On Empathy and the B2B Buyer

5 minute read

Upland Admin

If you’ve read my previous two blogs, “Leaning in” and “Forcing a Choice,” you’ve been introduced to the importance of (1) understanding B2B buyers’ fears, (2) building trust and self-acceptance, and (3) managing a concrete choice between two distinct options. 

This week, we’re discussing “stepping into another’s shoes,” or empathy. Especially in the B2B world, there is a general sense that empathy (or standing in another’s shoes—with compassion) has less of a place. It sounds a bit “soft.”

Empathy in the Business World?

I would argue that empathy has even more of a place in the business world today than ever. Empathy is a feeling and by definition, “the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes.”

I will demonstrate the relevance of (and examples) of how expressing empathy in business can lead to moving a negotiation or sale forward.

3 Types of Empathy 

As Mark Davis explains in Psychology Today, the three types of empathy are:

  1. Cognitive empathy
  2. Empathic concern
  3. Personal distress

Empathy, when demonstrated in business, is often cognitive empathy, or taking on the perspective of another person. This means pretending you’re standing in the other person’s shoes, and learning to view a situation or challenge as they do.

On the other hand, empathic concern occurs when one recognizes another’s emotional state, feels in tune with that emotional state, and shows appropriate concern if it is a negative or distressful emotion.

Now that we have the definitions down, I’m going to illustrate how to use cognitive empathy or empathic concern to make connections with business people and move your project or deal forward. Personal distress (while not discussed here), can be used, too, but very selectively.

Decisions and Conflicting Opinions

As a professional behavioral expert and relationship coach, I learned a technique to explain cognitive empathy. This is useful when two (or more) individuals come to a crossroads in the decision-making process. It allows two people to—literally—step into each other’s shoes.

For example, imagine two people in an organization are deciding between two software products to purchase for HR and operations. Both people have opposing views about which product to purchase.

The two people sit or stand, facing each other. The coach stands to the side (and halfway between the two people). There is a specific topic of discussion or a decision to be made on the “metaphorical table,” for example to purchase X service or product for the company. One person is asked to express their point of view on the specific topic. The other carefully listens and observes what the person says, how he or she says it, and body language (open or closed). Then, they switch roles, and the other person expresses their (sometimes) opposite perspective while the first person listens and observes.

Stepping into Another’s Shoes

After each person has expressed their point of view, the two people switch physical positions. The first person talks from the perspective of the other (saying “I believe…”) so that they can understand where that person is coming from. Then, vice versa, the second person speaks from the first person’s perspective.

The role of the coach is to ensure that each person stays in (and speaks from) the opposite person’s perspective. This is a demonstration of “cognitive empathy,” allowing both parties to speak as if they are the other person, literally repeating the opposite perspective. In this example, there is a level of empathy, but it doesn’t get to the truly emotional space.

Going Deeper into Emotional Empathy

This concept—understanding the underlying emotional aspect of B2B purchases—can be applied in sales and customer marketing, when your current customers or prospective buyers are looking to churn, and are considering replacement products. You want to get to the behavioral pain points by accessing genuine emotion.

Ask your customers what they are currently feeling about the current product or service being used. Examples of feelings might be disappointment, frustration, stress, confusion, anxiety, regret, even anger. Try to get them to use feeling words, not cognitive explanations. You can  do this by providing examples.

Reading the Emotional “Temperature”

Next, give your buyers the opportunity to explain why they feel a certain way.

Ask them to share how it impacts their work lives and their everyday stresses on the job. How does the product currently being used impact their team members? What is the emotional “temperature” between the team in using the product (cold, warm, hot)?

As a marketer or salesperson, your job is to understand the emotional experience of your buyers and customers. Observe the language they use, their tone, and their body language. Step into their “emotional field,” understanding the deeper impact of your product or service on the day-to-day work lives of individuals and its impact on the team. Help each person reveal what a new product or service would relieve (disappointment, stress, frustration) and why.

Once you can empathize with your customers and buyers, you’ll be able to genuinely address their needs and concerns from an informed, empathetic perspective. And demonstrating that you understand their challenges will improve your relationship with your customers and buyers, encouraging them to listen to your perspective and move their decision forward.

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