Why (and how) marketers should build empathy for their customers

By Hannah Alvarez | May 6, 2016
Why (and how) marketers should build empathy for their customers

Let’s be honest: empathy isn’t something most marketers spend a lot of time on. We’re busy launching campaigns, generating leads, tracking conversions, and boosting revenue. We leave the deep customer understanding to our friends on the Product and Design teams. Because of that, we make decisions based on our own assumptions and instincts. But as we all know, we are not our customer. So what’s the result? Messages that may not make much sense to our audience, content that might not be helpful to the right folks, and campaigns that aren’t guaranteed to succeed. With a little customer empathy, we can change that. Investing time in researching your customers, having conversations with them, and building your understanding of their problems will make your marketing efforts more effective, more genuine, and more human.

Exercises your team can do to develop customer empathy

1. Listen to a customer call together

Marketers don’t get the opportunity to have conversations with customers every day. That means it’s up to you to schedule time for your team to listen to them. If your company makes a habit of recording sales and customer support calls, then comb through the archives to find a recording in which the customer is the one doing most of the talking. Otherwise, ask if your team can quietly shadow an account rep during a call. Have the team take notes on these prompts, and then discuss them together after the call:

  • What did you learn?
  • What assumptions did you validate?
  • What terminology did the customer use?
  • What feelings and attitudes did you pick up on?

In some cases, it might be helpful to also discuss how the team members will apply what they learned to their everyday work. However, I’d recommend not getting hung up on outcomes right away. Instead, just make customer calls a regular practice for your team. Your goal is simply to keep the customer’s thoughts and concerns at the front of your team’s minds.

2. Run user tests on your messaging

Imagine that you’re getting ready to roll out a new homepage or ad campaign. You’ve got your best and brightest copywriters on the job. But how do you know if your message is going to resonate in the right way with customers? Before you invest too many resources in developing the program, get the message in front of your target market and have them speak their thoughts aloud as they react to it. Our team did this recently, and the results were fascinating. With a few hours of research, we got the feedback we needed to iterate on our message until we were confident that it was clear and struck a chord with our target buyers. Here’s how we did it: First, we wrote up the copy in a public Google doc and grabbed the shareable URL. Then, we set up a quick user test with these tasks:

  1. Open the following link and then move on to the next task. [LINK]
  2. Read this document and speak your thoughts aloud as you go.
  3. Did any part of the message resonate with you in a positive way?
  4. Was any part of the message confusing?
  5. Was there anything you would change about this message?

My team is awesome at editing, but no amount of internal feedback could’ve given us the insights we got from the user tests. By combining the feedback from the rest of the marketing team and the test participants, we arrived at a message we know will hit the mark.

3. Practice anticipating what could go wrong

One key aspect of empathy is being aware that your users aren’t always in the same state of mind that you’re in. What’s more, they’re not always in the same state of mind you expect them to be in. As marketers, we often get inspired to be clever, to grab attention, and to insert our brand personality into every interaction. And while our intentions are good, it means that we occasionally create experiences that can be irritating, accusatory, or hurtful in the context the user is in. To avoid unintentionally harming our customers, it’s important to ask tough questions about how a message will be perceived in different contexts. Use questions like these to get your team thinking with empathy:

  • How will this marketing email sound to a customer who’s really unhappy with our service at the moment?
  • Will this message come across differently to someone who’s having a terrible day?
  • Will this line of copy make sense to someone whose first language is different from ours?
  • How will it feel if a customer encounters this experience over and over again?
  • What impression are we making if this is someone’s first exposure to our brand?
  • How could this image be interpreted in ways we didn’t intend?
  • What assumptions are we making about our audience members, their backgrounds, and their mindsets?

Extra credit: Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher have written about infusing user empathy into your creative process in the book Design for Real Life. While it’s not specifically written for marketers, there’s a lot we can learn from it, so give it a read!

Making customer empathy a habit

While the exercises above are a great starting place, developing empathy for your customers is a continuous journey, not a series of checkboxes you can mark off. Challenge your team to consider the impact on the customer for everything they do. Encourage them to get out of their comfort zone and have more frequent conversations with their customer-facing colleagues—and the customers themselves. Your team will likely never say, “We’ve achieved 100% customer empathy!” However, the small things you do to see the world through your customers’ eyes now will add up to more helpful and genuine marketing (and happier customers) over time. Does your marketing team practice customer empathy? What do you do to develop that muscle? Let me know on Twitter @usertesting.  

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About the author(s)
Hannah Alvarez

Hannah is a content manager, dedicated to helping marketers and designers build amazing experiences. In her free time, she likes making things and going on adventures.