In 1994, I was a sales trainer for a financial institution. One of my customers was a double glazed window sales business in the United Kingdom and my task was to teach window salesman how to sell their product using a finance agreement to potential customers so they could afford to buy more windows.
Many of these window salesman had been successfully selling windows for years but, as competition was hotting up, sales targets were being increased and pressure was on to sell more product.
The most successful salesmen were those who convinced customers to buy more products on credit rather than those who could only win cash customers.
This meant it should have been easy to persuade the salesmen to use my credit agreements but I had a big problem.
At 25 years of age, I had no experience in window sales and yet here I was, trying to persuade hardened salesmen they should do things my way. Some of them were not very receptive to my lessons or advice.
My problem was credibility – or rather, a lack of it.
The solution, I discovered, was empathy.
The salesmen were reluctant to heed my advice because I had not walked in their shoes.
I realised what I had to do.
That evening I telephoned their regional manager and asked whether it would be possible for me to work a few evenings every week canvassing for window customers and learning how to sell their product. He agreed and provided me with the necessary training to begin my adventure.
After two months of knocking on doors and talking to customers; influencing, persuading and negotiating with them, I had sold three customers double-glazed windows and one customer a conservatory.
It was the conservatory that made all the difference as I had managed to sell it using the finance agreement to a customer who would not otherwise have been able to afford to buy the product.
When word got out in the window company that this ‘young man from the finance company’ had managed to sell a conservatory on finance, my phone would not stop ringing with requests for me to go and train salesmen how to do the same thing.
By putting myself in their shoes and understanding the challenges they faced I was able to adopt a different approach to selling finance. I was able to explain how to sell it using their vocabulary, their terminology and with experience I did not have two months earlier.
I was able to demonstrate empathy with their situation because I had walked in their shoes and gained the credibility I had lacked.
Whilst there are many techniques involved in the skill of negotiating in business, I believe demonstrating empathy is one of the most powerful.
This is because demonstrating empathy builds trust, helps you understand the other person and opens your mind to explore win-win solutions.
Whilst negotiation techniques are essential to sharpen our negotiation skill, demonstrating empathy, in my experience, is a founding principle that opens increased opportunities to negotiate and is therefore key to negotiation success.
Tony Kerley FCIPD, FInstLM