The topic of organ and tissue donation is dearly important to me personally, so when the opportunity to combine writing about this season and writing about sales presented itself I simply couldn’t resist! The topic is simply too freaking cool to not talk about. Did you know that April is National Donate Life Month?

I want to explain my connection to the world of transplantation and how this relates to sales, but first, let’s take a glance at some stats that give this month purpose:

  • More than 116,000 men, women, and children are currently waiting for a life-saving organ transplant

  • Another person is added to the organ transplant wait list every 10 minutes

  • 22 people die each day – almost one person an hour – waiting for a needed organ transplant

  • About 40,000 sight-restoring cornea transplants are performed in the United States each year

*All stats provided by Donate Life America

My connection to organ and tissue transplantation began in September of 2015.

My wife and I had recently moved from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Seattle area. She already had a position with a local school district as a 4th grade teacher, which left me to experience the distinct joys of applying to jobs day in and day out – creating resume after resume only to face the ocean of silence in return (perhaps I was being prepped for my time in sales!) As it turns out, there aren’t a ton of jobs for science graduates who don’t want to spend all of their time in a lab and aren’t committed to a healthcare graduate program.

Alex-Perkins-and-FianceMy wife and I had just moved to Seattle and little did I know the job hunt was training me for my future job as an SDR.

Enter SightLife; a non-profit cornea and tissue donation agency based out of the Seattle area. I can’t say I remember how I even encountered the organization, but I somehow stumbled across an open position they had for a Transplant Coordinator. The job seemed like a dream come true. I would have the opportunity to work in the healthcare field using the most marketable skill I had – a natural ability to connect with other people and communicate well.

I was going to be entering into some of the most delicate, sensitive, and painful times of a family’s life, mere hours after their loved one had passed away. It was enlightening to grapple with the question: “Do I have the skills and fortitude to guide families through the chance to give two blind people sight through cornea donation?

The position included a staggering amount of responsibilities and multi-tasking. I was going to be responsible for anything related to transplantation between the time a patient passed and the time transplant tissue was in house and ready to be prepared for grafting. This meant assessing donation suitability with medical staff, arranging the recovery logistics necessary, and, most importantly, approaching the families of recently-deceased individuals with options for transplant donation and guiding them through the donation process.

The position included a staggering amount of responsibilities and multi-tasking. I was going to be responsible for anything related to transplantation between the time a patient passed and the time transplant tissue was in house and ready to be prepared for grafting. This meant assessing donation suitability with medical staff, arranging the recovery logistics necessary, and, most importantly, approaching the families of recently-deceased individuals with options for transplant donation and guiding them through the donation process.

Following three rounds of interviews, an overnight observation, and going in the field to witness a cornea recovery firsthand, I was offered the position. After months of searching for a job I was overjoyed at the chance to be doing clearly impactful and meaningful work.

At this point, it’s helpful to take a step back and draw some parallels between this job and being in sales development (BDR, SDR, LDR, or whatever you prefer to call it). Although the context and the purpose of the business world and the transplantation world are different, operationally they run on many of the same principles.

First, when coordinating transplants and making cold sales calls, you are not being expected. It’s not a stretch to say that your call may even be unwanted in both situations. The recipient at the other end of that call is (generally) not seeking you out, and it is up to you to initiate that conversation in the way that best suits the needs of everyone involved. How will you connect with this person in a meaningful way when time is of the essence?

Second, in both roles, it’s up to you to quickly and concisely provide value to the person you are calling. Whether that’s providing new business insights or offering the chance to turn someone’s worst day into an opportunity to restore sight to blind people, it’s your job to make sure that the other person receives benefit in you reaching out. Can you prove that your call is worthwhile?

Third, it’s crucial to adapt to the level of understanding your audience displays in order to effectively communicate complex concepts. In any type of software sales (the sales aquarium I’m swimming in today), you are likely to be calling someone who does not understand the nuances of how your offering improves their success or makes their life easier – can you convey the complexities of how your software works in plain language that resonates with the challenges your prospect faces?

Similarly, transplant donation is a logistically intensive and time-sensitive undertaking – a typical family of an organ donor doesn’t have the benefit of knowing the extent of this ahead of time and is relying on you to be their guide while you navigate the process on their behalf. Can you communicate in a way that informs the family of the donor about the processes and impact of donation, yet without inundating them in complex medical terminology or logistical procedure?

Though the software sales world and the organ/tissue transplant world are very distinct, experiencing both has given me a unique perspective about one thing that has remained universal between the two – the key to impactful, successful communication is empathy.

At its core, empathy is this: The experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own.

Unfortunately, the social media era has done us a disservice by conflating the term empathy with sympathy. This has led to a general understanding of empathy (in the sales world) as disingenuous attempts at building rapport or establishing common ground. An extension of this confusion is that we (incorrectly) see empathy as vicariously experiencing what another person is experiencing. However, empathy when understood this way is not an effective tool in communicating well!


When coordinating transplants, I was often confronted with tragic circumstances. By virtue of transplant donation taking place after a death occurs, it naturally comes with the territory that you will witness the scope of human suffering firsthand. There were countless times I would be speaking with parents who had lost their children within a couple hours of speaking. Until you are present in that situation, there is nothing that can honestly prepare you for the rawness of entering that place.

The temptation as a person witnessing sorrow is to project those feelings onto yourself and your own experience. This is an entirely reasonable and good response, but it is not empathy, and it does not help you communicate well in those situations.

empathy-different-than-sympathy Empathy is different than sympathy.

Empathy in this situation removes your own feelings from the equation, looks at the experience of the other person, identifies that you are not experiencing what they are experiencing, and tailors your communication to resonate with them in the most helpful way possible and convey value in the way they will best be equipped to receive it.

In the situation where you are guiding grief-stricken family members through this process, empathy doesn’t mean projecting their grief on yourself, but rather understanding that they are probably experiencing confusion, instability, anger, or some other chaotic emotion. When this is understood, you are better-equipped to communicate in a way that is focused on providing something valuable – clarity, stability, peace, or whatever the situation may call for.

Although the emotional gravity of this isn’t as serious in sales, my hope is that you would experience and practice empathetic communication in the same way. The person on the other end of the phone may be experiencing a host of negative feelings and displaying them towards you, the salesperson. However, it will do you absolutely no good to vicariously project their feelings, especially negative feelings, on yourself. Rather, let what they’re experiencing inform you of what they need and ask yourself, “How can what I’m communicating meet their need?”

Here are a few tips towards cultivating an empathetic (again, not to be confused with sympathetic) mindset in sales:

Tip #1: Seek out time with people in your own company who mirror your buyers.

Get to know them, understand what success looks like to them and the challenges they face. Celebrate successes together. Ideally, you will have a chance to perform the job of your buyer and can speak their language first hand (not everyone will have that opportunity). The most practical thing you can do to accomplish this is eat lunch together. It’s often said the best salespeople have been the buyer they sell to in previous roles.

Tip #2: Spend time researching your prospects.

Not too much time, but enough to know who they are, what their role is, and ideally something about their company or a recent event that you can reference. Do as much legwork of understanding their experience ahead of time as is reasonably possible in a couple minutes. I never call anyone without having their LinkedIn or a previous note ready to reference.

Tip #3: Pursue well-roundedness.

If empathetic communication is dependent on understanding the experiences of others, then to be successful you will also need to have a broad understanding of the human experience. Read tons of books, have an artistic endeavor (mine is music and writing), exercise, and belong to a community of people whether it’s church, a synagogue, or a volunteer organization.

So what happened next?

My time coordinating transplants ended about 18 months after I began, in April of 2017. Although I was (and still am) highly passionate about the field, the incredibly long hours, nights, missed birthdays/holidays/anniversaries, and weekends took their toll on my personal life. As a result I transitioned into sales, where I was especially fortunate to live in Seattle, an epicenter for high-growth startups.

Some days I miss being on the front lines of the organ/tissue donation world, but the fruits that an increased attention to my home life have yielded more than make up for it. And, best of all, I will always have the pleasure of saying that 300 people received sight-restoring cornea transplants directly from the conversations I performed while on the job.

Finally, friends, I would urge you to please Register To Be A Donor Here. Your decision to donate lifesaving organs and tissues could forever change the course of dozens of people’s lives. Donate Life America has many tremendous resources regarding the topic of donation, including FAQ’s that are helpful in addressing any concerns you or your family may have.

Posted by Alex Perkins
Alex Perkins
Alex Perkins is a Commercial Account Development Rep for Bizible, a marketing performance management software company based out of Seattle, WA. When he’s not trying new ways to creatively break into some of the world’s largest companies, you can find him hiking the mountains of Washington with his wife, Waverly, or hanging out with his pet bunny Sprout. He may also be at one of his favorite Seattle breweries - in fact, there’s a good chance he’s there right now.

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