Time is even more precious when you’re on your own; so focus on what wastes less.
I sent my first ever client proposal with my heart on my sleeve.
Just as relentlessly as a bad news cycle, I was rejected over and over again.
The same was true for my first article pitch.
And the first time I published under my own name (the response was…crickets.)
I stayed resilient but didn’t understand my failures. I sought advice, but pretty much everything, like networking and building a large social following, would take years to do right.
Disheartened and exhausted, I gave up for a few years.
It wasn’t until the pandemic that the best piece of advice I wish I had heard years earlier finally clicked — people aren’t going to work with a stranger unless they believe they truly get their specific, personal struggles.
In every interaction, you have to nail empathy.
LinkedIn told us at the start of the pandemic that only 40% of people nail empathy, but when they do, 88% of their customers see them as trusted advisors. Researchers at Harvard found that empathetic businesses are 20% more likely to beat out competitors.
Despite the numbers, I still didn’t take action.
I only felt an urgency to implement empathetic business practices when they were explained in terms of respecting both my time, and the person’s on the other side of the pitch.
The pitches I answer are from salespeople with subject lines including a solution to my most pressing problem. The digital products I buy are from writers whose articles make me feel like I’m sitting there naked.
I consider them worth my time because they prove they’re empathetic to my needs; I know they get me.
When you’re a time-crunched solopreneur, the best way to maximize your own time is by using empathy to prove you’ll do so for someone else’s.
We tend to talk about empathy like the weather; it either happens or it doesn’t, and it’s out of our control.
Empathy is to “understand and share the feelings of another,” and we incorrectly assume it can only happen if you’ve shared the exact same experience as another.
I might not be able to empathize with the pressure a man might feel to be tall, but I can certainly empathize with the feeling that my body is never enough.
I might not be able to empathize with the sadness a recent college grad feels over spending two years of her higher education in lockdown, but I can certainly empathize with the feeling that I missed out on a critical time in my life that I’ll never get back.
Empathy is all about finding common ground.
Research shows this practice will come more naturally to some than others — but it can be learned with a bit of practice.
I followed these five steps to implement empathy as a solopreneur, and eventually found success. I hope they help you too.
Step 1: Pay close attention to online signals
Years ago, I didn’t get my first job at Taboola. So, I moved on and continued my search.
A month or so later, I noticed a listing for the same role. I directly messaged the recruiter to tell her I had noticed the re-listing and was still interested.
She asked to book me for an interview on the spot.
She later told me my interview happened before she even looked at my resume.
She said she knew I was paying attention to the company’s needs by keeping track of their listings. That slightly empathetic move was enough to convince her I was worthy of an interview.
I took this lesson with me on my journey through solopreneurship.
The only companies I’d reach out to were the ones who showed signs of needing help: a formal contract listing, social media conversation, or clear turnover on their marketing team.
I implement this practice today by paying attention to the audiences of other content creators in my space. I spend time in the comment sections, forum threads and social media conversations happening around their work.
Topics that come up regularly are likely to resonate with my own audience, too.
Step 2: When you speak with someone, repeat what they say back to them
“In general, people don’t really want advice — even when they ask for it. They just want to feel heard.” Dave Kerpen, Fast Company
Despite just wanting to be heard, we rarely retain anything we hear ourselves. Most people only remember between 17 and 25 percent of what they hear.
Empathy requires that you retain and process what someone says through active listening.
Active listening is really hard, but you can hack it by repeating back what someone says in your own words. When you do this, two things happen:
- They’re impressed that you listened to, and understood them
- You buy yourself time to process what they said and respond empathetically
You have to be careful about this though — if you’re too obvious or direct, it’s annoying.
Saying a person’s name in conversation is a similar tactic, but I’ve heard pitches that included my name so many times I was cringing by the end. It’s nice to hear your own name, but it’s jarring if it’s overkill, and can immediately be spotted as a sales tactic.
Conversational repetition is no different. If we’re talking, and every time you speak I respond with something like, “so, you just said XYZ, did I get that right?”, you’re going to catch on fast and get annoyed with me.
Instead, say I tell you I’m having a hard time keeping up posting regularly on LinkedIn. You then tell me, “I can totally understand not being consistent on LinkedIn because I struggle with not being able to keep up with responding to Google reviews for my Etsy business.”
I feel like you listened, and you totally get me, even though we didn’t have the exact same experience.
Step 3: Solve problems without asking for anything in return
If you truly empathize with someone, you can’t help but want to help them. You’ve been there before. You’ve felt what they feel. You can accurately imagine their pain.
How could you stand by on the sidelines while they suffer the same way you did? And what luck! You’re selling the very thing that can solve their problem.
There’s just one issue; the second your conversation transforms from a venting session with a trusted confidant to a sales pitch, you look like you’ve swindled someone.
They start to think, “how did I end up here? This gal is good.”
To avoid stepping out of the confidant-zone before it’s appropriate, you want to offer help that doesn’t benefit you financially.
The finance industry is the best at this.
If you don’t know this already, you can get on the phone with any type of financial advisor at any point in time and get tailor-made advice for you. They’ll talk with you about tax best practices, how to balance your investments, and advise you on your budget — everything short of doing the work for you.
That’ll cost you.
But if they actively listen, and empathize with your financial situation, they’ll then share a solution that makes your heart ache with hope — and you’ll be that much more likely to work with them.
I always gave away one or two ideas in each of my cold pitches, and several more when I actually spoke with someone.
Here’s an example of one of those pitches:
This tactic works when pitching content too.
Before you craft a pitch or talk to someone, read through their website, check their social media, read Reddit or Quora threads, and find an immediate problem you can solve.
Solve it before they even ask you to, and prove you’re trustworthy.
Step 4: Only pitch people who want to be pitched
Imagine you and your partner just had a baby. You’re on parental leave, and you’re standing in your kitchen trying to figure out how to mix formula for the first time.
I call your cell phone to tell you about Google’s latest algorithm update, which will require you to update the content on your website. I’d like to help with that.
At that moment, you couldn’t care less.
You have in no way, shape, or form indicated that you’re interested in my advice. To make it worse, I’ve interrupted you as you try to solve a more important and pressing problem that I can’t help you with.
You’d see me as the opposite of empathetic; empathy would have been realizing no one likes a cold cell phone call. You’d probably never work with me after that.
You’re wasting your time as a solopreneur pitching someone that doesn’t want to be pitched.
Companies that cold call and email people successfully are playing a numbers game. Only 1 percent of cold emails are even responded to. You’d have to send 100 emails before even getting a response, let alone making a sale.
That game is impossible to win as one person, so only pitch people who want to be pitched.
- Only pitching media outlets that publicly say they accept guest content (and following their guidelines)
- Only pitching companies that have shared somewhere that they’re looking for help
- Only selling to people who’ve given you permission to email or call them
You’ll pitch less this way, but way more successfully.
Step 5: Own your mistakes when you make them
Retaining customers or an audience requires constant empathy.
This includes owning up when you’re the source of pain or inconvenience.
Telling someone you messed up might seem counterintuitive, especially if they haven’t noticed, but it’s actually the best way to retain them over time.
I once worked as a freelance writer for an agency that created content for companies in a variety of different spaces. At one point during my contract with them, I took on way too many articles at once.
Dazzled by dollar signs, I said yes to everything they offered that month. One week before my deadline, I sat down to do the work and realized there was no way I would have time for it all. There was also too little time to outsource the work to someone else.
In my email, I let them know I understood this would cause friction with their clients, and the severity of my mistake. I offered them a free article to make up for it.
I’m still friendly with that agency, and they frequently reach out to see if I’m interested in certain projects. I retained them with empathy by understanding the pain I caused them, and owning it.
Those that fail at implementing empathetic business practices usually are focusing too much on their side of the coin.
They think what’s most important is relating to someone using their own experiences, and as a result talk way too much about themselves.
The other person matters so much more than you in any business interaction, and when you forget that you fumble.
Solopreneurs have no time to waste on fumbles.
Use these strategies to infuse empathy in your day-to-day business practices, and ensure they happen less.