The ability to empathize can make or break a sales pitch or customer relationship in the best of times. In the wake of COVID-19, most of your prospects and clients likely find themselves in unchartered waters, and you yourself are probably under a considerable amount of pressure to salvage deals and adapt to a changing market environment. With such unprecedented levels of uncertainty in businesses across every industry, empathy—and the human connections it creates—is more important than ever, especially for sellers.
According to a 2009 study published in Brain, empathy “refers to the ability of an individual to understand another person's mental state in terms of emotions, feelings and thoughts, which is important for an effective interpersonal interaction.”
“Effective interpersonal interaction” is of course the bedrock of sales, which is why empathy, according to sales leader Todd Caponi, is the “sales professional’s secret superpower.”
Empathy can transform a routine sales call into a moment of genuine connection between people, helping a seller to earn lasting trust and influence. It naturally puts a salesperson in a customer-centric mindset, making them better at consultation and even identifying unspoken needs and creative solutions. It can also lead to more holistic pitch meetings, where a seller extends the conversation beyond the immediate stakeholder to decision-makers on related teams. This is why the best salespeople have always been those with the capacity to be deeply empathetic.
Empathy matters for sales leaders, too. Any high-quality leader has an uncanny ability to support others. This includes sound emotional reactions and processing as well as the ability to develop trust. In other words, empathy. Indeed, empathetic managers are more likely to cultivate loyalty, collaboration, and creativity among their teams.
The conversation around better leveraging empathy in sales has long centered on advice like being a good listener, being present, and allowing oneself to show vulnerability. While these are all important skills for a salesperson to master, one often forgotten, yet crucial ingredient is getting good, consistent sleep every night.
On average, you can assume 70% of your team struggles to get sufficient sleep. That’s a figure that’s only increasing during the COVID-19 crisis, with many new stressors in the world and the additional pressure that sales teams are feeling to help keep their companies afloat through budget cuts and hiring freezes.
While there is extensive research demonstrating that better sleep habits can help with improving cognitive skills and increasing focus, sleep is also key to experiencing greater emotional capacity, ultimately leading to being a more effective salesperson.
When someone is struggling with sleep debt — the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep — they’re more likely to see a negative impact on performance for tasks related to the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for executive functions. These tasks include the regulation of problem solving, reasoning, and processing emotion—which is crucial to empathy.
Sleep debt levies a particularly acute hit on emotional regulation. It not only disturbs the effective functioning of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, but it also reduces the functional connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala region of the brain, as well as wrecks havoc on the amygdala itself. The amygdala is the emotional rapid response center of the brain that controls many of our immediate emotional reactions. Sleep debt causes the amygdala to go into overdrive, causing us to be more intensely reactive to situations. As sleep clinician Michael J. Breus describes it, the prefrontal cortex “puts the breaks on impulsiveness,” acting as “a traffic cop for our emotions.” When you don’t meet your sleep need and this connection between these two regions of the brain is hampered, we become more impulsive and less thoughtful in our emotional responses.
Current theories of empathy hold that there are two main components. Cognitive empathy refers to the ability simply to understand another person’s feelings and state of mind. This underpins a seller’s capacity to predict a client’s behavior and intuit when they’re withholding information. Emotional empathy, on the other hand, occurs when you go beyond mere understanding of another person’s feelings to vicariously sharing in them. This could look like feeling distressed by another person’s anguish (what’s called ‘indirect’) or experiencing physiological arousal like an elevated heart rate at their anguish (what’s called ‘direct’). This sort of empathy can forge solidarity and tight bonds between teammates as well as managers and their direct reports.
A deep body of research shows that sleep debt can affect both components of empathy, with significant consequences for sellers and their managers. Sleep debt can impair one’s ability to read facial emotions, particularly angry and happy. Being able to pick up on these cues is vital for any salesperson who wants to better understand and serve their customer’s needs—imagine trying to read the room at a new business pitch without it. Likewise imagine a sales manager trying to identify struggling team members in order to offer them support without it.
Sleep debt has also been shown to hinder empathic accuracy, provoking conflicts in relationships. In a work setting, this spells trouble for collaboration and morale. Compounding this issue, sleep debt leads to a lack of trust in others, particularly in studies centered around deal-making.
On the flipside, adopting good sleep habits and reducing overall sleep debt by just eight hours has the power to increase a person’s empathic response by 30%. At the same time, it promotes countless other mental and physical benefits, like a 67% decrease in expressed negative emotions and improved focus, memory, and problem-solving. This is why there’s such a strong connection between more sleep and better performance; our study with a Fortune 200 company, in partnership with the Kellogg Sales Institute, showed an average of 14% growth in monthly revenue as a result of simply reducing sleep debt. In another observational study of objectively measured sleep and performance we ran with a bankruptcy law firm consultancy in partnership with the University of Washington, sellers increased weekly sales by 30% after implementing Rise. Improved empathy from increased sleep was identified by the company COO as the specific reason for the enhanced performance outcomes we documented.
Promoting good sleep within an organization is one of the easiest ways for executives and managers to improve sales metrics while showing their teams that they care, breeding greater employee satisfaction and retention. But what specific sleep habits should managers promote?
Sleep debt refers to the cumulative sleep a person has missed over a period of roughly 14 days, and it’s the metric that matters most to how you feel and perform. Keeping debt (how much sleep you’ve missed relative to your personal sleep need) down unlocks everything from stronger empathy to greater productivity.
Arm your team with this knowledge, and also make them aware of the role circadian rhythm plays: it dictates the natural ebbs and flows of energy that take place in the body over a 24-hour cycle. Understanding this pattern (and that it can shift over time) empowers team members to schedule important tasks like sales calls during energy peaks, and more passive tasks like checking emails during dips.
To fall asleep and stay asleep, make your bedroom cool, dark and quiet, like a cave. Set the thermostat to between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, ensure your room is dark enough that you won’t know when the sun comes up (we recommend a sleep mask), and wear earplugs.
Simple behavioral changes can help a salesperson transform the way they sleep and improve their performance. Aligning these activities with the energy peaks and dips of your circadian rhythm makes them particularly powerful.
There are many tricks to help salespeople get better sleep at night, and they all come down to reducing sleep debt and respecting the body’s natural cycles within the circadian rhythm. Once these concepts are understood, salespeople can unlock unrealized potential in their lives and at home, particularly when it comes to empathizing and building relationships with others.
Learn more about Rise for sales teams.