EPISODE 344: RingDNA’s Howard Brown Says Sales Professionals Can Avoid the Empathy Crisis by Doing This

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Optimal Sales Mindset Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on March 10, 2021. It featured RingDNA CEO Howard Brown.]

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HOWARD’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Are we in the midst of an empathy crisis in our “selfie-culture?” When I think about empathy, I think about helping people and helping people is so critical to the sales process because at the end of the day, our job as salespeople is really to help people make a buying decision. For me, the idea of empathy and sales, they’re not two separate things, they’re one thing. I love helping salespeople, I love helping revenue teams be the best they can be.  Empathy is the ability to understand somebody else’s emotions, their feelings and their situation and it’s critical. It’s critical in my relationship with my wife, with my children, with my coworkers and with my customers and it is critical because we all want to be heard, we all want to be understood and we want to be seen. It’s critical to human nature, it’s critical to trust, it’s critical to relationships.”

Fred Diamond: Howard Brown, you’re the CEO and Founder of ringDNA and we’re going to be talking about empathy. Again, we’ve been doing daily webinars at the Institute for Excellence in Sales since the pandemic kicked in and there’s been a couple words that have come up all the time – mindset, hence why we do a show every Thursday on mindset, preparation we talk about all the time, but the word that has probably come up the most is the E word, empathy, and we’ve seen the journey of empathy.

It’s ironic, right before the pandemic kicked in, we did a Sales Game Changers podcast and our guest who’s a Senior VP of Sales at LinkedIn said that we need to be empathetic sellers and a lot of people weren’t quite sure what she meant. Pandemic kicks in, everybody talks about empathy.

Howard Brown: I’m excited too, Fred, thank you so much for having me and thank you for inviting me to talk about a subject that is so near and dear to my heart. I’m actually, by background in training, I’m a clinical psychologist so the idea of empathy is clearly something that’s always been there and something I care about deeply. It’s important to understand what empathy is and it’s important to understand why we’re talking about it in the context of sales.

For me, ringDNA is a company that helps transform sales organizations, revenue organizations into high-performing teams and we do that by providing tools that integrate marketing information, sales information, customer success information and create a guided selling motion so that reps can perform at their optimal ability and managers can be the best coaches, they can be the best leaders possible. We do that by taking lots of data from these systems from our prospects, our customers and we deliver that in context to sales reps, to support reps to really help them better connect with their customers. That is critical, because at the end of the day it’s really about connection.

When I think about empathy, I think about helping people and helping people is so critical to the sales process because at the end of the day, our job as salespeople is really to help people make a buying decision. For me, the idea of empathy and sales, they’re not two separate things, they’re one thing. I’m really grateful you have me on, I’m a big fan of the show, big fan of you, I love helping salespeople, I love helping revenue teams be the best they can be. With that, let’s jump right in.

It begs a question, are we in the midst of an empathy crisis? I get asked this a lot because we’re, quite frankly, in the midst of a selfie society. Everybody is about “me” all the time, selfie was actually the fastest-growing word in the Oxford Dictionary, the growth of it was 14,000 times year over year. We’re all taking photos of ourselves, it’s all about me, me, me and evidence actually shows according to the personality and sociology review that empathy is decreasing amongst young people. In fact, narcissism is on the rise so it’s not just in sales, it’s in life. Look, I have teenage kids, we’re out there talking to people all the time and it feels like we’re bombarded with messages and it’s never about me, it’s always about you. I think we all feel that, we’re feeling that disconnect and quite frankly, the pandemic has done nothing to help that.

Sure, we talk about empathy as you mentioned, but what does that really mean? What are your thoughts, Fred?

Fred Diamond: The other key word that you had in the title of today’s program is conversations, we talk about a couple of themes that come up and you’re one of the industry’s leader in sales conversations. We talk about things like a perfect sales call is when a customer does 95% of the talking.

Yesterday we had a great guest, his name is Gary Milwit, he’s the VP of Sales from a company called JG Wentworth that does settlement related things. They engage in thousands of conversations a day and he made a great point. I asked him, “What is your advice for the salespeople out there?” He said, “Picture your customer wearing a badge that says ‘ask me about me.'” We spend so much time talking about this.

We have some comments coming in already. Robert says, “Just a comment, I love the concept of how to build empathy in a selfie society.” It’s quite interesting, we’ll talk about this in a little bit as well. We talk about LinkedIn a lot on the webinars that we do and of course, I’m sure you’re familiar with connect-and-pitch. “Hey, it’s nice to meet you, I can offer you some value.” I’ll accept the connection and, “I would like to schedule a calendar meeting to discuss this with you” and you’re right, it’s pervasive and it’s something we’re trying to help salespeople remove themselves from. This is a critical time.

Howard Brown: I think it’s really important to understand empathy, what is it? It’s not only critical to understand what it is, it’s critical to understand what it’s not and during the pandemic, I get tons of messages, “Hope you’re okay during these times, “I know how bad it is for all of us”, that’s not empathy, that’s sympathy. Sympathy has its place, but it’s very different than empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand somebody else’s emotions, their feelings and their situation and it’s critical. It’s critical in my relationship with my wife, with my children, with my coworkers and with my customers and it is critical because we all want to be heard, we all want to be understood and we want to be seen. It’s critical to human nature, it’s critical to trust, it’s critical to relationships.

A lot of people ask, “Aren’t you just born with it? Aren’t you born being sensitive, caring and understanding?” Certainly it can be modeled, if you have parents that are loving, nurturing and caring and are there, that’s an important piece but yes, we can teach it and we can teach it by modeling it, we can offer guidance and coaching around it so it’s not hopeless. So those selfie folks that you’re thinking about, they can be helped too.

Developing empathy, how do you do it? I use this example because it’s important. I have twin boys in my house and they love each other, it’s an incredibly special bond but let’s face it, they also fight and it’s typical. They get in the argument, something’s going on, they come running to mom and dad and they want to argue their points. This is a great opportunity to teach empathy and here’s how we do it. Rather than listen to each of them argue their side of the equation, what we ask them to do is essentially explain the story from the other person’s perspective. “Tell me what your brother is going to say about this situation.” It’s a game changer because what it does is it focuses them on the other person’s perspective, on the other person’s feelings, they’re not just locked into theirs. It’s really teaching them how to think about the other person.

Yes, they’re upset, they felt like they were done wrong, all of that but at the same time, allowing them to get into their brother’s shoes, into the other person’s shoes for a moment and seeing that perspective is incredibly powerful and that is one of the building blocks of empathy.

Fred Diamond: The other word that comes up a lot is service. One thing that we’ve been talking about a lot is the fact that if you’re in sales, you’re really in service at the end of the day. You mentioned before, it’s to help customers with the buying process so it’s a starting point with how you need to be thinking about what your job is.

We got some questions coming in but I want to go to this next slide which I think is critical to helping us move forward here. This has really gotten clear to me over the last year that we’ve been doing the daily shows, is the whole notion that we really are service providers and I don’t mean like we’re an IT provider type of a thing, we’re in the service of helping our customers achieve their goal. If you lose sight of that even for a minute, you’re toast. You’re going to get stuck into this rut of despair and you’re basically going to lose your purpose, I believe.

Howard Brown: You’re spot on. People ask me a lot of the time, “How did you end up being in the sales technology world?” As a therapist, I was about helping people, it was really about helping people reach their desired goal and a lot of times, people come in with a problem and the problem could be they’re drinking, it could be their wife, it could be their kid, it could be they’re smoking, whatever it may be. Yes, that is in fact a symptom but the problem is something else, the problem is much deeper. It’s critical to understand what is driving them and what the better version of themselves looks like.

As a therapist, you’re really selling yourself because they come in, they can meet with a bunch of different therapists but what they want to know is are you the person that’s going to help lead them to their promised land, their better version of themselves? And how do you do that? You do that with empathy, and what is empathy? How do you get there? You have to ask questions. You can’t project your experience into them, you can’t think that because you went through this, they must be experiencing the same thing. That’s called empathic failure, that’s called projection. Empathy is about listening to someone, asking them open-ended questions, understanding their perspective. If you do that and they feel heard and seen, that helps build relationships. Relationships help build trust, trust is how you win deals, trust is how you move deals forward.

I get hit up by everybody selling me something. My time is valuable, our sellers’ time is valuable, the people who are on this webinar and podcast, their time is valuable. If you’re not bringing something helpful to the equation, you’re wasting their time so you have to think about the other person’s time. Are you delivering value? If you’re not, you’re probably doing the wrong thing.

Fred Diamond: I want to follow up with something you mentioned, and I’ve got a couple of frequent listeners to the Sales Game Changers podcast and our webinars who said, “Fred, ask him about listening.” The word listening comes up almost all the time on every single show. I’ll ask our guest for advice and they’ll always say you’ve got to be a better listener. You mentioned ask questions, you’re an expert on sales conversations, you analyzed millions of them, hundreds of millions. Talk a little bit about how you become a better listener. I know you said ask questions, but if we could delve into that for about 30 seconds, give us some of your advice because I know people, even though they say, “I’m going to be a better listener” they’re still waiting to talk. It’s still like, “I’m listening, you’re done, now I can tell you about my features or I could tell you a story.” Talk a little bit about how you become a better listener in the sales process.

Howard Brown: I appreciate the question. I think it really is critical to any conversation if you’re not trying to understand the other person or their situation then you’re going to miss the mark. You can pretend to listen but if all you want to do is get to your point or win an argument or show off something, you’re about you. If your goal is to understand the other person, that’s where listening comes from.

Let’s talk about the difference between a yes and no question. “Are you having problems with hitting your forecast? Is your team having trouble achieving quota? Do you want to grow pipeline?” “Yes.” You’re not going to get much. How about asking open-ended questions like, “Can you describe what you think the challenges are with growing pipeline within your organization?” You’re going to get a different answer than a yes or a no. Asking people, “What do you think the challenge is with ramping your reps? How is your onboarding program structured? How do you identify when new reps need help? How do you identify when people aren’t asking questions?” These are open-ended questions that elicit longer response.

It’s great to get them to talk, but now I also have to show that they’re being heard and I need to ask clarifying questions. We talk about using reflective listening, what is that? You’ve described a situation, “My team’s not ramping fast enough, I think the onboarding program needs a lot of help, we don’t have structured plays.” As a seller, I might want to reflect back, “It really sounds like you haven’t invested the time, energy and money into developing a sales program. Have you thought about other ways that you might approach it? Is this a priority for the company?” Helping them feel like you actually hear and understand.

It also may call for a clarifying question, “I don’t understand, you say you have a training program, you say you have an education program, why isn’t it working?” It’s the ability to actually be curious, the idea is not just to document the pain, it’s to really understand it, that is a critical difference. If you go about your job and you are curious, you want to understand because at the end of the day you are a problem solver, if you want to solve the problem you have to understand what the problem is.

Fred Diamond: A lot of things that we talk about frequently, the whole concept that you never learn anything while you’re talking. The only time you learn from your customer is when they’re talking and what we’ve learned so many times, that customers appreciate your assistance more when they realize something versus hearing it from you. It goes back to one of our themes, if the customer does 95% of the talking then it’s a great sales call. What are your thoughts on that? I’m just curious with the hundreds and millions of calls you guys have analyzed.

Howard Brown: I think 95% may be over the top, but hopefully you’re a trusted adviser and you’re having some back-and-forth conversation. It depends, if I’m giving you a demo, probably I’m going to be talking 80% of the time. If I’m doing prospecting and I’m trying to understand whether or not our product/service is a good fit, I should be asking you a lot of questions, you should be doing a lot of talking, I should be reflecting what you’re saying and asking clarification questions. Ultimately, I should be summarizing and offering solutions. It’s more complex than just a percentage and that’s why we really believe it’s not as simple as you should be talking this much. It depends on the stage of an opportunity, it depends on what the relationship is like, it can depend on, “Is this a pricing discussion? Is it talking about setting up a pilot?”

There’s a lot of different types of conversations. Categorizing those conversations, understanding what stage they’re in. Is this current customer understanding whether or not your buyer is really asking you questions and you’re responding to them? I have a visceral reaction when I see statistics out there, it really is about the context of the conversation. That’s why we are huge advocates for reviewing your game film, listening to what the best within your organization do, listening to how they elicit others to talk about the situation, understanding how they prepare, understanding and watching how they demo, it’s so important.

Then role playing, have technology where you can role play and you can take the buyer’s side of it. Think the buyer’s side, put yourself in their shoes, give them every argument. Go back and forth and role play that, it’s so important. Make sure that you have a manager, a sales leader and a coaching organization that will not just give you blanket statements but work with you because we’re all individuals, we all need to learn how to communicate better. We all need to learn how to sell better, we all need to learn where our strengths and weaknesses are and if we have a coach and we are coachable, then we will improve.

This should offer hope to everybody that the sales game is about constantly improving and getting better at our art, at our skill. The beauty is we have all this science today, we have all this data, we have tools like ringDNA that present this thing to you in the moment so that you can be the best you can be. Sales rep, sales leader, find the tools, find the people who are going to make you better. Be an avid learner, learn from your prospects and customers, that is what I love about this profession.

Fred Diamond: Howard, we’ve got a whole bunch of questions coming in and I want to get to one of them right now. This may take you a little bit off the slides but I just want to get your thought because this is like the million-dollar question. It comes from Denise, I’m going to read some of the question and then I’m going to follow it up with something we hear frequently. She says, “I have a potential customer that I’m working with in Africa and this client is in a country with a lot of civil unrest. We’ve been moving down the path pretty well but now my company is more interested in me getting the deal signed than where my customer is.” That’s something that was a big challenge during the early part of the pandemic. We still have to sell and move forward, but customers – this is obviously an extreme in a country dealing with civil unrest.

What are some of your thoughts on sales professionals moving forward but dealing maybe with a customer that just lost a parent, or a customer who’s maybe in your pipeline, they’re critical but something related to COVID or the economy kicked in versus the company’s need to continue moving things through the pipeline? It’s a question that has come up a lot in the beginning of the pandemic, not as much recently but it’s still a challenge because we’re not all back to 100% on course dealing with life and sales as it might normally be.

Howard Brown: Very important topic and certainly one that I can’t profess to be the expert in. It goes to moral, ethical, obviously for me, it’s critical to work for a company that is focused on people first and customers first. I would urge people to find an organization, and hopefully they’re working for one where there is sensitivity to others. Yes, we all have quarters, we all have quotas, we all have that to hit but let’s not sacrifice ourselves as human beings, caring human beings, for the benefit of a short-term sale.

At the end of the day if your prospect or customer gets a sense that you don’t give a crap about them, then you’re in a transactional business. Chances are you may land that deal but they’re not going to trust you, you haven’t built a trusting relationship, you built a relationship that’s about you. When your competitor comes in and builds a relationship and they feel like they have a true partner, they’re going to win and you’re going to lose. It’s easy for me to say, we all need to earn money, we all need to help our companies grow, we all have quota, we all have targets but we’re also hopefully caring, loving human beings that want to connect with others. I believe at the end of the day if you do that, if you are helping as opposed to just selling, you will have an advantage over your competition.

This fits to the slide, look. People would rather be helped than sold to. When I go to a store – and it’s been a while, I have to admit – and I have questions, say I’m at Best Buy, I don’t want somebody to sell something to me. I want them to tell me the difference between this monitor and that monitor, what would they recommend and why? I want help, I don’t want somebody to ram something down my throat. I think we all want that, we all want to benefit from someone else’s knowledge, that’s why I’m investing my time in you as a sales rep because I want to learn from you.

I get hundreds of emails, we all do. I get hundreds of phone calls, it’s nonstop, my time is incredibly valuable as is all of ours. If you’re going to reach out to me, you better deliver value and you better quickly, because if all I’m hearing is about you and your product, I’m done, I’m moving on. Those days are over.

Fred Diamond: Martin says, “Thank you so much for that answer” and we were just talking here about the fact that sales is about helping people. One thing we’re seeing, Howard, I’m interested in your thoughts on this. Because of not just the pandemic – it was even starting before the pandemic, the fact that customers are finding information on their own or they have access to social networks and things like that – we’re seeing sales reps, the middle is getting a little bit fuzzier. You need to be elite to be of value to your customers and of course, there’s a lot of people in the beginning who are helping identify opportunities and communicating. Let’s talk a little more about how salespeople should be thinking about helping people here with the continuation of the empathetic conversation.

Howard Brown: What I love about the business that I’m in, it’s really about helping salespeople be better, it’s about helping organizations function better, it’s about using marketing effectively to take that marketing information at context, routing that prospect or customer to the right person that will help them. It’s about listening to conversations and in the moment – not after the conversation – providing them with props that will help them help their customers articulate their issues, help them identify root causes and problems, help them see a better version of themselves.

As a sales rep, I’ve got tons of distractions, I’ve got tons of different screens, I’m looking on LinkedIn, I’m trying to find out what’s going on with my prospect, I’ve got Slack that’s pinging me all the time. We believe that in order for you to connect with your prospect or customer, you have to be focused, you have to be prepared and you have to be trained. By providing teams technology that allows them to be the best they can be, that provides built-in coaching, that provides guided selling so that they can focus on the right prospect at the right time with the right message, that it’s a technology that’s listening in real time so that if the rep is talking too much or hasn’t asked the appropriate question, it will prompt them.  That is what I love about what we’re building, we are building a set of tools and a culture that is about helping reinforce what we know works in sales – empathy, questions, connection, trust. That is what is so exciting, we are taking all of this data and pushing it into machine learning, artificial intelligence, not to replace sales reps, to make them better, to augment them. This is about augmenting, to push your B and C players – I hate using those terms – pushing people who haven’t had the learning or the training to improve and be better quickly.

As an organization, my onboarding is not working, my reps aren’t reacting fast enough, they’re not hitting quota, great, we have the solution for you because you’re going to invest in people and you’re going to see those results quickly. That is what matters to organizations today.

Fred Diamond: Howard, who typically is your customer? Is it enablement, sales leadership, marketing or C-suite? Just curious.

Howard Brown: We sell a solution that actually helps the entire revenue operations organization, so most of the time it’s sales operations or enablement that are doing some outreach and looking for solutions, it’s a sales leader who has real problems in hitting quota, hitting their number. Marketing is complaining to sales that sales doesn’t get on their leads fast enough, sales is complaining to marketing that they don’t give them the right leads. We pull all of those systems together to help them work as one cohesive unit.

In today’s buying world there’s multiple influencers and decision-makers so we speak to marketing, we speak to demand gen, we speak to sales leaders, sales enablement, sales op, revenue leaders, there are so many people involved in the buying decision. The beauty is we’re able to help most of them. Whether or not people want to jump off and take down our whole platform at once, probably not, but we are seeing this move to revenue ops and why are we seeing it? Because teams have to perform better, they have to work as a cohesive unit, they have to take all this data and all these processes that exist in these different silos, connect them and benefit their customers or prospects. That’s what we do, and that is how you build empathy, trust and it’s how you grow an organization. Obviously, I’m a bit passionate about this.

Fred Diamond: It’s a brilliant solution and I applaud you for all the great work that ringDNA has done in the marketplace and how you’ve grown the company. It’s interesting that even some things that you’re saying here are still problems. There was, of course the quintessential Harvard article in 2004, Ending the War Between Sales and Marketing, the great Philip Kotler and Neil Rackham, and yet here we are at 2021, there are still challenges. I still see silos every day, but the great thing is there’s all the data now. If people in those leadership roles can agree on the data, then you can make the right decisions and then you could start working towards accelerating the path to revenue like we should always be challenged with.

Howard Brown: I talk about the similarity between Google Maps. Google Maps helps me focus on driving, it helps me get to my location without thinking about what streets I need to be on or where I need to make turns which keeps me, hopefully, focused on being a safer, more responsible driver. Conversation guidance, which is a tool that we use to help with empathy, with conversation, with connection, it helps you focus on your prospect, your customer.

If you’re distracted with all kinds of information, looking online and trying to find these things as opposed to being prompted in the moment or presented with that context, you’re going to be distracted, you’re not going to be the safest, most responsible driver in the sales process. Think about today and all this technology, are we using it to benefit our customers and grow ourselves or are we just inundated with more screens and more information? Let’s pull it together, let’s make our reps, our process better.

Fred Diamond: Howard, we have time for one more question and then I’m going to ask you for your final thought. A question here comes in from Jennifer, and Jennifer is in New Jersey, she’s a frequent guest and she asks, “Has being remote changed the need for data?” I think what she’s basically asking is – and Jennifer, tell me if I’m correct – is how has the fact that not just we’re remote as salespeople now but that our customer is remote as well, how has that changed how we’re consuming and using the data to manage and guide our salespeople?

Howard Brown: I think the idea of digital transformation has obviously been accelerated. Everything’s digital, everything’s online, we have footprint all over the place, we’re not meeting with people in restaurants, we’re not building that rapport, we’re doing things like Zoom, GoToMeeting or whatever your tool of choice is. Buyers are out there researching way more online about your product or service, they’re looking at social sites, they’re engaged with audiences all over the place. How do we deliver, on that limited amount of time and energy we actually have connecting with them, the best possible experience?

Yes, everything’s digital right now and a great amount of that transformation will exist post-pandemic. My expectations of what my customers need, my expectations of what I need as a buyer have changed. I want you informed, I want you educated, I want you to know everything about your solution, your competitor’s solution and my pain and if you can’t keep up, I’m moving on. People want to buy from people who take time, build rapport, build relationship. Empathy, trust is critical. Use this data not as a weapon to be odd with your prospects or customers, use it to be helpful. I believe in it, I think it’s important and I’m so glad you had me on the show to talk about this critical issue.

Fred Diamond: Howard, this has been great. Before I ask you for your final action step, I just want to acknowledge you for creating a company that has served so many sales professionals and sales leaders to achieve more out of their sales productivity to really take their careers to the next level. Every webinar and podcast we’re doing is designed to help sales professionals take their careers to the next level and help companies retain, motivate and elevate top-tier talent. I just want to recognize you for creating this company that has provided so much value to so many companies around the world to make that happen, so thank you. I want to know your final action step for people watching the webinar or listening to this podcast in the future.

Charlotte says, “Thank you so much for a wonderful presentation, this has been so valuable.” Neal says, “Thank you so much.” Richie says, “Thank you so much, Howard, I appreciate this, I look forward to listening to the replay and reading the transcript.” Howard, bring us home. Give us one final action step that people can do right now – or if they’re listening to the podcast, sometime in the future – to take their sales career to the next level.

Howard Brown: Fred, thank you so much for those kind words and thank you to the audience, I’m moved and touched. As a final parting statement, invest in yourself. Educate yourself, learn, grow, join things like the Institute. You do a great job putting on incredible content to help salespeople, organizations advance themselves. Join organizations like this, invest in tools that will help you, find mentors, find coaches, read all you can read, understand your customer and grow. There’s no better investment than investing in yourself, those are my parting words, hopefully they’re meaningful.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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