Knowledge & Insights

The Most Effective Client Engagement Strategy - Empathy!

We all have our COVID-19 story. Me, personally, I’ve been based in Brooklyn, having just six-months prior to the lockdown, moved back to NY from Australia. Being alone, in not the smallest of flat’s, but certainly not anything to write home about, I embraced the COVID-19 lockdown back in March 2020 by getting on Zoom calls with friends and family and joining online networking groups for happy hour drinks (some starting as early as 1pm – oops). For a while there this was enough (after I got comfortable with the whole being on camera thing). But after a few months, I started to reach my limit. The weight of uncertainty, the stress of getting sick, getting paid, and even getting toilet paper (strange one that) started to take its toll on me, as I’m sure it did for so many of you. I began feeling quite down and a bit depressive. I was alone and tired of my own reflection in the mirror (despite the glass of wine in hand), and so I quite literally took to the streets in hopes of some in-person, human connection and engagement. The streets were largely empty. It was ire, really. And time and time again, I would come home sadder, and more depressed than when I had left. No one would look at me, let alone talk to me. All heads were down. I was so frustrated. Hurt even. Then one day I thought, maybe their head is down because they’re feeling down, just like me. Maybe they were worried about their jobs, feeding their families, or educating their kids. I could understand this. These strangers signalled to me to ask the people in my life – my family, friends, clients, etc, how they were coping, how they were feeling, what they needed and what I could do to help. I felt for them.

That is what's known as empathy - the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives and to use that understanding to guide our actions.

I’m sure you’ve been hearing the word “empathy” everywhere at the moment. There’s good reason for that given what we’re all going through. But it has been widely talked about in the past as well. As a key ingredient of EI – Emotional Intelligence, it’s been spoken about by business leaders, educators, even politicians for decades. As a result of the pandemic, empathy and awareness, vulnerability, and compassion have all been cited as the most important qualities critical for business leaders to not only care for employees but also set the stage for business recovery and future growth. And without clients or customers willing and wanting to engage with you and purchase from you, you will not see growth. You will not survive. Pandemic or no pandemic. We can all "empathise" with that!

Empathy is what helps you to truly understand your client’s motivations, needs and challenges so that you can provide valuable insights and solutions that will make their lives easier, better even, essentially solving their problems (problems they might not even know they have).

No matter the industry, empathy is what helps you to build a deeper and lasting connection - resulting in repeat business, loyalty and word-of-mouth/referral business – exactly what most B2B and the AEC industry, especially, has been built on and thrives off (but maybe not forever - another matter, that).

In a recent research study conducted by Zweig Group, not to my surprise, and likely not to yours, relationships were named the “most successful marketing strategy used,” (though I would label this as business development, but that’s another article). Be that as it may, relationships are still considered an absolute must to acquiring projects from repeat and new clients.

So how do you do this effectively – in general? And now that we are largely tucked away in house, behind a screen, unable to make that human connection I spoke about earlier? What (new) skills are required, especially for someone not really used to having to be the business developer (think seller-doer model)?

There are a lot of skills and techniques that are important to effective client engagement, but few are as overlooked and undervalued as empathy. Until COVID-19 knocked down our doors, it was rarely discussed within the sales or marketing process, or within any form of training. But things have changed. Happy hours are no longer in a bar but in the bathroom. Clients don’t go to work anymore, and neither do you. We sit pantless in front of a computer screen trying to keep business operating like it always has. But it’s not like it always was, and likely won’t ever be again – not for you or your clients. I believe accepting this is what will help us all to navigate the precarious and elusive “New Normal.” And the "new normal" is a strange place. It not only requires getting comfortable with virtual communication, but for some, it may also require obtaining new skills and getting comfortable “selling.” But let me tell you, empathy is your most powerful tool if you wish to have more productive, more fulfilling client engagements.

As such, let’s start by taking a deeper look into what empathy is all about. According to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, empathy is “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions.”

That definition, in and of itself, is comprised of three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional and compassionate. Cognitive empathy, sometimes called “perspective taking,” is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. This insight is a great gift - if you know what a client (or anyone for that matter) is thinking, you can relay information a lot more effectively.

The second type of empathy is emotional empathy, which is the ability to share the feelings of another person. This type of empathy helps you build an emotional connection with others.

The last type of empathy included in the above definition is compassionate empathy. Beyond thinking and feeling, this is the part that prompts you to take action and help in any way you can.

Empathy is not the same as sympathy but is often confused with. Sympathy is the act of feeling sorry for someone else’s troubles, and in some ways, taking pity on them. As a result, you may express condolences and/or demonstrate concern. But empathy takes a little more effort. It requires you to imagine how someone else is thinking and feeling by putting yourself in their position and sharing how they feel.

So why is empathy so important to client engagement? You can only imagine! Luckily you don't have to.

To start with...

1. Empathy Helps Build Trust

Without trust, there is no relationship. When you demonstrate empathy, you are demonstrating care, leading clients to feel more secure; more trusting of you. One of the foundations of trust is being true to your word, being accountable and providing consistent and honest guidance and support.

2. Empathy Improves Your Questioning Capability

Asking great questions is a critical skill within any type of client engagement, and essential to developing relationships. Applying empathy helps you better understand someone, allowing you to pick up on cues that enable you to ask the right questions at the right time and uncover the information or insights that truly matters. What's more, when you ask questions, you naturally build a better rapport. Asking probing questions, questions that seek to gain a better understanding, demonstrates or signals to your client that you care, that you, in fact, listening and are genuinely interested. Of course, this leads back to trust.

Probing questions can help you build creditability with clients. These are questions like:

• Can you tell me more about that?

• Why is that important to you?

• How did that make you feel?

• What is the thinking behind that?

• Tell me more or can you elaborate further?

Remember this key point: the questions you ask make you far more credible than the things that you tell. Think about someone you consider to be an expert. I think of Seth Godin, for example. I consider him an expert in marketing and business strategy. And though he has books and blogs (short ones – 3-4 lines), gives talks, and lectures, etc., he asks questions, probing, slightly confronting questions of you within them. These simple, yet poignant, probing questions strike at the heart of the issue, making it more memorable than if he had just told you what to do. And this is his genius - impactful uncomfortableness that leads self-discovery!

An important point to remember is that clients don't buy because you've convinced them of a solution. They buy because they have convinced themselves of the need. Think about how this point alone affects your business development, sales process and approach; how it affects your marketing, how you design your presentations, pitches and proposals, etc! By asking intelligent, moving questions, you actually allow your clients to come up with the solution for themselves. And that solution should, of course, be you!

3. Empathy Helps You Become a Better Listener

Listening empathetically doesn’t mean that you are listening until you understand someone else or what they are saying. It’s actually listening until the other person feels understood because they have been listened to. (Which is where asking questions comes into play).

“The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.” – Stephen Covey

When clients feel “heard” and understood, they are more deeply connected. This is hugely powerful in relationship building – in person or over a Zoom video call.

4. Empathy Helps Define the Problem

When you understand your client, what they are thinking and feeling, you gain deeper insight into the emotional foundations of the client’s problem. For example, why, whatever the problem is, is considered a problem to their organization and to them personally. This, of course, then helps to you define and summarize the problem in the right language that resonates with them and makes them want to find a solution. You.

5. Empathy Aids in Defining the Solution

When you understand the real problem a client is trying to solve, you can easily provide the right solution and win the project.

For any of you who know of the "Jobs Done" theory, you may consider applying it here.

6. Empathy Helps to Win the Project

As the saying goes, "timing is everything in life." The more empathetic you are, the more connected and in tune you are with your clients’ emotional and psychological state to best know when the moment is right to ask for the project - strike whilst the iron's hot, so to speak! Getting this wrong could mean losing the project entirely. For any industry with a long sales cycle, the difference between winning and losing a project can, in some cases, result in remaining in business or closing your doors.

Don't let a lack of empathy be the reason you close yours!