Today’s Lesson: Empathy = Active Listening

Carly*, a millennial sales executive in one of my workshops came back on day two beaming with pride.  She had implemented the “Empathy” skill we worked on the day before, but not in a business setting; rather in her personal life.

Here’s what happened:
Carly’s boyfriend worked in a restaurant and often came home at night with a complaint about the manager. Carly would offer advice often replying with “You should…” only for that solution to fall on deaf ears.  That night it happened again, and they talked about it.  This time, instead of jumping in right away with “you should” instructions, she adhered to the Active Listening process: Acknowledge, Clarify, Recap.
With a sweet smile on a beaming face, she proudly reported that after their conversation, “He looked at me with eyes like I’d never seen before.”
*name changed to protect her identity.

How did this happen and
what had she learned the previous day?

Sellers have been told since the beginning of capitalism:
Connect with your buyers! Build trust in your relationships to be successful! Show you care!

 What’s this all about? 


Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. 

Seems pretty simple, huh?  So, how do you practice and show it as a seller? Why is it important?

For some people, empathy is hard wired into their personalities. We all know someone who intuitively recognizes the emotional aspects of people and events around them.  They are sensitive souls who can “take the temperature” of a room and adjust their demeanor.  Friends seek them out for comfort or advice.  Unfortunately, it’s been my experience (and a little self-talk here), that most of these empathic people are not in sales.

If only it wasn’t true.

Most of us in sales have to work hard at empathy.   We struggle with getting into the minds of our prospects in our conversations.  We move in and out of opportunities because the prospect “doesn’t get it” whatever “it” is.

We realize only too late that we failed to truly understand the nature of the prospect’s goals, objectives, challenges and issues.  We are told to show empathy if we want others to open up about these things, but not how to do just that.  We are left winging it, and hoping for success.

Also, we are told over and over that buyers buy from people they trust.  We trust someone when we are convinced they understand our unique situation and feelings about that situation.  That is, we trust those salespeople – going back to the definition above – who shows they have empathy for us.

But try telling another person, “You need to show more empathy!”  I’m talking to you Sales Managers. They may agree, but they may also become either angry or withdrawn, feeling that you don’t have empathy for them!  They may also wonder, “How do I do that? How do I show more empathy?”

The Active Listening Process

At some point in a sales conversation, the buyer will complain about a situation or describe something they are trying to accomplish. Most sellers will then immediately go for the sale – attempting to solve the problem or describe their offerings as a way to achieve the buyer’s goals.


This is not only a bad move, but also dangerous to your sales cycle.  Just like Carly whose boyfriend didn’t listen to her whenever she tried to solve his restaurant manager issues without actively listening first, you are not showing empathy by reflexively going to your tool belt. You risk failing to build trust.

There is hope:  You can become an empathetic sales person who quickly gets to trust by employing a three step Active Listeningprocess.


Acknowledge the emotions of the situation.

While it sounds like the speaker wants you to fix it for them – and they very well may in the future – in reality, they mainly want you to understand how they feel.  “Acknowledging feelings” involves taking in their statements, looking at the “whole message” including body language, tone of voice, and level of arousal, and trying to determine what emotion they are conveying.  Then you let them know that you realize they are feeling that emotion by just acknowledging it in a sentence such as:
“Gee, I think I can understand how that might suck.”
“I can tell that’s really weighing on you.”
“Wow, yeah, that would be awesome!”

In a non-judging way, ask for clarification and detail.

This conveys that you are making a good effort to truly and deeply understand and not just trying to push your opinions onto them.  To formulate a relevant question in asking for more clarification, you will have to listen carefully to what they say. Frame your questions as someone trying to understand in more detail, perhaps even asking for a specific example. This also helps the buyer evaluate his or her own opinions and perspective. Some examples:
“What’s going on?”
“Did something happen today/this week/quarter?”
“How bad is it?”

Recap in a non-evaluative way.

This will allow the buyer to determine if he/she really got the message across to you, that you “got” it. It will also help the buyer become more aware of how he or she is coming across to another person, which may be clarifying for them.  You’ll show empathy by thinking about what the buyer is conveying and paraphrasing it back to them in your own words without judging the correctness or merit of what they said, and asking if that is what they meant. They will appreciate that you clearly took the time to listen first and again, that you “got” it.
“So, what you’re saying is….”


And yes, this three step Active Listening process for building empathy and earning trust, is not only a SalesReformSchool lesson, but a life lesson.  Just ask Carly.

Supplemental Material:

The response to my initial email was heartwarming.  Thank you for the many notes of congratulations on finding or returning to my passion.  I read this article this week that would have been instructive months ago.  Call, text, email, tweet or whatever at me if you ever want to talk about this stuff.

Extracurricular Activity

A sweet and fun movie on Netflix on finding or re-finding your passion.

That’s all for today.
Good Selling!

Through SalesReformSchool, I am available to you for Sales Process Design, Sales Messaging Creation, On-boarding/In-boarding Sales Team Workshops, Keynote Addresses, Facilitation, Group or One-on-One Coaching, Pipeline Reviews and other Sales Management Consulting.

Re-Launching SalesReformSchool

I’m Back! Let me explain…(an open letter)

I’ve had some changes this year.  I’m writing today to explain why and give you an update.

Early this year, I had just recovered from very successful back surgery and thought it a great time for a re-invention. So, I joined an exciting startup and put my consulting company SalesReformSchool  and this blog on ice.

This summer, though, I realized a few things:  I wasn’t having as much fun as I expected, and surprisingly, I REALLY MISSED my SalesReformSchool business.  I missed working with an array of exciting and energetic companies, and I missed helping smart people from different walks of life improve their sales skills, and really, improve their lives.

So, after having a great conversation with our CEO, we worked out a separation. I’m proud of my work “in the laboratory” of a startup. I built a sales playbook including an ideal customer profile, sales process, and messaging tools, reached out to hundreds of targeted accounts, and we even closed some deals. At the same time, I am also totally energized by my re-launch of SalesReformSchool.




Funny thing – the same day I made the decision to leave, I also received a referral from a colleague for sales consulting work.  I’ve already closed and delivered the initial engagement and have a verbal on a second Statement of Work.



And the karma continues

Then, Manish Singh, my client and Executive VP, Sales, Solutions & Client Services at Oversight Systems – wrote this killer LinkedIn recommendation last month for me:

“Adam is an excellent sales coach and mentor for sales leadership and team development. At Oversight, Adam’s sales training and coaching was key to the team’s overall development and success. His guidance was extremely helpful in cementing our sales strategy from initial client conversation to deal close. Adam contributed significantly to various aspects of our sales process including sales messaging, collateral development, one-on-one pipeline reviews, overcoming client objections and managing activities within a stage as well as between stages of our sales process. As a direct impact, our sales team put up unprecedented growth and record quarters. It was a pleasure to work with Adam and I would absolutely recommend his services.”

So, I am Re-Launching SalesReformSchool

The Oversight Systems engagement was ideal and one I expect to replicate over and over again with other clients.  My success has always been based on referrals and direct contact with smart people who realize the need for customized sales on-boarding and in-boarding.  To that end, one of my strategic initiatives is to have regular correspondence with my network, including you.  Please subscribe!  My communications will always have some connection to sales – perhaps a lesson or a story from the field.  I hope you’ll find my notes useful.  I promise not to over-communicate; my intention is one or two per month.  Is that too much?  Please let me know. Of course, if you don’t want to receive SalesReformSchool emails, please tell me. I will unsubscribe you ASAP from this list.    

Today’s Lesson: In my professional life, I have met very few successful people who aren’t also well read. Whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, business blogs, whatever, they read. So, here’s a book recommendation for both beginners and veterans who want to be seen as trusted advisors to their buyers. I devoured it, and I think you will, too.

joshua princ   The Joshua Principle: Leadership Secrets of Selling

The Amazon description:

Joshua Peters is a salesman in crisis – after losing a key deal his boss threatens him with the sack and he has doubts concerning his choice of career. His father is a sales veteran who progressed all the way to CEO but with their relationship at an all time low he struggles to help. Then a mentor’s invitation from the other side of the world powerfully transforms everything as Joshua’s RSVP sets him on the path to discovering leadership secrets of strategic selling. He applies the principles to the biggest and most complex deal of his life and his journey culminates with a powerful meeting that finally reveals The Joshua Principle.

That’s all for today.

Good Selling!

Adam signature

Don’t Be a Cart-Firster

I’m a guest blogger, too!  Check out SalesReformSchool “on the road” by reading Uncool Sales Practices: Don’t Be a “Cart-Firster” — my first post on the KiteDesk blog at

KiteDesk Goes to School

Sean Burke, CEO of my client KiteDesk, wrote this blog post   – about our work together. If you sell to other businesses and need new customers, get to know Kitedesk and tell them I sent you. KD

Are You Giving Good Phone?

Do you give good phone?

Today, I called a stranger to buy football tickets.

I had found the nice lady on the other end of the phone through her craigslist “for sale” posting.  She had suggested in her listing that interested buyers text her to check availability.  I did, and after she responded I called her.  After introducing myself, I told her, yes, I wanted her tickets and asked her the price.  I then told her the price was fine and that I intended to take my daughter for her 20th birthday.  To my surprise, she said, “You sound like a nice person” and proceeded to knock $15 off the price.  SOLD!IMG_3515

This conversation got me thinking about two pieces of advice on telephone conversation behavior I often give participants in my workshops and coaching sessions:

Be nice and even though you have prepared for the conversation with some sales messaging tools or script, be yourself.

Salespeople often need something from the people we talk to on the phone such as access to others, time on a busy schedule, or any of the many little agreements it might take to make a sale.  The people on the other end of the phone are people too and deserve your respect as human beings. So, be nice.

And be yourself by letting people see the real you, that you have quirks and vulnerabilities  (I need these tickets to bring my daughter birthday happiness).

They may do something for you in return for you giving good phone.

Go Falcons! RISE UP!!

SalesReformSchool is a consulting company that educates its clients in three areas: Sales Process, Sales Messaging and Sales Behaviors. Clients improve through workshops, one-on-one or group coaching, keynote addresses and consulting engagements. Interested? Contact Adam Shapiro at or 404-798-8397.

Where do you go to School?

I have been a member of a Vistage Trusted Advisor group for four years. For me, the best benefit of Vistage is not the valuable business contacts, but rather the opportunity that paying attention to the speakers gives me for real growth and improvement.  I don’t have an MBA. Instead, I attend the graduate business school of Vistage. (Side note:  Our group is also a safe place for announcing success without feeling like we are bragging.)

Here’s one example of Vistage as MBA School. I taught a private workshop over two different half days last week. For this workshop, I customized my materials to fit the client’s sales process, sales messaging and sales behaviors so we could truly implement a sales culture.  In the past, I’ve been cocky enough (surprise) to believe that I was keeping my audiences’ attention throughout my workshops, and that my stuff was going to stick.  Even still, a little voice inside my head always worried that I wasn’t doing enough to insure success.

About 10 days prior to this recent workshop, our Vistage chair Larry Hart brought in Dr. Stuart Zola, Ph.D to speak to us on the “The Challenge of Dual Realities.” Along with introducing us to impressive concepts about memory retention and time, Dr. Zola went through Tony Buzan’s the Most Important Graph in the World. I won’t do it justice here, but the long-story-short is that in any story, episode, presentation, speech, meeting, or even just a list, we remember certain things better than others due to their nature or placement within the event. It got me thinking – any time you have a major presentation/sales call/speech – make sure to respect the MIG!

Hmmm… I knew that in less than two weeks I had to do a workshop in front of more than a dozen 20-somethings (and 17 total), and I was worried this could quickly devolve into an episode of Short Attention Span Theater. So, over the next week, I reviewed my slides, exercises, stories, notes etc. with the lens of the MIG – The Most Important Graph.  I made a few changes and Whamm-O! – I felt bullet proof!

No little voice this time.

Primacy – check.

Recency – check.

A couple Von Restorffs – Check.

An important point repeated throughout – check.

Did it all work out?  Well…

After Day 1, the Sales Manager  – the guy charged with making things happen post-workshop – sent me this note:


Thank you for a great session today. The feedback from everyone I spoke to (most everyone) was extremely positive…I learned a lot and I appreciate it. See you tomorrow.

And then this:

Very early on Day 1, I showed the It’s Not About the Nail video.  Definitely, a Von Restorff item, and maybe early enough to cover “primacy.”  Early the next morning (Day 2) a young woman reported to the group how in the past she reacted to her boyfriend’s complaining about his job by immediately offering up “fixes.” Well, the previous night he complained again, but this time she first showed empathy, “I can totally understand how that would bother you,”  as portrayed in the video and the first sales behavior – Active Listening – that I introduce. She said his face lit up warmly like never before.  The group started razzing her that now she needs to get ready for him to “put a ring on her finger.”


That was real growth, and it nearly brought a tear to my eye.  Imagine how much better she will be on sales calls when a prospect brings up an objection or a concern!

Was it the Von Restorff effect or Primacy? We’ll never know. I do know, however, that Day 2 was a breeze because I was confident I had implemented the Most Important Graph in the World. And I learned it from Dr. Zola thanks to Vistage.

So, check out the MIG and Vistage and ask yourself: Where can I get further schooling?

Your First Sales Process

I recently gave this “101 level” sales process presentation to the executive team at a small B2B technology company who wanted a launching off point for their sales culture.  Immediately, they saw how sales process improves on-boarding, forecasting, meeting planning and customer relationships.  Thoughts?

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