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Mentalizing: The Seller Superpower of The Future

By Colleen Giblin | May 23, 2023 | 1 Comment

SalesSales EnablementSales Strategy and Leadership

You’ve probably heard some variation of the headline “AI is Coming For All of Our Jobs,” which has led many sales leaders to wonder what the rise of AI technology means for sales, and specifically the role of human salespeople.

Despite technological advances, sellers remain critical to high quality deals, thanks to a uniquely human skill called “mentalizing”. Elite sellers have already mastered this skill, but in the future it will be what separates humans from AI.

Mentalizing is the ability to infer unspoken beliefs, feelings, and intentions to predict and influence buyer behavior. It is an umbrella term covering a swath of complex skills such as active listening, perspective taking, emotional intelligence, and empathy.

Mentalizing is absolutely critical in sales because it enables sellers to uncover buyers’ underlying needs, motivations, and objections, even if not expressed explicitly. If the buyer’s mind were an iceberg, the top visible layer would be what they say out loud that can be taken at face value. The deeper levels invisible from the surface are what’s revealed by mentalizing.

Active Listening – What Buyers Say: At its core, the skill of active listening requires a seller to focus not on what he or she will say next, but to be fully present in the moment as the buyer speaks. This ensures due attention will be paid to what the buyer says, but more importantly for mentalizing, it enables sellers to respond pointedly in the moment to ask follow up questions or otherwise probe for missing information or desired elaboration throughout the course of the conversation.

Perspective Taking – What Buyers Think: Sellers must be adept at taking the buyer’s point of view, assessing what information they’ve already been exposed to and supplementing accordingly.

Empathy Hacking – How Buyers Feel: Sellers must exhibit emotional intelligence to anticipate the ways the buying journey might make buyers feel and adjust accordingly, particularly when it comes to bolstering confidence or nipping commonplace FOMU (Fear of Messing Up) in the bud.

Cognitive Decoding – How Buyers Will Act: Perhaps the most sophisticated form of seller mentalizing, sellers must be able to synthesize all the information at hand to predict how buyers will behave and adjust strategy accordingly to maximize the chances of a high quality deal.

One of the ways we at Gartner have seen this pan out in the data is through a construct we’ve come to call “value affirmation”. Value affirmation stems from interactions that help a buyer validate that a purchase is right for them and feel confident about the decision—in other words addressing how a buyer feels about a purchase decision. Value affirmation is important because it increases the chance of a high quality deal by 30%. And it’s not just any type of sales interaction that’s conducive to value affirmation. Value affirmation is more than twice as likely when working with a human rep versus a purely digital buying experience, thanks to the very human ability of mentalizing.

Is mentalizing uniquely human?

To find out if AI could truly compete, I went straight to the source (Chat GPT) who acknowledged, “While AI can be programmed to recognize and respond to certain behaviors and cues that might suggest a person’s mental state, AI does not have the ability to truly understand the mental states of others the way humans do.”

Where does this leave us in terms of hiring and training priorities?

For elite sellers, mentalizing already comes naturally, but psychological research suggests that those with average skills can be bolstered with regular practice and prompting. In other words, we aren’t talking about a skillset that is entirely innate—mentalizing can be learned and improved. There’s even an argument to be made that the skill of prompt engineering–that is, designing prompts for optimal responses from generative AI models like Chat GPT–is itself a form of mentalizing whereby sellers would need to use their perspective-taking skills to recognize the information that the language model is likely to have at hand and adjust requests accordingly.

Although mentalizing might be a uniquely human capability, it would be a mistake to view it solely as a talent issue.

The real opportunity here is realizing the situational impact of mentalizing opportunities—it’s not just about hiring people who are good at it or giving average sellers practice to become better. Rather, the buying journey should be constructed with mentalizing in mind, in order to maximize opportunities for sellers to do this important work discerning unspoken buyer sentiments.

For starters, the best opportunities are going to be in person (with the benefit of ample non-verbal cues and spontaneous interaction) or online with conversational AI as an aide.

Want to learn more about how to enable mentalizing on your sales force? Tell us in the comments and you could impact the direction of our future research notes.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

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1 Comment

  • You said, “Tell us in the comments and you could impact the direction of our future research notes.”

    Based upon my experience, I do foresee an opportunity for Augmented Mentalizing, where AI co-pilots enhance the seller’s ability to connect and engage with buyers on an emotional level by providing contextual insights that can enlighten the human.

    Furthermore, since self-directed Buyer Enablement occurs in the procurement process before Sales Enablement, I would hope that marketers are aligned with the sellers need to gain and apply this skill.

    Therefore, marketing manager and sales manager training and coaching will also benefit individual sellers that seek ongoing guidance, in order for them to truly master this skill.

    So, a concerted effort is required to improve high quality deals.