What a Used Car Salesman Can Teach You About Empathy

He pushy pushed his way up to the stage. I had just finished presenting the keynote at Driving Sales, an automotive conference. He thrust out his hand and eagerly shook mine. I heard him say “… blah blah blah…. too often I am obsessed with pushing customers through sales and I’m not helping them buy!” Really!?! That forced me to pay attention. I hope that he didn’t notice me picking my jaw up from the floor. It isn’t every day that a used car salesman genuinely expresses deep concern for a customer. Most of us would rather have a no-anesthesia root canal than be invited to sit in the manager’s office of a car dealership.

He followed up during lunch. After introducing me to his wife and business partner, they told me that they were excited to make changes. My jaw still hurt but I had to pinch myself. I was impressed. During the presentation I challenged the auto dealers by telling a Buyer Legend story of a completely different car buying experience. In that Buyer Legend the dealership creates a play space, like IKEA has, where kids can be safe and have fun while Mom and Dad are kicking tires. They connected to the story, empathized, and decided it was a great idea to at least create a play space. I understand the science yet I’m always fascinated by how stories connect even when an avalanche of facts doesn’t.

The facts are overwhelming. There is little doubt that car buyers aren’t loving car dealers. Traditionally car buying has been a male-dominant purchase, but recent trends show that this is changing. Now more than ever, women are the ones buying cars. There is no doubt that the auto industry needs to make some radical reforms in their selling processes. Still, I have hope for dealers like this one. Even if it was based on the story I told, they were benefiting from the Buyer Legends process. It helped them to understand what the customer needs in order to buy rather than emphasizing a sales quota.

This doesn’t just apply to car dealers; it applies to you and me. Truly it applies to all of us.

In the book The Everything Store author Brad Stone quotes chief executive (CEO) Jeff Bezos on his selling philosophy: “Amazon is not in the business of selling books, we are in the business of helping people buy books.” That is similar to what I wrote in this column back in 2001: “…conversion rate is a measure of your ability to persuade visitors to take the action you want them to take. It’s a reflection of your effectiveness and customer satisfaction. For you to achieve your goals, visitors must first achieve theirs.”

There is a fundamental difference between working to sell more and helping customers buy more. When you focus first on selling that road veers toward shouting your message louder, increasing pressure to buy, overcoming objections, increasing exposure, in-your-face product placement, and online marketing devices like squeeze pages. Nobody likes to be sold, so please make it stop.

There is good news. Everybody loves to buy.

When you are helping customers buy what you sell, you end up creating systems and features that benefit your customers, and that benefit fuels word of mouth and repeat business. One only has to think about Amazon’s one-click ordering, its sophisticated wish lists, fast shipping, easy returns (the list goes on and on), to realize that these types of initiatives are part of a larger narrative that Amazon is always working harder to make buying easier. This approach sells more long term; even more compelling is that this approach is long-term sustainable.

The biggest difference between selling and helping people buy is the degree of empathy the marketer feels for the customer. Empathy demands that you think about how the customer goes about the process of buying and that you find ways to make it easier. Empathy begs you to help them make a more confident decision, remove their fears, and ultimately to allow them to make the decision that is best for them, not just for you. It doesn’t matter if you sell books, cars, diamonds, or a complex B2B enterprise solution – when you become an advocate for your customers you win hard-earned trust, and even if they don’t buy from you today that trust becomes currency in this increasingly transparent word-of-mouth marketplace. It’s hard to find a downside to this approach.

So where is your focus? Are you overly busy selling or are you trying to help people get what they already want from you?

Even empathetic marketers can get sidetracked by their efforts to sell more. I’m hopeful that you and your business can be more empathetic than a used car salesman. It’s not so hard to make your customer the hero of your Buyer Legends. It’s simple to do and doesn’t require more than a couple of hours. Try it and you’ll be handsomely rewarded.

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