy meter was running on low, leaving me with a sting much greater than the pain from my smashed thumb.
Empathy, defined by Webster as “the identification of oneself with another and the resulting capacity to feel or experience sensations, emotions or thoughts similar to those being experienced by the other,” can be a difficult skill to master for a professional salesperson.
Or anyone else, for that matter.
Like always-sympathetic, always-aspiring-to-higher-office Nelson Rockefeller, a man who was not afraid to die with his boots off.
For those of you too young or too busy (no doubt helping the world by posting one hilarious yet poignant bromide after another on Facebook) to know anything about Nelson Rockefeller, he was the vice president of the United States under President Gerald Ford (appointed, not elected) and was a lifelong progressive Republican (meaning he was a bit on the liberal side).
During a talk Rockefeller gave in the 1970s, when most families were pulling in around $5,000 a year, he defined the average American income as $100,000.
To Rockefeller, born to a rich, influential family (and yes, “30 Rock” is short for 30 Rockefeller Center, a huge complex in the middle of Manhattan named after Nelson’s grandfather), and who never had to work a day in his life, $100,000 was not a lot of money.
But to the average family, making $100,000 was unattainable, which is why people had a hard time relating to Rockefeller, and thus, his greatest achievement was by appointment, not the result of support from the average Joe, to whom he so desperately tried to relate.
Just like those prospects you’re having a hard time closing.
A couple of experiences lately have reminded me about the importance of empathy in the sales process. I’ve belonged to the same gym for more than 20 years, and my membership was due for renewal.
Without going into all the mundane details, mine was a corporate membership, so renewing it was a bit complicated. The health club had recently gone through a transition.
As is true of most gyms during this protracted period of challenging economic conditions, it was experiencing tough times, so the company restructured its debt and, in the process, the CEO stepped down.
I’ve been a friend of the former CEO for many years and I like and respect him. When we did business, it was always an interesting and enjoyable occasion, one I looked forward to.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take more than a couple minutes of talking to the new guy in charge of corporate memberships to realize things had changed and this was no longer going to be much fun. Without first gathering any information about me or how I felt about the club, he made it clear that he was the new sheriff in Dodge and things henceforth would be handled differently.
When I commented on how much I used to enjoy doing business with the former CEO, he told me that business was much better now and they were making money. This guy had no idea who I was or what I was thinking and he made it crystal clear that he didn’t particularly care, either. I was insulted and mortified.
Guess where I’m not working out these days?
Then there was a guy trying to sell his banking services at a networking meeting. He was talking to a roomful of business folk, going through the benefits his bank offered to small businesses.
As he went down his list of all the great bells and whistles you get with one of their super-duper business checking accounts, I was thinking I needed to talk to him. Some of the ideas he presented were cutting-edge, and I wanted to know more.
But then, in the middle of the his well-practiced, well-delivered pitch, just as I was getting all lathered up, he slipped it in, without any introduction or explanation, that, of course, you need to keep a small balance of only $2,500 to enjoy all these great features.
OK, I understand how banks work, that they want a balance in your account so they can use your money to make money while they throw you a couple of inexpensive bones to gnaw on. However, for most small businesses, $2,500 doesn’t fall into the “only” category of insignificance.
Here was a guy who spent his career working for banks, who never once woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat over how to make payroll, telling me (in so many words) that if I don’t have a $2,500 pittance to lay out forever, then I’m not worthy.
A little empathy could have helped both these boys in selling their goods. And empathy is not something you have to learn or fake; we all have it within us.
The trick is to dig down deep and find it. In order to do that, you’ll have to subjugate your own ego and needs, even if your pain-in-the-backside nephew is once again holding you up, like a howling, bleeding albatross around your neck.
Richard Plinke, author of “From The Jaws Of The Dragon” (available at www.fromthejawsofthedragon.com), is a sales consultant and professional speaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.