emotional intelligence in sales

Many of our important decisions in life are influenced by both emotional and rational attributes, and often, the pull of the emotional is what rules the day. This simple truth goes a long way toward explaining why it takes more than just intellect and know-how to be a high-performing salesperson. As Daniel Goleman noted in his groundbreaking book, “Emotional Intelligence,” research shows that up to 90% of performance effectiveness is due to emotional savvy rather than technical knowledge or skills.

Just as emotions can affect a salesperson’s behavior, they also affect a customer’s buying behaviors. It’s been said that 95% of purchasing decisions are motivated not by logic but by unconscious urges, the biggest of which is emotion. That’s why, time and again, we see that high emotional intelligence, or EQ, can make the difference when it comes to building lasting, high-value customer relationships.

The good news is that, while your IQ is fixed, your EQ can be developed. And it’s worth the effort. Being able to navigate relationships and social networks, influence people and manage your own emotions will have a direct impact on your productivity and sales success.

Self-aware, emotionally intelligent sales teams build trust, collaborate more effectively across functions, and gain greater respect from their colleagues and customers alike. These strong relationships form the foundation for long-term client loyalty.

Let’s Start With What Emotional Intelligence Isn’t

There are a number of common misperceptions about what it means to be emotionally intelligent. Some salespeople assume it means being pushover, which they know can be the kiss of death in sales. For others, outdated attitudes persist about what effective sales is all about. They think selling requires a confrontational, almost adversarial approach, and that it’s about being tough, even arrogant.

The term emotional intelligence itself can also create resistance when people get hung up on the concept of talking about emotions in business contexts. Depending on a person’s Behavior Style, this can be a tough mental barrier to cross.

However, emotional intelligence isn’t about being “soft” or just “being nice” or giving in to whatever the customer says. It’s simply another way of talking about relationship skills and building trust and rapport, which are the lifeblood of sales and essential to continued success in the role.

So What is Emotional Intelligence in Sales?

Emotional intelligence gives you the ability to monitor and discriminate between different emotions and use that information to guide your thinking and behavior. It helps you deal with your own responses in business interactions so you can be more effective not just in how you interact with others but also in how you manage your own day-to-day actions and activities. As your emotional intelligence increases, you’ll make better decisions and you’ll be more likely to follow through on them.

Emotional intelligence is made up four core skills that fall under two primary competencies: personal competence and social competence.

The Four Emotional Intelligence Skills

Self Awareness

People with high emotional intelligence are more self aware. They’re tuned in to their own emotions and can recognize them as they arise in response to an action or situation. Salespeople who have this self awareness are able to handle situations and problems more effectively because they understand the consequences of those inner feelings and attitudes in terms of how they affect their productivity, relationships and performance.

Self Management

Once you have awareness, regulation of your emotions is the next step in emotional intelligence. Consider how often we know what we should be doing and yet still don’t do it. The reason for this is that when emotions and rational thought are in conflict, your emotions will win if you don’t take steps to regulate them. That’s just human nature. When you have self awareness and are then able to manage your emotions, you’re much less likely to make hasty decisions or unproductive choices. It will also allow you to keep your emotions in check when dealing with challenging situations or people.

Social Awareness

Salespeople who are sensitive to the emotions of others are able to pick up on what might be going on under the surface — for example, the client’s fears, skepticism, inner conflicts and other emotions that could play a major role in their decision-making. When you seek to understand how others are feeling, you can then empathize, give helpful feedback and motivate them from a perspective of their wants and needs.

Social awareness also fuels curiosity, which is a critical success factor in consultative sales. Emotionally intelligent salespeople are driven to understand what matters most to their clients, and that, in turn, builds trust, respect and loyalty. 

Relationship Management

Social awareness is one of the building blocks of effective relationship management, which is so essential to successful sales today, especially as deals become more complex and buying groups become more diverse. Emotionally intelligent salespeople are able to navigate these relationships so well because they communicate in ways that meet the other person where they are.

Just as important, they focus on listening to understand. They become valuable, trusted resources to their clients because they can help synthesize these different priorities and interests, mediate disagreements and walk the client through effective solutions that address their specific needs.

In fact, the value of EQ extends beyond the sales conversations to the overall customer experience itself. A customer who experiences emotionally intelligent service is likely to become loyal to the company because their engagement with the brand has been heightened and enhanced by this personalized, human interaction.

In addition to the four skills, there’s another pivotal benefit that comes from high emotional intelligence: personal motivation. When salespeople understand how their emotions impact their performance, they can begin to see that it’s up to them. There may not be much that they can do about the external challenges they face, but they do have full control over their own emotions, attitudes and behaviors. That’s extremely motivating and empowering. With greater emotional intelligence, salespeople will remain more focused on their goals, more resilient and better able to get past obstacles.

Building Emotional Intelligence in Sales Teams

As with any initiative you want to take hold within your sales organization, this has to start with sales leaders. Since they’re the ones who set the culture, they need to model the behaviors they expect to see in their teams. With emotional intelligence, this is particularly powerful because sales leaders with high EQ make better coaches and leaders overall. They apply those same skills that help salespeople build trust and respect with their clients to create more engaged, loyal teams.

Because coaching plays a critical role in developing emotional intelligence, it’s important that sales managers are equipped and held accountable for this aspect of their job. As coaches to their sales team, they need to:

  • Have a clear understanding of the emotional factors that drive sales behaviors
  • Go beyond tactical and numbers-based conversations (managing) to coaching conversations that help salespeople recognize for themselves what’s important to them, what’s holding them back and how they can get to the next level
  • Through words and behaviors, communicate to salespeople that they genuinely care about their growth and success, which will also serve to model the behaviors salespeople should be exhibiting with customers
  • Help salespeople move past self-limiting beliefs by seeing more in them than they may think is possible for them to achieve

The need for emotional intelligence in sales also reinforces the need for sales training to go beyond just selling skills. Buying is emotional. It’s often filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Salespeople have to be able to recognize and adapt to those underlying emotions that can ultimately play a huge role in the sales process. That means training has to help people learn how to pick up cues about a customer’s emotions as well as their Behavior Styles, how they communicate, what they value and what they’re concerned about.

In addition to learning how to adapt and respond to their customers’ emotions, salespeople need to learn how to stay attuned to their own emotions, as well as how those emotions are impacting their results and what they can do to overcome their own mental barriers. Training should set the stage for further and ongoing coaching in these areas with the sales manager.

There’s an additional side benefit of developing emotional intelligence when it comes to your training efforts: It helps the learning stick. People with higher emotional intelligence don’t give up when they aren’t able to master or retain new skills and concepts immediately. They know they have to keep practice and keep building. High emotional intelligence enables top performers to push outside their comfort zones and actually apply new skills and knowledge.

The Power of Emotional Intelligence in Sales

Since emotions are inextricably linked with the buying process, connecting with customers on an emotional level gives salespeople a distinct advantage. Salespeople with higher emotional intelligence:

  • Have better listening skills and are more genuinely curious. They talk less, ask better questions and think more strategically.
  • Are less likely to give up, which is increasingly important in the context of the persistence it takes to generate new customer meetings
  • Can negotiate and handle objections with greater confidence and conviction. It’s not surprising then that they have a 15% higher close rate, per Harvard Business Review.
  • Have much bigger networks they can tap into and get more customer referrals.
  • Stay in their roles longer and enjoy their work more because they are tuned in to what’s driving them and what’s most important to them.

These salespeople also deliver enormous benefits for your customers. They ensure that their customers’ true needs are being met and that they’re getting value that is meaningful to them. And that’s what elevates your salespeople from vendor to trusted advisor status and long-term partner.

About the Author
Randy Leiker
Randy Leiker

Vice President, Client Development

With almost 30 years of experience serving the insurance and financial services industry, the last 10 focused on the contractor...
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