“We have a brilliant systems analyst, but we’re afraid to put him in front of clients,” an IBM executive told me. “He’s rude and arrogant. The minute he sits down he starts telling the client what he thinks they need – never asks what they think, or even listens.”
As anyone in sales will tell you, the best sales people take the time to listen to what a customer or client needs, and then offers a solution. That takes a combination of IQ and emotional intelligence.
Any effective sales person needs enough basic smarts to understand what she is selling – psychologists call this a “floor effect” for IQ. If her IQ is not high enough, she will fail. On the other hand, a high IQ alone is not enough to succeed in sales – you need social skills, particularly empathy.
Cognitive neuroscientists tell us there are three kinds of empathy, each grounded in a different system in the brain. All three play a role in sales success.
First, there’s cognitive empathy – understanding how the customer thinks about the problem. This means perceiving their mental models of the world, taking their perspective. This kind of empathy, I’m sure, correlates highly with IQ, but goes beyond – you’ve got to listen and ask the right questions.
Then there’s emotional empathy – sensing how the other person feels about what you are saying and doing. That’s where that IBM systems analyst flunked. Emotional empathy holds the key to rapport – being on the same page emotionally. It tells us, for instance, when a sales pitch is falling flat, or what excites – or scares – a customer.
Finally there’s empathic concern – caring about helping the customer. Studies by companies themselves of their star sales people find that the most successful don’t just make a sale – they manage the relationship so that the customer comes back again and again. That means building trust, not just rapport. It means actively helping the customer solve problems – becoming a consultant to them, so they feel you have their best interests at heart.
That’s why I’m unconvinced by an academic study that claimed emotional intelligence accounted for only one percent of sales success, while IQ alone made all the difference. These researchers should consider questioning the assumptions, relevance, and soundness of their measures – the findings fly in the face of what so many in sales know works.
Take, for instance, how a leader in healthcare IT responded to that same LinkedIn blog: “After a career lifetime of working with programmers, engineers, and even some sales people who were very bright but possessed the social skills of a set of car keys, I have come to look for and value people who can really listen, are sensitive to social cues, and can honestly put themselves in a customer’s shoes.”
And as an engineer at Microsoft put it, “The study only shows how production results correlate to emotional and cognitive intelligence. I would be very interested to see how the career advancement correlated. Do a study of these people and look at their advancement over time. My personal observation is that you might find the roles reversed even in fields like engineering.”
Ditto to both.
How we connect with people makes a crucial difference not just in sales, but in leadership, teamwork, negotiation – and in life. I’ll be joining a group of experts to detail the basic tools for connection – and if you could use some practice – or know someone who could – come connect.
Photo: Everett Collection / shutterstock