I was in Poland on business when word of the $700 billion meltdown in the United States financial markets hit. I tried to understand what it meant for me, and then I sent a barrage of e-mails to my financial advisor. I bet, as with you, he was inundated about what to do from hundreds of clients. Instead of being irritated by the peppering of e-mails I sent to him, and instead of spouting the “sit tight” routine, he did something that research shows makes up to a 20 percent difference in the sales of a financial advisor: He reacted with empathy. He looked at the subtext of the e-mails, not the content, and then responded.

“I can tell from all of your questions that this has got to feel scary, and I’m not sure what this means in the long term, but for right now, I think you’re in as about safe a financial place as you can be.” We went on to make a plan to meet and discuss the new landscape.

If you care about how much money you make, research shows that it pays big dividends to be good at empathy. It’s the ability to understand, even feel, what another is going through. It’s a simple but disarming skill and far too many professionals lack it. For those of you who think it’s a weakling’s soft underbelly, you’re wrong, and it’s likely you’re selling less than your empathetic counterparts because of your lack of the skill.

During the ’90s, Kate Cannon proved it. She took a group of salespeople at American Express Financial Advisors through emotional intelligence programs in an effort to increase sales. She discovered that one of the most impactful skills for advisors is empathy. When advisors used empathy while selling life insurance or disability, they were up to 20 percent more likely to get the sale when compared to those who went at the sale with a purely business-only approach.

Empathy is a skill you can learn and improve. To get started:

  • Be truly interested. Ask about their interests. Ask what needs and fears they have about getting where they want to be.
  • Listen to understand, not to respond. Figure out what a client is really saying by assessing all the clues they give you about their discomfort, anxiety, even distaste. Ignore these messages at your own peril.
  • Acknowledge what you think they’re trying to tell you about how they feel about what you’re saying: “I know you might have a bad taste about life insurance from prior experiences, so let’s take this slowly and go back over anything that feels wrong to you.”

If you care about making money, you’ll do well to care about caring.