Why Empathetic Marketing Can Give Customers An Amazing Experience

In this inaugural episode of the Rethink Podcast, Act-On CMO Kevin Bobowski interviews Brian Carroll about his research into Empathetic Marketing. Brian writes for the B2B Lead Blog, and is the author of Lead Generation for the Complex Sale. After a stint at MECLABS as chief evangelist, he’s back to helping B2B marketers execute and run lead generation programs and optimize their existing lead generation efforts.

In this podcast, Brian talks about how you can provide your customers an amazing experience through the not-so-subtle shift of asking how you can help – instead of telling them how you will help. This transcript has been edited for length. To get the full measure, listen to the podcast.


Brian, I’m really excited today to talk about this topic you’ve been working on. It ties back to some of the things that I firmly believe in around the customer experience and empathy

Before we get started, you’ve been in this market for a while, I think you’ve done a lot of really incredible things, you’ve got some great insights about B2B marketing, B2C marketing. What are some of the big trends and ideas you’re seeing in the marketplace today?


The rise of MarTech has been one. To give you an example, Scott Brinker, who has been covering MarTech, identified over 3,500 marketing technology solutions. I think the future of marketing is really embracing technology, things like machine learning, predictive analytics, all these things are coming to bear.

I also see that marketers are overwhelmed by all these decisions and choices, and all these new channels. Some marketing leaders I talk to wonder what their jobs are anymore. Are they in marketing? Do they need to understand technology? How to make sense of it all?

I also see that you can’t automate trust. Despite having all these tools, it’s become harder than ever to connect with our customers. And that’s what moved me into the path of doing the research I’ve been doing on empathetic marketing.

The Need For Empathetic Marketing


Brian, tell us a little bit about empathetic marketing and why you think it’s important.


Even though we’ve moved from traditional advertising to social media marketing and beyond, and we have all these ways of talking to customers, our customers have really stopped listening. There’s been a break that’s happened. What I found is despite having all these tools and technologies to observe people’s behavior online, and in being able to use video research and other things to view their behavior offline, we haven’t necessarily gotten better at really connecting with our customers.

Empathy is, at the heart of it, letting go of our assumptions, and putting ourselves in our customers’ shoes, and really beginning to identify with what it’s like in their world, what they’re feeling.

The reason why we need to exercise empathy is: If you ask customers what steps they went through in the buying process or you do focus groups, you find that customers actually don’t fully understand how they make decisions.

In fact, up to 90 percent of our decision making is unconscious. We often make our decisions emotionally, and we backfill with logic. The better we can understand the emotional side of our customer in their world, the better we can help them have an amazing customer experience.


There’s so much data and such a focus on analytics and data-driven marketing, that in some way, I feel that marketers have almost overcorrected. They’re not really thinking about the emotional connection, and the emotional attachment, and that empathy toward who they’re prospecting or marketing to.

It seems like at every trade show someone has a slide that shows Don Draper from Mad Men. And the message is, “Hey, marketers, you don’t want to be like Don Draper, who was focused just on the brand. You need to be more of a data-driven marketing technologist.

I think MarTech is still important, and data-driven marketing is still important, but marketers need to get re-engaged with the emotions of our customers. It’s that emotional connection that drives a great brand. And that great brand, and thinking about the brand, really drives a great customer experience.


Totally. We often can spend a lot of time worrying about how are we interesting, how do we attract customers, how do we draw people to us. And what we really need to do – instead of worrying about being interesting – we need to be interested in our customer.

From a Conversion to a Conversation Mindset


Brian, as you talk to marketers today, how many are really thinking about this, embracing it, and doing it today?


All of us, to some level, really want to ultimately help our customers. But I think the challenge is how we approach it. If you’re approaching things on the basis of I’m trying to achieve this certain lead number, or I’m trying to achieve this certain conversion rate, you begin missing the point of what you’re trying to do. Instead of focusing on how you get the conversions or develop these campaigns, instead shift to developing a conversation with your customer.

I found when it comes to moving from a campaign mindset to a conversation mindset (which means I recognize there’s a conversation that the customer’s having inside their company) that conversation matters a whole lot more.

  • What’s happening inside their organization?
  • What are the steps they need to go through?
  • What do they need to do to manage change?

I don’t see as many marketers asking those questions. We often are focused more on how do we get interest, how do we get conversions, and, in fact, we’re pushing. The best marketing and selling doesn’t really feel like marketing and sales at all. It feels like helping.


There are times when I wonder if marketing has become so acquisition focused –which is important because it drives growth and is the life blood of a company – that we lose sight of the experience. And that experience, ultimately, is what will differentiate you and build a great brand in the marketplace.


It’s true. When we approach things in terms of increasing conversion, driving more progress or more pipeline growth, to our customers it feels like somebody wants something from me, rather than maybe this company can help me get what I want. And that’s really a subtle distinction.

But as we think about that overall experience, we need to think about the whole journey of the customer and what they need to go through. Because for a lot of you who are listening, you’re a B2B marketer with a complex sale, and for that customer who you’re talking to, this process that they’re looking to solve, involves risk.

There’s been lots of research recently on buyer behavior from MHI Global and the Corporate Executive Board. And for most companies, it’s actually safer to do nothing than risk making a wrong decision. You’re dealing with crazy-busy customers who have a lot of risk, and they need to manage the whole buying process. It’s a change process that they’re managing on their side. How can we help them overcome all the hurdles that go with driving change?


Do you have any advice on what you could start to do quickly, little quick wins, that marketers could start right away, building a little bit of momentum around creating an empathetic marketing program within the company?

How to Start Being An Empathetic Marketer: A Use Case


For sure. You can begin by just testing a more empathetic tone, for example, with your email messaging. One marketing test we ran while I was at MECLABS was helping a company and focusing on the reply email to people who were going through a form to complete a demo.

The first email was something like “You’re just one step away from completing your demo.” They were getting about a 1.5 percent conversion rate to that. And they just thought, What if we actually tried to understand the motivation of the customer? Because the problem they had was people weren’t completing the demo process.

So they tried a more empathetic tone, acknowledging what that customer is likely feeling, which is “I noticed you started our demo process, but didn’t complete the form. Was it because you were worried about getting a sales pitch? Were you worried about high pressure tactics? We believe our product sells itself and we just want to be helpful to you,” shifting the tone to be more empathetic. They saw a 7 percent conversion rate versus 1.5 percent. And that was a 395 percent increase in conversion. And that was just by looking at the tone.

Another example: You remember that proximity is influence. Empower those closest to your customer. This could be your sales team or your sales development reps, your inside sales reps. Talk to them about what’s the type of content that they find most helpful to your customer. What are the questions that keep coming up with over and over again that they wish they had better information for? You can begin connecting with those who are talking to your customer.

What I would really encourage marketers to do today – and not enough are doing it – is getting out of the building and into the world of your customer. That’s going out with your sales team on sales calls; that is spending time on-site at a customer site, not with a particular agenda to sell, but really to understand and to see how they’re doing what they’re doing.

  • How they’re applying it?
  • What are the things that are going on day-to-day?

You’re going to have way more insights just by observing. And when you listen to your customer, listen with a third ear – not in terms of how do I respond, but instead, how do I understand and, underlying that, what are they feeling, what are the emotions, what’s motivating the types of things they’re bringing up.

You’re going to find you need this clarity, this wisdom that you previously haven’t had, because you’ve probably been focused on your agenda more than what’s on their agenda.


I know it sounds simple, but it’s easily forgotten, especially your point about getting out of the office and speaking with customers and going on sales calls.

Do you have any good examples of customers that are doing empathic marketing, and they’re driving results, or they’re driving real business value for the company?

Empathetic Marketing Examples


I do have one company that immediately jumps to mind. And two things stood out about this company. Before I tell you what they are, I want to tell you what I thought was extraordinary about them. First of all, their CEO had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. And the second thing that stood out is their company actually received an endorsement from Mother Teresa before she had passed away.

Now I’ll tell you what this company does. They are a collection agency called CFS2. One of the employees approached the CEO and said, What if we actually sat down to understand why our customers are not paying their debt? Te he employee wanted to test whether if the company understood why people weren’t paying, and actually helped them address those problems, the company would collect more money.

The CEO agreed to this test, and a team began investigating. They started talking to customers, they gathered and looked at all the reasons why people weren’t paying bills: job loss, child care falling through, they had family members that were going through major health issues, they had car problems.

CFS2 started putting together a bank of free services. They began helping people write resumes. They began helping people with interview training. They began helping people search for jobs. They actually started working with local agencies in states to find child care locations.

And they shifted. Instead of having a team of collection agents, they put them as customer service people. Instead of incentivizing these people based on how much debt they collected, they actually incentivized them to give away free services.

The results: they collect over 200 percent more than anyone else in the industry. They are one of the most profitable collection agencies. The other incredible thing is they’re winning these awards against huge brands for customer service. They have customers who are wondering, why should I trust you, you’re a collection agency? Why do you want to help me do financially better? They can very straightforwardly say, When you do better financially, we make more money. We want to help you do better.

At the core, it was practicing empathy. It was putting themselves in their customers’ shoes. And this wasn’t just a marketing practice. It actually became how they operated. This is a business-to-consumer example, but I’m seeing some companies begin practicing this for B2B . But I haven’t seen anyone do it to this level. So how was that for a story?


It’s pretty amazing. I think I’m still back at where you talked about the guy being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and an endorsement from Mother Theresa. And then you threw in the piece about it being a collection agency. I feel like you could win a lot of bar bets with that kind of combination.


You wouldn’t guess.


But what’s interesting there, Brian, is that was an incredible job of everybody’s goals being aligned. What’s good for the company is also good for the consumer, and vice versa. It just seems like they’ve created a win/win scenario for everybody involved in the process.


It is. And it shifted the game. The CEO would say it wasn’t his idea, but the best decision he ever made was to allow this test to happen.

I just want to inspire those who are listening that you don’t have to look at changing everything. You can begin testing your way into this.


That’s incredible. I love that story. I think this whole topic is transformative. In a way, just a simple shift in the way you think about your customer and their experience, I think, could generate a whole different set of results and a different trajectory for your business.

I think you demonstrated this a couple times; it doesn’t take a lot. It’s not as if you need to sit down and get approval from the board of directors or a CEO. There’s little things you could do almost every day just to incorporate a little bit more empathy into what you do with your customers and prospects. I think that’s very powerful.


It is. And the subtle shift is just thinking of your marketing, it’s not something you do to people, it’s something you’re doing for people. You’re doing it for a reason: to help. And to really look at what you’re as helping others achieve what they want really is helping yourself. So it’s that subtle shift.


What’s next? Where can folks go and see you, listen to you, attend events that you might be speaking at? Where can they get more of this story?


I’m going to be speaking on this topic coming up at Dreamforce. I also am writing at B2B Lead Blog. As we’re doing the research, I’ve had a hard time finding companies practicing this. So I’m setting up a few active labs, living experiments, where we’re running tests, and I’ll share what we learn on the B2B Lead Blog. Eventually, this will all find itself in a book on empathetic marketing.


Brian, we really appreciate you coming on the podcast and talking with us about empathetic marketing.


Well thank you. I’m so glad to be with you today.

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