Marketers Sell Empathy, but Can They Teach It?

Marketing is empathy on a mass scale. Marketing works when you feel like the brand or the product is speaking directly to you. They “understand” you and your needs. Everyone wants to be understood for who they are. This is how Brands are able weave themselves into your lifestyle – your daily routine, your own sense of self.

We are surrounded by these “empathetic messages” – on television, radio, billboards, digital ads, social media, train platforms…everywhere! A company that does a great job with this is Peloton, creators of high-end fitness equipment and assemblers of a community of enthusiasts. Peloton delivers marketing messages that reach its core audience with imagery of busy, modern, fashionable professionals who need a convenient and compelling excuse to sweat profusely whenever they can squeeze it in.

Ads and marketing are only part of the equation for most products, though. Only 9% of all retail sales are made online, so plenty of purchase involve interaction with a salesperson, customer service rep or some other form of human contact. Does the empathy translate into these interactions? Are the people representing the brands expressing the same level of understanding and compassion shown in the ads?

I recently had a chance to discuss this very topic at a conference for the Professional Association for Customer Engagement (PACE).  I hosted a panel that included some outstanding marketing and customer experience professionals.  During our session, they shared stories of how they build empathy into their daily interactions with customers.

First, the SVP of Contact Center Operations for NutriSystem shared his company’s promise of “transforming lives”. That is a bold brand promise! However, in learning about their customer experience you see how NutriSystem is able to back up that promise. When a new customer calls in, their team learns a lot about the person and the “why” behind their commitment to losing weight. What is motivating them – health, a life event, a tragedy? By understanding why, the NutriSystem team can relate and empathize with that customer. The agents can share stories of past customers who signed up for the same reason. They can give them words of encouragement. This helps make the experience about so much more than a transaction. It is truly about a transformation and the person on the phone is a partner on that journey.

Next, we heard from the CEO of a contact center company that handles calls for many brands, including Time-Life. His agents take calls from people who see infomercials or other direct-response advertising for Time-Life’s classic audio and video collections. In his words, they are not selling CDs or DVDs, they are selling “nostalgia”. They are taking phone calls from people who remember the song they first danced to with their spouse, or Sunday afternoons sitting at their grandparents’ dinner table. The memories motivate the buyer. The agents make it a point to ask why that collection was important to them. They are happy to listen to the story, no matter how long, because it allows them to make that personal connection. In many cases, the conversation means as much to the buyer as the CDs or DVDs they receive in the mail.

Every marketer needs to look at their own brand and clearly identify the empathy they are selling. What is it that the brand “understands” about the customer better than anyone. While that messaging will almost certainly find its way into advertising campaigns, it also needs to make its way down to the front lines. Marketers need to make sure their company is closing this loop. Too often, a poor human-to-human interaction leads to customers walking away wondering “why doesn’t that company understand me?”

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