We are wired for empathy. It is critical in all of our interactions—including conversations with customers. An article from Harvard Business Review says, “We have physical structures in our brains—called mirror neurons—that help us understand others’ experiences and feelings” (


In the latest Voice of Value podcast episode, we explored this topic of empathy with Brent Adamson, Principal Executive Advisor at CEB now Gartner. In this episode, Brent shares his insight on the power of empathy in B2B marketing and sales.

Key Takeaways

[2:23] Empathy is not just a “soft” concept — it’s an incredibly powerful tool to achieve very practical outcomes.

[4:06] In order for sales and marketing to change the way a customer thinks about their business, we need to first understand how they currently perceive their business.

[5:08] Create a “roadmap to empathy” by developing a mental model that captures a customer’s commercial objective.

[7:30] A case study of how Xerox has applied mental modeling.

[9:40] There are multiple stakeholders—approximately 6.8—involved in buying decisions. Align on one mental model that everyone agrees to.

[12:10] Personal value drivers (status, image, seen as a change agent) can have an overriding effect on a purchase decision.

[12:50] In this world of consensus creation, stakeholders perceive value across three dimensions: identity value, professional value, and company value. Identity value is a very strong motivator to make connections with others.

[16:00] A company that appeals to identity value very well is Grainger.

[18:13] Customers are overwhelmed. The buying journey is difficult. We should be asking “what does it feel like to buy?” to foster empathy for the customer’s plight.

Value Mapping Diagram

Brent talks mental modeling in the podcast. Below is a link to a worksheet to help capture how your customers think (determine their mental model).

Value Mapping Worksheet

Thought Leaders on Empathy

We asked a few thought leaders to preview the podcast episode before its release. Below are a few of their thoughts on the episode and empathy in sales:

Dave Brock

President and CEO, Partners in EXCELLENCE

“We need to connect on a business level and on a personal level. This isn’t about making customers our friends, but it’s about learning what drives them as human beings. Maybe their motivation to solve a problem is to get their boss off their back, get a promotion, get a bonus, or let them be able to leave work to see a child’s soccer game. In a lot of my clients, they are worried about keeping their jobs . . . We have to distinguish between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is not a terribly useful thing to drive growth (personally/business wise),  but empathy enables us to understand where they are, what drives them, and envision how we can help them achieve (this is a much deeper discussion).”

Tibor Shanto

Principal, Renbor Sales Solutions Inc.

“In a world where products look similar, and buyers are overwhelmed, the major differentiator comes down to the ability of a seller to demonstrate and apply empathy with their buyer . . . As Brent states in the discussion with Chad, you cannot change a person’s view about what you sell until you can get them to change how they view their business, their objectives and priorities.  To do that, you first have to change how they view their business, thereby impacting how they prioritize their objectives.  That can only come through empathy.”

Tiffani Bova

Global Customer Growth and Innovation Evangelist, Salesforce

“The reality is that successful sales reps are not only prepared when they show up to meet with clients, but they are tapped into “EQ” – the emotional ques of selling. Today, sales is not only about what you sell, but how you make the customers feel when you work with them. The only way to do that is to be emotionally self-aware, allowing you to be more in-tune with what customers aren’t telling you. Using emotion to create action is a powerful way to connect with customers and build long term, meaningful relationships.”

Matt Heinz

President, Heinz Marketing Inc.

“Long story short, empathy is central to successful sales & marketing. Your prospect won’t care about your story until you prove that you care about theirs. This has to be genuine and sustained to be effective, but when done well and authentically it creates massive trust, preference and competitive differentiation.”

Jill Rowley

Social Selling Strategist

“Empathy is absolutely critical to successful sales. We need to always look at things through the eyes of our buyers/customers . . . TO be a great sales professional, you must #KnowThyBuyer and #BeTheBestAdvocateForYourBuyer.”

Bob Apollo

Founder – Value Selling System, Inflexion-Point

“The role of empathy in B2B sales is frequently undervalued or mischaracterized. Without it, any attempt to introduce a fresh perspective or to challenge the customer’s thinking is likely to fail . . . The ability to stand in the customer’s shoes and see how they view the world today must surely be a critical precursor to any successful attempt to reframe their thinking.”

Jonathan Farrington

CEO, Top Sales World

“Empathy is the magical word in the lexicon of human relations. It means feeling as the other person feels, not just with them. It means putting yourself in their shoes and shaping your attitudes accordingly.

Beyond getting the order, the plus factor in selling is to make people look good in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. Rather than sell to them, we help them buy.”