Buyers will always place more trust in a salesperson who treats them like a human being, not just a phone number on a lead list.
Brian Carroll is the founder of the B2B Lead Blog, author of the best-selling Lead Generation for the Complex Sale, and the Founder and CEO of Markempa, which helps organizations improve their demand generation and sales results through empathy.
We recently sat down with Brian to discuss what “empathy” means in a sales context, how to discover your buyers’ real motivations, and the changes in tactics that sellers and marketers need to make to put their customers’ needs in front of their own.
Scroll down for a text version of our interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
NUTSHELL: “Empathy” is becoming a buzzword in the business world these days. We want our teams to be empathetic while dealing with customers and while collaborating with each other. We want our brands and our customer experience to convey empathy. What is empathy in a business context? How do you define it?
BRIAN CARROLL: Empathy means seeing things from the perspective of a customer or audience. It means trying to understand how your customer is feeling, what’s happening in their world, and their experience. How are they feeling? How are they thinking? What are the concerns that they have? What are their challenges?
Our challenge today is that we have more ways of reaching customers, but actually connecting to what customers care about is the hard thing. That’s why I see empathy as a superpower in marketing and sales.
NUTSHELL: You’ve worked in B2B marketing for almost 25 years now. At what point did you make this realization that empathy was a differentiator?
BRIAN CARROLL: Anyone who’s done something for a while has these moments that put you on a new path. And I had what I would call my “Jerry Maguire” moment. If you remember, Jerry had this revelation in the movie. He wakes up in the morning, and it’s 2 a.m. and he writes his mission statement, right? Funny enough, he actually is talking about some things that have to do with empathy in the movie, although he doesn’t use that term.
My Jerry Maguire moment came in 2014, when I was running inside sales and marketing for a consulting firm that also did a lot of research, ironically, on how people make decisions and how they buy. And a friend sent me a CBS News video about a company that was endorsed by Mother Teresa, and its CEO had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
You’ll never guess what this company does—they’re a collection agency. I don’t know about you, but I made some bad decisions when I was in college, and I literally got called by collection agents, and I could never think of Mother Teresa endorsing the experience I had.
The CEO got inspiration from a group of employees who wanted to practice compassionate collections. And the employees said, “What if we helped customers deal with why they can’t pay their bills?” People have lost their jobs, they have car problems, and this company literally started helping people deal with it. Like, helping them interviewing for jobs and writing a resume, finding car repair services that are affordable, renegotiating debts, that kind of thing.
So the news anchor is like, “You’re practicing this kindness and compassion, giving away all these free services. What impact has this made?” And the CEO said, “We’re 200% more profitable.”
You know, I’d written a book, and my team was pretty good at lead generation, and when I was watching this, there was something inside me that was like, if a collection agency can treat their customers better, what would happen if we did it? I’ve always said that the best marketing and selling feels like helping, because it really is. But what I realized is that I was being a hypocrite, because what I was paying my team to do was convert people.
So I showed my team this video, and I was like, “You guys, I want us to focus on better helping our customers.” First, it was crickets, like, “Okay, what are we supposed to do then?” And someone raised his hand and said, “If we focused on helping our customers and not trying to get leads, how are we gonna get leads, then?” That was the beginning of our story.
Our big ‘a-ha!’ happened when I had my team shift from being lead generation people to being more like hotel concierges, who are just there to help people have a great experience.
The good news is that we had good content that people engaged. The problem was that we were using that as the valid business reason to call and try to convert someone to be a lead. So we shifted and started focusing on, “Hey, what were they trying to get done by downloading an eBook? What were they hoping to get done as a result of the webinar? What motivated them to attend an event or a summit?” And instead of trying to use that as the point of conversion, we focused it as the point of helping. We simply helped people get whatever it was done.
It took about six months, but by not focusing on getting leads, and not focusing on conversion, we ended up getting 303% more sales-accepted leads by not making conversion the point of focus.
NUTSHELL: When salespeople and marketers haven’t made this switch in mindset towards being empathetic, how does that manifest itself in terms of their tactics for messaging?
BRIAN CARROLL: Right now, we’re entering the fourth quarter and there’s always this bit of anxiety being a marketer or being in sales. Both sides are focused on the short-term, and the thing is, feeling anxiety can actually help. Cortisol can help focus you. But the problem is that it also forces you to do things that aren’t helpful to your customers.
Think about all the automated sequences that we get, one after another after another, or a BDR sending cold emails and following up with the customer like, “I just want to be at the top of your inbox because you didn’t respond to my message last week.”
Sales hustle combined with automation can actually create a bad experience for the customer because it’s about the salesperson getting their needs met.
So, when you’re anxious, or you’re focused on trying to get things done, the danger is you focus on getting your needs met at the expense of someone else. And at worst, that’s called being a sociopath. Caring about people, being curious about people, collaboration, that happens when we’re actually trying to think bigger picture.
That isn’t easy to do, so you have to manage your inner game of how you feel towards customers. Are they just emails? Are they just IP addresses? Is that just a phone number or is that a human being?
NUTSHELL: So what are the changes in tactics that we need to employ to make that shift to empathy? What are some of the things that sales and marketing can do specifically?
BRIAN CARROLL: I think it starts with thinking of your orientation. Today, our customers aren’t buying a product or solution. What they’re really doing is buying change. And the thing is, is when you have a complex sale, you’re trying to get a group of people to buy into change. And change is hard. And so what I would say is be more of customer sherpa, so instead of the funnel, they’re trying to climb a mountain, and they have to decide if it’s worth it. You know, “Is it worth it to me? And how will my team think about this?”
So what I’m saying is, moving your mindset to be more around, “How do I help this person? How do I help this organization to achieve what they need?” And sometimes the most helpful thing is recognizing when someone isn’t a fit.
I do a lot of customer interviews to understand the story of their buying journey. Here’s what buyers tell me they value: “I felt the salesperson was my advocate. I felt like they cared more about my needs getting met than their bottom-line. They wanted to help me get a win. They wanted to help me succeed.”
So before you send a message, you need to be the customer. Look at your message and say, ‘How would I feel if I received that message?’
Are you using words that your customers actually use? When we’re trying to create a category or a product, we get so stuck on our buzzwords and our terminology, and we often forget what it’s like for the customer. And often, they have different words describing their job. They have different words describing what they care about.
The other thing that I would say is, see your messaging from the perspective of the customer. I do something called empathy indexing, and you can apply this to your call guides, your emails, your landing pages, anything. The first part is, are you being emotionally resonant? Are you connecting to an emotion that person is feeling? When you are reaching out to someone, they might be anxious, and they don’t want to feel pressured. So how do you connect to a feeling they like to have? They don’t want to feel anxious, they want to feel calm, they want to feel secure, they want to feel confident. So when you communicate, are you connecting to the likely emotion they’re feeling?
The second part is customer focus: who’s the hero of the story? So, is every message about your product? Is it about your company and how great you are? Or is it about the customer? Who is the hero of that message? Who are you focusing on?
NUTSHELL: On markempa.com, you wrote, “You need to go beyond rational logic-based marketing to understand how your buyers feel.” How can I discover how my buyers feel?
BRIAN CARROLL: It can be as simple as just getting in the world of your customer. I interviewed Dave Brock, who works a ton with sales leaders and sales managers. At the time, he was selling to bankers, and people in finance and Wall Street. And he went to a bar one night, after hours, where they went after work, and he literally just got a beer and sat and listened, and in some cases talked. He learned so much from those unguarded moments over an adult beverage, their frustrations, their issues. And he said, “You’ve gotta be curious about your customer. You gotta enter the world of your customer.”
If you’re in marketing and you’re listening to this, get out in the field with your sales team. If you’re in field sales, you actually could benefit a lot from listening to the phone calls that your inside sales team is having, because a lot of the time they’re talking to more potential customers than the people on the field do, and they hear a lot of the complaints, the issues, the stories.
So, I’d say that listening is a big thing. And I’m not talking about listening to reply, it’s empathetic listening where you’re listening for, what’s their motivation? Why are they saying what they’re saying?
Therapists do this all the time. They’re processing at three levels. There’s, ‘What are you saying? How are you saying it?’ But then they’re also listening to that deeper sense of, what’s behind what’s being said? And what’s that telling you about that person and what they care about?
Empathy mapping is another thing that you can do. This is a Stanford d.school idea, and it’s literally writing a four-box. So, get out a napkin or piece of paper, draw four boxes, and on the left side write Saying and Doing, and on the right side write Thinking and Feeling. And so, based on what I observe someone say and do, you can actually begin to start eliciting how are they thinking and feeling.
Look at the personas or the people you’re selling to, start empathy mapping, and try to ask yourself, “Why?” You know, “What’s behind what they’re doing, what’s behind what they’re saying?” That gives you the external stuff we can observe, and we can tell a lot about how people are feeling and thinking. Sometimes they say it, but this is where empathy gives us that intuition to sense and to probe.
NUTSHELL: What are the key differences between an ordinary marketing communication and what you describe as an “empathy message”?
BRIAN CARROLL: The main thing is that it really connects to what I care about. There’s a connection piece where, when you read it or you hear it, you actually feel like, “They get me. I’m understood. This is something that I want or something I care about.”
You have everyone in the world telling you, “Hey, you gotta create a three-call sequence for your BDRs or SDRs, and a three-email sequence.” Well, challenge that a bit. Because there’s so much we do that’s so-called best practices, but you have to ask yourself with everything you’re doing, “Is this a good experience for the customer?”
The most memorable communication gives you a feeling. And that’s what customers remember about you: It’s not the content, it’s the context and how they felt from every interaction with you.
So it’s not just the face-to-face meeting, it’s the email messages, it’s the landing pages. And then afterwards, are you actually trying to help them achieve what it is they want, either the problem they’re trying to solve or the result they want that they don’t yet have.
This stuff is easy to talk about, but it requires an intentionality to make it real. You’re never done being empathetic with your marketing and selling. All you can do is just get better.
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