“Managers today need to be coaches.”

Veronika Traublinger
January 12, 2021

Read our interview with Shari Levitin as we talk about the importance of empathy in sales and how you as a sales rep or manager can train it

For those of you who don’t know Shari Levitin - you should. Shari Levitin is an energetic, wickedly funny sales guru, who helps sales teams bridge the gap between beating quota and selling with an authentic, heartfelt approach.  As the founder of the Shari Levitin Group, Shari has helped create over 1 billion dollars in increased revenue for companies in over 40 countries. Shari is the bestselling author of Heart and Sell: 10 Universal Truths Every Salesperson Needs to Know, a contributor to Forbes, CEO Magazine, Quotable, Inc Magazine, and Huffington Post.

We at Ciara were lucky enough to chat with her about empathy in sales and much more. Read on to learn more about Shari’s story, why empathy in sales is important, how you can train empathy, and how to overcome bad times. 

Prefer listening over reading? Check out our interview with Shari on YouTube here.

Before we start digging deeper into the topic of empathy in sales, can you tell us 1-2 sentences about who you are and what your journey has been so far? 

I joke to people I’ve been selling since I was 6 because I was the kid who used to do the magic shows. I was a terrible magician. But I actually loved performing, and, in order to perform, I needed to sell. So I went from door to door, and I did invite all the kids on the block to my magic shows and then puppet shows. I just always loved people. 

I went to college at the University of Colorado and thought I would go into law. I took a year off, which at first horrified my father, and ended up answering an ad in the paper. And it was a sales job. I thought it was a glamorous job. And in the end, I was the one who would stand in the front of the grocery store and invite people in for a timeshare presentation. And that was the first job I ever had. I joke about it, but actually, it was really fun. I realized I love talking to people, I love meeting people. And ultimately, I ended up in sales. 

You know it was like a paradigm shift for me. When I grew up, you were going to be a doctor, a lawyer, or marry one. At least in my world. And I thought, wow, you can actually get paid doing this. And then, as things progressed, I ended up meeting an amazing mentor who changed my life and really helped me to see that there was a process to this thing called sales and that it was really about connecting with other humans and building relationships. They taught me how to do that and how to dig deep and find out who they are and what kind of attributes you need — curiosity and kindness and empathy. And I started to become a better person. And my relationships in my life got even better, and I thought this is amazing. Selling isn't pushing a product. Selling is building relationships. And this was 30 years ago snd some of the people I sold to very early on are still friends. So I had a wonderful experience. 

I became a VP of sales about 20-25 years ago and led large sales teams in a couple of different locations, but my dream was always to start my own training company. So in 1997, we founded Livertin Group, and at that time, my goal was to really bring this heartfelt approach to the world of selling because there were a lot of high-pressure sales people, there still are, or people that just don't think about how to really connect but just pushing a product. They're not thinking about the human aspect of it. I started the company in 1970, and within five years, we went global — head-offices in Europe and India. I got to travel the world as a young thirtysomething. It’s been an incredible journey with certainly some failures along the way that we can talk about. 

I always tell people you're going to fail. I live in Park City, Utah, and I ski. And if you don't fall down, you're not skiing hard enough. And it's the same in sales. If you don't fall down as an entrepreneur, as a leader, as a seller, you're just not working hard enough. The idea is, you can lose the deal; just don't ever lose the lesson. Learn from it, move on, get better. You’ve got continuously to get better and stronger and brighter, and then the sky's the limit in sales. And that's why I love it so much. 

Awesome. I will definitely get back to failing later on. OK, then let's get started. I read, according to a HubSpot survey, 97% of people distrust salespeople. Why do you think it’s like that? 

Well, in fact, I read a Gallup report that said salespeople are the least trusted of all professionals. Second only the politicians. Now you’re in Germany; I’m in the US. So in our political landscape… 

It’s not only distrust in salespeople. It’s a distrust in information. You could say it’s the fault of social media if anyone has seen the Social Dilemma, but I think social media just expedited what was already there. 

If we’re going to get to sales people in particular: You know it can be the same in any profession, but in sales, there are certainly a lot of great sellers, and then there's a lot of sellers that either don't have the education or, quite frankly, they are lazy. I call it sales hell. We sort of default into these bad behaviors out of habit, ego, laziness, or lack of knowledge. I talk about it in my book. But I think really the biggest reason is either laziness or lack of knowledge. Particularly with now the internet and social media, it is really easy to just automate emails and hope something sticks. It’s that spray and pray mentality instead of really doing your homework. I mean, you got to do two things today when you’re prospecting and trying to meet with a customer. I call it: show me you know me and solve to involve. 

You have to do two thins when you're prospecting: Show me you knoe me and solve to involve." - Shari Levitin

So before I ever reach out to anybody or before anybody ever reaches out to somebody, for god sakes, look them up on LinkedIn. If you’re selling B2B, there are so many resources for you to look somebody up and find that commonality. Let them know you care. This is no different than what we used to do without the internet. Make it about them. I tell my son: be interested, not interesting. Make it about them. Show me, you know me. 

The second thing is you've got to solve to involve. The last thing you want to do is talk about your state-of-the-art platform. I think I’ve got 25 LinkedIn messages in the last 2-days, where someone wanted to set up an appointment with them or look at their state-of-the-art-platform. I'm not looking for a state-of-the-art platform. I don't care that you're number one on the planet, and I wonder why the heck I’ve never heard of you if you're number one on the planet. Nobody cares. What they care about is what you can do for them. Now, on the other hand, I've had people who really do their homework. Like, “Hey Shari, in chapter 5 of your book, you talk about such and such. You know we have a lot of other coaches and training companies we work with that are suffering from this problem. Is that something that you suffer from because I noticed in one of your blogs…” Wow! Now I might talk to you because you made it about me. 

So sales reps have a bad reputation because they are lazy, they don't do their work or they just don't know how. As leaders, we need to give them that education and training and process so that they can make it very specific about the customer in front of them. With all the noise today on the internet, I always tell people: You don’t even have to have a better product, but you do have to be different, and you do have to show me you know me. 

I think there are also people that see it differently. I actually just read a LinkedIn post today. This guy said that hyper-personalization is creepy. He compared it to going on a date and asking, “Hey, how was your vacation 2017 in Thailand.” Do you think it’s a thin line between being personal and being creepy? 

I think it’s like anything else: It all starts with intent and transparency. If I’m not stalking you for some nefarious reason. I just tell people like it is. 

I tell a story in my seminars about an incident where my husband absolutely swore he wouldn’t buy a car. We were going down to the car dealership, and he looked at me on the way down and said: “Listen, whatever the guy says, we’re not buying anything today.” We get down to this car dealership, and the sales guy comes out, silver-haired guy, and he looks at my husband saying: “I am delighted to meet you. I hope you don't mind, but I did look you up on LinkedIn. Why? Because I like to know a little bit about the people I'm going to serve so I can give you the best possible service. Also, if you don't mind, I just wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the volunteer work you do for kids with autism. My own child has autism.” And I got to tell you, the connection that happens for the next 30 minutes talking about autism... My husband took a look at me and said, “I think he has what we need here today.” We haven’t even looked at a car! But he set it up correctly. And I just think you've got to tell people. 

I had a conversation last night. I said, “Mike, I hope you don't mind. I was so excited to meet you, we have so many mutual friends. I looked on your LinkedIn, and I saw that you love animals and you work for the humane society and that you have 10 dogs.” And then I held up my own dog. And it was magic. So I don't find it creepy. Maybe somebody else does. I guess if you’re using it and you don't really authentically care… I authentically care. And if you don't authentically care, you have no business in sales. 

Yes, I totally agree. With the whole pandemic going on, everyone was telling that you have to sell with empathy now as you don’t know what situation they are in at the moment. But I have the feeling all that has changed was that sales reps were starting their emails with a sentence like “I hope this email finds you in good health.”

Oh my god, don’t even get me started about that. Right, this generic “I hope you’re ok during these uncertain times.” It’s like… That’s contrived empathy. Let’s call it automated empathy.

Do you have a tip for everyone on how to show real, honest empathy in such an environment without sounding automated?

Have you ever read any Brené Brown? She talks about vulnerability. One of the things she says is, we can’t have two versions of ourselves. So you don't have an at-work version of yourself and an at-home version of yourself. Particularly, when we’re working out of our homes. So people ask, “How do you cultivate real empathy if you don’t feel like it?” Because let’s face it, you're on eight zoom calls a day, and it's like, “Oh god, I really don't even care.” But I am a firm believer that, if you think about it, feelings create actions. If I have a certain feeling of love or empathy, I'm going to have a certain action. But the opposite is also true. Actions create feelings. And you can't have two versions of yourself. So, if I'm at home and want to cultivate my empathy at work - hey, guess what: let’s start at home. Let's start listening to our children better. Let's start listening to our spouses better. Let’s start being more curious. Let's start when we go to the grocery store with our mask on, actually looking in the eye of the person bagging your groceries and say, “Hey how are you doing?” You've got to practice empathy in every aspect of your life. 

How? How do I practice empathy? 

You practice it by doing it. You take more time to find out about every human that's in front of you. And you listen. It's like anything else. It’s like if you’d said, how do you learn to play the clarinet. Practice. Empathy can be practiced. And the more you practice it, the more you will cultivate. 

So if I want to become a kinder person, I practice kindness. I have been, particularly this time of year, saying, you know what, I am going to reach out to 3 people I haven't talked to in a year. Just like for no reason other than just see how they're doing. 

When the pandemic hit in March/April, and we realized oh my god, we’re like really on lockdown, we lost half of our business. I’m a keynote speaker. A lot of our revenue comes from doing big sales kickoffs. Anything that wasn't closed, cancelled. So our team got together, and we panicked a little bit. And we said, oh my god, how are we going to replace all that revenue? Thankfully one of the guys on my team said “I think we're asking the wrong question. Shari, you taught us this.” No, it's not about us. The right question is, we need to go to our customers and say, how can we help you without needing anything in return right now. That’s empathy. 

So we did a series of four 1.5 hour sessions. We brought in Jill Konrath, David Broecker, David Garrison, to talk about how to deal with the fear of the pandemic, how to manage your own emotional state. I interviewed Colleen Stanley for a LinkedIn live. We just did all of these free sessions, and we had almost 500 people show up. And then we started calling customers one-by-one asking: “How can we help? Can we do a lunch-and-learn? We won’t even charge you. You've been our customer and friend.” Within 90 days, we had more business during the pandemic than we had the entire year before because we were selling with empathy.

Great. We need more companies like that. Sales is really about helping customers. 

But I have the feeling the pressure is too high in sales. Imagine you're an SDR sitting in, let’s say, a 300-men company, and you have to hit your numbers. You have to book that many meetings, you have to close that many deals... You have to do mass outreach to actually be able to hit these numbers. How is it possible to combine those two worlds: being empathetic and helping customers, and hitting your numbers? 

You know, if you figure that out… There is no magic pill for that. I believe, again, it depends on the situation. It depends on the product you're selling. It depends on the technology you have. But it really starts with your mindset. I would always rather make less calls and less outreaches that are higher quality. And that’s the advice I would give to an SDR. But like I said, it really starts with your mindset and your ability to have high productivity too. See, I don't believe people ran out of time. You just don't have energy. We all have the same amount of time in a day. Elon Musk, the late Steve Jobs... they have the same amount of time that we do. The question is are you managing your energy and your productivity? 

I am a firm believer in taking time off. Every morning I do a little bit of yoga. I workout every day. And I tell my team the same. If you need to leave at noon, go to a yoga class, whatever you need to do, do it. We need to feel good to do good. 

Think about what you're putting into your brain. During this election, a lot of people in the United States got completely addicted to the news 24/7. I'm not saying that's a bad thing but I'm saying look at where you're spending your time. You know we’re better off reading than we are watching Netflix. I watch Netflix. But it is hard to have an on-off switch today. If you think about it, I grew up in the 60s and 70s. And back then, a TV show had a clear beginning and a clear end. It was a 30 minutes or 60 minutes show. Today, the internet doesn't turn off. And anything you want to read, do, watch, find out about is on there. And we get into a rabbit hole. I say: resist the rabbit hole. Because if you really stop and look how much time you're spending and are addicted to social media… Here is a tip: pick up your phone and look where you're spending your time. But before you pick up your phone, guess. How much time did I spend on Instagram? How much time did I spend on TiK ToK? And you will be shocked! Do it with your Teenagers, and it’s even more shocking!

I have an iPhone and at the end of the week, I get a summary of my average phone time and how high it is compared to the week before. And it's really shocking. That’s so much time everyday, and I could do so much more productive things in that time. 

That is the habit piece when I was talking about what are these default behaviours. A lot of times, sales reps or leaders know what to do. They’ve read it, they’ve heard it. But they don't do it. It’s this knowing and doing gap. I know what I'm supposed to do, but I don't why. The phone is a habit. I hear the ding, I hear the like, and I go to it. You want a usable tip? Turn off your LinkedIn notifications. Turn off your phone notifications. Or you will get distracted. Neuroscientists tell us there is no such thing as multitasking. It doesn’t exist. You're going from task to task to task and you lose productivity when you go from task to task to task. 

If you think about what all of these social media companies sell - they're vying for our attention. And that is a limited resource. So if you’re finding it hard to get it all done in your stress, that's the first place I would look. I'm not saying don't do it but make it a reward. From 6 o’clock to 7 o’clock I’m going to play around on my social media and I’m going to have a great time.

"Managers today need to be coaches" - Shari Levitin

But would you say then the sales management, sales leadership mentality has to change? So they actually offer the room for every rep to personalize the sales? That they say, ok, let’s not focus on the numbers too much. Of course there are some numbers we have to hit but we give you some room. It's not like you have to send that many emails or make that many calls. The quality is what we care about. And that you build really good relationships with your customers. So, is it a management problem? 

I mean look, the statistics are obvious. We just created a Frontline Management online course, some little self-promotion there. One of the biggest challenges is that what happens in the training and coaching process is duplicated in the sales process. 

I call it checking on instead of checking in. Checking on sounds like, “Hey, how come you didn’t meet your quota?” “Hey, what's going on?” 

Or are you leading with empathy with your sales team? 

We created for our clients 14 get-to-know-you questions. Before we ever even talk about business, we’re taking the time to get to know someone's inner world so we can affect their outer world. Because if I don't know what's important to you, Veronika, if I don't know that what you really want is to one day go to architectural school or one day you really want a great cabin in the woods… If I don’t know what drives you, how can I motivate you? 

Here's a great tip if you're a manager: I love asking reps, “If you had an extra $5,000 a month, what would you do with it?” And you've got to go and ask that question 3 or 4 times. And then what, and then what...? Because a lot of times, you will get this first level answer like “I put it in the bank.” Great, then what? And they may have not even ever thought about that. “Oh, I save up for my retirement.” And then what? What would you do when you retire? “Well, you know, what I always wanted to do is buy an RV and just drive around the country and see the world.” Now I’ve got the why. 

There's a great question from Tim Ferriss I like to ask people. He says: “If you could have a billboard that had any quote or phrase on it and you could shout it out to the world, what would it be?” And you'll find out what's important to that person. 

And then we need to ask management questions. We need to ask questions like, “How can I hold you accountable without micromanaging you?” “How would you like me to approach you if and when I feel like you're not doing all you can do?” Have those conversations. Managers today need to be coaches. We can’t possibly expect our reps to lead with empathy if we don't do it with them.

"We can't possibly expect our reps to lead with empathy if we don't do it with them." - Shari Levitin

What would be on your billboard? 

Be kind for everyone is fighting a great battle.

Awesome, love it, Shari. I know you always say salespeople have to find the balance between heart and sell. I love the expression. Could you maybe explain to our readers what exactly you mean with that?

We actually have a quiz that we do. It's called the Tony and Suzy quiz. There are two different types of sellers. And these will sound familiar to your readers, and you might even put yourself in a category. Suzy is super sweet. She is lovely. Everybody loves Suzy. And actually, Suzy's incredible in building relationships. You ask her something, she always over-delivers. She wants to get to know you. She actually does know your kids names, your dog's name... Your customers love Suzy so much, they like to invite her over for dinner. But when it comes to actually asking those difficult courage questions... You know like, “Why wouldn't you just implement this yourself?” Or “What other vendors are you talking to?” Or saying, “Ok, are we ready to sign up?” “Are you the decision-maker?” Suzy doesn't want to interfere with the relationship. 

I have a girl, and she's Suzy. She works for me. We were going to put her in sales but we can’t because she's such a Suzy. She said to me the other day, “Oh, I can’t invite Mike for another meeting. He's my friend.” I’m like - wait a minute. We can’t sell to friends? You don’t believe in the product? “No, I just don’t want to get in the way of the relationship.” That’s a Suzy.

I think I’m a Suzy too, that's why I’m in marketing and not in sales.

But then you got Tony. Tony is a closer. He’s going to get the deal. And I joke about Tony that the customer says, “How long is the implementation cycle?” and Tony says, “Well, how long does it need to be for you to buy from me today?” It’s like: Tony, Stop! 

Tony has too much courage. He doesn’t know how to build the relationship. 

And of course you want to find the balance between the two. I call it respectful assertiveness. You want to know how to build that relationship. I hate the term overcoming objections because you want to lead people and help them decide how to decide throughout the entire sales cycle. And I'm obviously talking more about AEs here than about SDRs as people taking all the way through. But you really want to be able to balance the two. It’s an art and a science. It’s both. Because there is neuroscience to help people buy. And you need to understand that. We need to understand how the brain works. But it’s also an art, and I forget it all the time. You know, I’m sometimes like, “Oh my god, I was such a Tony!” Or “I was such a Suzy!” If you’re good, you go back and forth, but it’s good to have that distinction.

Find out if you’re a Suzy or a Tony here. 

Let’s say I’m in sales, I know I’m a Suzy. How can I switch it off? How can I show more courage?

Well let’s go back to Brene Brown because I love this. If you look at the word courage, the latin root cour actually comes from the word heart. So if you have enough heart, if you care enough about your customers, about your family, you'll have the courage to ask the difficult questions. So here is what I would say to Suzy: First of all, structure is important. You've got to have a sales cadence, a sales process that you follow where you really craft your questions in advance. You really craft your plan, and you’ve got verifiers and a process for moving your customers through the pipeline. That takes the emotion out of it a little bit. So that would be step number one. 

In chapter 3 in my book, I say that there's freedom in structure. A lot of people think structure limits them, but it actually frees them up to follow a certain cadence in a certain process. 

"A lot of people think structure limits them, but it actually frees them up to follow a certain cadence in a certain process." - Shari Levitin

I don’t know if Mark Twain said this, but it's “action cures fear.” And if you're having a hard time mustering up the courage, I advise this, and it's scary: first of all, write down what’s the worst thing that can happen. Are you going to get humiliated and put on national TV for asking a bad sales question? What really is the worst thing that could happen? You might be embarrassed, and you might feel ashamed. But I can tell you once you write down the worst thing that can happen and look back, the only difference between a salesperson that’s 10 times more successful than you is they’ve been turned down more times. They've gotten more comfortable with the word no. 

Didn’t they say that the Beatles were told for years that their music would never sell? It’s persistence. And you got to believe in your product. If you don’t believe in your product you’re selling the wrong thing. 

After you made that list of what’s the worst thing that could happen, do this. And this is the hard part. Write down the ten people that are the scariest to you. That could really freak you out. What’s that relationship you kind of burned that isn't going well, but if you could go back to that person and have the courage to say I'm sorry or listen to their side... it would make a big difference in your life. Write that down. What's the worst thing that can happen? Miracles happen when you get out of your comfort zone. It's hard. If it would be easy, everybody would do it. Who's that one person that I want help from? That I really look up to? That, if I could get an hour of their time or if I could learn something from them, it would change my life? 

I’m going to tell you a good story about Jill Konrath. So, it was about 5 years ago when I started reading her books. She’s such a great author. I just always thought Jill was great. I was speaking at the NSA conference. Charly, who brought me there, said to me, “Is there anybody you want to meet?” It was my first NSA. And I said, “Well, if I could meet anyone, dead or alive, it would be Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, and Jill Konrath.” And he says, “Jill Konrath is over there.” And I was a little starstruck. It was like Mick Jagger was over there. “Do You want me to introduce you?” So I stood up and he said “You sit down. I’m going to have her come to you.” So an hour later she came over and said, “Hi, I’m Jill. I hear you want to meet me.” She’s got a glass of wine, and I said, that was the courage point, “You have to sit down. We have a lot to talk about. Please order a bottle of this.” 2,5 hours later, we’ve drunk a bottle of wine, and we’ve become dear friends. And she changed my life and became one of my greatest mentors. And wouldn’t I haven’t had that moment of courage... It changed everything. And it can happen for anybody reading this. Think about that one thing or person that could change your life. Once you start doing it, the world opens up.

That's really great hands-on advice. Will try to put it into practice myself. 

I promised, in the beginning, we will get back to your failures. I personally think it’s comforting to hear that even the most successful people had some failures. So maybe you can share your most significant or favorite one with us.

Oh god, there are so many. I could talk about the time where I got fired. I could talk about the time I made a terrible investment... 

Let’s take the first one because, unfortunately, I think that’s a pretty relevant topic for many people at the moment.

I’ve never talked about this publicly. I was pretty young and rose up the corporate ladder pretty quickly in my early 30s. I started as a marketer, became a salesperson and then had just gotten promoted. I was the youngest VP of sales and the only woman in the company. I was on cloud nine. I mean, imagine you are 34 years old, making more money than I ever dream I could make, already buying a home, a car... Again, I didn't go to law school, so you know, making my daddy proud was important to me. And I tried a prank at a Christmas party. 

So this was in the early 90s, just to give a bit of context. I was actually getting a huge promotion to run all of the sales and move to Hawaii for a particular company, which was like a dream life. Somebody came to me with an idea for a prank at a Christmas party, which, to me, just sounded kind of funny. But the way that the prank was, it had a little bit of a sexual connotation. And this was before people really knew about sexual harassment or there wasn’t a lot of HR departments... it was new at that time. Anyway, I thought it would be a funny joke. And one thing led to another. Everybody was laughing. They thought it was hilarious. There was, obviously, drinking going on at the Christmas party. And I was made as an example, and the entire executive team, including me, got fired. Again, I was on my way to Hawaii for this company. I was on top of the world. It was so devastating to me. Because I thought my success came from the company. I don’t think I had the confidence at that time to realize that I did that. It wasn't the company, but me. And I was so depressed for a couple of months. 

Everybody said, “You have to file a lawsuit, you have to do this…” But this isn't right. What I did right was I didn't buy into the anger and the negativity. I said: You know what, this was my fault. I should have known. And I'm not going to go after anybody or make it anybody else's fault. 

And then I realized that what I really wanted to do more than anything in the world was starting a training company. And then I started my dream. And it gave me the opportunity and the freedom to go and do anything I want. Everybody who worked in this company became my clients. It was the greatest thing that ever happened. You know there's the saying that everything happens for a reason. I don't know if we say it correctly. I think that when something happens, you need to find the reason. It doesn't find you. I can throw a pity party right now, and I can blame the virus, the president, the incoming president... I can find blame. That’s easy. You talk about the lazy way out? Find blame. You want to take the high road? Say, “What can I do to go forward?” And that was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I agree, everything happens for a reason. But if you're in such a situation, especially in the beginning, it’s hard to find a reason behind everything and stay optimistic. It's great that you had the strength to start your own company, and there are probably hundreds or thousands of companies and sales reps that are really thankful for this.

I was depressed for a couple of months. Trust me. I was listening to really sad music. There is a time of mourning. You need to feel the pain. When something bad happens we have to mourne. We have to honor the sadness and emotion. But then there comes a time to pull us together and have, what I think is the most important quality of a seller or anybody who wants to be successful, and that is resilience. What does resilience mean? Resilience doesn't just mean bouncing back. Resilience means learning the lesson and getting stronger and better.

Awesome. Great closing remark, Shari. I don’t have any more questions. So I think it’s a wrap! Thank you so much for your time. It was really inspiring talking to you.

Thanks again to Shari for taking the time to speak with us! If you have any follow-up questions, or are interested in learning more about Shari or her companies, connect with her on LinkedIn.

Check out the Levitin Group and Sharis book “Heart and Sell” here: