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Empathy or manipulation?

March 7, 2016

In an interesting article (To neither lose the customer’s respect nor become an ordinary salesman), Marcelo Rezende sets out the importance of building an empathetic relationship with a customer. He points to understanding the customer’s perspective and needs, pushing your own objectives into the background.

In many ways, Marcelo’s arguments reflect the traditional principles of good relationship management and certainly they mirror the behavior of many successful sales people. However, in an age where customers increasingly demand high quality results and outcomes, is this traditional approach sustainable?

The problem is that a business relationship is ultimately with an organization, not with the sales person. Yes, they may be an intermediary, but is their empathy actually a form of manipulation that will come back to haunt both supplier and customer? In other words, the sales interface may be highly adaptive in delivering a value proposition that the customer wants to hear, but is it reflective of what the supplier organization will actually do?

Unless there is real care, empathy can ultimately undermine trust. It may leave the sales representative seeing their role as being the customer advocate and their own organization becomes ‘the enemy’.

In many respects, this scenario is unavoidable. Sales are paid to sell; successful sales people need to relate to the customer and the customer’s needs; they will position the product or service in terms that represent value to the customer; this may create false expectations – indeed, those expectations are often dashed when the customer sees the contract (which is why many sales people prefer to be dismissive of the importance of terms and conditions and often leave their introduction to the last minute).

This is where we encounter the classic debate about ‘the contract’ and ‘the relationship’, with the sales organization generally anxious to promote the value of the former rather than the latter. Unfortunately, this does little to demonstrate overall business integrity and it also leaves contracts / commercial groups in a back-stop protective role. Even if the contract terms could have been adjusted to better reflect the customer’s values, they often are not, because the conversations that might have led to amendment were never held.

IACCM research has shown the benefits that can be achieved through closer partnering and earlier engagement between Sales and Commercial groups. Not only does this typically shorten cycle times, it is also much more likely to yield a happy customer and more profitable business. Empathy is something that must be embedded throughout the organization – not just within the sales department.


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