Empathy: It’s the Key to Great Marketing and the Crucial Ingredient to Company Success
Empathy is a key missing ingredient in companies that are struggling to find success. This hit home when I recently took some time off to finalize the remodel of our house that had been dragging for years as both my wife and I were working full-time and couldn’t really give it the attention it deserved. I managed to miss at least half of this crisis, but I worked through the full brunt of the dot bomb and the financial crisis of 2008/09, so I don’t think I missed much, but I will soon join the recovery effort. Never let a good crisis go to waste, however, and there was a lot to learn on the home improvement front and hundreds of thousands of dollars to save. One of the many things I learned managing a wide variety of vendors from roofers to landscapers is: find businesses whose owners still show up at your job site and still use tools at least part of the time. These folks are way more responsive and way more empathetic. They get to know you and better understand what you want. You aren’t just a number, an address, or a change order. They also get to walk a mile in your shoes and see how you live. The quality difference is literally night and day.
As I wrap up with the final PG&E <our local utility> connection and the installation of the garage door, I am beginning to look at full-time opportunities, trying to find the right company to work with to help them get their unfair share of their market and speed there acceleration out of this mess. Every recruiter asks you what type of company you are looking for. I’ve always had a good answer, but I have thought long and hard about nailing the essence behind this question to get to what really drives me. For me, it comes down to finding a company that provides a solution to a pain you can love to hate. By love, I mean capital L Love. In marketing and other functions, if you are doing it right, you will live with this pain 24/7 and really relish in hating it. Every word you write, every campaign you plan, every presentation you make will be an exercise is crushing this pain for your potential and existing customers. This pain will be in your head all the time. Only by loving to hate a pain your customers are experiencing can you truly be empathetic.
This truth extends far beyond marketing, however. While you are likely to always find committed senior leadership at the VP and C-Suite level as they have risen to a point in their careers where dedication and bias for action are part of their brand and they are compensated for their commitment, this is often not true at other levels in the company. Employees may be early career and not particularly committed to anything. They may have taken the job simply for personal reasons like the experience they’ll gain vs. a true affinity for what the company does. They may actually even disagree with the mission of the company. Often, not filtering for these common ulterior agendas will damage the company. Companies often justify choosing individuals who lack commitment by selecting based on the talent or potential in front of them. The problem with this is that commitment and passion for an idea or a strategy is the key to unlock the benefits of this talent.
While I personally have only one mode of operating which is “all in,” and I previously assumed this was a hallmark in Silicon Valley. I’ve come to learn that it is not. I’ll give you some examples.
I worked for a price optimization company for banks. The right way to view the company is that they were applying the discipline of individual price discrimination to banking products much like the rest of the world does to present the right price to the right person. To the cynical, they were lining the pockets of already well-healed bankers. The employee base at this company skewed young. To deliver results, the company employed many data scientists. It was quite clear that many of them joined to work with our large dataset. In terms of the mission, many just weren’t on board. You could see it in the looks on their faces, the general energy level, and the lack of participation in company activities. This translated directly to the bottom line where timelines slipped, deadlines were missed, or deliverables failed to meet expectations. A large contingent of the team lacked empathy for the mission and the customer partly because the idea was in a small niche, partly because they didn’t understand the customer, and partly because they weren’t on board with the company’s mission.
Another related problem happens when the customer is really remote from the experiences of the team. I saw this at an industrial software company where it was very difficult to find people, especially in the San Francisco bay area, that understood the basics of manufacturing or industrial operations. It was therefore hard for many of the team members to even conjure up an image of the customer, let alone what pain the customer has to endure. Sure, some of this gap can be closed through training, but if you have no context at all for the customer’s world, it is hard to be empathetic.
Even at very deliberately empathetic companies, the intentions and signals of different teams within the company is not well understood, appreciated or listened to. The product management role is steeped in love for the products they bring to life. The problem today in an Agile development world is that Product Managers rarely leave the building. To better understand their customers, they should be listening to skepticism both from those who see the customer more often and those who have a view about great technology looks like. More often than not, I see Product Managers glossing over or ignoring constructive criticism, partly because they can’t identify with it and partly because they’d rather not hear it.
When you think about it, Sales, Marketing, and Engineering are actually paid skeptics in a company. Sales and Market have to engage potential customers, impress them with what you have, and collect dollars for what a company makes. They are naturally skeptical when a release fails to deliver market wowing promise or progress is painfully slow. Engineering, on the other hand, can be very skeptical too. They want to build cool, meaningful things, and they have a sixth sense when they are asked to do something that won’t move the needle. This skepticism is empathy for the customer expressed in different ways. The right response would be to relish in these responses because they are informed opinions that mimic how customers are likely to respond. By understanding this empathy, a company has power to re-chart a course that will exceed expectations.
So, if you are asking yourself if this is the right company for me or is this company going to go anywhere, the answers are simple. If you don’t love to hate the pain this company is attempting to eliminate or you can’t learn to love to hate it, you are indeed in the wrong place. If you want to know if the company is going anywhere, meet a wide swath of the team and ask yourself if they understand the problem they are attempting to solve and if they love to hate the pain it causes. If no, their likelihood of success has some major hurdles.