New Research: Empathy and Solving Buying Problems

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, too many choices, trying to getting 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, that 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 logically (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 inChallenger, 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 what their experience is 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.

What we saw in our research is 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 thinkabout 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, couple lines of: here’s 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, or 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 as well.

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, which 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.

What we find is 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, and that gets into the emotional side of empathy.

The Thursday morning test

So, 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, 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 and how are you going to do it and how is that going to 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 go talk to someone in IT.

I’ve got to go talk to someone in procurement.

I’ve got to go 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 do 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 exact 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, what we find is 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 your 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?

Like I said, I’ve done this with thousands of people around the world 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 are going to be and which information is going to 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.

Brian Carroll knows what drives B2B buyers. As the founder of the B2B Lead Blog, a researcher and lecturer on marketing best practices, and leader in empathy marketing, he’s at the epicenter of the shifting B2B marketing landscape. Brian is the author of the bestseller, Lead Generation for the Complex Sale (McGraw-Hill). He is also the founder of the B2B Lead Roundtable LinkedIn Group with 19,533+ members. Brian recently finished a stint as Chief Evangelist at MECLABS (parent company of MarketingSherpa) and is now back to helping B2B understand and execute modern lead generation and empathetic marketing with his speakingconsulting, and training workshops. @brianjcarroll

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