May 24

Research: Customer Empathy and How to Solve Buying Problems

Empathy-based Marketing


Are you applying empathy as part of your sales and marketing approach?

Why? Because according to Brent Adamson, “empathy” is the one word that matters most to sales [and marketing] success.

It’s tough to buy. B2B customers are overwhelmed with too much information and too many choices, trying to get their colleagues to agree, not to mention second-guessing.

This is part two of my interview with Brent Adamson (@brentadamson), Principal Executive Advisor at Gartner, and the co-author of The Challenger Sale and The Challenger Customer.

You’ll learn ways to apply empathy and how to solve buying problems.

Writers note: You can view part of our interview here: New research: Boost organic growth from current customers.

Does empathy capture everything your book, The Challenger Customer, is about?

Brent: The idea that empathy is the core principle of the entire book The Challenger Customer, I admit, is more of a personal opinion based on all of our research.

You’ll notice the word doesn’t appear anywhere in the proper book. It’s only in the acknowledgments where I made just a little blurb at the very back (a short note to my daughters). And I used the word empathy there.

But in many ways, for me personally, one word captures everything that the book is about.

I know this is a topic not only near and dear to your heart. But your expertise here is far deeper than mine.

But when I think of empathy, I think of two components to it, but it’s almost a right-brain, left-brain, or the rational versus the emotional.

I don’t know what the right way to think about it is.

But from my perspective, empathy is, at a fundamental level, your ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes and see the world from their perspective.

And that might be logical (how they view the world from their perspective), or it might be emotionally (what the world feels like from their perspective).

I find both of those attributes of empathy to be potentially hugely powerful for anyone in sales or marketing.

How customers think

For example, whenever we’re talking about Customer Improvement or even the broader work in Challenger, is this idea of mental modeling.

The whole idea being, if you’re going to change the way a customer thinks about their business, what’s the first thing you must understand more than anything else?

How would you answer that, Brian?

Brian: If I were to do that, I’d need to understand their experience and how they see things.

Brent: You got it. This is where I have fun talking to you because you get this stuff. And I say this with great, hopefully, empathy and respect for anyone out there.

What I find when I ask most leaders, sales, and commercial marketing leaders that question is: “If you’re going to change the way a customer thinks about their business, what’s the first thing you have to understand?”

Virtually everyone will say, “Their business.” So, then they start reading 10K’s and the annual reports and the financials and all that kind of stuff.

We saw in our research closer to where you are, which is, if you’re going to change the way a customer thinks about their business, the first thing you must understand is how they think about their business.

That’s the thing you’ve got to change.

Map customer thinking  

We find it can be very productive to draw a “map” on a piece of paper. A map of their thinking. We call this a mental model. Mental mapping is another term for this idea.

You can simply draw a couple of boxes and some connecting lines.

What are their goals? What are their objectives as an organization?  What do they believe to be the primary challenges or the primary drivers of achieving that goal?

What are the secondary challenges or the secondary drivers for each of those? And then you can map it.

Mental map example

We do this in all our research here. We build mental models for heads of sales and mental models for heads of marketing all the time.

It’s how we do our research, but there’s nothing to say that heads of marketing or marketing teams, sales teams couldn’t do the same thing for their customers, which is to put on paper a straightforward diagram.

Don’t over-complicate it, a few boxes, a couple of lines of our core objectives as an organization.

What they’re trying to achieve?

How do they think they’re going to get there?

Challenges they believe they’re going to get in the way of the lever they need to pull to make that happen, whichever perspective you want.

And then once you’ve got that mental model, you can put it in front of a customer and say:

Did I get it right?

What would you add?

What would you take away?

If I gave you 100 pennies to distribute across these ten boxes according to priority, how would you distribute them?”

When you’re all done, what you have on the piece of paper is a picture of how the customer thinks about their business.

Change the way customers think.

If you’re going to change the way a customer thinks about their business, the first thing you need to understand is how they think about their business: now you’ve got it on a piece of paper.

Now what you can do is step back and look at it and say, what did they miss?

Which box should be bigger?  Which one should be smaller? Which one’s not here at all but needs to be?

Which connective arrow needs to go from this box to that one instead of this one to only that one?

And you can begin to look for opportunities to challenge their thinking to help them improve their thinking.

To make them smart about what they’re doing. But that only works by having that mental model to begin with, which I would argue, at least from a logical perspective, is at least a form of empathy.

Because that’s what that model is: it’s a picture of the world from their perspective; it’s about seeing the world from your customer’s perspective.

That doesn’t have the emotional component that some aspects of empathy have, which we should be talking about.

Brian, does that count as empathy in your perspective, or is that outside the bounds of how you define the term?

Brian: Oh, it does. I think it’s the two levels you just touched on. It’s the perspective-taking, so understanding how they see their business, and then the second thing is the emotional side.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio said, “We aren’t thinking machines that feel. We’re feeling machines that think.”

And so, what he argued is, we make emotional decisions rationally, so we need to take both perspectives to understand.

Help customers buy

Brent: Now, imagine a world where you are talking to one of those stakeholders, and this individual must get a consensus across the other four or five to make that deal happen, and you know this is all implicit. It’s not explicit.

In their mind, they kind of have that mental model in their map, right?

Well, I care about this box. He cares about that box. They may not be thinking about boxes per se, but it’s all sort of there.

And one of the things we know from our research, what we also know to be true as just individual professionals, is going down the hall and convincing your colleagues to do anything differently is kind of a pain.

Sometimes it’s kind of scary. Sometimes it’s a little intimidating.

We find that the larger the buying group, the more individual stakeholders feel, not only their credibility.

But in fact, their actual job could be on the line in advocating for a supplier, which gets into the emotional side of empathy.

The Thursday morning test

Thursday-morning-testSo, you think about it from a supplier’s perspective. “Well, why can’t they all just get on board? It’s like herding cats. I can’t get these people to align.”

Think about what it feels like. Think about that person sitting at their desk, and I call this the Thursday Morning 9:00 Test.

It’s Thursday morning, 9:00, and you’ve got to do what? What are you going to do, how are you going to do it, and how will that feel?

Now I’m thinking about buying your CRM solution.  And it’s Thursday morning, 9:00. I’m thinking about how to get my company to buy that solution, which I really want:

I’ve got to talk to someone in IT.

I’ve got to talk to someone in procurement.

I’ve got to talk to my CEO.

You know what, I feel kind of sick to my stomach. I don’t want to do that. That’s a pain in my neck.

And suddenly what seems to be a slam dunk because [I’m in sales] this person I talked to loves it is in danger because that person doesn’t feel like going to talk to his other people.

So that becomes a hugely important part of empathy too:

What am I asking this senior decision-maker, my contact person, to go inside their own company?

What does that feel like?

And chances are pretty good. It doesn’t feel very good. It’s hard work. It’s credibility. It’s business case-building.

They’re going to ask me questions.

All those questions your sales reps have all the time, what if they ask me questions I can’t answer?

What if they ask for data that I don’t know how to provide? You know what?

Your stakeholders you’re selling to have the same questions when they think about their own colleagues. What if my head of IT wants to have a business case? I don’t know where I’m going to get that.

Then he’s going to ask me a bunch of questions I don’t know the answer to. Look, I just want this bleeping bleep CRM system, but this is too hard – never mind.

Be able to place yourself in the shoes of that stakeholder and understand what it feels like for them not to.

We always think about what it feels like to sell our solutions but think about what it feels like to buy one of your solutions, and it rarely feels good.

The new sales imperative

Brian: I really appreciate you sharing your perspective because this is tough work, even for us as sellers to look at because we spend so much time focused on, “How are we going to get the deal done?”

Instead of understanding from our customers how do we help them get the deal done and navigate all the things they need to do to mobilize the support to make it happen.

Brent: We have an article in the March/April 2017 issue of the Harvard Business Review, and it’s called the New Sales Imperative.  As a supplier, we find that the single hardest thing about solutions is not selling them. It is, in fact, buying them.

The pain of buying  

I talked with 1,200 people at our Vegas conference last year. I simply asked them to take their selling hat off and put their buying hat on and think about their own organization.

Think about a recent big, complex solution that you purchased with your colleagues at your company in the last 18 months, whether it’s a CRM system or some sort of lead management system or IT system or consulting engagement, whatever it is.

Think of all the people involved, all the decisions you had to make, all the hoops you had to jump through.

Now, if you had to pick one word, one adjective, to describe that entire buying journey, what would that be?

As I said, I’ve done this with thousands of people worldwide, and inevitably, what do you think the words are, Brian? Take a guess.

Brian: I’m just thinking about what the words would be. I’m not even sure.

Brent: It’d be things like long, hard, awful, frustrating. It’s interesting. When you ask people to place themselves in their own purchase journey and just ask them to share one word, they get kind of angry.

It’s interesting. You can see their tension. The cuss words start coming out in ways that are not really appropriate for meetings that I was conducting.

Someone in Chicago, the head of marketing, said, “I never want to do that again.” like it was one word because I asked for one word.

Someone in DC said “landmine.” And I said that’s not an adjective. And he said, “Landmine-ish,” which became my word for the year.

But the point of all this being, if you put yourself in the shoes of your customers and ask them what it feels like to buy a solution, I literally have heard three positive words out of thousands and thousands of people I’ve talked to.

It’s all negative.

And then you ask them a second question, which is interesting. You ask them: “Alright, so how much is that paying? How much of that time, how much of that frustration was the result of the supplier selling to you? And how much was just a result of your own company getting in its own way? “

And nine times out of 10, 10 times out of 10, people will say, “It had nothing to do with the supplier’s selling to me. It’s just my own company.”

Because we’re already convinced our one company is the worst company in the world, we either get in our own way. We’re too complicated, we have too many meetings, on and on.

It’s not a selling problem (it’s a buying problem)

What we have here is not a selling problem at all. What we have is a buying problem.

And buying is really bleeping hard with all the committees and all the information and all the options, and it all just becomes completely overwhelming. Again, back to the point about empathy.

If you can understand this as a seller, as a marketer, and you can appreciate just how hard it is to buy not just your solution but any solution.

To filter through all the information and pick out which information matters most, to sift through all the options and determine which choices matter most.

To wrangle all the different people and figure out all the different questions they’re going to have, and you can anticipate, this is empathy.

If you know what that feels like and then logically, you can anticipate what those problems will be and which information will matter most, you can effectively become the coach to your customer. Not on what to buy but on how to buy.

You can take them by the hand, and you can guide them through that buying journey and become that buying sherpa, and not solve for selling but solve for buying.

Be a buying Sherpa 

buyer-sherpaThat’s what a lot of our more recent work has been about: adopting what we’ve come to call a Prescriptive Approach to sell. We’ve seen marketing organizations do this really well through content that is self-serving; that the customer can self-serve on.

My Google search will take me to a white paper that a company has written, which can take me to step by step:

“Looking to buy a CRM? Here’s the 10 Step process. First, do this, talk to these people. Here’s the information that matters. This question doesn’t matter.”

And from a customer’s perspective, the reaction is not, “I see you’re trying to trick me into buying your stuff,” but rather the reaction is, “Wow, this was really helpful. You just made it so much easier.”

And you can only do that effectively as a supplier if you come at this whole idea with empathy, understand what it feels like to buy because it doesn’t feel very good.

Brian: We’re going to talk a bit about your marketing research in a moment but, a lot of us treat the journey as this beautiful looking linear model that moves from left to right, and it’s a nice flow, but it’s really like climbing a mountain to our customer.

Brent: Yeah.

Brian: I love the word picture of being a Sherpa. Because sherpas are there to help people climb, help them along the journey. And the whole idea of empathy. It’s applied empathy because our goal is really to help people on their journey.

Brent: I totally agree. Now let’s not forget that we’re all in the business of doing one thing at the end of the day, which is selling more stuff.

Brian: Yes

Brent: So, empathy is all well and good, and it’s so powerful that the cynic in someone listening today might say:

“Well, this is just empathy for the sake of selling more stuff.” And to some degree, that’s true because that’s what we’re solving for in the world of sales and marketing.

But that doesn’t mean it’s less powerful, any less honorable. It’s helping customers find ways to generate greater value for their business they haven’t appreciated independently. And then navigating them to a place or helping them navigate themselves to a place where they can realize that value.

I think in many ways it’s not only an honorable thing to do for your customer, but it’s also a very profitable thing for you to do as a supplier as well.

Brian: I 100% agree. I mean, at the base level, practicing this way, marketing and sales can and should be a force for good. And so, as you’re talking about this, I wanted to shift to marketing research.

The B2B digital buying journey

What surprised you about the b2b buyer survey findings on the customer buying journey and the most the most-important channels customers are using?

Brent: One of the things we are studying this year in our marketing practice is simply digital. We get a little more specific than that, but you can imagine.

Particularly B2B marketing. Now, B2C marketing digital had been a huge part, if not the primary part, of buying for a long time now. It has become equally important in B2B very rapidly over the last several years.

Not surprisingly, we’re getting questions around the world from the CMOs that we work with around: “How do we move to become a more digitally proficient marketing organization? What does that even mean? What would be the characteristics or hallmarks?”

So, we’ve set out to understand at least some of this world of digital buying in the B2B space with more detail this year so we can provide our members with greater, more actionable advice.

We are really trying to understand what the buying journey looks like in B2B, and then effectively along that buying journey, which parts are most likely to be digital?

And along the way, we found something that was actually really interesting.

What you find with most marketers (and I mean this with deep respect, this is just the result of the way we all came up and the way marketing’s always operated) is that we tend to think of digital in marketing as a tool for demand generation.

That is largely upper funnel to maybe mid-funnel capability. And the idea is that we use digital (whether it be websites, whether it be online conferences or discussion boards, or advertising or SEO, you name it) as mostly a way to create and/or identify opportunities/customers that we then vet through maybe digitally based lead nurturing campaigns.

And at some point, we give them that marketing-qualified stamp of approval on them, and we pass them over to sales, and we say, “All right, go get ’em guys.”

And at that point forward, it becomes mostly a sales rep (calling, in-person) trying to close that deal. From our perspective in marketing, it’s like, okay, we got them that far, it’s all, you guys. Get ’em.

We’ve come to understand from our research this year that just because a customer’s in-person/over-the-phone buying journey has begun doesn’t mean that their digital buying journey has come to an end.

It’s not like digital in the up-funnel and in-person on the down-funnel. Rather, the two coexist.  The thing that I think is especially interesting and new for us this year because buying behavior is still in digital channels, even late in a purchase.


Often, long after we in the marketing organization have handed it off and said, “Go get ’em, sales,” our customers are still online learning.

There is still late-stage digital buying activity, and that’s got some fascinating implications from our perspective.

Are we even thinking about that? So, from a marketing perspective, is it largely demand gen, and then digital is done? Well, if it’s late-stage, what’s actually happening?

And as we dug into our research, what we find is, for example, one of the things that your customers are really looking for through digital channels in a late-stage, later in the purchase process, is reassurance.

So, I’m talking to Brent, the sales rep, and Brent’s making all sorts of promises, and he’s convinced me to buy this multi-million-dollar solution, which is great. I trust him. He’s not a crook, right?

Nonetheless, one way or another, this thing’s big, it’s disruptive, it’s expensive, I’d kind of like to get some reassurance. I’d like to see maybe what other customers have experienced in buying this solution.

And so, irrespective of my ongoing in-person conversations with that sales rep, I’m going to go out and corroborate what I’m learning there and maybe add to it through digital channels.

Provide digital reassurance for the late buying stage 

One of the things we found in surveying customers this year is, the most likely place for them to go to get that late-stage digital reassurance is the supplier’s own website.

Which I found kind of ironic, like, “I’m not sure if I completely trust the sales rep, so I’ll go to the company’s website to get reassurance.”

Nonetheless, that’s what happens, which begs a fascinating question, which is, when they go to your website to get reassurance on what they hear from your rep, are they even going to find that reassurance?  And is that reassurance going to be consistent with what the rep has said in person?

Because if they’re not aligned, you will raise all sorts of red flags for that customer. The implications here are fascinating, but I would imagine that rings true so far.


Brian: It does. As I listened to you and something you touched on in marketing, we’ve always had this traditional handoff from a marketing qualified lead to sales. So what you’re saying is we need to go beyond handoff and think about the whole journey.

So, what can marketers do differently based on your research? Because there is this gap right now and buyers are going back to the website to get this reassurance, marketers have this gap that they aren’t filling right now from what your research shows.

Brent: It’s funny. I tell people, the cool thing about doing research is every time you do a large-scale research project, you always inevitably find two things.

You find answers, which is great, but you always get more questions. This is actually good because it keeps you in business, but there are all sorts of questions here.

If digital doesn’t work as a handoff but rather as an ongoing effort, to your point, Brian, that raises all sorts of questions.

B2B buying is omnichannel.

What should not just marketing do but sales do and commercial leaders? Because what you have here now, at least what we can really see clearly in our data for the first time, is sort of what we’ve watched happen, and certainly in the business-to-consumer world for five, ten years.

Effectively what you have here is an obvious picture of omnichannel buying.

Your customers are gathering information. They’re engaging the purchase process through multiple channels simultaneously, whether it’s digital, whether it’s a website, whether it’s SEO, whether in person through sales reps.

And all that’s simultaneously happening, so it’s isn’t just early on: digital, later on: person, but rather all the time always-on digital, person, and lots of other different channels. What it means is we’ve got to coordinate across these channels in a much more effective manner than we have in the past.

Omni-channel in B2C is interesting enough.  How do I get all of my digital teams in marketing to collaborate more effectively?

So, I’ve got social, I’ve got search, I’ve got TV advertising, that would be the consumer world. I’ve got to get my TV team and my agency partner, my online people, my social, my Facebook team, they’ve all got to coordinate.

What’s interesting is once you move omnichannel buying from the B2C world to the B2B world, it gets 1,000 times more complicated. Because now omnichannel means that we don’t just have to span teams within the marketing function. We have to span functions altogether.

So, the alignment isn’t just this team and this team in marketing. Still, it’s the entire marketing function has to be aligned with the sales function in some way that frankly we’ve just never really fully appreciated before because we were always solving for marketing or selling as opposed to solving for buying.

And so, some of the questions this raises for us would be things like, how does one just do this? How do you overcome decades of institutional inertia?  I’ve been doing this for 15 years and one of the first things I heard on my first day of work when I joined CEB many years ago was, “Why can’t sales and marketing just figure out how to collaborate?”

And now when you solve for buying you find the urgency has gone up dramatically.

Because again, if I hear one thing from my sales rep. And I’m finding a different thing on your website that’s going to, at the very least, raise questions in a world where you’re trying to get me to change behavior, which, as you remember, is risky.

And if I see anything that makes me a little bit more nervous, at the very least, it’s going to slow me down if not shut me down.

So now you’ve got to get all of these different pieces of a marketing and sales organization aligned so that you’ve got one message to the customer, and it’s always consistent.

So, your customer can go on whatever buying journey they want, whether it’s digital and different kinds of digital, whether it’s in person. No matter which path I choose, I’m going to get a consistent message.

Because if they’re not, it’s going to slow things down, and that to me is really fascinating.

So, we’re trying to figure out what, practically, tactically, what does that mean? What has to be aligned? How do I do that? I think the answer here, I think for us, is TBD. That’s what we’re on right now, and we need to figure this kind of stuff out.

Brent: Would it be better if sales and marketing were reported to a single person? And I think what we’re finding already, even very anecdotally, is that those organizations where sales and marketing report to a single person are just more likely to succeed in this environment for all the reasons I’ve just mentioned.

Brian: I’d like to try something out on you. I’m actually writing a post about this. I’ve thought about this idea of empathy and how do we support the journey.

Go from campaigns to digital conversations.

customer conversationI think it’s really moving from this campaign mindset to conversations. Since we’re thinking about this, how can we have a more congruent conversation with our customers as they go through their journey? So, in effect, we’re helping them.

I think the best marketing and selling feels like helping (because it really is).

I like this idea, and you talked about one message. It’s a conversation that’s bi-directional. The principle of what I’m saying is when we’re more congruent, and it changes the conversation to be more reciprocal with our potential customer.

Brent: More reciprocal and also more efficient, right. Because one of the things we find about sales cycle times is, of course, they’ve gone up dramatically.

It just takes longer to sell, partly because it takes longer for customers to buy. And again, to your point, if they’re finding incongruent signals across the different channels from which they are gathering information, that’s going to slow things down that much more.

The challenge here is, again, we’re still trying to figure this out, but the word you use I like, Brian, is the word conversation. But in this context, you have to look at it not literally but metaphorically.

Because a conversation is a human interaction, it’s people talking to people and conversing with one another.

That takes us back to 10 years ago when I’ve got to have a sales rep involved. I’ve got to train my sales reps to have better conversations.

And that is absolutely true, but this is more conversation in a metaphorical sense, which is not only an actual real conversation between these two human beings. But it’s also a “conversation” between our company’s website and that customer, or through these third-party influencers and our customer. And so that broader view of the overall conversation and managing that becomes the bogey we’ve got to focus on.

Brian: Yeah, and as I was thinking and listening to you, our customers see our websites personified.

They put a human context to the brand, to the company, even the language that’s being used, and, so I think, the metaphor, that’s really what I’m talking about.

I’m glad you articulated it that way. This metaphor of a conversation instead of the traditional campaign, which is looking at being more mono, and what I’m saying is more bi-directional.

Brent: I think that’s right. By the way, going back to our empathy point, now you can start asking fascinating questions with the metaphor of the conversation.

Imagine you’re at a party.

Imagine you go to a party: So, what makes for a good conversation? What makes for a bad conversation?
How does it feel to be involved in a bad conversation?

You just feel awkward, and you just want to go crawl under a rock, or you want to go away.

Honestly, you just want it to end. That’s what it feels like from a customer’s perspective when they’re engaged in a conversation with your company that isn’t going according to expectations or is sending mixed messages.

Ask yourself: are we doing that to our customers? How do we make our customers feel like a conversation partner? It would be an exciting thing to explore.

Brian: Research on how to improve is a good conversationalist.  Instead of trying to be interesting, be interested in the person you’re talking with.

And that in and of itself is so much of what we do as marketers and sellers. It’s all about us, and it’s really all about them.

Brent: The best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten about the conversation was, “Keep the other person talking about themselves.”

Brian: Totally.

Brent: That’s way too simplistic, but it is in the ballpark of what you’re talking about, which is so much better articulated.

How Empathy Will Grow Your Sales and Marketing Pipeline

This stuff is so interesting when you start solving buying problems as opposed to selling or marketing problems. And again, I think that’s where this idea of empathy comes in at a very high level.

Take your selling hat off, take your marketing hat off, and just ask yourself:

What does it feel like to buy?
How hard is it? What’s hard about it?
Why would I not do it?
Why would I choose to opt-out of it?
What would have to happen for me to think it was easier?
What would have to happen for me to feel more urgency or more excitement around it?

Solve for buying instead of solving for selling or marketing, and I think you’re going to be significantly better off relative to your competition.

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How to do lead management that improves conversion
How sales hustle and automation can hurt customer experience
How Empathy Will Grow Your Sales and Marketing Pipeline

About the author 

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll is the CEO and founder of markempa, helping companies to convert more customers with empathy-based marketing.

He is the author of the bestseller, Lead Generation for the Complex Sale and founded B2B Lead Roundtable LinkedIn Group with 20,301+ members.

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